In Georgian Tbilisi, ancient ruins make a stunning climb

“It’s a pre-Himalayan wonderland,” says tour guide Natasha Pilipova, who is with us on a two-day trip to Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. “We learned about it first when our young child was asked ‘Where is…

In Georgian Tbilisi, ancient ruins make a stunning climb

“It’s a pre-Himalayan wonderland,” says tour guide Natasha Pilipova, who is with us on a two-day trip to Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. “We learned about it first when our young child was asked ‘Where is home?’ and he asked, ‘When will I see a cave?’ That’s when we decided to go explore.”

When I ask Natasha how she came to discover Vardzia, she says it was a project she began for her bachelor degree project in archaeology. “So I spent a year doing research, but it was a bit like testing the waters before diving into the deep end,” she says.

After completing her master’s degree, and with a pre-campaign pending, she was also invited by the famed mountaineer Ilia Angeloni to go to Vardzia on his permit. “He says ‘I can show you my idea. And what’s your idea?’ and, of course, I say, ‘Let’s go,’” she says.

The $30 entrance fee to Vardzia, paid on the day of arrival, buys you entry to the province, which Ms. Pilipova says is worth a good five minutes of your time, if not more. “It’s a prehistoric and primitive region,” she says. “The main thing that I liked about the cave is that there are no trails. There are only walkways and stairs.”

We stay in one of the many sheared-off villages that dot the remote landscape. They are common throughout the south Caucasus, where many people live above water, and remain unlit when the sun goes down. That is, unless you are Prince Charles, in which case you can sit by the fire in your robes and perfect the perfect Balinese pose, and invite us into your eco-bar.

The next morning we’re led into the cave by the guides, whose names are four letters long. In five minutes, one of them has grated a row of shell into a bow and arrow shell. “Meet the doctor,” says Natasha. In the short period that we have left in this last intact example of the neolithic age, the curator assures us that we are safe. No Eavu, just ascetics.

Later, we travel back to Tbilisi, Georgia’s only skyscraper. We eat a local speciality called salmon ukhahnitsa – sliced salmon topped with sour cream and various herbs, and served on sourdough bread. We wait outside to welcome back our motorized driver, with whom we have been spending the time since we’ve come, as if we were attending a funeral.

“There’s something about this settlement that you would rather not leave,” says one of the guide’s. “You can only see the wattle that runs from a tree to a dome and back. You can taste the earth.”

We leave Tbilisi and head for a city called Batumi, which is also known as Volgograd in Russian, and once had the third-largest Byzantine church in the world.

We step out of the car and see row upon row of immaculate architecture that has been renovated over the years, including high rises and five-star hotels. Batumi has a beautiful waterfront promenade. The beach at Baisars lies on the banks of the Ussuri River.

We still have the day ahead of us. We trek up the hill. The dizzying mountains which appear from below catch our eye. The landscape stretches for miles, and beyond their edges are wetlands, the edge of a giant stone bridge, and the Black Sea.

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