Having started in Azerbaijan and Georgia in 2019, we vowed to come back soon to complete the journey, through the rest of Georgia and Armenia. “Soon” became three years later, as Covid-19 prevented us from travelling. But now we finally did, for a month at the end of the summer of 2022. Starting in Kutaisi in the west of Georgia, via the Black Sea coast, to Yerevan and all around Armenia. Our experiences of this second trip you’ll find below.
01. back to the Caucasus: Our return to Georgia, and continuation into Armenia, comes much later than initially envisaged. And things have changed!
When we left Georgia, last Autumn 2019, only halfway our planned Caucasus trip because of responsibilities back home – admittedly a rare occasion, responsibilities -, we had expected to return within a year, to complete the second part of this journey. Only to be caught up by the Covid 19 epidemic, which brought traveling to a halt for a while.
02. the second Caucusus itinerary: It ‘ll be a bit of driving again, and the occasional public transport, to make our way through mountains and past beaches. A pretty varied program.
So pick up where we left, three years ago? Now, not exactly.
03. Kutaisi: Georgia’s second, or third, largest town is a relaxed affair, without any major sights, but lots of reference to Colchis, supposed to be Georgia’s origin.
A splendid new modern airport terminal building greets the visitor to what used to be Georgia’s second city. Used to be, because it has been overtaken by Batumi. Yet, however modern, even this airport needs staff to operate, and like so many other airports these days, personnel shortages are evident:
04. to Svaneti (1): On the way to Svaneti, one of the high mountain areas in Georgia, we visit some of the country’s most famous churches and monasteries, as well as the lovely, uncomplicated Oni museum.
One of Georgia’s unruliest ethnic groups are the Svans, inhabitants of the region Svaneti, high up in the Caucasus. They have a not so distant history of robbing non-Svans, especially tourists, along the access road, which at the time would have been a poor dirt track up into the mountains. Nowadays, there is a good tarmac road to Mestia, the main settlement in Upper Svaneti. And there is also a rough track, from the town of Lentheki, and not necessarily accessible the whole year around, that crosses the Zagari Pass, at some 2620 m, before descending into Mestia by way of Ushguli.
05 to Svaneti (2): The road to Svaneti, via Lentekhi and the Zagari Pass, gets nicer along the way, with high peaks and glaciers, and a sea of flowers.
The road to Lentekhi partly follows the Rioni river, too, the same one that passes by Oni, and further downstream flows through Kutaisi. Once again, the countryside is dominated by more rather ugly houses, randomly positioned, it seems. Even the views we get, occasionally, if the road has climbed some height above the river valley, is mostly from green trees and dissonating corrugated iron roofs.
06. Ushguli: Ushguli is our first Svaneti village, not only full of the characteristic defence towers, but also of tourist facilities.
The most distinctive feature of the Svaneti area is its sheer endless collection of defence towers, tall fortified structures with strong rooms, small windows, and apparently even pre-fab gullies from the top floors, through which hot oil could be poured over attackers trying to scale the building. In times of outside stress whole extended families would gather inside, with the animals, and withstand any form of siege. The oldest foundations of the towers have been dated to the 1st Century BC, and many of the current approximately 175 towers still existing are from between the 6th and 16th C. And the largest number of towers, also the highest density per inhabitant (33 per 50 families, or some 220 people), can be found in Ushguli.
07 Mestia: Mestia is Svaneti’s main town, with lots of old houses and defence towers, as well as modern architecture and tourism facilities.
If I found Ushguli already a bit of a tourist trap, Mestia is even further developed. This is the centre of Svaneti tourism, from where everything is being managed. Here the tours depart, the tracks initiate, the hikes begin. And yet, it is less disturbing then in Ushguli, where often the views of the historical cluster are being abrogated by a fancy, bright colour of a new guesthouse.
08. a random day’s drive in Geogia: Driving in Georgia poses certain challenges not necessarily familiar to those used to western Europe.
We all agree that driving in Georgia is perhaps a tad different from driving in any comfortable Western European country, say, The Netherlands, for instance. Georgian roads create a few challenges that we in Western Europe are not normally used to.
09. Tskaltubo: Tskaltubo is partly a ghost town with old Soviet senatoriums and bathhouses, one of which is still kind of operating. In the spirit of Stalin, who also stayed here.
We have booked ourselves a night in the Tskaltubo spa resort. One of the very few – if not the only one – of the health spa facilities in Tskaltubo that remains from a rich and famous past.
10. the Black Sea: An afternoon at the Black Sea, in two locations quite different from each other.
It is time to explore the Black Sea. Before we settle in Batumi for a few days, Batumi with its gravel beaches, we check out the black sand of the area further to the north. With our monster – our rented 4×4 – we have no difficulty reaching the somewhat remoter beaches of Ureki. In all fairness, quite a lot of saloon cars have parked on the beach, too. There are no facilities to speak of, here, no chairs, no parasols, no showers. No beach bars or restaurants. No screaming ghetto blasters either.
