One of my top to-see places in the Republic of Georgia (RoGA) were the David-Gareja cave monasteries. Founded in the 6th century by Saint David Garejeli and consisting of hundreds of cave cells on a mountain in Eastern Georgia, along the border of Azerbaijan, these monasteries sounded completely other-worldly and I knew I couldn’t miss them.
Using my trusty Bradt guidebook, I hired an awesome guide. Most of the tour companies charge for an entire car full of people, even if it’s just one person. Oddly, they wouldn’t tell me if there were any other travelers interested in sharing a car. RoGA still has some work to do in the tourism industry, I suppose. I was able to negotiate a fair price, although still somewhat high. My guide, Tariel, picked me up around 9am from Tbilisi and we headed out. One of the perks of being a solo traveler is the intimate experiences that you get to share with locals that aren’t as likely to happen if you’re with a big group. As we drove the two hours to the monasteries, Tariel shared the history, politics, and interesting tidbits of the towns and regions we passed through.
While my guidebook was spot-on in its recommendation of a guide, it didn’t entirely prepare me for what David-Gareja truly would be like. I expected long gravel roads leading to a series of small caves. In reality, I was faced with a 40 -minute hike straight up a mountain to descend halfway down the other side where I was greeted by a thin trail on the edge of a cliff dropping straight into Azerbaijan. Needless to say, I took a lot of “picture” breaks. Tariel was very patient, and to his credit said that I was way more fit than most of his tourists. I bet he says that to everyone!
Fair warning… if you’re reading this and planning on going to David-Gareja: this isn’t your grandma’s tourist spot. Unless your grandma is in great shape and likes jumping over rocks and climbing cliff faces to shimmy into caves.
The tough hike ended up being more than worth it, if just for the views alone.
Tariel ended up being worth every penny I paid. His knowledge of the history and how to get about the caves was comprehensive, and he patiently answered every last question I had. Despite the desert-like environment, the monasteries thrived through the 13th century, rebuilding and expanding in the general prosperity of the country. They were known for their many frescoes and at certain points throughout history were in control of agricultural lands. The monastery suffered by the hands of the Mongol army in the 13th century, rebuilt, and then in the 17th century was attacked again by the Persians who massacred the monks and destroyed many of the frescoes.
Aside from the general history, Tariel also shared the details of what life was like for the monks. I was impressed by their engineering savvy in such a tough environment.
Like I said, this is not your grandma’s tourist destination. Tariel had me climbing over rock faces and shimmying down into dark holes to show me important frescoes. I tried not to think about falling or snakes.
The following pictures show some of the most vibrant colors of any of the frescoes I saw. Of all the frescoes I saw whilst in Georgia, these were absolutely my favorite.
Over the course of a few hours we worked our way through the various caves. At the end of the trail we looked down into the main monastic complex and walked through the rooms. I was not allowed to take pictures but you can imagine that it’s a place of beauty and quiet.
Because the monasteries are located right on the border of Azerbaijan there are border between the two countries on whether they historically belong to Georgia or Azerbaijan. However, aside from the steep trail, it is perfectly safe to travel to the monasteries. I recommend hiring a reputable guide who can provide you with the intimate details of each cave site. Exhibit A: Tariel.