Written by Staff Writer at CNN Stumptown, Washington
Denis Vardzia is the founder of the South International Center for Distinguished Studies and is currently giving a lecture series in the province of Mtskheta, Georgia, as part of the 15th season of the BIBLOOP
One of the largest natural sites in the South Caucasus , Vardzia was first discovered in 1884 by Sir Douglas Haig and British explorer Macquarie Butler, who was on a foraging expedition through these rocky mountains.
Now, visitors are still able to take part in a combination of cultural, spiritual and even recreational activities, in a continuous prehistoric process that mirrors that of the people living in this remote region.
The perfect blend of restorative and revelatory, Vardzia has a lot to offer. This is where we’ll start our travels with an exploration of its natural and urban beauty.
After a bumpy, but beautiful, trip to Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, I took a drive into neighboring Mtskheta Province. I was unsure whether or not the roads would have sufficient snow, and with only a few fresh layers of the white stuff sprinkled on the ground, I had to be really patient as I waited for the snow to melt in time to make a safe driving experience.
Later on, after a few nights at a cabin in Georgia’s relatively untouched Herat Province, I arrived in Vardzia and made my way to the town of Gudritlodz. The town is located in the western foothills of Mt. Gudritlodz, which is renowned for its proximity to natural caves.
By the time I had reached Gudritlodz, it was still relatively quiet, as it had been blanketed with snow in the days prior. Once reaching Gudritlodz, I followed the Gudritlodz River south until we arrived at the natural cave known as the Kotsuapjipari Natural Caves . The majestic formation is believed to be one of the oldest in the country and its popularity has only increased in recent years as the number of tourists visiting has increased, thus boosting local development of the area.
The caves are composed of massive, cylindrical blocks of quartzite rock, where people have left their own marks since time immemorial.
Turning from the river, we began our walk to the caves, which are in a spiral pattern descending dramatically from their tallest point — hence the name Kotsuapjipari (Garden of Garlocks) — to the deepest point — hence the name Kotsudvatsvatsir. It’s a walk that takes about two hours. When you reach the bottom of the waterfalls, you’re presented with a breathtaking view of the Kotsapjipari cave.
Just before descending to the bottom of the waterfalls, visitors are invited to honor the dead by placing candles (called soapkos) in the direction of the fallen. Some of these stones are white, some dark, but all should be arranged in a direction of their former loved ones.
We headed back to the summit of Gudritlodz River for our picnic lunch, with a bit of meandering in the surrounding mountains along the way.
On the outskirts of the town of Gudritlodz, we walked to a cave known as the Chali Khurazi Natural Caves , which was discovered in the 1970s and is currently being restored.
The caves consist of similar cylindrical blocks of quartzite rock that bear signs of human activity. More spectacular is the entrance to the cave, which is carefully balanced on three massive stones and shows the impact of the centuries of human forces — allowing one to imagine what must have been going on in there.
Other natural attractions include tiny villages like Tsoren, which is famous for its natural hot springs. The hot springs and other sources of natural beauty in the Mtskheta region are unique in that they include both physical and spiritual benefits.
The energy of nature, the simplicity of life and the natural beauty of the place are all what make this trip and culture so unique.