The Caucasus - Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan
You may wonder why I have grouped these three countries together and it is not, as I assumed before I travelled to them, because they are similar. It's actually the opposite, each of these places is extremely different to the others and as a result visiting all three makes for a great 10 to 14 day trip. The countries border each other and its easy to get between the three, although you cannot get directly from Armenia to Azerbaijan and vice versa due to the Nagorno-Karabakh war leaving an area of land along the border a conflict zone and an area in limbo. You cannot visit this area and thus cannot cross the border (or fly between the two countries) and will be scrutinised at customs in each country if you have a stamp of the other. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan have stark contrasts in the landscapes, history and the customs of the people which is the reason I think visiting all three in one trip is the way to go. You get a real insight into the way these countries have developed since the breakdown of the Soviet Republic and how they may continue to develop in the future.
Georgia - Tbilisi
The capital city of Georgia, Tbilisi, can now be reached direct from the UK and, as such, is becoming a popular destination for British and European tourists. The city has a classic old meets new feel about it with a beautiful historic centre with spas and an old fortress being surrounded by a modern high street, cafes and bars.
I would recommend staying in Old Tbilisi as this is where the majority of the tourist attractions are. Take a walk up to Narikala, the old fortress perched on top of a hill for for incredible views across the city as well as a chance to see part of ancient Tbilisi, the fortress dating back to the 4th Century. From here you can walk down into the botanical gardens which surround the fortress and lead you back into the city centre itself.
You must also pay a visit to one of the Georgian Spas in the Old City. There are a number to choose from and based on reviews they are all pretty similar but we chose to ho to Royal Bath. For GEL 90 you can hire a private bath room for you and you family or friends to use for an hour. I encourage you to do this as the public baths not only require nudity but provide for a strange experience. Moreover, the spa water is so hot that it will be unlikely that you will be able to spend more than 5 minutes in the bath before you need a cold shower. At which point, you can then get back into the bath to warm back up.
The best way to see Tbilisi is simply to wander around the city, taking in the quaint shops and restaurants, and getting lost in the narrow winding streets. Every night the streets of Old Tbilisi are full of locals and tourists enjoying the 'cafe culture' and live music, a must see for anyone visiting the capital.
Georgia - Sampling the local wine
Georgia, it may surprise you to learn, is famous for its wine and so a huge attraction to the area is a wine tasting tour. We chose to take our tour with Traffic Travel, a local company specialising in bespoke tours throughout Georgia. They picked us up from our hotel and drove us out into the Kakheti wine region for a full day of wine and food samplings. First, we stopped at the side of the road to try some homemade bread (we watched them make it), tomatoes and local cheese of your choice.
From here we drove to our first winery where we tried four glasses of wine and had a shot of Georgian Vodka, Chacha - one shot of this stuff is definitely enough. The wine was delicious and the lady working in the winery was able to provide us with plenty of interesting facts about the grape, the wine and the region.
The next winery on our trip allowed us to try the wine straight from the Kvevri, large earthenware vessels in the floor used to ferment and store the wine. We also stopped here for some lunch which included lots of delicious meat, bread and vegetable dishes.
Finally, we moved on to a tunnel wine cellar for a last wine tasting, Here, you were given a blanket as despite the outside air temperature being extremely warm the tunnel itself was cool as it stretches on a good way under the mountain.
At each stop you have a chance to buy some bottled wine at a reasonable bottles - we were told that one of the bottles in the first winery which cost circa £10 would set you back £70 in the Ritz in London where it is stocked.
Kazbegi and the Gergeti Trinity Church
No trip to Georgia would be complete with a visit to the Caucasus mountains which the region is famous for. There are a couple of options here but we chose to visit Kazbegi as it can easily be reached from Tbilisi by bus or car. Unless you are on a super tight budget I suggest you ask a local taxi driver to take you as it cost us £30 for a 2.5 hour drive to the region and the driver stopped multiple times to let us take photographs and also bought us water and churchkhela (walnuts dipped in grape juice) for the journey.
The town of Kazbegi is nestled right at the end of the mountain road shortly before you pass into Russia. The town is small and a popular place for day trips and backpackers. The main tourist attraction in this area in the Gergeti Trinity Church and the views from the top. There are two ways to reach the church; by taxi or by hiking for around 1.5 hours. If you are fit and healthy you really should take the hikinh option as the path is fairly straightforward and the views of the mountain range on the way up are beautiful.
Unfortunately, there is not much else to see in the region especially if you don't have a car and so I would only recommend you spend 1 night in the town, arriving early on the first day and leaving after lunch on the second. It is a fair journey to Kazbegi from Tbilisi but the road you drive is pleasant and it is definitely worth a visit. Also, there is a great little Karaoke bar, the Cozy Corner, in Kazbegi with good food and drink and I don't think anyone should miss out on this gem!
Armenia - The capital city of Yerevan
We took a taxi from Tbilisi to Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia, which was a quick and easy option taking around 4 hours including the border crossing.
Yerevan took me quite by surprise, the centre of the city reminding me of one of the European capitals especially in the area surrounding Republic Square where you can find the History Museum and National Art Gallery as well as enjoy people watching by the beautiful fountains. Also, every night between 9pm and 11pm you can enjoy the fountain show which takes place against classical music.
For me, one of the most interesting attractions to visit was the Cafesjian Center for the Arts which sits around the Yerevan Cascade. Construction on this giant limestone stairway was first started in 1971 and completion did not take place until the 2000s. Now, it houses modern art and structures from artists all over the world. Some, are found inside the stairway itself whilst others adorn the staircase and its fountains. In addition, the area has been widened to create a sculpture park at the bottom of the staircase showcasing all kinds of weird and wonderful sculptures.
The other must do activity is the Armenian Genocide Museum. Now, I am not going to pretend I knew anything about this before I visited Armenia but I can't recommend the museum enough. Although harrowing and unpleasant to learn about this museum details the actions which took place particularly in the 1920s between Turkey and Armenia which resulted in the extermination of 1.5million Armenians.
Relaxing in Lake Sevan
Lake Sevan is roughly an hours drive from the capital of Yerevan and is a popular holiday spot for locals. The majority of the hotels and lodges are dotted around the waters edge of the lake so that each of them have their own beach on the lake shores.
There is not a huge amount to do in Lake Sevan but it is a wonderful place to spend a day relaxing on the lake front. I wouldn't suggest you visit Sevan itself as there is not much to do in the town and most of the hotels are outside of the town so it would require a taxi ride to get to the town.
Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan
To get to Baku we took a taxi back to Tbilisi from Lake Sevan and then a short flight to Azerbaijan. Please be aware you may be asked a number of questions at passport control if they see you have been to Armenia but it's nothing to worry about - they are just checking you haven't been to the conflict zone on the border of the two countries.