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Two Weeks in the South Caucasus: From Armenia to Azerbaijan by Way of Georgia

Two Weeks in the South Caucasus: From Armenia to Azerbaijan by Way of Georgia

May 9th, 2019, 03:48 PM
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Two Weeks in the South Caucasus: From Armenia to Azerbaijan by Way of Georgia

And we’re off – to the South Caucasus. Our trip will take us to the countries of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan – over a two-week period. During this time, we hope to sample the region’s ancient cultures, rich history, diverse food, wines, and landscapes.

Given the limited availability of information on this region, here’s my attempt at the basics.

The South Caucasus straddles between Europe and Asia, on the southern reaches of the Caucasian mountain range. The countries of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan border Turkey to its southwest, Iran to its southeast, and Russia – including the Republic of Chechnya – to its north. The small but complex lands are bound by the Black Sea to the west and the Caspian Sea to its east.

Recently having gained its independence from the former Soviet Union, the three internationally-recognized countries have been conquered and reconquered throughout its history – dating all the way back to ancient Greece. In addition to the Greeks and the Russians, the South Caucasus were at various points subject to Persians, Arabs, and Mongols.

Georgia and Armenia are among the oldest countries to adopt Christianity and Azerbaijan is Shia Muslim.

Georgia and Armenia are partially democratic, although there were disputes of the results of Georgia’s presidential election last year and Armenia recently undergone a popular uprising. Azerbaijan is under the rule of the same family since it regained its independence some three decades ago.

Tortured by the outside, each of the three countries are plagued by conflict from within as well as among one another. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in some state of war since independence, and are currently fighting over disputed territory (Nagorno-Karabakh to the Azeris, Artsakh to the Armenians). Georgia is home to two territories under Russian occupation: South Ossetia and Abkhazia. There are some disagreements between Georgia and Armenia as well as between Georgia and Azerbaijan over border territories. And Armenia’s borders with Azerbaijan and with Turkey remain closed given animosities.

Over the next 15 nights, we hope to experience and appreciate this complex corner of the world.Our trip starts with four nights in Yerevan, Armenia. From there, we will travel north to Tbilisi, Georgia, where we will spend four nights. We will continue to Kazbegi in the Caucasus Mountains for two nights before making our way to the wine-producing region of Kakheti for two nights. From Kakheti, we will return to Tbilisi, from where we will hop on a short flight to Baku, Azerbaijan, where we will call home for three nights. We will travel to and from the South Caucasus via Doha, Qatar, on Qatar Airways.

Please come along for this journey.
tripplanner001 is online now  
May 9th, 2019, 03:54 PM
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Also: special thank you to Thursdaysd for her report on Georgia and to fourfortravel for her report on Yerevan, as it provided me with both information and color on the respective places as I planned this trip.
tripplanner001 is online now  
May 9th, 2019, 04:02 PM
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You're welcome! Looking forward to your report.
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May 10th, 2019, 12:05 PM
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Looking forward to joining you on this trip! What made you decide to visit this area?
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May 11th, 2019, 09:11 PM
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Vickiebypass: Why not? In all seriousness, we were looking for destinations that were first and foremost off the beaten tourist path but offers history and culture and a diversity of scenery. The time of year - and therefore - weather was an important factor as well. We initially thought about Central Asia, but found that the limited time we had available - 2 weeks and change - meant we would need to limit our travels to the Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan, so we decided to save it for a different time. We also looked at parts of West Africa, although we would be travelling mostly in the wet season. Morocco or Egypt, both well-touristed, were also considered but Egypt would be too hot this time of year and we preferred not to visit either during Ramadan.

Getting Here

Being off the beaten path partially means limited tourist infrastructure. There were not very many flight options to Yerevan outside of travelling via Russia, which we were not keen about. A handful of European carriers offered flights to Yerevan but only on select days of the week. We looked at a flight through Austrian Airlines from Vienna but did not love arriving at 4 in the morning. There were a couple of flight options through the Gulf, which is what we selected. We travelled to Yerevan on Qatar Airways from Washington, DC, connecting through Doha. The flight out of DC was delayed due to thunderstorms in the area but was otherwise uneventful. The service was fine, but somewhat less than what I had expected (this was our first time flying Qatar Airways). We arrived in Doha about an hour late, but still had 4-plus hours to go before our connecting flight. We rested in one of the lounges at the airport before heading to our gate for the 2.5-hour journey from Doha to Yerevan.

