Georgia 🇬🇪

Geographically in Asia, politically in Europe, Georgia is the perfect base for exploring the Caucasus. We visited Georgia before, between, and after visiting Azerbaijan and Armenia (Americans can enter Georgia without a visa for up to one year). Each time we visited, we explored a different part. We both really liked Georgia and hope to visit again one day. It’s beautiful, it has a rich history, and it has nice weather. And they are the oldest makers of wine in the world. What’s not to like?

“Tamada”, or toastmaster statue

Old Town Tbilisi

As usual, we hit the ground running with an Old City walking tour. It helps us get oriented, and the guides usually suggest some good spots for drinks and dinner. We visited old churches, a rare mosque that welcomes both Sunni and Shiite worshippers, and a fortress up on a hill. We saw the Mother Georgia, the ancient sulfur baths, and the ultra-modern Peace Bridge.

View of Tbilisi from the hill-top fortress

Afterwards, we had khinkali, khachapuri, and traditionally-made red wine with our new friend Miranda, and wound up pretty much drinking the night away at a jazz cafe called Singer, where the shelving was made from the parts of an old Singer sewing machine table.

Pro Tip: stab these khinkali by the neck with your fork and take a bite while holding them aloft to keep the steaming hot broth from getting all over you

On another night, we were able to catch up with our friend Maia, who we last saw in Myanmar on our visit there, and previously in Khartoum. It’s fun catching up with old friends in new cities!

Dinner with Maia at G. Vino

Tbilisi: Opera House area

On our next visit in town (after going to Azerbaijan), we visited the Opera House area, where we rented a small apartment from a woman who only spoke Russian and Armenian. It was small but cozy, and we were able to do our laundry there. It was near both the Opera House, and the History Museum, which had several good exhibits, including one on Soviet oppression. We also took the funicular up to Turtle Lake over in Vake Park, overlooking the Memorial to the Great Patriotic War. We did a walking tour on the north side of old Tbilisi, which focused more on old Soviet art and architecture. The walking tour meets at Fabrika Hostel, which is a really cool old Soviet sewing factory building that’s been turned into a hostel, featuring an amazing breakfast spread (open to visitors for 19 lari/$7).

At the Museum of Soviet Occupation
Memorial to the Great Patriotic War
Fabrika Hostel

Signaghi and Khakheti Wine Region

Along with Miranda, we took a day tour out to the wine-making region of Kakheti. Unfortunately most of the wine tasting of the day went to waste due to our debauchery of the night before- we could barely look at the stuff. Still, it was interesting to learn about how they make the wine, which is fermented in huge clay pots, with the seeds and skins still on the grapes.

The wine is strong here and the chacha is even stronger

We stopped for a visit at a church and nunnery at Signaghi, an old city. The town is lovely, with the picturesque wall of mountains in the distance separating this region of Georgia from Dagestan in Russia. The old church, Bodbe Monastery, is dedicated to St Nino, a young woman who brought Christianity into Georgia in the early 4th century. She made a cross out of two bent grape vines, tied together with her hair, which is why the Georgian cross is usually shown with bent arms. The church here houses a reliquary of St Nino and is a popular pilgrimage spot for Georgians and visitors from around the world.

Sighnagi

Mtskheta and Gori

Chris and I took another day trip to visit several sites northwest of Tbilisi. We stopped at the Church of the Holy Cross, perched atop a high plateau overlooking the confluence of two rivers, where the nation of Georgia was baptized in 337. Inside the nearby city of Mtskheta, we walked through the Old Town to the Cathedral of Svetitskhoveli (Church of the Living Pillar), a World Heritage Site and the burial place of Christ’s mantle. The current building has been in place since 1029, but sadly lost many of its priceless antiques, such as Middle Ages frescoes that were white-washed by Russian Imperialists.

The confluence, with the cathedral visible in the old town

We also visited the caves at Uplistsikhe, where people lived all the way from the Bronze Age up to the late Middle Ages. It was an important capital city of the Kartli empire, long before the Georgian state. Worshippers from the Iberian peninsula came here to worship their pagan gods, and thrived until the Mongol invasion of the 13th century. A bakery, prison, apothecary, living quarters, and a church are still visible there today, carved out from the rocky caves.

Uplistsikhe Caves, 15 km from Gori

From there, our day tour went to Gori, the birthplace of Stalin. We visited a museum about the man, which also featured the bulletproof train car he rode in to go to the Yalta conference and to Potsdam. It was an interesting visit, which prompted a discussion about how much a nation should memorialize a public figure who figured so prominently into history but also caused so many deaths.

The many faces of Stalin

Tbilisi: Cathedral area

After taking a minibus down to Armenia for a visit, we returned to Tbilisi to get ready for our flights out. We rented an apartment in the Trinity Catherdral area of town, which is across the river from Old Town and near the Avlabari metro station (where you can catch the bus to Armenia). Our two bedroom, two-story apartment was just $31 a night and literally across the street from the beautiful cathedral, which is the largest one in the Caucasus. We really enjoyed being able to spread out a bit, work on my blog, work on taxes, and kind of take a rest from traveling for a few days. The views of the Cathedral were amazing.

