Armenia & Georgia…treasures of the Caucasus
The sun setting on the snow-capped peak of Mount Ararat has left an indelible memory – 2019? No, 1964 from the Turkish side when I travelled overland and sea from the UK to New Zealand. From then on I always wanted the same view from the other side, and I was not disappointed!
View of Mt Ararat from Turkey with our Landrover in foreground, 1964
We decided upon a group tour with Cox & Kings, visiting the cultural highlights of two countries in the Caucasus: Armenia and Georgia. This tour appealed to us on a number of levels. Who wouldn’t be fascinated by the turbulent history of the region? Former Soviet republics, struggling to establish themselves in the new world order after the collapse of communism.
The programme had a predominately religious theme reflecting the importance of Christianity in both Georgia and Armenia; how, to an extent, it was the glue that kept things together during post-Soviet chaos. The tour was led expertly by a cleric steeped in the culture of the region. It amused us that at the most religious sites he would don full clerical outfit to allow him to commune with the local priests.
We started in Armenia, where Christianity came early but old enmities persist in tensions with Azerbaijan and the claim of Turkish genocide in the early 20th century. The highlight for me here was, of course, Mount Ararat, visible from the capital, Yerevan, and looking spectacular from the Khor Virap monastery on the Turkish border.
View of Khor Virap monastery beneath Mt Ararat, Armenia
Yerevan was a chaotic mixture of Soviet-style architecture and more modern developments with a wonderful art gallery (why had we not heard of any Armenian artists before?) On the second day in Yerevan we made a side trip to Etchmiadzin cathedral in Vagharshapat, built in the early fourth century and generally regarded as the oldest church in the world. A fleeting visit was also made to the genocide museum where the horrifying elimination of the Armenian race was attempted in the early 20th century by the Turks. It required a strong stomach to take in all the atrocities.
Altar, Etchmiadzin cathedral, Vagharshapat, Armenia
From Yerevan we travelled north to the border with Georgia via Lake Sevan. The scenery along the way was breath-taking with snow-capped peaks ever present. The Debed canyon was particularly impressive where we visited Haghpat and Sanahin monasteries, high up on the canyon edge.
Lake Sevan at 2,000 metres, Armenia
Tbilisi had a more affluent feel to it: modern public buildings, traffic jams and a less Soviet style. It is situated in a valley formed by the Mtkvari river – nobody said pronunciation was easy! There is a castle and a brand new cathedral, not yet open to the public. Walking through the Old Town you get a feel for its turbulent past, from the Mongols to the Ottoman Empire, Iranian dynasties and finally the 70-year Soviet domination.
Old fortress, Tbilisi, Georgia
After two nights in the capital we headed east to Georgia’s second city, Kutaisi. On the way to Gori, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, we skirted the Russian enclave of South Ossetia, the focus of a brief conflict with Russia in 2008. On reaching Gori we visited the Stalin Museum, his house and his private train. This was a revelation in as much as we had just stepped back into the Soviet era: the museum was entirely devoted to the great leader’s achievements.
Stalin’s private train, Gori, Georgia
It was a long journey to Kutaisi, a somewhat nondescript city, where we visited the Gelati monastery, site of David the Builder’s grave, a former king of Georgia and architect of its golden age in the 11th century, when he was able to re-unite the country.
After one night in Kutaisi, we travelled back to Tbilisi and then headed east towards the wine country where we visited the Kakheti winery and sampled the produce. In our personal view, the reds were robust but the whites a little lacking. We visited two further religious sites: the Gremi citadel and Nekresi monastery right on the border with Dagestan.
Kakheti wine region, Georgia
We stayed overnight in the town of Sighnaghi in the hills of eastern Georgia. The main attraction here is Bodbe monastery with stunning views over the plains below, stretching to the border with Azerbaijan. Also stunning to us amateur gardeners were the magnificent vegetable gardens maintained by the nunnery.
Bodbe monastery, near Sighnaghi, Georgia
Well, time to return to Tbilisi. Another long journey over the mountains where we stopped at a quirky coffee shop at the highest point on the road, nearly 2,000 metres. Arriving in Tbilisi it was cool and raining. The final dinner was a very sociable affair as the group had forged friendships. Then it was goodbyes before heading to the airport. But not us! We were off to the railway station for the 12-hour, overnight journey to Baku in Azerbaijan. 1960’s style Soviet sleeper, toilet facilities you do not want to know about, interrogation on entering Azerbaijan due to the Armenian stamps on our passport and 6 hours sound sleep …altogether much better than the brand new sleepers on the Edinburgh to London run which we had the misfortune to use a few weeks ago.
View over Baku, Azerbaijan
Overall an excellent tour to a fascinating part of the world. Is it Europe? Is it Middle East? You decide. Just a final postscript to this intriguing region: if you are planning a visit and you want a different experience, take the train from Tbilisi to Baku. You won’t regret it!
Richard Garwood travelled in May on our Arts & Culture group tour Treasures of the Caucasus led by expert lecturer Dr William Taylor. Cox & Kings also offer a standard group tour, Across the Southern Caucasus, travelling through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia.
Alternatively, if you are interested in private travel, please either call one of our specialist travel consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.