A Stressful Arrival

We arrived in Yerevan at 12:30 in the morning, a little bit ahead of schedule. Our introduction to Yerevan and Armenia was not so positive though. Greeted by unfriendly guards at immigration, it was hard to understand what the officers were asking a couple of hour, which led to a few more questions. A couple of the officers took their time ruffling through the pages of our passports, which led to a few more questions about the places we'd previously visited and about the reasons for our trip to Armenia.

Once we were through this process, we entered the arrivals hall and looked for our driver, who we arranged through our hotel to fetch us. The driver was not in sight, so we were immediately accosted by touts offering their services. Even though we ignored them, they persisted. We gathered ourselves and called our hotel to inquire about our driver, and the receptionist assured us that he would be there within minutes. Sure enough, he arrived a few minutes after we called, although this meant enduring more solicitations of transport services by the aforementioned touts.

Once our driver arrived, we headed out of the airport and headed for the hotel. The ride into the city was quick. We were checked into our rooms within minutes. We showered and crashed for the night.
tripplanner001 is online now  
May 12th, 2019, 01:54 AM
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Please go on!!!

In future, I would love to share information about West Africa. I've made two trips but both were many years ago and much has changed in the region and not all for the good from what I've read... St the time I visited, the people I encountered were just about the friendliest and most welcoming I'd ever met.

Sorry to digress and much look forward to joining you on your travels.
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May 12th, 2019, 06:43 AM
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tripplanner001, thank you! I am most looking forward to your impressions; Azerbaijan was a consideration a couple of years ago for me and DS, though we decided upon Morocco (and were not disappointed).

We, too, arrived in Yerevan at a crazy hour, but in looking back at my notes I recall that Passport Control somehow confused us with important people, so we were ushered to the front of the queue. Sorry your arrival did not make a good first impression.
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May 12th, 2019, 07:18 AM
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Looking forward to more! Some comments:

Why the Caucasus? I went for much the same reason - didn't seem to be the year for Central Asia, so I visited the western end of the Silk Road instead. Didn't make it to Azerbaijan because at the time getting a visa was an expensive hassle and I didn't think it was worth it. But I did make it to Nagorno-Karabakh which is claimed by Azerbaijan, so maybe that counts....

Getting there: I flew into Batumi via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. Unlike Yerevan, the immigration guy was super welcoming! But when I crossed into Armenia overland, two of the other passengers in the marshrutka (shared minibus) had a really hard time and one was turned back. I left by flying from Yerevan to Aleppo on Syrian Air, but not feasible now, alas.
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May 12th, 2019, 12:39 PM
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Ekscrunchy: Thank you in advance. The best season for West Africa seems to be the North American winter so I will aim a trip there during that time. The countries that have piqued my interest most from guidebooks are Ghana, Benin, and Senegal.

Fourfortravel, lucky you re: immigration. Honestly I had concerns about our choice to come to Armenia after our experiences last night. Today more than made up for it though.

Thursdaysd, it counts as much as it is a consideration for you. For me, checking off the boxes isn't important. I suspect it is the same for you. Do know though, if you do make your way to Azerbaijan proper, it would be best to travel on a passport within references of your entry into Nagorno-Karabakh, as it is a primary reason for a visit denial from the Azeri authorities. And the visa process is much easier now. I applied online; it took 2 days for an approval to arrive in my email inbox for a cost of 20ish USD.

A Full Day in the Pink City

Modern-day Armenia is a small country that lies south of the Caucasus Mountains. It borders Georgia to the north, Turkey to the west, Azerbaijan to the east, and Iran to the south. Armenia's boundaries has changed significantly over its history. What was once Western Armenia is now under Turkey's jurisdiction; this includes the fabled Mount Ararat, which is very much a part of Armenian history. Parts of what used to be the eastern reaches of the country is now under Armenian control but internationally recognized as Azeri territory - Artsakh / Nagorno-Karabakh. Yerevan, Armenia's present-day capital city, is situated roughly in the center of the country, under the shadows of Mount Ararat to its west.

Our first full day in Yerevan began with a later-than-usual rise from bed (for us at least) and a light buffet breakfast at our hotel, the Tufenkian Heritage Hotel. The spread was smaller compared to your typical Western business hotel but just as good. Along with the familiar selections of eggs, meats, and breads, there were several local selections. Fortified and caffeinated, we took a walk at the Vernissage Flea Market just outside our doors (thank you fourfortravel, for the tip). As fourfortravel suggested in her report, there was a good selection of local wares on offer along with the touristy souvenirs, but very well worth a look. The morning visit gave us a good idea of what may be on offer throughout the city as well as the relative cost of items that appealed to us.

