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The Monastry Hike - David Gareja

Summary: The 6th century David Gareja monastery complex is one of Georgia‘s most important landmarks and is located on the arid slopes of Mount Gareja close to the Azerbaijan border. It is the most interesting easy day trip from Tbilisi.

David Gareja (Georgian: დავითგარეჯის სამონასტრო კომპლექსი, Davit'garejis samonastro komplek'si) is a rock-hewn Georgian Orthodox monastery, some 60–70 km southeast of the capital Tbilisi. The complex includes hundreds of cells, churches, chapels, refectories and living quarters hollowed out of the rock face. Although most of the monastery is in Georgia, part of the site is in Azerbaijan, and the exact border is still the subject of a dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan.

The complex was founded in the 6th century by David (St. David Garejeli), one of the thirteen Assyrian monks who arrived in the country at the same time. The convent was particularly patronized by the Georgian royal and noble families. The 12th-century Georgian king Demetre I, the author of the famous Georgian hymn Thou Art a Vineyard, even chose David Gareja as a place of his confinement after he abdicated the throne. Despite the harsh environment, the monastery remained an important centre of religious and cultural activity for many centuries.

Thou Art a Vineyard

During the last century, the monastery's territory was used as a training ground for the Soviet and then also the Georgian military. In 1987, and later again, Georgian students lead a series of public protests. In May 1997, hundreds of Georgian NGO activists set up their tents in the middle of the army's firing range and blocked the military maneuvers. Finally, the exercises were banned.

The monastery remains active today and a popular destination of tourism and pilgrimage. (Sources: the hitchhikers handbook and Wikipedia)

For the visitor, there are mainly two key monasteries, which are also the most visited. The first is the photogenic Lavra, which is the only inhabited one today. It is spread across three levels, with buildings dating from many different periods. The monks’ living quarters are cut into the rock above the monastery and are out of bounds to the visitor.

The second, on the hill above it, are the Udabno cave monasteries with their beautiful frescoes. Some of the caves were churches, others chapels or living quarters, many of which retain the faint frescos painted during the 10th-13th centuries. Even though many of the caves are badly ruined and some of the frescoed walls have been completely eroded or destroyed, one can still sense the magnificence of the monastery at its zenith. 

The Hike:

The hike to Udabno monasteries is a two-hour round trip from Lavra. This is the true prize of the visit. For regular hikers it is easy, but it can be challenging for the occasional tourist, and bloggers have described as a challenging and relentless climb.

Take the uphill path beside the shop selling religious items. It will lead you to the top of the ridge, from where you can see down to the plains and hills of Azerbaijan. Descend a little on the far side, and the caves alongside and above the path are the Udabno monastery.

Bring your own water.

Maximum altitude: 601 meter
Minimum altitude: 402 meter
Cumulative height: 234  meter
Cumulative length: 2.6 kilometer roundtrip
Difficulty moderate
Time: 2 hours minimum
Date of this record November 2014
Download GPS info: David Gareja

General location and approach: A short drive south of Tbilisi

Other Information: The monasteries of Lavra and Udabno are well worth the trip into this austere part of Kakheti, topographically so unlike the rich vineyards of the Alazani plain. David Gareja, nestled and hidden between those sharp and clean diagonal slopes, are an ensemble for the photographer that is difficult to beat.

We also include the coordinates of Bodbe Monastery and the old city of Signagi, both worth a visit.

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