||VAWN HIMMELSBACH, Chic Savvy Travels
You don’t have to be a religious zealot or history buff to appreciate the significance of Davit Gareja in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The ancient cave monasteries, which date back to the 6th century, literally lie on the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan — at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
The upper monastery of Udabno at Davit Gareja, Georgia. Photo by Vawn Himmelsbach
What’s now referred to as the Lavra monastery includes buildings from different eras, including a 17th century church and 18th century watchtower, situated across from a series of cave monasteries, the first of which was established by monk Davit Gareja in the 6th century.
Monks still live here today, so although you can roam around freely, dress appropriately and try to avoid poking your head into someone’s living quarters.
From Lavra monastery, follow a steep path up the hill for about 100 metres, where you’ll find yourself at the top of a ridge with views of Azerbaijan stretching out in front of you as far as the eye can see.
Here you’ll also find the upper monastery of Udabno, a series of cave monasteries along a path that follows the ridge for about 2 kilometres. The caves are covered in frescoes from the 10th and 13th centuries, including an 11th century depiction of the Last Supper. Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of graffiti — but the frescoes are still stunning, and worth the uphill hike in the desert heat.
View of Azerbaijan, from Davit Gareja. Photo by Vawn Himmelsbach
For many centuries, the caves were a centre of pilgrimage (and still are); it was said that one-third of Jerusalem’s spiritual treasures were kept here. But this site has also seen its share of action over the years — and not all of it of a spiritual nature.
The site has been sacked multiple times, including an attack by the Mongols in 1265 and again by Shah Abbas’ soldiers in 1615. During the Soviet era, this area was used for military exercises (causing protests in Georgia’s capital city, Tbilisi, during perestroika), but then used by the Georgian army after the country gained independence. Those exercises have since stopped.
There is no fee to enter, but a donation is appreciated.
There isn’t much else out here — you won’t find hotels or restaurants or even a shop that sells water — so most people choose to do a day trip from Tbilisi.
Frescoes inside the cave monasteries of Davit Gareja. Photo by Vawn Himmelsbach
The cheapest option is to take a marshrutka (a form of public transit in a 10- or 20-seat minibus) from Tbilisi to the town of Gardabaniand and then hire a taxi for a round trip to Davit Gareja (about US$25). To hail a marshrutka, stick out your arm and wave. It’s unlikely that anyone will speak English, and the Georgian language is unbelievably complex, so it helps to have a phrasebook handy.
Tour agencies in Tbilisi also run day trips, which include lunch and a guide, but it can be expensive if you’re traveling solo; it’s cheaper if you have a group of three or four (around $40 per person).
Keep in mind that if you’re doing a day trip from Tbilisi, you’ll leave in the morning and arrive at Davit Gareja around noon, in the heat of the day, in the middle of the Georgian desert (it’s not the Sahara, but it’s still sweltering hot and there’s nowhere to hide from the sun).
And, unlike most other places on earth, you won’t have a bunch of hawkers following you, trying to sell you water or warm Coke or postcards. This was perhaps the one and only time I was actually hoping to find a hawker, but there wasn’t one, and the nearest town was literally a ghost town due to high unemployment — so make sure you bring plenty of food and water for the day.
Not a lot of people travel to Georgia, and even fewer make their way south to the Azerbaijan border. But Davit Gareja is definitely worth the effort.
Copyright @ 2011 Chic Savvy Travels
Date Added: November 7, 2011 | Comments (0)
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