From the market is a short walk west to Republic Square, Yerevan's main outdoor living room. The square is dominated by several very large pink-stone buildings from a previous era. The buildings are occupied by several government ministries, a telecommunications company, and a Marriott hotel. Water fountains that dance to music during summer nights occupied the center of the square. To its north is another large building which houses the State Museum of Armenian History as well as the National Gallery of Art. We visited both, staying approximately one hour in each. Part of the State Museum is under renovations so only part of one floor of the museum is open to visitors (the exhibits used to occupy two full floors). While we did not get to see a large portion of its collection, what is available gave us a good overview of Armenian history, with exhibits dating back to ancient and medieval times as well as ones detailing the history of the Armenian people's struggle against Persians, Turks, and Russians. While Turkey is cast in a very negative light by the exhibits, Russia fared much better. The National Gallery is home to European, Russian, and Armenian art, although we mostly concentrated on works by Armenian artists and / or depict Armenia.

From the State Museum and National Gallery we made our way by foot to Northern Avenue, a pedestrian-only walkway lined with restaurants and shops, all the way to the Opera House. We circumnavigated the Opera House and proceeded towards the Cascade, a massive monument of stone steps, gardens, and sculpture up the side of a mountain. Before heading up, we stopped by a small Italian-style cafe for a quick but good lunch of pizzas and ice teas.

The Cascade could be ascended on foot up the stone steps as well as by elevators inside the structure, home to the Cafesjian Museum of Sculpture Arts. We admired some of the exhibits (my favorites were a couple of flower sculptures and a Dave Chihuly work; I also enjoyed a couple of works by Francisco Botero outside of the structure) before walking outside near the top, admiring gorgeous views of the city below. We continued our way up past the Cascade to the Soviet Armenia Memorial on top of the mountain. From here, we detoured east to Haghtanak Park and the Mother Armenia statue (Haghtanak Park is home to numerous carnival-like rides which were popular with local children.) before making our way down the Cascade on foot.

At the bottom, we treated ourselves to cups of freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice, a local specialty and very refreshing after lots of walking. We walked around the surrounding streets a bit more before heading to The Club, a French-Armenian restaurant, for dinner. The food at The Club was excellent, and was accompanied by two musicians, one on a guitar and another on a flute.

We rounded out our day back at Republic Square, where we enjoyed a water fountain show which featured water "dancing" to music.
tripplanner001 is online now  
May 12th, 2019, 12:51 PM
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Here are some photos to go along with my Yerevan report:



Republic Square by Day

Opera House

Cascade

Mother Armenia Statue

Water Fountain Show

Also Water Fountain Show
tripplanner001 is online now  
May 12th, 2019, 01:09 PM
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Nice photos! The fountains are new since I was there. The Cascade was under construction then, I thought they were going to run water down it, but apparently not?

Wow, that is a huge change in the visa cost and process for Azerbaijan. Thanks for the passport warning, fortunately that one has expired - it had Syrian stamps as well.
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May 12th, 2019, 08:39 PM
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Thursdaysd: You're welcome. The area between the top of the Cascade and the Soviet Armenia Memorial remains unfinished. There are no plans to complete it.

Additional Observations on Yerevan

Landscape: The city center of Yerevan is compact, flat, and very walkable. There is a metro system of one line with half a dozen stops, but we didn't use it. I did not see any buses plying the streets, although there were taxis and a few marushkas. The big government buildings are mostly pinkish-gray, from the volcanic stones found in the region. The architecture feels very Central European and reminded me of Vienna in some respects. The boulevards are wide and feels Parisian, with plenty of trees lining its thoroughfares. The city center looks much prettier than I expected. While there were definitely the ubiquitous 70s-style buildings, I did not see many of the distinct Soviet edifices that are found in other former Eastern bloc countries.

The People: Our interactions at the airport upon arrival into Yerevan made me a bit apprehensive about interacting with the locals. Those concerns quickly dissipated. People all over the city were as helpful and friendly as many places around the world that we've visited. While basic English is spoken and understood, there were definitely several examples of both sides misunderstanding each other. In a few of these cases, one of my travel companions and I switched to French and that made things much easier. Among the folks who we had trouble interacting in English, we experienced none of those problems in French.

