Georgia converted to Christianity in the fourth century, and it remains a religious country to this day, devoted to the Eastern Orthodox faith. Because of the frequent invasions, many monasteries were built on easily defensible hills. Their stone towers and cypresses punctuate the landscape like exclamation points.
Alas, overtourism has disturbed the tranquility of some of the most famous monasteries. But their churches are invariably worth visiting and retain a sacred atmosphere, especially when a chanter or choir is singing.
In addition to the monasteries listed below, many people tour Alaverdi in the Kakheti region, but it was closed to visitors during our stay.
Originally a monastery, this active convent near Sighnaghi is the final resting place of St. Nino, responsible for Georgia’s conversion to Christianity. Buses of tourists visit, but the well-manicured, cypress-studded grounds are large enough to absorb them. After you have seen the ancient church built atop St. Nino’s grave, descend the hill beside the new church (under construction at the time of our visit) to wander through an exquisite rose-filled cemetery.
This late-sixth-century monastery across the river from Mtskheta, the ancient capital of Georgia, is also no secret. A large parking lot spreads out beneath the complex. But the views of Mtskheta, at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers, are memorable, and the ancient church surrounded by the ruins of the monastery retains an air of romance. The church’s exterior looks well-maintained, but inside, the wear of the centuries is obvious.
Located on a narrow road off the main route between Telavi and Sighnaghi, this monastery was the home to an important academy where national poet Shota Rustaveli probably studied in the 12th century. The academy stands in evocative ruin — Persian invaders set it aflame in the 17th century — but the main eighth-century Khvtaeba church is intact. Look for the remains of the monastery’s winery, including old qvevri (earthenware fermentation vessels) buried in the earth. We had the site mostly to ourselves, but a bus group of teenagers, playing loud American pop music, had settled into the monastery’s parking lot.
Not far from Telavi, fortified Gremi is not technically a monastery, as it comprises the Church of the Archangels and a royal citadel. Although it looks impressive from a distance on its forested hill, crowds make the citadel feel claustrophobic. The 16th-century church is worth the uphill walk, however, thanks to the remains of colorful frescoes.
My favorite of the monasteries we visited, Nekresi stands on a steep green Kakheti mountainside, accessible only by a short shuttle bus ride or a long uphill walk. Because it’s more difficult to reach, Nekresi has fewer visitors and a more tranquil atmosphere. Its churches date from the fourth to the ninth centuries, and the ninth-century bishop’s palace contains a qvevri-filled winery. The views over the valley far below are sensational.