Trinity Cathedral at night

So now we’re rested, researched, and ready for the next leg of our adventure: two weeks’ tour in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Follow along with us as we head down the Silk Road!

Country costs:

Flight from Dubai on FlyDubai: $200

Visa: none

Daily cost: $75 for two people

Armenia 🇦🇲

Armenia Zoravor Church Yerevan

We’ve just passed the nine-month mark of our trip, and our travels have brought us to Armenia. Did you know there’s over 4000 monasteries in Armenia? That’s a lot! As the first country in the world to formally adopt Christianity, much of Armenia’s identity is tied to St Gregory the Illuminator, and his conversion of the king and the nation in 301 AD- as well as conflicts with empires of other faiths ever since.

The Armenian Cross is a symbol found all over the country

Yerevan

We caught a minibus out of Tbilisi to come to Yerevan (one of those few occasions where we walk right up, and we’re the last two passengers the driver was needing for the run, so we left immediately- usually we wind up waiting ages and ages for the van to fill up). The van left from the Avlabari metro station and cost 35 Georgian Lari ($13 USD). Six hours later we were in Yerevan, with just a 20 minute stop at the border. American citizens do not need a visa for Armenia. As we passed through the mountains surrounding Yerevan, a light snow was falling, and our first few days in the city were a bit chilly and rainy- I was glad I had purchased a warm woolen scarf at a second-hand shop.

“Mother Armenia”

We went on a walking tour with Vako, one of the most knowledgeable guides I’ve ever had. Art, architecture, history, politics- he was a font of information as we traversed the capital city and then had drinks at a bar afterward. If you’re ever in Yerevan, be sure to sign up for his tour, which is free (you tip at the end however much you thought it was worth).

Yerevan Opera House
King Gagik of Armenia

We got an apartment in Yerevan, and it was really nice to have some space to spread out and relax a bit. We spent more time wandering down smaller side streets, eating at basement tavernas and having coffee and sweets at cafes. We also visited the Cafesjian Center for the Arts twice, for a look at the beautiful art there, as well as the fantastic view of Yerevan from the hillside.

Top floor of the “Cascade”, or Cafesjian Center for the Arts
Looking out over Yerevan

Garni and Geghard

We took a public bus out to the small village of Garni, to see the Greco-Roman temple there. Dedicated to the god Mhir, it is the only temple remaining from that time period (1st c AD) in Armenia. Partially reconstructed, it has nonetheless withstood fires, earthquakes, and dozens of invading empires. From the Merecdes Benz bus station, just take matruyshka 226 to visit (250 dirhams, about 50¢, takes one hour).

Temple at Garni

From Garni, we shared an old Lada taxi with two other travelers to go further up the mountain to visit Geghardavank Monastery, a beautiful 4th century church that claims to have a piece of Noah’s Ark (which landed at nearby Mt Ararat) as well as a piece of the spear that the Romans used in the crucifixion of Christ. I didn’t see either of these relics, so I can’t say for sure that they are there, but I can say that it is a beautiful church carved into a rocky cave, and I’m glad we went. Our shared taxi to get us up there and back down to Garni was 3000 dirhams, split four ways ($1.50 USD each).

Geghardavank Monastery (“Monastery of the Spear”)

Nagorno-Karabakh

Historically an Armenian region, in the time of the Soviets this province was added to Azerbaijan on the maps, which caused big problems once the USSR broke down. In 1988, Soviet Armenia demanded the area be transferred to them, away from Soviet Azerbaijan. Over the next six years, roughly 35,000 people were killed as both sides fought it out. In 1994 there was a cease-fire, which remains to this day. Azerbaijan says the regions is theirs, and visitors are not allowed; but it’s quite easy to catch a bus from Yerevan in Armenia and visit (7 hours, 4500 dirhams – $9 USD from Kilikia Bus Station). When leaving Armenia and entering the “Republic of Artsokh” (which is defended by the Armenian army), visitors receive a slip of paper with the address of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where for 3000 dirhams you can get a visa (they won’t put it inside your passport, so as not to cause problems with Azerbaijan or their allies).

“We Are Our Mountains” monument

Did we visit? Well, I’m not saying, but here are some photos. It’s a beautiful region and some of Armenia’s oldest churches are there, as well as rolling hills, meadows, mountains, and picturesque villages.

Armenian Cathedral at Shoushi, reliquary of the right arm of Grigoris, and symbol of the fight for independence from Azerbaijan
Gandzasar Monastery, home to thousands of manuscripts and supposedly also the resting place of John the Baptist’s head
Triganakert, a city named for King Tigran the Great 95 BC
People used to live in these villages but fled during the war

And that was Armenia for us. We will enter Georgia one more time, spend a few days there, then head for Turkmenistan. I’ll be posting about Georgia in just a couple of days, so if you haven’t already, click the “Follow” button below to get a notification when I post a new one!

