The town of Akhaltsikhe itself doesn't offer too much excitement for the visitor, but it serves as a jumping off point for Vardzia and Sapara.
An Armenian driver with an old hulking Volga made requisite stops for water and enthusiastically endorsed Brezhnev with two thumbs up for building the now abandoned tourist hotel at Vardzia. The drive to Vardzia stretches from green hills and valleys to desert spotted with rock outcroppings. It also looks like an opportunity to kayak or water raft.
Vardzia is a monastery complex cut into the rocks and cliffs that dates from the 12th to 13th century. Only a fraction of the caves and tunnels are open to the public, but it's enough to give the sense of how deep and vast the network originally was. The main church, also carved into the rock offers a look at some beautiful, dark, mysterious frescoes. Ask the priest to turn on the lights and open the gate to the cave next door, a fresh water spring, and tunnels to another section of the cave complex.
The small road leading up to Sapara is hazardous in a big Volga. If you happen to be in similar wheels, consider keeping your eyes fixed on the road rather than the cliffside. After the road parts wildflower dotted meadows, the forest thickens and Sapara monastery simply appears tucked into the mountainside.
George, Sapara's resident English-speaking monk, gave us a tour of the complex. The earliest structures date back to the 10th century while the main church was built in the 15th century. Sadly, the monastery was used for a summer piano camp during the Soviet era. Though many of the interiors and frescoes are worse for wear, a few remain and others are being uncovered or restored to their original beauty. Today, about ten monks (or novices) live at the complex in Sapara. Although difficult to get to, Sapara monastery is beautiful, peaceful, and worth the effort.
Of the monasteries we visited, Sapara was our favorite.
Transport to Akhaltsikhe, Vardzia and Sapara
- How to get there – Akhaltsikhe: Marshrutka from Borjomi – leaves hourly, 3 Lari/person
- How to get there – Vardzia and Sapara: Taxi – Most taxis at the bus station offer 60 Lari for a return trip (including waiting time) to Vardzia (about 2 hours each way), but it’s possible to get the trip for 50 Lari. Sapara is an additional 15 Lari, but very much worth the extra cost and time (take a sedative if you are afraid of heights and adventure driving).
- Bus – The cost is much less – 4 Lari/person – but you have to stay flexible. A friendly guy searched out the Vardzia-based bus driver to get all the times for us. The only return trip in one day is the following. Otherwise, you have to spend the night there. From Akhaltsikhe: 10:40, From Vardzia: 15:00
- Where to stay: Hotel White House on Tetri Sakhli street (perpendicular to Rustevi street). Just ask around, as everyone seems to know it. 50 lari/double room, including breakfast. There is also another hotel on Rustevi street with similar rooms for 40 lari without breakfast and 50 lari with breakfast. Hotels are a bit of a walk from the bus station (walk across the bridge with the castle/old town at your back).
- Where to eat: Limited choices here. The restaurant on Rustevi street has a nice balcony overlooking the valley. The people working there are very nice, although the menu is rather limited (note: the fish contains hundreds of thousands of tiny bones).
- What to do: Walk up to the church on hill, walled old town, and admire all the signs about tolerance (paid for by USAID and other foreign aid organizations).
What we didn't see this time…but would like to next time:
Tusheti, Shatili, Kazbegi, David Gareji, Nekresi, Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery (outside Kutaisi), Ushba and Shkhara (Upper Svaneti), Lower Svaneti, Khevsureti mountains, Batumi, and Uplistsikhe.