AKHALTSIKHE, Georgia — The monk, a stocky man with gray-streaked hair tied in a bun, motioned toward the entrance of the cave.
“Can we go in?” I said.
He nodded slowly, but he never said a word. Not when he unlocked the iron gate and led us down a passageway carved into the stone and illuminated only by the yellow flicker of half a dozen small lights. Not when he filled a cup with water from a pool at the back of the cave — water whose purity is said to have shocked the scientists who tested it — and not when he handed it to Steffi, indicating she should take a sip. Like much in this part of Georgia, his silence was at once hospitable and reassuring.
My girlfriend and I had come to Georgia by necessity rather than choice. Because the border between Turkey and Armenia has been closed for decades — rendering impossible our desired 37-mile direct route from Igdir, Turkey, to Yerevan, Armenia — we had to take a 370-mile detour through Georgia. We’re thankful we did. A Soviet Republic before proclaiming its independence in 1991, Georgia is making a rapid transition to democracy and greater economic freedoms and much of the country warrants a visit.
Vardzia, where we encountered the monk, is one of those places. Set in a grassy valley, about 90 minutes from the border town of Akhaltsikhe, Vardzia is an exquisite cave-monastery carved into the side of a cliff. It has over a hundred interconnected rooms spread over 19 levels, stretching horizontally for about a mile.
We had arrived in the morning on a public minibus crowded with local babushkas and craggy old men. Aside from a handful of monks there weren’t many other visitors — just a few half-empty tour buses and a small group of backpackers on an extended tour of the region.
Vardzia is mostly abandoned, with a few sections the monks use for religious purposes. We were free to walk around, climbing steps cut into the stone wall. In some sections tunnels just tall enough to walk through hunched over emerged two or three floors up — opening to sweeping views of the valley below.
The best part of Vardzia may have been the Church of the Dormition, also carved into the rock, but with a 30-foot ceiling and ancient Christian-Byzantine paintings, some dating to the late 1100s. The church was built sometime around the reign of Tamar the Great, the first woman to rule Georgia.
After a few hours of exploring we caught a minibus back to Akhaltsikhe to walk around town. On a whim we asked to be let out at a trailhead leading to the 9th-century Sapara Monastery.
The going was easy at first, walking uphill by small villages. We came upon three men who looked to be in their late 60s, standing by a table and filling their glasses with beer from a plastic bottle, and ignoring a light drizzle.
“Sapara?” I said, making a palms-up gesture. There was a disagreement among them before one of the men pointed at a small footpath that he seemed to indicate was a shortcut.
But before we could make it a few dozen yards, the drizzle turned into a downpour. As we retreated, one man waved us forward.
“Come,” he said, leading us to a small home with a large, concrete veranda.
“Café?” he said.
Before we could answer, he called in to his wife, middle-aged son, and an elderly man. Together they set a small folding table on the veranda with a fine white cloth, china plates, a bowl of candy, espresso cups, and a tall bottle of inky liquid.
By the time the rain stopped, we had managed to drink three shots of what we understood to be a weak, homemade, mixed-fruit liquor — prodded in halting English by the man’s wife. First we drank to friendship. Then to our nationalities. Finally to the walk ahead. As we left, the man handed me a small box of matches, “in case need.”
The sun had reemerged. But about 30 minutes later, a swirling, black thundercloud came over a ridge. Thunder and lightening starting going off like explosives, and we decided to run downhill to a building we’d passed on the way up. After about a mile, I spotted a Land Rover and waved it down.
The young Israeli couple inside were headed to Sapara and offered us a ride. The monastery was beautiful, with tall stone buildings and huge interior murals, and the monks were willing to chat with us. But the adventure of getting there overshadowed the place, and we didn’t stay for long.
As the four of us retraced our route down the mountain, a girl came running up to the car.
“Hi!” she said to the driver. “I think I left my sunglasses in your car.”
The couple had given her a short ride earlier. After finding her glasses, she said, “Now you must come to my house.”
At the small plot of land in the village where the girl lived, a spry, 84-year-old woman with sharp eyes and wild hair greeted us as she steadied herself on a gnarled cane.
“This is my grandmother,” said the girl. The old woman took turns hugging each of us, as if we were long lost family. Then the girl’s mother and father came out and led us inside, insisting we stay for a tapas-style dinner. Almost everything was raised, grown, or made in the village: eggs, honey, bread, relishes, pickled tomatoes, wine, and clear liquor. We crowded around a low living- room table under a large, Persian-style rug hanging on the wall.
We talked about our lives and drank to friendship. The family insisted that we spend the night but we declined.
“Then one more thing before you go,” said the girl. “Come.”
She and her father led us into the cellar, where stores of pickled vegetables filled one shelf and massive glass jugs stood on another. Her father prepared a liter of homemade wine for each of us, siphoning the red liquid. Then he filled small glass jars with relish. Finally, he handed each couple a small, ceramic dish.
“Please,” said the girl. “A special gift. From Georgia.”