Food of paradise: a taste of sun, sea and food – in Georgia

The Namibian desert may seem a world away from the mountain gardens and red clay of this remote Balkan nation, but the sleepy Georgian spa town of Vardzia, in the Namibian desert, is well…

Food of paradise: a taste of sun, sea and food – in Georgia

The Namibian desert may seem a world away from the mountain gardens and red clay of this remote Balkan nation, but the sleepy Georgian spa town of Vardzia, in the Namibian desert, is well worth a visit. The red rock-hewn facades, teardrop-shaped architecture and gently soaring ceilings of the mixed tsarist-Holsteins town tell a story of romance and loss.

Vardzia was created by the Russian tsars to house a new spa for the city of Tbilisi, better known in Europe for its poky railway stations, curvy historic buildings and thickly vegetated mountains. It was not just designed to look glamorous but was intended to be a place of healing and celebration for the royal family of Tbilisi. It was built on the spot where the poet Galanei preached with the river through the gorge on one side and the mountains, rich in life and flowers, on the other.

Chapels and temples created by tsars, as well as other rock-built structures, such as a 40-metre arch that at the turn of the 18th century allowed the tsars to greet visiting royals such as Napoleon and Catherine the Great, still stand. The gems of the town include a rock-hewn chapel dating from 1877 and a baroque church that appears to date back to 1875.

The Kouda kanamela minaret, built by Tatar craftsmen in 1790, stands visible in the middle of a forest of osso bucco fruit trees in the foreground. Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Deeper into the dunes, a small trail enters a clandestine tunnel that when you step inside is a little like stepping into some weird spaceship. Now out it leads to a cavern and within a few minutes you’re standing in a campfire set alight in the dark recesses of a cave with macabre ornaments.

Further beneath the earth it becomes clear that the ancient settlement is filled with gypsies’ remains, pebbly expanses of worn quartz rocks and the pearly rocks formed from sapphires, rubies and tanzanite that are so prized that the locals allow some to be taken home for jewellery.

We stopped to explore the jungle-like garden at the town’s entrance. Up there, tourists flock to check out the night rock-hewn cemetery carved with reverent graffiti. The trees and shrubs remain alive with grape and mint plants, but within minutes it became time to eat.

• Reap a day’s holiday in Vardzia with the largest package tour operator, Etivah Tbilisi Tours (020-7555 4650, eneravtours.com) is by taxi with an airport drop from Tbilisi airport. Doubles at the Giustiniani do Kasa five-star hotel (00 36 2 59972 955, gov.ge/gendi/en), from €81 B&B, spend at least two nights in the centre or next to the town’s distinctive rock-hewn chapel and baroque church. More is available on the day of departure.

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