If this is the year you resolved to visit a part of the world that is still relatively new to tourism, a place that bridges the divide between western and eastern cultures, and a place where the history, people, and landscapes are sure to impress, why not consider the Caucasus?
Made up of three countries, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, the Caucasus is just waiting to be discovered, a part of the world as complex and beautiful as the 60 or more languages spoken here, some of which trace back to a version of spoken Aramaic from the time of Jesus.
With such a long and storied history, the reasons to visit are many, but here are 3 why the Caucasus should make your 'Discover List':
Culture: East meets West
Although it is the Caucasus mountains that 'officially' divide Europe from Asia, Georgia, Armenia and Ajerbaijan manage to blur the lines between these two cultures. Stroll through Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, and you may be surprised to find tree-lined boulevards that look more like the streets of Paris than the bazaars of Iran. Talk to Georgians, some of the most welcoming people you will ever meet, and many of them will identify themselves as European.
Armenia, to the south of Georgia, also shares a border with Iran and you'll see strong influences from that culture in crafts such as carpet-making in which Armenian artisans rival their Arab counterparts in their skill and quality. But their own unique motifs and iconography set Armenian rugs apart from middle eastern designs found in places like Tabriz, for example.
Armenian cuisine, too is a blend of both middle eastern and Mediterranean foods, with dishes flavoured with eastern spice, but also influenced by Greece and Cyprus to the west.
Azerbaijan, on the other hand, looks and feels much more middle eastern. Centuries of conquest and rule by Persian and Turkic empires led to the country becoming predominantly Muslim, and the mosques, palaces and historic monuments that characterize their cities reflect this. The walled city of Baku with its Shirvanshah's Palace is a beautiful example of this (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well.) Here, there's no mistaking the eastern legacy left behind by past cultures, which is in start contrast to Azerbaijan's Christian neighbours.
The Cradle of Christianity
Armenia was the first country to declare itself a Christian nation in 301 AD, with Georgia following suit shortly after, and to this day, more than 90% of their population is Christian. As a result, both countries are considered the cradle of Christianity and boast some of the most impressive ancient monasteries in the world - like Armenia's UNESCO-designated Geghard Monastery.
Geghard Monastery Photo via Wikipedia
Surrounded by cliffs, the building was partially carved out of the mountain itself, and claims to house some of Christianity's most famous relics, the most celebrated of which was the spear used to wound Christ on the Cross.
Fra Angelico fresco depicting Longinus wounding Jesus on the Cross
Then there is Khor Virap, near the border of Turkey, perched high on a hill overlooking the Ararat plain. With its long history dating from 642 AD and its spectacular views of Mt. Ararat in the distance (the legendary resting place of Noah's ark), this monastery is probably the most visited pilgrimage site in Armenia.
Khor Virap with Mt. Ararat in the distance.
Tsminda Sameba, or Gergeti Trinity Churh, is another 14th century monastery in Georgia that rises to heights of its own -7200 feet in the mountains, to be precise. Standing outside the monastery, with evocative views of the mountains surrounding you, you can't help but feel that you are literally closer to heaven.
"Khevi, Georgia — View of Gergeti Trinity Church" by Levan Gokadze - .
Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
The Caucasus has legitimate reason to lay claim to the heavens, boasting some of the highest mountains in Europe. And it is these mountains, their valleys and neighbouring plains that make for some of the most beautiful vistas and stunning landscapes to be found anywhere.
Rising and falling in altitude dramatically, the Caucasus includes everything from glaciers to subtropical marshes. Travelling through Georgia, Armenia and Ajerbaijan means you are just as likely to snap photos of pine forests as you are grassy steppes, or perhaps capture wildflowers on an alpine meadow, or a waterfall splashing down the dark gorges. This land is a photographer's, and hikers, paradise.
If these aren't reasons enough to inspire you to discover this part of the world, here's one more: the Caucasus is still relatively unknown to travellers and mainstream tourism has yet to take hold. But this is going to happen - because with a history as colourful and diverse as its spectacular geography, the Caucasus is sure to emerge as a new favourite for travellers seeking something truly off the beaten track.
Go now, before this changes.
Learn more about our Caucasus itinerary.