11. Batumi: Batumi is Georgia’s foremost Black Sea harbour and beach town, and judging from its modern construction obviously booming – although taste is another matter.
Batumi, as far as I can see, has three distinct elements. There is the beach front, for which it is famous, and the associated Batumi Boulevard. There is the old town, a fairly straightforward network of narrow cobbled streets, lined by shops, restaurants and a range of old houses, from Art Nouveau to corrugated iron. Ever diminishing, more and more houses seem to be left to rot, and will ultimately collapse. And there is the modern construction boom, ever increasing, and no stopping it replacing all those old collapsing houses, as well as ever expanding along the Boulevard towards the west.
12. the Adjara region: In the Adjara region we find plenty of traces of its Muslim origin, from mosques to old Ottoman bridges. And a range of surprises, high up in the mountains on both sides of the Goderji Pass.
Once again we have decided to take the more direct, yet slower, rough road inland from Batumi, instead of the more convenient tarmac further north. I want to see the Adjara region, a semi-autonomous area within Georgia that not so long ago played a crucial role in the country’s politics.
13. Vardzia: The cave monastery in Vardzia is one of the main attractions in Georgia, not in the least because of the beautiful frescos in the rock-church of the Assumption.
Having come from the coast and the Adjara region, and across the Goderji pass, the countryside has changed dramatically. No more lush green hills, but dry mountains, with only some vegetation in the river valleys. We follow the gorge of the Mtkvari river, on an excellent road. This is where the heavy Turkish trucks come down from Armenia, taking an enormous detour via Batumi to Trabzon, just because the border between Armenia and Turkey has been closed already for many years. Obviously, judging from the many fortresses along the road, this is also a much older trading route.
14. Gori: Gori’s only claim to – disputable – fame is the Stalin Museum, for the man who was born here.
There is only one reason to come to Gori. The Stalin Museum, at the far end of Stalin Avenue. And it is not even the contents of the museum that is the reason. Lots of old photographs, paintings, even carpets with the image of Stalin. Letters, newspaper cuttings, the various books he wrote and the translations in many different languages. In any case, most of the labels are in Georgian and Russian only, very few have English captions. No, it is the fact that they have a museum at all, for what must have been one of history’s most cruel dictators.
15. another look back on Georgia: Our second visit to Georgia largely confirms the conclusions we drew earlier, of it being, in fact, quite a normal country, with predictable responses in the most touristic areas.
On our last day in Georgia we drive from Gori to Tbilisi. On the way, we decide to see two more churches.
16. a short history intermezzo: Part Two of a very brief history of the South Caucasus.
Three years ago I wrote an early entry to this blog, about the history of the South Caucasus. I mentioned Nagorno Karabakh as a predominantly Armenian-populated area, which, although technically – internationally recognised borders and the lot – belonging to Azerbaijan, it was under de-facto control of Armenia. I also mentioned the Armenian Genocide, without going into much detail then.
17. Yerevan: The Armenian capital is a modern city, with lots of art and architecture to admire. Yet, traces of its Soviet-dominated past are never far away.
Yerevan is not a particularly pretty city. Wide avenues, large, solemn buildings in grey, beige and brown colours. Most of the present-day layout was designed in the 1920s by Russian-Armenian architect Alexander Tamanyan, after the Russians had incorporated Armenia once again in their empire. Quite a bit of the earlier town had to be demolished, so there are very few real old buildings left. And in fact, much of the subsequent construction now dominating the city is from the 1950-60s, with a distinct Soviet character.
18. Erebuni: The oldest remains of Yerevan, Erebuni, are located on a hill outside town, with the archaeological finds kept in an attractive museum.
On the outskirts of Yerevan, at the end of a long, wide boulevard, is Erebuni, the archaeological site that represents the beginnings of Yerevan, in 782 BC. Never mind that it has only been rediscovered, by accident, in 1950, during the exploration for a monastery. The exact date of the settlement is derived from a cuneiform inscription found at the site. Erebuni was one of several fortified places in the Urartian Kingdom, a precursor state of Armenia.
19. Ashtarak: Outside Yerevan, braise yourself for the many churches and monasteries, that are in the program! We start in the area around Ashtarak, where we find a variety of construction types, not only churches.
We have secured wheels again, for the next two weeks. Not a large 4×4 monster, not really necessary on the Armenian roads – or so they say. Although I generally prefer to travel by public transport, a car allows us to do so much more in the relatively short time we have.