Country costs:

Bus ride to: $13

Visa: free

Per day costs: $75 for two people

Azerbaijan 🇦🇿

Baku Flame Towers

We arrived in Azerbaijan via the overnight train from Tbilisi, which was cheap ($20) and easy. It left Tbilisi’s Station Square at 8:40 pm, arrived at the border just before midnight, and made it to Baku by 9 am. We had already applied for an e-visa for Azerbaijan ($55), which we printed out in Tbilisi, and they do the immigration stuff on the train. We had a 4-person sleeper berth which was fairly comfortable, aside from being super hot for a couple of hours before they turned off the heater.

Chris in our train cabin

Baku:

Our first day in Baku, we dropped our bags at our hotel, and then walked a few blocks to look at the huge Caspian Sea (the largest inland lake in the world). We got a late breakfast/early lunch at a cafe, and went back to the hotel and checked in and took a nap. We were staying at a hotel next to the train station/metro station so it was very easy with the transport. When we went out to dinner that night, we found a little basement tavern where no one spoke English. One patron who knew a few words helped us order, and we wound up with this delicious meal for under $20.

Pork chops, pickled veg, bread, cheese, herbs and beer

The next day we went on a walking tour of the capital city, Baku. Our guide was very knowledgeable and we learned a lot. It’s a very interesting place, visually, with parts of the walled old city dating back to the Middle Ages, plus European-style buildings funded by oil-rich oligarchs in the early 1900s, and ultra-modern skyscrapers built with new oil money in the last few years. It’s quite a blend and yet it works.

Maiden Tower, 12th c
National Academy of Sciences, 1908
Baku is growing, up and out!

A brief history:

Early residents of this area of the world were Zoroastrian fire worshippers. When Islam arrived in the early 700s, the Zoroastrians were expelled towards India, and the area became Muslim. Assaulted by the Khazars and the Rus for the next few centuries, the city of Baku was also invaded by Mongols. The Persians finally took over the region in 1501, and even earlier than that were written records of oil being produced in Baku. The Russians and the Ottomans fought over Baku in the 1700s, with Russia eventually winning. Then the Russians fought the Persians for control of Baku (and their oil). By the 1890s, Baku supplied half the world’s oil. In 1920, the Russian 11th Red Army rolled into town and gave Baku an ultimatum: join Soviet Russia or be annihilated. Finally, in 1991, Azerbaijan achieved lasting independence.

Baku in 1861

Day trip to Qabala

We signed up to go on a day tour to Qabala, about 200 km from Baku. On the way we stopped in Shemakhi, to see Azerbaijan’s oldest mosque site. Built in 743, the mosque has been damaged and rebuilt after fires, earthquakes, and Soviet occupation. The residence of an Arabian caliphate in the 8th century, the mosque is the largest in the Caucases.

Inside Shemakhi Dzhuma

Then we drove to Qabala, an ancient capital city along the Silk Road. The area has a long and rich history, but was mostly destroyed during Soviet times. Now Qabala is undergoing a cultural comeback, with parks, green spaces, and recreational activities. We visited a ski resort there and a lake, which is probably really fun in deepest winter and in spring/summer. Although spring was just arriving in Azerbaijan while we were there, with warming-up temps and green buds starting to show, there was still snow in the mountains, but melting quickly.

Tufandag Ski Resort

Modern Baku

Back in Baku from our day trip, we took the metro to the Flame Towers (helpful hint: the funicular is closed on Mondays) and walked all around that area of town. When Chris visited Azerbaijan the first time in 2011, they were still constructing these towers. We also took the metro up a few stations to see the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center. Surrounded by a large park, we brought a picnic and sat by the “I ❤️ Baku” sign and ate lunch. The city gets winds coming in from the Caspian Sea- the name Baku actually means “wind pounded city”- but this day was warm and not too breezy. On the front steps leading up to the cultural center was an open-air exhibit of work by a photographer named Reza, which was really incredible work. His website can be found here. Inside the cultural center, designed by Zaha Hadid, are rotating exhibits- right now there’s one on classic cars and another on dolls.

The Flame Towers
I really need to stretch first next time

We enjoyed visiting Baku and Azerbaijan, but we’re ready to head back to Tbilisi to explore Georgia some more and then Armenia. We took the sleeper train back and got ready for our next adventure. Stay tuned for more Caucasus updates soon!

Country costs:

Train ride in: $20

Visa: $55

Per day costs: $90 for two people

Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo

Kosovo Orthodox Church

I put Albania into the same post as Macedonia and Kosovo, seeing as they feel that the whole area was once a greater Albanian empire. While both Kosovo and Macedonia were formerly part of Yugoslavia, Albania was not. In fact, they felt Continue reading “Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo”