On the 48th day of this thing that we’re doing, we decided to take a day trip out of Akhaltsikhe. Our friends told us that the monastery and cave homes at Vardzia were definitely worth the trip. We didn’t have to walk more than a block from our temporary home at Hotel Meskheti before we heard a mustachioed taxi driver yelling “VARDZIA! VARDZIA! VARDZIA!” at us all-too-obvious foreigners.
He gave us a price, double what we wanted to pay. I showed him the money I had planted earlier in my left pocket, which he laughed at. I added a little bit out of my right pocket. He shook his head in feigned disgust, but as we started to walk away, he conceded and waved us inside his Lada, an aging but mighty Soviet car with an orange paint job.
After our driver filled up the tank (which seems to be standard practice after your vehicle is full of passengers in both taxis and marshrutkas), we attempted to make some friendly small talk, but only managed to determine that he was Armenian. Next to a gold embossed Jesus card were two pairs of glasses hanging from his visor. We would glance at these three objects from the backseat over the next hour as he swerved through the mountains, bounced through potholes, and slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting a baby calf – after which he gave a big smile and said his only two English words: “no problem!”
After a while we started to see a few scattered caves in the landscape, the entrances obviously carved by hand. When we came around the final turn, there was a large group of them half way up the opposite cliffs. Our Armenian friend pointed and said, “Vardzia.” After pulling into the parking lot, he finally made use of one of those pairs of glasses, scribbled some numbers on a piece of paper and smiled at us. Apparently the deal struck back in Akhaltsikhe only included one hour of waiting, two hours (the proper time needed to really see the site) was going to cost more. I decided we could haggle later. There was a fortress we could stop at on the way back and maybe that could be included in the new price.
I won’t give a full history lesson about Vardzia. I could look up a bunch of stuff on Wikipedia and pretend it was retained knowledge from our visit there, or you could do the same if you are really interested.
But one thing that makes Vardzia special is that it is still a monastery. Monks still live there in some of the caves. Near the entrance to the Church of the Dormition was a skinny guy in a travel vest and a fishing hat who seemed to be either a freelance tour guide or volunteer. He was hanging out with a mama (Georgian priest) and attempted to translate for as questions were asked about where we were from, how many kids we (don’t) have, and his curiosity with my tattoos – all with big smiles and laughter.
We spent some time trying take in all the painted walls in the tiny 800-year-old cave church before the man with the hat motioned us to follow him. He took us further back into a cave behind the church, around a couple turns, a long dark tunnel and two locked gates. We didn’t know exactly where he was taking us, but he was talking the whole time (mostly in Georgian) and we heard the word ts’kali (water) repeated. He finally flipped on a bare light bulb and pointed down a dark open well and said “70 centimeters” (which I think should be taken as 70 meters?). He dipped an old plastic cup into a bucket and said, “holy water,” then put it in my hands. An ounce of hesitation — less about potential microbe ingestion and more about the sudden somberness of being offered holy water from an ancient well — and it was down the hatch. Ice cold. Not exactly the climax to The Last Crusade, though I did appreciate the humble orange plastic grail.
Honestly, I felt more like Dr. Jones getting back into that orange taxi.