20. Gyumri: More churches and monasteries on the road to Gyumbri, which is an unexpectedly nice town.
Our road to Gyumri rounds the slopes of Aragats, Armenia’s highest mountain, counter-clockwise. The mountain itself is, in fact, not that spectacular, a few peaks on top of a plateau, and so here and there what looks like patches of snow. More impressive is the landscape, the desolate plains, burnt yellow; hardly any other vegetation than the grass that is being harvested as fodder for the animals in the winter.
21. the Debed Gorge: In the Debed Gorge, in the northeast of Armenia, we admire yet more monasteries and churches, but also some characteristic Soviet remnants.
So far the landscape has been pretty dry – what do you expect, in August with 30+ degrees? -, but towards the northeast of Armenia, things change. Well, sort of. It begins with passing through the Pushkin tunnel, a 1750 m pitch dark two lane tunnel – barely two lane, I should add, I was glad I didn’t meet any big trucks inside. At the far end of the tunnel we encounter, for the first time, significant vegetation; not yet lush forest, but many more trees and shrubs than we had seen so far in Armenia. This area, mostly the Lori province, is dominated by the Dzoraget and the Debed rivers, which have eroded deep gorges in the landscape. It does make the landscape a lot more varied that further west.
22. to Lake Sevan: The drive to Lake Sevan, Armenia’s largest and highest lake, goes past, and at times inside, Azerbaijan; the lake itself is somewhat disappointing.
Our next stop is Lake Sevan, with more than 1200 km2 Armenia’s – and the Caucasus’ – largest lake, and with an altitude of 1900 m also one of the largest high altitude lakes in the world. There is a fairly direct route to the town of Sevan, at the western end of the lake, but we need to try the more difficult option. Of course.
23. Noratus: Noratus is a fascinating cemetery, adorned with the largest collection of khachkars in the world; as well as with the modern version thereof.
In the village of Noratus, close to the lake, is one of the most remarkable cemeteries I have even seen.
24. the Selim Pass: Just across the Selim Pass, which connects Lake Sevan with the country south, is the ancient, and well-preserved, caravanserai.
On our way from Lake Sevan south, we cross the Selim Pass, at 2410 m. On the north side, it is actually a fairly desolate landscape, dry hilly but not really mountainous – if you know what I mean, mostly high plateau. The occasional sheep herds, and a few pretty basic villages. The main attraction, however, is the Selim Caravanserai, touted as one of the best preserved caravanserais in the world.
25. the Arpa Valley: The Arpa Valley is one of the main wine growing areas of Armenia, and that needs to be sampled, of course. With varying results.
So far we have tried various Armenian wines, with various success. Our favourite is the Karas, either the red blend or the white blend, although other brands, like Takar and Frunzik, are also quite acceptable. Time to visit the main wine producing area of Armenia, the Arpa Valley and the Vayots Dzor plateau, some 1800 meters above sea level.
26. Goris: We take a few days comfort break in Goris, but not without seeing a couple of interesting places, like the Tatev monastery and the caves at Old Khndzoresk.
As so often on our trips, there comes a moment that we want to slow down, after an overkill of experiences. That is the moment we need a comfortable hotel, with lots of facilities.
27. Kapan: An excursion into the mining area around the town of Kapan is only partly succesful, but even the failures are entertaining.
Of course, we cannot stay a full four days in a hotel room doing nothing, or very little. So one of our four days in Goris we went on excursion to Kapan, some two hours’ drive further south, along the main highway to Iran. Not for the fortresses, not for the churches and the monasteries, but for, let’s call it, industrial heritage.
28. Ughtasar: It takes a bit of effort, but ultimately getting to the petroglyph site of Ughtasar is greatly rewarding.
High up in the mountains opposite Sisian, 45 minutes’ drive from Goris, is Armenia’s best known and richest petroglyph site. Inside the crater of a dormant volcano are hundreds, if not thousands of rock boulders decorated with this primitive art form, variously interpreted as Shamanist figuration, or early communication, or perhaps it was doodling avant-la-lettre.
29. Sisian: The small town of Sisian, famous for its Armenian Stonehenge-equivalent, turns out to have many more intersting sites.
While we are is Sisian, we might as well check out some of the other attractions around town.
30. the road back to Yerevan: Wrapping up, on the way back, we visit the last – but not the least – monasteries, and a temple that somehow doesn’t fit here.
We are on our way back to Yerevan, to catch a flight home. Along the road, we are wrapping up the last few sights, the ones that have eluded us so far. We have done pretty well, I think, criss-crossing the country in the last two-and-a-half weeks. Seeing almost all the important monasteries. Except two.
31. looking back at Armenia: What have we learned from our two-and-a-half weeks in Armenia?
Two-and-a-half-weeks in the middle of the summer isn’t enough to proclaim a definitive verdict about Armenia, of course not. Nevertheless, we do have some observations to share.