The Caucasus — Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia — have never been on my radar, much less on my bucket list.
So why am I going?
The Genesis of this Itinerary
Israel has long been at the top of my bucket list. If you’ve been a reader for a while, you know about my original plan to go to Israel and Jordan in the fall of 2020, starting with a few days in Rome. And you know I postponed that trip twice and ultimately canceled it, opting to go to Machu Picchu and the Galápagos instead.
While researching flights for the Israel and Jordan trip, I discovered that starting in Rome would be a logistical nightmare. I couldn’t find any flights at reasonable times. So I looked into some other places in Europe where I could spend a few days to acclimate to the time change. Ultimately, I settled on Istanbul.
By the time my Israel trip got canceled, Turkey had moved up to the top of my bucket list. Reading about Istanbul, I realized I wanted to spend enough time there, and in other parts of Turkey, to make it a destination of its own.
Then I figured I might as well expand my itinerary and include some nearby countries. After all, it’s a long way from Ajijic to Istanbul. As long as I’m going, I should stay a while.
So I looked into some of the countries bordering Turkey, and it came down to three choices: Bulgaria, Greece, or the Caucasus. (The other countries that border Turkey are Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and I eliminated those from consideration.)
So why did I settle on the Caucasus? Mostly because I don’t know anyone who has been to any of those countries.
But as I started to do some research, I became very excited about seeing this part of the world.
What’s the Caucasus?
The countries of the South Caucasus have always been the “lands in-between.” In between the Black and Caspian seas, Europe and Asia, Russia and the Middle East, Christianity and Islam, and, more recently, democracy and dictatorship. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia … have the mixed blessing of being at the crossing-place of different cultures and political systems.The Caucasus: An Introduction, Thomas de Waal
So I guess technically the region I’m visiting is more precisely the “South Caucasus.” I will be close to the Russian border, but I won’t be crossing it. When this region was part of the Soviet Union, it was called the Transcaucasus. But since 1991, when Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia achieved independence, the term “South Caucasus” has gained usage.
if you watched the 2014 Winter Olympics, hosted by Sochi, Russia, you may have seen the Caucasus Mountains, where some of the skiing events took place. The Greater Caucasus range, some say, separates Europe, to the north, from Asia, to the south. But others place these three countries in Europe and place the border between the continents along their southern border. Looking at a map, it’s not hard to see it either way. But it feels odd to me to think of places east of Turkey belonging to Europe, while eastern Turkey is clearly in Asia.
I like thinking of the Caucasus as “lands in-between.”
What’s to see there?
I’ll write separate posts detailing my itineraries in each of the three countries, but here are some highlights I’m looking forward to experiencing.
I’ll be spending several days in each country’s capital. All three are known for their architectural splendor. Baku, Azerbaijan, with a windfall from the petroleum industry, underwent a building boom in the years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It has many modern structures, including some impressive skyscrapers. But Baku, Tbilisi, Georgia, and Yerevan, Armenia, all have a variety of architectural styles from early Christian and Islamic to Russian imperial, to Beaux Artes, to Soviet, to modern.
Between my visits to the three large cities, I’ll be visiting a number of small towns. Some are nestled in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. Others have their own architectural points of interest.
We’re talking mountains. And between the mountains are valleys. Need I say more?
Food and Wine
It will come to no surprise for anyone who has been following my travels that I love to eat. Sampling the cuisines of different places is part of the thrill of travel.
Here are some of the local specialties I’m looking forward to trying:
- Churchkhela (in Georgia) or Sujukh (in Armenia), a snack of nuts strung together and dipped in grape resin
- Khachapuri, a Georgian cheese-stuffed pastry or pie
- Lahmajun, a very thin pizza topped with minced lamb and greens, eaten as a wrap with a dash of lemon, popular in Armenia and Azerbaijan
- Ponchik (plural: Ponchki), Russian-introduced doughnuts filled with sweet cream
- Qutab, a thick pancake folded in half with a filling of herbs or pumpkin, found in Azerbaijan
In addition, all kinds of grilled meats, often served as shish kebab, are common across the region. Plus there are some more exotic (and daring) foods I might try.
And Armenia and Georgia are famous for their wines. In fact, the earliest archaeological evidence of winemaking in the world, dating from 8,000 years ago, has been found in Georgia. And they still make wine using the same methods, fermenting it along with grape skins, pips, and often stalks, in large clay vessels known as qvevri. This wine is prized as a natural products without additives like sulphites. I hope I’ll make it to at least one vineyard or winery and have a chance to try some local wines.
History and Culture
Wherever I go, I love to learn about the history and experience the culture. With the Caucasus, I’m starting from scratch. So I’m doing some reading to prepare for my trip. The Lonely Planet guide to this region includes a lot of historical and cultural background information as well as travel tips. I’m also reading The Caucasus: An Introduction by Thomas de Waal. This is a long book filled with a lot of minutiae, and I probably won’t read the whole thing. But it is giving me a general understanding of the history of these three countries.
Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve come to learn about the South Caucasus is the extraordinary diversity.
[T]his compact region with its population of around 20 million includes upwards of 50 ethnic groups, and its linguistic variety is second only to that of New Guinea. A few languages like Azerbaijani are members of the Turkic language family, and others like Armenian and Ossetian are part of the Indo-European language family (which includes Russian and English). Most, including Chechen and Dagestani, are part of three distinct language families found nowhere else in the world. This linguistic diversity is accompanied by religious and political variation. The focus on Islam in current discussions of the Caucasus might leave the impression that the entire region is Muslim, and to be sure there are many Muslims there. But many in nominally Muslim regions such as Azerbaijan are quite secular, and Armenia and Georgia have been Christian since the fourth century. Five Things Worth Knowing about the Caucasus, James V. Wertsch, May 16, 2013
I plan to learn a lot more before I set off on my trip in about three months.