Sakartvelo or Georgia becomes more and more popular travel destination. There are plenty of reasons why you should visit Sakartvelo now, including amazing David Gareja Monastery complex. Here is how I discovered David Gareja and eight reasons why visiting David Gareja is an amazing day tour from Tbilisi.
Tbilisi can never have enough compliments. The beautiful capital city of Sakartvelo is a primary destination for almost everyone who travels to Sakartvelo. The places like the famous Georgian Military Road with its magnificent views, skiing resort Gudauri, mineral water springs in Brojomi and Black Sea resort Batumi as well as wine region Kakheti receive lots of visitors these days too.
But what if you do not crave for touristic destinations. What if you are on the off-the-beaten-path. Well then, Sakartvelo is still your place.
There are many destinations in this country that can be called secluded, and one of them is David Gereja.
You may or may not have heard about this place. Yet, it is an ancient monastery complex in the caves often overlooked by the travelers going to Sakartvelo. Also, the day tours will more often bring you to another very impressive and popular cave monastery complex called Vardzia.
David Gareja is a place in semi-desert on the Georgian – Azerbaijani border. The day tours are rare there. What’s interesting, nobody can give a reasonable explanation why. “It is just not popular enough” is the standard answer from the travel guides in Sakartvelo. One Tbilisi tour guide even tried to keep me from going there because it is far away and there are snakes(!) Yeah, snakes, I thought. I’ve been in the deepest jungle of Costa Rica and Peru and no snakes bothered me there. They are cautious animals that tend to avoid people before they actually meet us.
Also, my good friend had visited David Gareja last summer and highly recommended it. I had already decided to go there. Hence, I booked the only tour available that week.
- #1 It’s not far from Tbilisi and very affordable
- #2 You are likely to meet like-minded travelers on your way
- #3 David Gareja monastery complex is awesome
- #4 It’s a great and adventurous day hike
- #5 The views are stunning
- #6 David Gareja is a wild area
- #7 You might find something surprising
- #8 You can have a good wine on your way back
- Summing Up
#1 It’s not far from Tbilisi and very affordable
David Gareja is in Kakheti region; only some 70 km from Tbilisi. Yet, it is still considered a distant area. Bad quality roads mean that it will take you around two hours to get there. Yet, if you have a good company as I did (keep reading #2 below) the time runs quickly. Also, the views on the way there will not disappoint you.
The standard (no private) tours from Tbilisi to David Gareja are very affordable. They cost around 60 Lari, which is only some 20 EUR and include a shuttle and English-speaking guide services. Since David Gareja is not a highly popular destination you will most probably travel in a small group.
The private tours to David Gareja will be on the contrary pretty expensive for a solo traveler, as they cost more than 200 EUR. Find or travel with some travel mates though, and they also become much more affordable.
#2 You are likely to meet like-minded travelers on your way
Traveling to David Gareja turned out to be very short. This was mostly thanks to the travel mates I met on my tour from Tbilisi. As the tours to David Gareja are not very popular you might very well meet similar like-minded travelers, who seek more distant and secluded travel destinations. Besides they might have much more in common with you than it might seem at first glance. You may get new friends even on a short-day trip like this.
We were only some people on our minivan and a very talkative local guide, who obviously was not used to other talkative “competitors” like me. Overall, it felt like a private tour, to be honest.
First, I met a solo French traveler Marie Anne. Later we met some more like-minded travelers and went to other great places in Sakartvelo together.
Some people may not afford slow travel
There was also a Japanese man around his 50-ties, who spoke weak English but had an amazing sense of humor. Let’s call him Riku (Wise Sky) here. Contrary to what we might sometimes think about Japanese people, he had a ton of sarcasm about his own way of traveling. People cannot afford long absences from their work in Japan. Hence all their trips tend to be quick running from one place to another to see as many places as possible in a limited amount of time. Luckily Riku looked at this with a healthy dose of humor. He assured that he would enjoy seeing more of Georgia, but he must hurry up to the next country – Azerbaijan after this trip to follow his checklist.
