Europe's eastern frontier between the Black and Caspian Seas
> Journeying across Armenia, Georgia & Azerbaijan <
Being an often-overlooked part of our world, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan form together a quite unusual region. They are not very European, but not Asian either. They have certain Middle Eastern traits, but Central Asian characteristics too. There are some very “Russian” qualities especially in the larger cities and during bureaucratic encounters, but also many wonderfully local cultures and traditions that are very unique. Wedged between two seas, surrounded by Europe's largest mountain range and straddling two continents, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia are home to some extraordinarily beautiful scenery and incredibly hospitable people. Amazingly, to many experienced travelers, these countries remain relatively unknown, but we believe that this region is a must for anyone who wants to experience the best of many worlds.
We have spent a few weeks crossing from Armenia via Georgia into Azerbaijan. Armenia, a very mountainous land, is dominated by Mount Ararat (5.165m), which we have also visited and climbed from the Kurdish/Turkish side (on another trip). In Armenia are several great monasteries, caravanserais and lakes. Crossing into Georgia reveals churches that are cheek-by-jowl with mosques and Orthodox priests rubbing shoulders with Armenian Jews. It also has impressive underground cave cities as well as rural villages sited below the lofty peaks of the Caucasus range in the magical and medieval Svaneti region. Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea coast, has a lovely, ancient caravan route that is famous for silk weaving and embroidery. Add also a number of interesting bazars, remote mountain villages and a very modern capital.
Ahh, we love Ararat: Armenia's socalled "Heart of Stone". Arriving to Armenia is inextricably linked to seeing Mt. Ararat, whether you arrive by plane, bus, car or bycycle. The mountain's soaring heights makes it visible from Yerevan and many other sites in western Armenia. We did a small trek through some plantations near the mountain which can be reccomended.
Come here to experience the famous pilgrimate site with its iconic location at the foot of Mt Ararat. You can easily spend a few hours here simply enjoying the atmosphere and seeing a sacrifice of sheep or chicken during a baptims or wedding.
There are several outdoor cafés in Yerevan for Armenians livin' the good life. But we found that the real pleasure was to just grap a shwarma from a small joint, or buy some freshly made bread, cheese and salad.
Even if you are not a history buff (we are not), the Holy See of Echmiadzin is good experience. Spend some time inside the cathedral and sense the atmosphere while Armenian Christians and Catholics are praying and practicing their faith.
In the evening, when dusk decends on Yerevan, the smoke begins to rise from the hundreds of small family owned courtyard eateries specializing in grilled pork, lamb and beef.
The drive to Sardarapat across the orchards and farms of the Ararat Plain is scenic. Perched on the northern edge of the Anatolian Plateau, most of Armenia is filled with mountain ranges and valleys. Sardarapat boasts a venerated war memorial. It was here in May 1918 that Armenia fought back Turkish invaders and saved the country from a likely annihilation.
Another view of the Mt. Ararat giant. Thomas is dreaming of climbing the mountain. Fortunately, we climbed Mt. Ararat from the Turkish side a few years before our visit to Armenia. Thomas also joined this climb. Yet, one can dream of climbing the mountain again from the Armenian side...
There is not too much to experience here except from rural Armenia. Its a typical midsized regional town with lots of old buildings, stone bridges and churches. Outside town a several fruit trees, stacks of hay and small joints to buy local produce.
From the Havuts Tar Monastery you can do a very rewarding two-hour hike towards the river below Garni. The latter is one of the oldest Hellenic structures in Armenia, it was built in the 1st century. The hiking trail leads you along the Azat River and through a gorge, and you will meet Yezidi shepards tending their flocks.
We went to Gyumri as we had to cross into Georgia on the Bavra border. It is a city of stetely Russian architecture, cobbled streets and a bustling market. The winter starts earlier here and last longer until April or May. We found it quite cold during October.
Arrival in Georgia! And Thomas is sittig in a local joint in Kutaisi. Georgian cuisine is simply one of the highlights of visting Georgia. Meals are very important here - always communal and lively. One of the local specialities is khinkali - meat dumplings - together with a bowl of local wine.
The road from Zugdidi to Mestia is extremely beautiful. It's a six hour trip with a jeep or marshrutka through the mountains and up the Enguri valley.
If you had to choose only one place to go in Georgia you should spend a week or more in the Svaneti region in Northern Georgia. It is wild, remote, mysterious, and unquestionably beautiful. Here traditions are more alive than elsewhere and the hospitality is very intensive. We stayed in both Mestia and Ushguli and can strongly reccomend both places.
Mestia, a small village, is at the heart of the svaneti region. One of the most distinctive features are the many strange, tall, Svan defensive stone towers, designed to house villagers during times of invation and strife in the past. There are more than 175 towers across Svaneti today - all of them equally beautiful and mysterius. Lord of the Rings, anyone?
Thomas is crossing an interimistic bridge in Mestia, a conglomeration of several neignourhoods, with old buildings and Svan towers - and: access to several hiking routes across snow-covered peaks rising over 4000m.
Ushguli, loaced at 2100m, is perhaps even more mysterious than Mestia - and hard to reach. The road is often closed due to heavy snow. The 5068m high Mt Shkhara can often be seen going in and out of clouds above the village. There are several cozy homestays in the village serving Svan food.
Claimed to be the highest permanently inhabited place in Europe, it can snow at anytime in Ushguli. This is the lower part of Ushguli village - called Murqmeli - and we are in mid-October, but we had a full day of snowstorm.
Walking around the village and observing local life is one of the highlights
A cradle of Georgian culture, Tbilisi is actually a nice capital - at least the one we prefer the best of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Remember to walk up to Narikala and Kartlis Deda for panoramic views, as in the pictire.
The Old Town in Tbilisi is the most fascinating area for exploring with access to several churches, hidden courtyards, mosques, and synagogues.
The cave city of Vardzia is a remarkable place where inhabitants live in dwellings carved out of the rock and ranging over 13 floores, with a cave church at the centre. We stayed in the Zazadze guesthouse nearby but if you are fresh you can probably crash in one of the caves.
Tbilisi's famed Abanotubani sulphur baths give access to several subterranean bathhouses with beehive domes rising at ground level.
We spend several hours in a subterranean bathhouse as we were waiting for the night train. It had that Central Asian feel to its mosaic facade.
We traveled overland from Georgia to Azerbaijan which is a nice route via the border of Qirmizi Körpü at Krasny Most. The first real town you will meet is Qazax full of pretty parks and small shawarma joints.
Sitting deep and remotely in the central mountains of Azerbaijan, Xinaliq is a little gem. We arrived very early in the morning, and as the clouds lifted off we realized that the small village is perched on a mountain top with stunning 360-degree views of the Caucasus. Needless to say, the village speaks directly to the soul.
It is possible to do numeraous hikes around Zinaliq, and several families offer informal homestays. Despide the biting night-time cold, houses are kept warm by ultra-thick walls decorated with beautiful carpets.
Xinaliq's hardy shepard folk are Ketsh people and they live most of their life on horseback. Nowhere else in Azerbaijan offers a more fascinating glimpse of mountain life. Its timeless stone houses are often wrapped in spooky clouds, giving it a haunted medieval feel.
Near Xinaliq you will find Laza village. Although it lacks the striking austerity of Xinaliq's stone houses, is is very charming. There is no public transport to either Xinaliq or Laza, so its best to rent your own jeep. Also, bring an Azeri friend to avoid hostile or frenzy locals.