We got up early, not unlike we had done the previous morning. Derek took less than fifteen seconds before finding something that gravely upset him. We packed a day bag, volunteering Derek to carry it then set off for the day with the intention of arriving in Vardzia in a packed marshrutka.
We grabbed some breakfast at a market along the way to the marshrutka station across the suspension bridge and bumped into the man who was so persistent with us the day before. We said hello, he pushed down on his Russian jeep to prove how tough it was, and urged us to hop in. A hundred lari, split six ways, and we could stop as we wished along the way to Vardzia; we threw our bags and hopped in. Derek sat up front, as he has a way of chatting up the locals as if their wasn't a great language divide, while three of us sat in the back seat and two others sat even further back on two fold-down stools amongst the bags.
The drive became more beautiful the closer we came to Vardzia. The landscape changed quite drastically, several times it seemed, from quaint farmland, to rolling hills, to spiking rock towers, to bustling townships then reverting back to abandoned medieval communities. One such fortified town, Khertvisi Fortress, rested on a hill high above the passing road. As high as the hill was, the walls rose equally high giving the structure an imposing stance from the road. We were all thrilled to have stopped for a closer look, except for the Brit who had been born in Ireland and raised in England who's family, I assumed by his nonchalantness, owned three or for such Castles dotting his homeland. A group of goats acted as our tour guides as we walked through the walls and around the towers, even finding a throne, the ancient toilet. I climbed up and around everything I could, scaling a tower wall, where I climbed into a hole and down inside of the tower itself, squeezing through a hole to the outside of the entire fortress.
I had such an affinity for castles as a child, building them with Lego blocks, cardboard models and even tree forts I built or salvaged had to resemble castles. I came from a country comparatively in its infancy with no significant European history beyond a few hundred years; I was a Canadian kid from the far west, a child to parents who were not travelers at the time; to me, castles were only experienced through books and movies. To be able to touch the stones that people placed so long ago, in this case 10th- to 14th century, according to the design of a single person was fascinating to me. To walk where they walked, imagining when it became new to the landscape, was a thrill: A young woman carried a basket of headless chickens through an archway; a man stumbled out of a shack selling spirits; a soldier guarded a doorway with a pike; children ran about playing and wrestling; a old woman hiked up the steep river embankment with buckets of water. To another, however, the fortress represented a place to stretch their atrophied legs.
We took some photos, one in particular, where for whatever reason we decided to go shirtless in the bright sun. I hit the timer button on my camera which was positioned just-so on a rock, ran up the hill to the others, turned, smiled and saw a small group of locals waiting to continue so they didn't ruin the shot. It looked like a yard sale with five guys clothes scattered around the property. Goofy Chris had an emergency bathroom break which took him away from the photo opportunity; it was the longest I'd seen him unable smile or giggle. Georgian food, hearty and heavy, certainly had a way about it, we agreed.
Only another fifteen kilometers or so brought us to the base of the cave city of Vardzia. Originally built as a fortified city by King Giorgi III in the 12th century, Vardzia grew to become much more when King Giorgi's daughter, the famous Queen Tamara, transitioned the site into a bustling holy site, home to over two thousand monks in its peak. According to the guide book I read as we parked the mint Russian jeep, Vardzia contained "113 cave groups, with 409 rooms, 13 churches and 25 wine cellars" which spanned 13 levels up the cliff face.
We climbed the paved walkway before reaching some of the first caves and I thought how difficult it was to imagine Vardzia in its heyday, compared to the fortress we had just come from. In the 13th century, an earthquake shook the cave city, crumbling much of the outer walls, exposing many of the caves, chambers and corridors. This, and a constant onslaught of invaders made Vardzia hard to defend and the cave city eventually succumb in a final battle and looting by the Persians.
Our decision to rise early was the obvious one as bus loads of kids eventually made their way to the historical site. Vardzia was soon engulfed in tourist activity that reminded me of bees in a hive, buzzing around collecting up history like nectar. It was brilliant to see the cut marks from chisel work that had carved out entire rooms, cellars and churches inch-by-inch into solid rock. The sun was bright in the sky, hot with a gentle cooling breeze, and hanging over the safety railing soaking in the landscape, Vardzia never became unimpressive or boring to me, wishing I could only stay longer.
We stopped for lunch just across the river and was much cheaper than eating at the base of Vardzia. We sat at benches in the shade of a big leafy tree which gave us a magnificent view of the entirety of where we had just explored.
Back in Borjomi hours later we showered and set off for food again. Touristo, the restaruant we'd gone to before without power was on the way and we decided to stop in again. The power was on this time, and he skipped about and smiled and regaled us with the warmest of welcomes. We took a seat in the booth nearest the door and he pulled up a chair, leaning into us as we ordered. We asked for a round of 'ludi', customary to our group, and pointed at the menu when we didn't know how to pronounce the name of the food we wanted. He flashed a massive smile and clapped his hands in appreciation. When our food came out, already having brought out our beer, we noticed a tall glass bottle with clear liquid. He expressed his appreciation to us and wanted us to toast with him with a shot of chacha, his treat. Kababi dominated my plate when the familiar chirping of Derek began to escalate interrupting the meal. As it turns out, goofy Chris in mustering up all his cleverness, ordered Derek a plate of boiled pig entrails.
We finished the chacha, paid our bill then went over to Taverna Nia to cap the night again. We were greeted much the same as they displayed big smiles and bobbed their heads urging us to 'modi, dajeki', come, sit. We finished the night in a private room of the Taverna where we relived the past few days. This trip had quietly become one of the best Georgian weekends so far.