Other Tourists: Save one small group of Italians at our hotel, a German group at the State Museum, and about a dozen Koreans at the water fountain show, we did not come across other tourists during our full day in the city. There are guys on the streets with vans offering day trips around the country and numerous souvenir stores around town, which speaks to some level of tourism, but none of the places we visited had any lines to speak about.

Costs: Yerevan is definitely very affordable, at least by middle-class American standards and when compared to some of the blockbuster destinations across Europe and Asia. Dinner with a glass of wine each for the four of us at a fancy restaurant amounted to USD120. Lunch cost us about USD25. Admission to the few sights we visited was no more than USD2-3. We hadn't done much shopping yet although most of the prices at the flea market seemed reasonable.

Last edited by tripplanner001; May 12th, 2019 at 09:17 PM.
tripplanner001 is online now  
May 13th, 2019, 08:50 PM
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Temples and Monasteries

On the agenda for today is a trip out of Yerevan to visit some of Armenia's most important and iconic places: Khor Viral Monastery, Gerhard Monastery, and Garnish Temple.

For this day we hired the services of Hyur Service, which received good reviews online. Hyur seems to be one of the country's largest if not the largest tour operator. Hyur offers group tours in and around Yerevan as well as to the rest of Armenia. Hyur also offers private tours, which is what we opted for.

We enjoyed another nice breakfast at the hotel buffet. The selection was the same as yesterday save a couple of changes to the hot dishes. I loved the roasted cauliflower as well as the roasted eggplants. Breakfast was hopping this morning given a tour group, but it wasn't a very large group (20 or so).

Our driver, Karen K. (Kevin in English), met us at the hotel lobby a few minutes before 9 and we were on our way traffic. Traffic out of Yerevan was a breeze for a Monday morning. The ride to Khor Virap Monastery took about 45 minutes. We enjoyed partial views of Mount Ararat all along the way.

Situated about 8 kilometers from the closed border with Turkey under the shadow of Mount Ararat, Khor Virap, which means deep well in Armenia, is a monastery etched into the national psyche. It is believed by Armenian Christians that Saint Gregory the Illustrator was imprisoned on this site in an underground dungeon for 13 years by the then Armenian King Tirades III for proselytizing the Christian faith. Gregory's efforts paid off as he was successful at converting the Armenian King and thereby the Armenian nation to Christianity in the year 301, thus, Armenia becoming the first country to adopt Christianity as the state religion.

As with other Orthodox churches, Armenian churches are built in the shape of a Greek cross - as is Khor Virap. A small chapel is built over the dungeon where St. Gregory was imprisoned in the 600s a larger church over the whole site about a millennium afterwards. The church interior is simple and dark, but adorned with several beautiful icons. From the church as well as on a hill right above it, we could see Mount Ararat clearly. However, Ararat decided to play hide and seek with us this morning, so we were only able to catch small glimpses of it.

After about an hour at Khor Virap, we headed to Geghard Monastery. Geghard is about an hour and a half from Khor Virap by way of the southern and eastern reaches of Yerevan. Along the way we stopped at another viewpoint for a glimpse of Ararat. Again, given the cloud cover, it was only a glimpse.

We reached Geghard at around 12:30. As with Khor Virap, Geghard is another medieval Armenian monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and holds an important place in Armenian hearts and minds. Geghard is a massive complex compared to Khor Virap. On the grounds is a large church built into the surrounding mountains. In the mountains are scattered numerous cave temples, some of which are open to visitors.

Our self-guided visit at Geghard commenced with a visit to the church. The atmosphere here is amazing. While dark, there are places where natural sunlight is let in. This illuminated numerous stone carvings built into the rock walls of the church. Throughout the main sanctuary is the smell of candles and incense. Icons are adorned all over the church, in paintings and other artwork as well as in stone. The waters from the nearby natural springs flow into the church; we enjoyed sitting there and listening to the waters albeit briefly.

We also entered a couple of the cave temples including one immediately above the main church. There we were treated to local performers who sang for tourists inside the sanctuary. The acoustics of the cave church was phenomenal. A visit to the springs as well as a cave temple high up in the mountains completed our time at Geghard..

Garni Temple, a Roman-style pagan place of worship built in the first or second century to honor a sun god, was our next and last stop, but not before lunch. We stopped at a restaurant overlooking the site. The restaurant caters to tourists and the food was passable, but would not be my preferred stop. Anyway, filled up, we visited the temple. Also here are ruins of a later church as well as a Roman bathhouse. The site was not very big so our visit was brief.

