It started bright and early, at 6:30am, after a fitful night of only short bursts of sleep. I was staying at the apartment of my friend and fellow English teacher, Tom, who was hosting myself and another teacher/friend, Ian, for the night. Ian and I both live outside of Zugdidi, which is where a group of us teacher/friends were meeting at 7 am that Saturday for a trip to Borjomi and Vardzia, located in central-southern Georgia.

Unsurprisingly, we didn’t leave Zugdidi until nearly 8, after waiting for all 15 of our group to show and after a rummage through a local supermarket for snacks/breakfast. I sat on the marshutka, munching on raisin cookie-ish pastries and sipping on an apple juicebox, watching the sun rise over Georgia as we headed south, the strenghtening light shining on the beech trees lining the road and on the hills and Caucasus mountains behind them.

After hours of driving and several stops, including one for gas, an unneccessarily long coffee break, and a number of bladder-related interruptions, we eventually made it to Borjomi. The beauty of the surrounding countryside, especially in the hours of driving between Kutaisi and Borjomi, almost made up for the length of the trip. Our marshutka driver, who everyone called “Z” and whose actual name I don’t remember, helped us find a hostel, which was under renovation but still had beds available for 4 lari a night (which translates to less than 2 USD). Of course, you get what you pay for, AKA a lack of running water, graffitied walls, and no sort of heating which made the night a chilly experience. Borjomi, is after all, in the heart of the lower Caucasus range, so the weather was much cooler there than in the unseasonably warm Zugdidi.
But more on the night later. For now it was still early afternoon, and we had a lot of miles (or I should say kilometres; when in Rome…) to go until Vardzia.

We did finally make it to Vardzia, after several more hours in the marshutka, in the late afternoon. There, carved into the sheer rock face of the canyon which framed one side of the Mtkvari River valley we had been following for most of the trip, sat a gathering of what must have been hundreds of caves. We had seen other similar caves along the road, but this was by far the largest concentration in one place.

After paying the minimal 3 lari entrance fee, we hiked about halfway up the hill to where the cliff and caves began. Once there, we spent several hours exploring the cave city. Originally established in the 12th century as a monastery, most of the now-abandoned holes are relatively small, about the size of an average living room or kitchen. Some are slightly bigger with 2 or 3 “rooms” carved into the rockface, and there is one much larger cavern that houses an ancient church, still in use by the few monks who habitate a handful of the caves as the monastic tradition survives in the 21st century. Unfortunately we were not allowed to view the monks living quarters.

Leading back into the earth from the church is a deep tunnel, narrow and back-achingly dwarfish, which connects to several other large, no longer used caverns, and circles along several sets of steep, worn-smooth stairs to emerge far above the church.
There is also a precariously steep and unrailed staircase out in the open air which leads to the precipice of the clifface into which the cave city is carved. Ian, Tom and I braved the climb and were rewarded with a magnificent view of the surrounding hills and valleys, bathed in a warm orange glow by the declining sun.

Yet another lengthy journey back to Borjomi, which included a quick, twilit stop at a castle, Khertvisi Fortress, which literally butts up against the road. We had not had a legitimate meal all day, and grumpiness was beginning to prevail despite the endless stream of cheery tunes ranging from Semi-Charmed Life to One Way Ticket To The Moon. And so in Borjomi we immediately hit up a restarant and ordered a smorgasboard of food: bread, salad, khatchapuri, baked chicken, fries, pork cutlets and mushrooms. After what felt like an infinity of waiting, our courses finally began to arrive.
We joyously feasted, and when we had finished, with stomachs too heavy and wallets too light, we wearily made our way back to the hostel in frozen night (and that’s no exaggeration). Inside the hostel, which provided only minimal shelter from the frosty air, I ended up sleeping in all my clothes, both to provide some extra warmth and out of fear for the creepy crawlers that were likely infesting all of our beds and blankets. (I should mention here that I didn’t end up getting any sort of bites, so that’s a plus.)
The next morning, after a breakfast of fresh bread, cold sausage and hot tea, we headed out to Borjomi’s park, where the famous, salty-sour Borjomi mineral water is located. The warm spring-fed water is not the only attraction of the park. It also contains a large fantasy-themed children’s playground called “Fairyland”, as well as several amusement park rides, none of which were in operation (I assume they are only open in the summer). The path of the park follows the little Borjomula river, and is surrounded on both sides by rather steep, tree-gilded inclines.
At the end of the paved path the trail turns to dirt, and I, along with friends Tony and Yev, decided to jog the 2km to a bathing pool of the warm spring water. The natural surroundings were peaceful, with fiery autumn leaves lining the hills between which we jogged.

After reaching our destination and dipping our heads in the tepid water, we jogged back to rejoin the rest of the group. They had opted out of the little trek in favor of filling up jugs with the free, supposedly health-giving Borjomi water (although the jugs cost 2 lari if, like us, you don’t think to bring your own).

Finally, we loaded back into the marshutka for our endless ride back to Zugdidi, which included a pull over at McDonalds in Kutaisi. I got some fries and a McFlurry (tried to order Butterfinger, got Crunch Bar), which were, ashamedly, tasty if only as a reminder of home.

Back in Zugdidi around 6 pm, I caught the last marshutka to my village, exhausted from a weekend of marshutka riding, cave exploring, food feasting, shivery sleeping, nature jogging and head dunking. But what a good weekend it was.


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