Most research into sights to see in Georgia will flag Davit Gareja (or Gareji) as a must visit, and with good reason. The semi desert area in the Kakheit region straddles the border with neighbouring Azerbaijan, and offers a chance to freely explore ancient monasteries carved in the very rock of the rolling hills. I was unsure if we would be able to fit a trip in our itinerary, but luckily we were able to work it into our visit to Sighnaghi.
A few notes on visiting Davit Gareji:
- Getting there: The visiting area for the monasteries is a bit over two hours from Tbilisi, and is best accessed via a tour, with the cheapest and easiest reportedly being Gareji Line. Due to the rough road, not all taxis will drive out. Marshrutky can take you to the nearby village of Udabno, and it is an 8km walk from there. We organised a tour through our homestay in Sighnaghi (Zandarashvili Guest House), including a transfer back to Tbilisi, and this worked out perfectly for us.
- Facilities: Other than a small shop ran by the resident monks selling religious trinkets, there is nothing in terms of tourist infrastructure. Bring snacks and read up on how to explore the complex before arriving.
- Exploring David Gareji: Fully exploring the two monasteries of Lavra and Udabno takes at least two hours, and involves hiking on rough, and at times steep, tracks. A reasonable level of fitness and good shoes are recommended.
The first thing that struck me upon arriving at Davit Gareji was the alien landscape of the semi desert area. The green hills were broken with exposed rock (or dirt?) that was almost rainbow in colour. Unfortunately the weather was a bit overcast again, so my photos cannot do the landscape justice!
The first part of Davii Gareji we glimpsed was Lavra Monastery (photos above), a large rocky outcrop and surrounding buildings that is still inhabited by monks.
We bypassed Lavra at first, following a rough path behind a watchtower to the left of the buildings up the hill. Eventually, the path reached a metal rail, to the right of which was the below small building, and the left, a trail leading downwards towards the Azerbaijan border and the Udabno Monastery.
The Udabno Monastery is a series of caves carved out of the rocky hillside, that looks down onto the Azerbaijan plains.
A track leads the way below the base of the caves, which one can freely explore, at your own risk. The caves feature painted frescoes that date back to 10th and 13th century.
One could easily spend hours exploring each and every room of the monastery. Some caves were quite simple, whilst others went several rooms deep and featured well maintained paintings of various religious figures.
The view over the plains of neighbouring Azerbaijan were pretty spectacular, even on a cloudy day. We felt a very long way from civilisation, with only the occasional truck rumbling along a distant road below.
Davit Gareja is actually partially located in Azerbaijan territory, resulting in a border dispute between the two countries. Whilst there is no active danger in visiting the site, it is worth noting that you will encounter some very bored looking border guards with very large weapons!
After wandering the trail as far we dared, we followed a trail down from behind the hut occupied by border guards. This led us back to Lavra Monastery.
We entered Lavra from near the carpark. After the vast array of caves in Ubadno, it felt very small!
After around two hours of explorations, it was back onto the road to head back to Tbilisi.
I was unsure what to expect with Davit Gareja, especially given we didn’t know if we were going to be able to visit the monastery complex until 24 hours before! Working it into our journey back from Sighnaghi worked really well, in addition to allowing us to see more of the Georgian countryside that was vastly different to the area around Sighnaghi.
But next, from the semi-desert to the mountains!