From here it was back to Yerevan, where we did some souvenir shopping at the Vernissage Market, ate dinner at Anteb, a casual restaurant serving Western Armenian cuisine (think Turkish kebabs), and a return visit to the water fountains.
tripplanner001 is online now  
May 14th, 2019, 01:45 PM
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One More Day In and Around Yerevan

Our tour of Armenia's holiest sights continue this morning with a half-day trip out to Etchmiadzin and Zvartnots, also arranged by Hyur Service. After another fulfilling breakfast at our hotel, we were greeted in the lobby by Karen K. What a pleasant surprise! We hopped into Karen's van and were out in Etchmiadzin by around 9:30.

Etchmiadzin is the ecumenical seat of the Armenian Christian Church, the Vatican for Armenian Christians if you will. In addition to the main cathedral complex known by the same name, there are a few smaller churches around the place. Our first visit was to St. Hripsime, built in the 7th century. The simple church was a perfect introduction to Etchmiadzin. We were struck by the power of the iconography in this church. The colors of the icons were so vivid; I couldn't believe how well preserved some of them were. The smell of incense permeated through the church as well, given it a very comfortable atmosphere.

From St. Hripsime it was a short drive to the main complex of Etchmiadzin Cathedral. The main cathedral is under scaffolding for restoration but the rest of the grounds remains open for visitors. Even though we were unable to enter the main cathedral we were able to get good views of most of the exterior. I especially enjoyed the main doors into the cathedral. The detailed wood carvings on the doors were incredible. Some of the design reminded me of what I would see in pictures about similar styles in Morocco, Iran, and Moorish Spain. We only spent a few minutes outside and around the main cathedral before moving to other parts of the grounds. There are a couple of smaller church within this complex that was well worth the walk. Unlike the main cathedral, the other churches on the ground were built much later in modern style.

We had one more stop at Etchmiadzin before heading back to Yerevan, and this was at St. Gayane. We were lucky enough to visit St Gayane while a mass was in service, so we had the opportunity to sit for a bit, relax, and enjoy the gorgeous singing inside the church.

On the way back to Yerevan, we stopped at Zvartnots Cathedral, another Armenian Christian church built in the 7th century but destroyed by an earthquake only three centuries later. The cathedral ruins were very evocative of the ruins we see throughout Italy and all over the Roman world. On the site were Roman baths and other features one finds throughout the empire. The site itself is small so we didn't spend much time here.

With the visit to Zvartnots completed, our tour concluded with a return to Yerevan. We asked Karen to be dropped off at the Armenian Genocide Memorial, built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the brutal campaign by the Ottoman Turks against the Armenians throughout the early 1900s. We tour the site ourselves, spending some time at the memorial but most of our time at the excellent museum on its ground. The museum exhibits tell a very moving story similar to that of the Holocaust that history classes oftentimes neglect.

Following our visit and lunch at the memorial site, we hopped into a taxi for a short ride to the Blue Mosque (another suggestion of fourfourtravels; thank you again!). The colorful tile exterior of the mosque is exquisite while the inside is plain. Perhaps it is easier to concentrate on actual prayer given the minimal distractions. From here we made our way slowly back to the hotel, from where we freshen up before heading off to dinner.

Our evening meal was enjoyed at Dolmama, one of the top restaurants in the city serving Armenian and Middle Eastern cuisine. A fine way to cap our visit to Yerevan.

Tomorrow we are off to Tbilisi, Georgia, via Northern Armenia. We will be travelling via the services of a private car and driver, arranged again by Hyur Service. Good night, folks!
tripplanner001 is online now  
May 14th, 2019, 07:01 PM
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A few more photos for your viewing pleasures.



Khor Virap Monastery

Geghard Monastery

Inside Geghard

Singers Inside One of Geghard's Cave Chapels

Garni Temple

Part of Main Gate at Etchmiadzin

Church Windows at a Modern Church at Etchmiadzin

Also Etchmiadzin

Cathedral Ruins at Zvartnots

Armenian Genocide Memorial

Mount Ararat from the Genocide Memorial
tripplanner001 is online now  
May 16th, 2019, 01:49 AM
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If there is information that you think would be more helpful and / or if you have questions, please do not hesitate to ask. I’m writing it as close to real time as possible so you are getting my experiences in the moment. I hope the report continues to be useful or at least interesting; if there are things you would like me to discuss but do not, please let me know.

Northern Armenia

After four very rewarding nights in Yerevan, we’re now on the move - to Tbilisi, Georgia. To make the trip, we decided to go via a private tour, again arranged with Hyur Service. Given there are four of us, it was more comfortable and we get to make it a sightseeing day trip.

Our first stop of the day was Lake Sevan, about an hour’s drive out of Yerevan. Today was another beautiful weather day, so the views of the lake were superb. The largest lake in Armenia and one of the largest freshwater lakes in the Caucasus, it is popular with local vacationers. We visited the church on a hill on the peninsula overlooking the lake. The church itself is pretty and very similar to the other medieval Armenian churches we’ve visited thus far. The walk up is beautiful and we enjoyed walking around at the top around the church, taking in the sun, the lake, and the surrounding views of the snow-capped mountains.

From Lake Sevan, it is another two and a half hours drive through Debed Canyon to reach Sanahin and Haghpat Monasteries, both built in the sides of the canyon cliffs by the Armenian queen at the time in the 10th centuries. The drive to the monasteries were incredible. Leaving the lake, we drove straight into Debed Canyon, with its rugged and steep canyon walls. The drive took us to the top of the cliff on one side, down to the bottom and up the other side.

On on the opposite side of the canyon is Sanahin Monastery, inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list for its architectural significance. The church is small and took about 30 minutes to get a good look.

About 20 minutes from Sanahin is Haghpat, on the other side of the canyon. Before a visit we stopped for lunch. Unfortunately it was another tourist trap serving not so good food. There did not seem to be many options in the area.

Lunch was followed by a visit to Haghpat Monastery, much larger and more impressive than Sanahin. Unlike the other monasteries we visited, this massive stone church is home to a large fresco at the alter that remains in relatively good condition. We explored the other chapels on site as well as the remains of what used to be the book depository. Unlike many churches that are built high up for status significance, both Haghpat and Sanahin are built midway up the canyon cliffs to shield it from invaders.

We could have easily spent an hour or more at Haghpat, but were through in about 30 minutes. At this point it was another church and we were itching to get to Tbilisi.

The Border Crossing

The drive from Haghpat to the Armenia-Georgia border took a little more than an hour, with a slight delay as construction crews were chipping away at some of the rock side cliffs to prevent slides.

It it was at the Armenian border post that our memories of immigration at Yerevan airport came roaring back. There were only a handful of people exiting Armenia when we were there, but it took about 30 minutes for five agents to process us. They took our passports, chatted amongst themselves, fidgeted with their computers, laughed, walked away, fidgeted with their computers some more, asked a couple of questions, walked away, came back, and finally stamped us out. We exited the border post, hoping to reunite with our driver and vehicle, who used a different lane for drivers. Guess what? He didn’t complete his border formalities when we went to meet up with him. It was another few minutes when we were finally on our way.

Our driver drove us across no man’s land and to the entry post on the Georgia side of the border. We were through immigration and customs in under 3 minutes! And the agents were smiling.

To Tbilisi

From the border it was another hour until we reached Tbilisi. Going from one side of the border to the other, I immediately noticed a change in landscapes. We went from the steep rugged cliffs of Debed Canyon in Armenia to the gentle rolling hills of Southern Georgia. The terrain was also flatter and there was more agricultural activities to speak about. We saw lots of cows and sheep along the way. An unfamiliar Armenian alphabet on signs gave way to what seemed to be an even harder to decipher Georgian alphabet. In short order we reached Tbilisi’s city limits and made our way to our hotel, The Biltmore, in the heart of Rustaveli Avenue, the city’s main artery. Passing by in our vehicle, we noticed how large the city of Tbilisi is compared to Yerevan. The buildings seem to be bigger and taller. There was a lot more classical European architecture to be found compared to Yerevan. I also noticed the proliferation of wrought iron balconies and porches on a large number of buildings. What must have been the historic quarter looked very charming and atmospheric.

We dropped off our bags in our office, freshener up, and went to Pasanauri, a nearby restaurant, for dinner. Boy, is Georgian food good! The traditional items of Khachapuri, a traditional cheese bread, and Khinkali, meat dumplings, were amazing. Everything else we ordered - from barbecues to stewed meats to cooked vegetables - were phenomenal. Were we just lucky with our restaurant find or are we in for several days of delightful eating?

tripplanner001 is online now  
May 16th, 2019, 05:16 AM
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I definitely preferred Georgia to Armenia and agree that the food was good. When I was there a lot of the signs in Armenia were multilingual - Russian as well as Armenian, but I gathered that Armenia was less friendly with Russia than in the past. Are there still multilingual signs?

