Written by Intriq Journey
“Imagine many centuries ago, caravans from Asia and Europe intermingle at this bazaar.”
“Look at this skyline with that Eastern Orthodox Churches, this modern sports complex and those drably ex-Soviet houses.”
Our excellent guide in Georgia was enthusiastically showcasing the capital, Tbilisi to us. Indeed, this was once a Silk Road caravan stop and one of the first countries to adopt Christianity as the national religion and hence Georgia is endowed with many historical Orthodox churches. Unfortunately, its recent history of being part of the Soviet Block etched an ugly reminder both in the cityscape as well as the people’s memory.
Today, Tbilisi is on the move with the Georgian looking forward and yet keeping its tradition. Outdoor café and restaurants in its historical quarter are chic and varied. Some local hotels are interesting and yet meet international luxury standard, such as Room Hotel, which we stayed in. It was an excellent start to our Caucasus journey and a good base to explore the country.
Apart from spending a day to explore Tbilisi, we made two full day excursions. A short 35mins drive away is Mtsheka, considered the birthplace of Georgia with the stunning setting of Javri Monastery overlooking the city. From here, another hour takes you to Gori. For its painful relationship with Soviet or Russia, Georgia unfortunately is the birthplace of the notorious dictator, Joseph Stalin. Well, at least, it is now a tourist attraction as most tourist made the “pilgrimage” to his on-site museum. And before returning to Tbilisi, we made a short detour to Uplistsikhe, a pre-historical cave dwelling that dated back 3000 years.
We also made a day trip to David Gareja. It is a long 2-hour drive but through beautiful windswept landscape. The main monastery’s setting against the remote dramatic cliff was outstanding and mystical. What we enjoyed most was hiking along the ridge popping into many of the cave chapels looking across to Azerbaijan.
No visit to Georgia will be complete without driving right up to the Russia border to visit the iconic site of Kazbegi. Here, set on a lonely ridgeline is Tsminda Sameba or “The Great Cathedral”. The majestic snow-capped Caucasus forms the perfect backdrop!
We stayed at Hotel Kazbegi, a luxury design hotel offering a wonderful view of Kazbegi and Caucasus. We got the Kazbegi view room to welcome the stunning sunrise the next morning.
From Kazbegi, it is a half day drive skirting past Tbilisi to arrive at Armenia and bid farewell to Georgia. Our time in Georgia was short, else I would have very much wanted to explore the Kakheti winery region or hike around Svaneti with its lovely landscape and unique “skyscraper” village architecture.
A short while after crossing into Armenia, two UNESCO monasteries await us. Their names are most interesting. It was built by 2 princes at about the same time – Sanahin which means “this is older” as it was completed first; and Haghpat which was expanded so that as the name suggest “this is bigger”. Apart from the interesting names, both were excellent example of Armenian Orthodox monasteries 1000 years ago.
We spent the night in nearby Dzoraget in Tufenkian Avan Hotel built by a wealthy Armenian in America to promote traditional Armenian architecture.
Finally, we arrived in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Armenians are probably some of the toughest people in the world with painful history and current political environment. After WWI, the Turkish massacre millions of Armenians and till today, Turkish still denied the genocide and the world paid scant attention. Majority of Armenia’s historical territory is still in Turkey today and it is a landlocked country surrounded by its arch enemy – Turkey and Azerbaijan. It was an amazing experience when one evening at a local restaurant, a table of local diners after some drinks broke into traditional dances and songs of how much they love their country and wish for their motherland to be returned to them!
Yerevan is a beautiful city. We stayed in Marriott overlooking the central square with a musical fountain. Another great option available now is The Alexander, a member of the Luxury Collection. Many overseas Armenian contributed to the city’s landscaping. The National Museum is excellent and the Armenian Genocide Memorial very moving.
We also made 2 full days excursions out of Yerevan and Echmiadzin is certainly a highlight. This is where the Patriarch of the Armenian Orthodoxy reside and it is the Vatican of Armenia, endowed with historical treasure and just simply a powerful religious ambience. Nearby is another UNESCO World Heritage site, the 7th century Zvartnots ruin.
The next day, we visited a Greek archaeological site Garni and the gorgeous rock-hewed churches of Gerhard Monastery. The finale is Khor Virap. This is Armenian’s answer to Georgia’s Kazbegi, another most iconic landmark in the Caucasus. Built some 2000 years ago, this is Armenia’s most sacred monastery with a backdrop of perhaps Christianity’s most sacred mountain, Mt Ararat, believed to be where Noel’s Arch landed after the great flood.
The picture-perfect sight of medieval monasteries with Caucasus as backdrop and encounter with the locals telling their own stories as they go through a dramatic chapter of modern history both left behind wonderful memories. But perhaps, what set this destination apart from the rest is having so few tourists. Here you roam the UNESCO world heritage sites with your own private guide without crowds and enjoy the luxury tour arrangement of your personal driver / guide while staying in some of the best hotels. Go soon before the rest of the commercial tourism catches up.