HIking in leather shoes
Our international company was also enriched with an Indian couple. Let’s call them Ajay (Unconquered) and Hema (Golden) here. A person traveling to semi-desert should expect some dust on his/her shoes and get a bit dirty. Not to say that the deserts are usually pretty hot places. Apparently, our Indian couple was somehow convinced that they are traveling to an ordinary tourism destination (it’s monastery complex after all) or they were just on another wave after some ordinary city day tours.
Whatever was the reason Ajay was wearing black leather shoes, suit’s pants and classic longed sleeved shirt, while Hema had classic women’s purse on a golden chain (most probably it had only golden color though). None of them were actually ready for an outdoors’ activity like hiking, but maybe they were in a way, who knows. In any case, we did not hear any blaming from anybody during the trip. Thus, I assume that Ajay and Hema were probably ok (just my assumption).
We also had two nice Russian women: a daughter with her older mother. And finally, there was me: a Latvian giant.
Our colorful international small group ended up doing a day hike that was much longer and adventurous than we expected it to be. Well, I’m not sure there was a hike in the original plan at all. Yet, everybody seemed happy at the end of the day.
#3 David Gareja monastery complex is awesome
David Gareja is a Georgian Orthodox monastery complex on semi-desert slopes of Mount Gareja. The complex includes plenty of cells, churches, chapels, and living quarters. They are all hewn in the rock.
The monastery complex was founded in the 6th century by David, who was one of the thirteen Assyrian monks who arrived in the country at the same time. Hence the name of the place David Gareja.
It’s a frozen conflict area
Part of the complex is in Azerbaijan. It is not rare in such cases that the area is a subject to a border dispute between neighboring countries. This is not an exception. Georgia and Azerbaijan have some territorial disputes here. Yet, as we know, trying to argue who’s right and who’s wrong in such situations sometimes leads to bloody military conflicts because of totally irrational ideas. Hence, being a convinced pacifist, I will better keep from any comments here.
You’ll go where others won’t (if you’re lucky)
Our guide (let’s call him Baadur, meaning hero, warrior or brave) turned out to be a historian and archeologist, who once used to spend a lot of time in the chapels of this monastery. It is not that easy (and probably not even formally allowed) to get into some chapels. Yet, nothing was too difficult for Baadur. He wanted to show us the exact chapel where he once had spent many days (and nights) despite this meant that we had to jump from one big stone to another on the cliff’s edge. Not everybody from the group dared to follow him. Yet, I must admit it was worth it.
Baadur was actually a great storyteller and knew a lot about David Gareja and Georgian history. Hence, we spend a really good time out there.
#4 It’s a great and adventurous day hike
That said by going to David Gareja nobody really expected to do much hiking. Yet, we did a gorgeous circle hike there.
You may consider visiting David Gareja on your own
Being otherwise very adventurous Baadur apparently had some responsibility any tour guide should have. He was not happy to hear that we want to do a circle hike instead of going the same way back. I must admit that I and Marie were those “badass” rebel souls who had this idea. We tried to convince our responsible guide that it is fine if he goes back with the rest of the group and that we take care of ourselves. Yet, he refused to accept these insurances and emphasized that the group should stick together. Well done to be homest!
The underline here is that if you are as rebellious and freedom loving as I am you should, probably, consider going to David Gareja on your own. But then again, you would lose all the great stories that a knowledgeable guide could tell you. It’s a tradeoff.
The hike can be a bit tricky
Later we understood that Baadur’s concerns were not without a reason. The last section of the hike was descending the big rocks. On a rainy day, these could get slippery and dangerous. Baadur new this and was cautious. Luckily the weather was sunny and dry. Yet, it was still a bit challenging for our Japanese and Indian friends to hike down there.