I don't think you've mentioned khachkars - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khachkar - which were my favorite things in Armenia.
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May 16th, 2019, 10:39 AM
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Thursdaysd: Signs in Armenia were mostly in 3 languages: Armenian, Russian, and English. There are some signs that were just in Armenian and English. Relations between Armenia and Russia seem to be good at the moment; there is still a sense that Russia is a brotherly nation given their commonality in Orthodoxy and that Russia is a protector nation in the face of Turkey and Azerbaijan. We definitely saw plenty of khackhars, and there were some very interesting and unique ones that we enjoyed.
tripplanner001 is online now  
May 17th, 2019, 09:29 PM
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Indescribable Tbilisi

Like Armenia, it's neighbor to the south, Georgia has had a complex history. Throughout its history, Georgia has seen invaders from the Greeks, the Mongols, the Ottoman Turks, the Persians, the Russians, and others. Georgia remains a country in transition today. Even with the political and economic progress it's made over the years, Georgia still struggles with attempts to undermine it's democracy as well as how continue its path to greater prosperity. On the surface, Georgia's struggles are not always evident. Tbilisi, its capital city, is as vibrant as any Western European capital. People seem to go about their way as in London, Paris, or Milan. There are businesses large and small throughout the city. Shops and restaurants are full with customers. Tourists are out and about, and there are a fair number of them, although it is not experiencing the overtourism that some of the world's most popular destinations are suffering with.

A city of 1.5 million, the capital city Tbilisi lies almost at the center of the country. Tbilisi is Georgian for warm city, named after the warm sulfur waters found near what is today Narikala Fortress and a reason for its birth. The city is spread out along the valley of the Mtkvari River and along the cliffs on both banks. Most of the architecture is western and central European, although there are Byzantine and Persian influences. There is not much that reminds a visitor that the city used to be within the Soviet Union, except the Parliament Building and some apartment housing in the outskirts.

Using Lonely Planet's suggested walking tour of the city, our day focused on Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi's main commercial artery, a few notable sights on the southern end of the city center, and a bohemian neighborhood.

After a simple breakfast of coffee and pastries, we walked down Rustaveli Avenue, enjoying the sights and sounds along the way. The first thing that caught our eye is the Opera House, a massive Persian and Moors looking structure sanding on the right side of the boulevard. I loved the intricate details on the building and its bright yellow and red hues. We were interested in touring the building, though it was not available when we were there. Further along were numerous European style buildings.

When doing a walk like this, we typically enjoying spending time on both sides of the street, getting up close and panoramic views of what catches our eye. This is difficult to do on Rustaveli, and several of the city's major arteries. There are permanent barriers along the sidewalks for most of the way, which prevented the possibility of any street level crossing. About every other block is an underground passage. In some passageways there are shops, but regardless most were dark, falling apart, and could be dangerous. It was more annoying than unsafe for us but I could understand someone hesitating to use it if alone. Could be a convenience for driver, as there is mostly an uninterrupted flow of traffic? I wonder if it also a way to reduce the likelihood of street blockages by protestors, given its recent past and some of the political struggles that remain.

Back to the topic at hand - our walking tour - the first building we entered was the National Gallery. The National Gallery held a small collection of art from several local painters. The exhibits could easily be seen in under an hour, but worthwhile nonetheless for a good introduction to what local talent produced over the years.

Immediately next door to the National Gallery is a small but impressive Kashveti Church, a Georgian Orthodox church. My first reaction was to the boldness of the colors on the wall art. The iconography is similar to other Orthodox churches as is the layout. Unlike Armenian churches, there seems to be more use of bright colors in Georgian churches. However, there are no khachkars, crosses carved on stone (see Thursdaysd's link in an above post for photos), in any of the Georgian churches. And to be honest, until I didn't it in Georgia did I realize that the khachkars were unique to Armenia. I just hadn't been inside Christian Orthodox churches save 2 Greek ones at home.

Across the street from Kashveti Church is the National Parliament, built in the same style from what seems to be the same or similar material from the buildings around Yerevan's Republic Square.

A little further along Rustaveli is the Museum of Georgia, a mid-sized museum. Contained here is a worthwhile treasury and an exhibit on national and regional costumes. My favorite is the exhibit on Soviet occupation. Yes, occupation! From the Georgian perspective, the country achieved independence in 1917, was occupied by a foreign country from 1921 to 1991, and regained its freedom then. Georgians never saw the Soviet Union as their country and themselves Soviet citizens.

