Georgia is full of beautiful monasteries, hidden within stunning landscapes and perched high up on towering mountains. After visiting a few of them though, everything starts to blur out and look the same. However, one particular monastery stood out, and left an unforgettable mark in my entire trip around Georgia. If there is only just one monastery that you would like to visit, it has to be the David Gareja Monastery.
The David Gareja Monastery is located right at the border with Azerbaijan, on a mountain ridge that separates both countries. Due to its extremely remote location, the monastery was well preserved and naturally protected from looters and human harm. As such, you can still see the entire monastery and the dozens of cave churches in its original form.
However, the remoteness of the David Gareja Monastery also means that it is a challenge getting there. There is no public transport to the monastery, except for a daily minivan that leaves from Tbilisi in the morning and returns in the evening. Given the large distance between Tbilisi and the monastery, you will not have much time to explore the vast compound of the monastery. While I was there, I crossed paths with many people who took the minivan. With only two and a half hours on hand, everyone was scrambling to see as much as they could before the minivan leaves.
The best option is to rent a car, or sleep one night in the nearest village of Udabno, about 10km from the David Gareja Monastery. From the village, you can rent a taxi, hitchhike or walk to the monastery. This guarantees that you have enough time to soak in the views from the monastery, appreciate the cave church art and understand a little more about the history of this bizarrely located place!
After a bumpy ride to the monastery, you will arrive at the main monastic compound. Like most other monasteries in Georgia, you will be able to find the living quarters, chapel and dining halls. An interesting addition to the complex is a series of small caves carved out of a mountain cliff. Many monks lived in these caves and some still do even today.
However, the highlight of the David Gareja Monastery is not this well-preserved and manicured complex that you see. In fact, the best part is waiting for you in the other side of the mountain. A series of cave churches carved out of the ridge awaits those who make the effort to climb over!
The climb over the mountain is steep, but definitely doable for all ages. For those who need assistance, there is a railing along the trail that you can use to pull yourself up. Though I am pretty sure the rails were built for a different purpose – apparently they mark the borders between Georgia and Azerbaijan. The hardest part is getting to the top of the mountain, but your effort will surely not go to waste once you can see the other side. Vast plains, rolling hills and an endless horizon will greet you. The panoramic views of the plains of Azerbaijan are simply breath taking.
As you follow the railings along the ridge, enjoy the beautiful views but watch your step! Parts of the trail go close to the edge of the cliff and a wrong step might cause a nasty slide. Soon, you will arrive at a series of cave churches. Some of these caves still have very well preserved Christian fresco art. Many of these frescos depict stories from the Bible, and I am sure you will better understand their significance if you are familiar with these stories. I am a stranger when it comes to religious stories, yet I was still very much amazed by the details, colours and energy of the frescos.
Take your time to explore the various caves. Some of them require a little climbing (and jumping even), but the rule of thumb is simple: the harder it is to access the cave, the more beautiful the frescos because it is naturally more protected from idiots!
At the end of the trail along the ridge, you will arrive at a chapel. Do not be scared if you see soldiers with rifles patrolling around the chapel. As the chapel is right on the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan, sometimes there are clashes between the border guards from both countries. Yet, this should not stop you from visiting the chapel and the area around it. The views from the chapel are mesmerising. From here, you can see the entire ridge that you were walking on earlier. Hundreds of years ago, it is on this same steep ridge that the monks carved out dozens of caves and lived in them.
From here, it is a downhill walk back to the David Gareja Monastery Complex. While the views from the Georgian side are not as spectacular, the multi-coloured rolling hills are definitely worth looking. As I walked down back to the monastery, I could not help but wonder how people in the past built this monastery. It takes passion and dedication to build something this remarkable in a place so isolated, and to hold on to it for hundreds of years. Sadly, this passion is something we do not see very often now in today’s world!
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