Baadur added some sarcastic remarks that apparently, I have a very good insurance that will cover all the group. Yet, I clearly saw the spark in the eyes of all my travel mates. They were happy about this adventure. It was off-the-beaten-path for each of them. It was an experience they did not expect, and hence it was even more exciting.
#5 The views are stunning
Despite some challenges and inconveniences, we were rewarded with stunning views. David Gareja landscape differs greatly on the Georgian and Azerbaijanian side of the border.
The Georgian side looks more of a semi-desert. The brownish deserted wave alike hills stretch as far as you can see. The Azerbaijani side is totally different. There are mostly green lowlands our there.
It is also likely that visiting this area in spring as I did is a good idea. The spring is not that hot, and it is definitely much greener than later in the hot summer months.
#6 David Gareja is a wild area
David Gareja is an amazing place of wilderness, which is also home to many animal species, including birds, snakes, lizards, and other reptiles.
David Gareja is a bird watching place. Watching wilderness is always a meditative experience. Bird watching “is about slowing down, about noticing”, says famous American journalist and writer Chris Chivers in The New York Times article Birdwatching by a Remote Monastery. He describes bird watching in a way that I have not seen before and reveals a whole new aspect of this activity. This speaks not only to the biologist in me. I’m sure it will touch a deeper string in many. Chris Chivers gives another good reason for all natures lovers to visit David Gareja.
Although we were not there for bird watching (at least for this time) I saw a lot of raptors. Some were circling above and some below us during our day hike. This added a special appeal to this semi-desert adventure.
I won’t lie. There are snakes in David Gareja. And not a few. That’s a fact and you should watch where you put your step.
We met only one snake during our trip. Yet it was not the smallest one I have seen in my life. The guide was not sure whether it is venomous, and honestly being a biologist, I could not tell this at that moment either. In any case, I would recommend not recommend to be the next Steve Irwin The Crocodile Hunter here and always keep a distance, if you don’t know what you are dealing with.
Contrary to the most of horror tales, snakes usually avoid people. They feel us approaching well in advance. The only risk is, if you manage to be quiet enough to surprise the snake unexpected. Snakes feel vibrations (not the sounds). Hence don’t be afraid to make some, unless you really after spotting the snakes there.
#7 You might find something surprising
Georgians claim that they are not only the Europeans but probably the very first Europeans. The border between Europe and Asia is still disputable. The ancient Georgian tribes first appear in the scriptures of the 12th century BC. David Gareja has evidence of the oldest human settlements in the region.
Thanks to our enthusiastic guide I was lucky to visit some of not that easily accessible chapels. They keep well-preserved wall paintings of Georgian history (mostly of different religious authorities and themes). However, one thing stunned me. A saint woman’s headcover on one of the wall paintings resembled me one of the most popular traditional women’s headcovers from western Latvia (we have many; different for each region). Here are the pictures for you to judge.
Could it mean that all the nations in Europe are to some extent historically related, and we might have more in common than we might think? Even if not, it’s a very interesting coincidence. As we say here in Latvia, you won’t find a woman who does not look good in a traditional Latvian folk costume, and it’s true.
#8 You can have a good wine on your way back
Another great reason for going to David Gareja is to taste different wines on your way back. You’ll cross the Georgian wine region Kakheti that has ancient wine-making traditions.
It is worth mentioning here that the earliest evidence of wine has been actually found in Sakartvelo. Hence according to our knowledge to date, we may say that Sakartvelo is the place where the wine was probably born. And the wine is really good here.
I managed to buy some great wines on my way back from David Gareja in the wine-making factory shop. Later I regretted this a bit when my suitcase was seriously over-weighted.
David Gareja is an overlooked great travel destination in Sakartvelo. You’ll find a combination of amazing historical legacy and natural beauty here. Besides, you will still be very much off-the-beaten-path. You’ll escape the crowds of more popular destinations, and with a good guide, you’ll also get both a great day-hike and plenty of interesting information here.
Feel free to share this post to help other travelers! Also, share your experiences while traveling in Sakartvelo (Georgia) in the comments’ section below.