Mama Ali’s expression leaves no doubts: she’s puzzled. My trip to Borjomi and Vardzia, starting from Kutaisi, does not convince her at all, it would have been better to start from Tbilisi, because the road is more straight. The whole geographical comment takes place with gestures and fragments of Russian, while Ali, as every morning, is preparing breakfast with broth, omelette and cheese, limping towards the orange kettle to make tea.
She may be old, but she’s still a doctor’s widow: his husband’s portrait is the main painting in the living room, above the big piano, and it’s one of the first things her son shows me, during check-in. This time, however, I won’t have to drive or take Dangerous marshrutkas: I have booked an organized tour to Borjomi and Vardzia through Budget Georgia (highly recommended), so I can take it easy.
Borjomi and Vardzia. First stop: nazuki!
At 7.45 a.m. Sava, one of the nice and young guides, comes to pick me up, and I join a multicolored group: Germans, Poles, Indians, an Hungarian born in Transylvania, a Croatian, all together to join the trip to Borjomi and Vardzia, the stunning cave city carved out on the slopes of Mt. Erusheli during the XII century. First gastronomic stop in Surami, home of nazuki, a sweet bread with honey and grapes… it’s very good if you eat it hot, but once cooled down it looks more like a weapon of mass destruction!!! Here you can read something more about this “street bread”, and also find out the recipe 🙂
Climbing among Lesser Caucasus’ verdant slopes, we reach Borjomi, where we try the famous Borjomi water, a mineral volcanic water that still arrives hot at the source. I discover it is common in Eastern Europe, you can drink it but it is also used for spa treatments: in Soviet times it was very popular, and Stalin used to have stocks brought directly from Georgia, wherever he was. I cannot say to love it… I like drinking it bottled, sparkling, but I deeply hate the metallic taste of spring water!!! BTW, you cannot miss it, so we all queue patiently and fill our bottles with the famous water, also used in the treatment of different diseases of the digestive system and diabetes.
In the park you have an amusement park, a cable car, and a waterfall: close to it, Prometheus is staring at you proudly, reminding you how he stole fire for mankind, and therefore was cruelly punished by Zeus, who chained him to a rock in the Caucasus for eternity. His liver is eaten every day by an eagle, only to be regenerated by night, due to his immortality… but Heracles will come to save him after years of suffering.
Akhaltsikhe, the new fortress
Our trip to Borjomi and Vardzia is just at the beginning. After Borjomi we move to Akhaltsikhe, “the new fortress”. From the distance you can see a brand new castle: that’s Rabat castle, a fortress tracing back to 12th century but completely rebuilt after centuries of invasions and destruction. You can visit only the outer part of the citadel, and here you have a lot of traces from its different conquerors, from Ottoman to Russian Empire. It has a mosque, a madrasa but also an Orthodox church and a synagogue, and is strategically located, close to the Turkish border and to the ancient crossroads of caravan routes. Many Armenians also live in the city today, as highlighted by the Armenian Gregorian church in the city.
Kartuli, a mysterious language
Afterwards, a fun lunch during which I discover ojakhuri – fried pork with potatoes and peppers – and a string of Georgian words impossible to say!!! The Georgian language (they call it “kartuli”, while the country is Sakartvelo) seems to have no relation to other language families and is full of consonants – some words have 7 of them in a row! – and glottled sounds. It is an ancient idiom deeply linked to the Georgian identity: it works with seven grammatical cases and with the strange agglutinating system, that creates words like mtsvrtneli (coach) and above all the phantasmagoric gvbrdgvnis (something like “pull out, tear”) or gvprtskvni (“you peel us”). Some studies have found analogies with Basque, another mysterious language: some say that at the time of Nebuchadnezzar, Caucasian people were sent to the Basque Country...
There’s a stunning view from Café Vardzia. Touristic place, average prices – it’s the only restaurant nearby! – but a breathtaking landscape from the window:: the infinite tunnels and caves of Vardzia Cave Monastery, all carved out on the slopes of a rocky mountain in ancient times.
Climbing the walls of the city and walking through all the tunnels is not an easy task: you can easily understand defense potential of Queen Tamar’s masterpiece!!! In the beginning, you could enter the Monastery only through a secret tunnel on the banks of Mtkvari river, and then you had a complex with perhaps over 13 churches, 25 wine cellars, baths, libraries and numerous dwellings connected by tunnels and stairs. There were about 2.000 monks, and during an enemy attack the monastery could host up to 20000 people.
Tamar in the twelfth century decided to build it to protect her monks from Mongol’s continuous attacks, and there’s a nice legend on its name. According to it, a long time ago, when Tamara was still a little girl, she loved to play in the cave town, unfinished at that time. One day she was playing there with her uncle, who soon lost the girl in the cave maze. Suddenly, Tamar loudly shouted: “Ak var dzia!” which is translated from Georgian as: “I am here, uncle!”. The last two words echoed around the cave complex, and they were heard by King George III. That’s how he ordered to call the complex just like that – “Vardzia”.
Paradoxically, during the following century the city was destroyed not by the Mongols but by an earthquake that razed two thirds of it, exposing the underground caves. A monks’ community continued to live here until the Persian invasion in 1551, and a few monks are still living in Vardzia today, working in the touristic site and praying in the mysterious Church of the Assumption, with its mysterious cave frescoes…