After a terrifying shooting in an abandoned church on the edge of Vardzia, survival expert Spencer Cox returned to find the eerie holy place ghostly deserted
I went into Vardzia expecting to find a town still in use, in fact a former parish of St Catherine’s church. But a quick Google Maps check tells me otherwise, still standing, though half-buried under overgrown foliage.
It was the village’s neighbour, Veli, that I was preparing to venture into. By all accounts it was one of the more attractive places to be. It has six mosques (including two imposing ones) and three churches. There are three pagodas and a chandelier. But more remarkable is the corner of the once-extensive estate now occupied by a single barber shop. One would be enough to make anyone feel part of the community. That you also have to stand outside to prove that you’re really there makes for a unique experience.
There are many picturesque sights to be had on Veli Road. Everyone from the oldest residents to those with thick beards and long beards turns out to visit the church and tourist shops offering souvenirs. One of the most popular is the Maravilha bazaar, a pedestrian mall selling everything from jugs to pirated copies of Soprano by Segio Leone. I believe that this was actually the part of Vardzia in which the shooting had taken place, so I had been following a dark trail of bullet holes and blood.
Inside the Vardzia complex: documents prove Georgian gold. Photograph: Courtesy Spencer Cox
I finally made it inside the vault, which is 300m long and 40m high, but must be something of a shock for visitors. As a relatively recent addition to the architectural scene, it is impressive and sobering to realise what part of the country is still essentially forest. Even further into the deserted church, part of Vardzia is visible in a clear canopy of trees. Here there are definite echoes of Moscow, with (surprisingly warm) Russian flags flying on a light pole.
My guide, Yandris, led me into a small building among the foliage and out into the open. It seemed strangely empty, almost eerie, although just inside the door I could hear the chiming bells in a church. It was like entering a peculiar dream; I felt ill to be back here.
• The trip was provided by Holiday Miles and curated by Spencer Cox