The Iron Curtain. For almost five decades it served as a philosophical and physical divide that made travel to the countries 'behind' it impossible for much of the world. Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia are three of these, whose impressive mountain vistas were off-limits to westerners, along with their cultural and historical treasures. But now, all that has changed.
Since 1991 when the Wall came down, and Soviet rule was replaced with independence, tourism has slowly started returning to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. But with nearby Sochi hosting the Olympics just to the north, all eyes are focused on this part of the world – so it won't be long before this region is on everyone's radar – making now the perfect time to go there before the tour buses do.
Nestled in dramatic mountain ranges after which they are named, the Caucasus countries of Georgia, Armena and Azerbaijan straddle the border between Europe and Asia, both of which have influenced the region's people and history – in fact, the Caucasus is considered to be one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse regions in the world. Georgia is a perfect example of this, having been destroyed and rebuilt more than 30 times, following struggles with Persian, Arab, Turkmen, Mongol, Turk and Russian invaders, each of which left their cultural and religious marks on the country.
Armenia, too, has a spiritual history that dates back millennia, with the 7500 year-old astronomical ruins at Karahunj, whose 'stone army' of vertical stones make Stonehenge look young. This was also the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD, making it a treasure trove of early churches and monasteries, some of which are literally hollowed out of mountain slopes, or perched on hilltops overlooking spectacular views of Mt. Ararat (where some believe Noah's ark rests).
Not to be outdone by its neighbors, Azerbaijan has some surprises of its own when it comes to ancient history, including 6,000 year old petroglyphs from the stone and iron age. There's also the Fire Temple in Baku where a natural gas vent provided fiery displays within the temple built over it, and was once the site of Zoroastrian fire-worshippers. This famous temple even made it onto on a postage stamp in 1919, and more recently was used as a location in the 1999 James Bond film "The World is Not Enough".
Beyond its scenic geography and storied past, perhaps the best part of visiting the Caucasus today is the fact that this lesser-known region of the world has not yet been overrun with the trappings of mass tourism. Still undiscovered by many, here it is possible to enjoy the warmth and hospitality of its people and savor the local flavor – figuratively and literally, with its delicious foods and fine wines.
Join us on our June itinerary to the Caucasus for an experience you'll remember for years to come. You can read more about our Caucasus itinerary and details here.