Rustaveli Avenue ends at Liberty Square not far past the Museum of Georgia. At the center of the square stands a column on which sits a statue of St. George, the patron saint of Georgia, slaying a dragon. From here, our walking tour took us to the Sololaki neighborhood. Sololaki has seen better days, as is evident from the beautiful old buildings that are scattered across numerous blocks. I especially like the wooden balconies and porches found on several of the buildings. We also visited the remains of Ateshgah Temple, formerly a Zoroastrian fire temple, and saw Betlemi church from the outside (it was closed when we were there).

From the church we made our ascent of the cliff along a series of staircases and paths. The hike was glorious, with incredible views of the city below. Our destination was a statue of Mother Georgia, built by the Soviets in similar fashion to the statue of Mother Armenia in Yerevan. A short walk south along the top is Narikala Fortress, built by the Persians in the 4th century and expanded by the Arabs in later centuries. At the entrance of the fortress is St. Nicholas Church, constructed in later years. We toured the church and clamored about the fortress, spending a good couple of hours up there enjoying the views.

We descended the fortress into the nearby botanic gardens. Unlike other botanic gardens that we’ve visited and enjoyed there’s not that much to see in this garden, especially for a national garden. But for 4 laris (about USD 1.50), it’s a good respite from the noises of the big city. From the botanic garden, we made our way down to the city by cable car. From there we crossed back into Sololaki on foot and made our way north to Rustaveli Avenue.

It was a very long but rewarding day.
tripplanner001 is online now  
May 18th, 2019, 05:36 AM
  #20  
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More Tbilisi

Today is another very full day in Tbilisi for us. We began around 10 both yesterday and today, and didn’t get back to our hotel until around 10. If we had more time, we would probably slow down a bit, and spread what we did out over 3 days, at least 2.5. That said, we didn’t mind having the full days. We made the most of the time we had and didn’t feel rushed, making sure to linger in places, sometimes just enjoying a cup of juice (the fresh pomegranate juice in Georgia and in Armenia, oh my!) and admiring the view or people watching.

We began our day at the Rustaveli metro stop, a short walk from our hotel. From there, we took the subway to Freedom Square, from where we commenced our self-designed walking tour for the day. Leaving Freedom Square, we went east, toward the river. Right before it is a pedestrian-only street, Shavteli which turned into Erakle II and then Suomi. We viewed a quirky clock tower near the start of Shavteli Street and visited 2 churches along the way. The first was Anchiskhati Basilica, the oldest Orthodox church in the city, followed by Sioni Cathedral, formerly the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox Church. While I felt I was wandering through history at Anchiskhati, I very much enjoyed Sioni and the number of religious artifacts that could be found here.

The pedestrian street runs into Meidan Square. Underneath Meidan Square lies a meidani, a Silk Road era corridor lined with markets and shops, that is now converted to sell typical tourist knick-knacks. Not much further south, right underneath Narikala Fortress, are a series of Persian-style bathhouses with its distinctive brick dome roofs. It was fun to walk amongst the domes and among the path along the river that leads to a refreshing waterfall. Next up is Tbilisi Mosque, before we made our way back to Meidan Square - simple but beautiful. Our walk took us up Kote Abhkati Street. We popped into a synagogue and another Orthodox Church.

Satisfied with our walk through the Old Town, we made our way across the river via the contemporary glass Peace Bridge. The views of the fortress as well as the presidential palace are quite neat. We followed the presidential palace uphill and headed further - to St. Trinity Cathedral, the new seat of the Georgian Orthodox Church. St. Trinity is quite the marvel. The church is massive and stuffed with wall art, icons, and other religious artifacts. The grounds are also very pretty and a good place to slow down and relax, which we did.

We eventually continued our way on foot back down to the river and made our way to the funicular station that would take visitors midway up the side of the cliff to Mtatsminda Park via the Dry Bridge flea market. We didn’t make any purchases at the flea market but it was fun to stroll nonetheless. From the market we made our way back to Rustaveli and uphill again to the funicular station for the ride up to Mtatsminda Park. The park is home to a television tower and some amusement park rides. We didn’t go for the rides but did enjoy the views from above.

From there was back to our hotel, but not after dinner. We chose Keto and Kote, on the way down from the mountain. The place is packed - and for good reason. The food was awesome. And the setting, overlooking the city, was perfect, especially in the twilight hours.

Thanks again for joining. Hope you’re enjoying it all.
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