DAYS 14 – 28: GEORGIA & ARMENIA
Following the Black Sea coast you get your first taste of Georgia in Batumi. You will spend a couple of nights in this port city that has had an important role as a trading post from the second century BC when it was used by the Ancient Greeks as a commercial base. Today it is a modern city, and in recent years has seen a building boom with some bright and glitzy hotels constructed along the seafront.
Leaving Batumi, you will drive inland and your next stop will be Kutaisi where you can rest up before travelling through the heart Georgia over the coming days and begin our attempt to take in many of the country’s incredible, but mostly unknown, rich historical and cultural sites, as well as the verdant and imposing landscapes that characterise this part of Asia.
You will visit the Safara Monastery, a still-functioning seminary of the Georgian Orthodox Church constructed in the 10th Century AD, with Byzantine-style frescoes and a dramatic location on the edge of an imposing gorge.
Continuing east you reach Vardzia, a remarkable monastery built into the hillside with great importance in Georgian history through its association with the revered Queen Tamar who ruled over its construction in 1185 AD. The site was only used and populated for a relatively short period, being ravaged and then disused following an earthquake in 1283 and then attacked by first the Persians in 1551 and then the Turks in 1578, and subsequent earthquakes and flooding have seen much of the original site lost, but it remains a fascinating site and well worth visiting; carved into the side of a steep cliff Vardzia is a great place to explore and take some memorable and unusual photos!
Driving further into Georgia, after a long drive you reach Gori, a small city that played an important role as a military stronghold with strategic significance throughout the Middle Ages and has been occupied at various points by many different powers throughout its history, giving the city a blend of flavours and influences that have by now become a recognisable feature of your Caucasus adventure. The city is perhaps most famous, or infamous, as the birthplace of the Soviet leader Josef Stalin; the main avenue running through the city centre and the main town square bear his name. It is possible to visit the Stalin Museum and see the house where the former dictator was born and grew up. This makes for an intriguing but also discomforting experience, with Stalin’s rule and its consequences still very much within living memory.
Your next stop is Telavi, a decent-sized town to the north-east, sat on a hilltop with views across a wide valley with towering, snow-capped peaks visible in the distance. Telavi is the principal town of the Kakheti region, famous for its vineyards and wineries. Wine has been produced in Georgia since 4000BC and the industry has played a small but significant role in the country’s history ever since, as winemaking (and its consumption) has enjoyed an important role in Georgian culture and society. Here you have the option of taking a wine tour to find out more about the history of the area, why wine production has been so important, and of course to try some yourselves!
Telavi itself is a fascinating and relaxing place to spend a couple of nights with many good restaurants and cafes, and not far from the town there are other sites well worth a visit, such as the monastery of Akhali Shuamta, and the small village of Ikalta and its Church of the Transfiguration which dates from the 8th Century BC. You then drive west back towards Gori stopping on the way at the Uplistsikhe Caves, a remarkable subterranean complex of buildings built into the hillside, with origins as a religious and trading centre just off the Silk Road. At one point its population is estimated to have reached as many as 20,000, living and working in and around the caves. You have some free time to scramble across the rocky paths and find your way through the long-abandoned buildings and try to imagine what it would have been like living in such a unique and unusual place all those years ago.
After a short drive you arrive in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Sat on the River Mtkvari and surrounded by mountains on three sides with a combination of modern and historic architecture, this calm and photogenic city is your base for the next couple of days. Strolling the streets and people-watching in the many imperious squares of the city, with their mix of Russian, Classical and Soviet architecture, peppered with churches and cathedrals, is a pleasant way to spend at least one of your days here.
You can also check out some of the many museums, stroll through the botanic gardens, or visit the zoo, which enjoyed some perhaps unwanted international attention in June 2015 when following flooding many of the animals, including hippos, lions and tigers, escaped and could be seen wandering the streets of the city. They were recovered and it is now safe to walk around Tbilisi without having to keep a look out for any unexpected bears or big cats.
You depart Tbilisi and stop for a bush camp for a final chance to admire Georgia’s beautiful scenery before crossing the border into Armenia.
Armenia, a country of just over 3 million people and roughly the same size as Belgium, is a small country that punches well above its weight. Sat in the South Caucasus it is home to stunning mountains, rich verdant landscapes, rich and varied history, and a unique and strong sense of nationhood with an international importance that belies its small size and location, almost ‘hidden’ amongst larger neighbours in Turkey, Iran and not too far to the north, Russia.
Your first stop is Sevanavank, a monastery complex on the shores of Lake Sevan that dates back to the ninth century. Formerly situated on an island, following the draining of the lake as during the time of Stalin’s rule, the monastery is now sat at the end of a small peninsula and is a picturesque spot well worth a short detour.
Continuing south you reach the country’s capital Yerevan. This will be your base for three nights; strolling the streets of the city’s central area the combination of Armenian and Soviet architecture give a strong indication of the country’s more recent history, while the nineteenth-century Blue Mosque reminds us that we are still in a part of the world where Islamic influences and cultures are prevalent. There is also the option of a day trip to view Mt Ararat a stunning snow-capped volcano to the south-west of the city. Though the volcano itself is in Turkey, we are able to see it and explore the beautiful mountainous Ararat region while still in Armenia. It is also possible to visit Yerevan’s famous brandy distillery for a tour and of course to sample the national drink!
After a few days in Yerevan you drive through the Shikavogh Reserve and following a bush camp reach the border of Iran.