Autumn and winter met head on as I travelled through Georgia and Armenia. Early in my trip, two feet of snow fell in two days and two nights and painted the small Georgian town of Kazbegi and its mountains a brilliant, glistening white. Elsewhere vibrant multi-coloured autumn trees carpeted steep slopes, hidden valleys drew my eye in and my mind wandered imagining bears and wolves. Rushing rivers tumbled over boulders and squeezed through ravines. Tough-looking shepherds aided by mountain dogs steered vast flocks of sheep down from the high country to lower ground to over winter. The sky, always vast, was white, black, grey, bright blue, but never dull. Bitter cold, crunching snow underfoot to reach ancient monasteries, breath steaming and hands red-raw one day. The next day, a snowy pass traversed and left behind, I sat drinking coffee in my shirtsleeves as juicy persimmons in the guesthouse garden drew in the sun’s warming rays.
As one of the oldest Christian countries in the world, Georgia offers a rare feast of architectural and cultural delights. One of the oldest cave towns of Georgia is Uplistsikhe, a town hewn into the living rock. The citadel dates back to the 7th century BC. David Gareji is a lonely but hauntingly beautiful place. Its numerous monasteries once housed 6,000 monks but now only a handful remain.
Possibly an even better known cave city is Vardzia, in Georgia’s south, where I explored entire secret towns tunnelled out of sheer cliff faces to avoid detection from invaders. These cave cities were complete with apothecaries, monasteries, living quarters, kitchens, stone cut steps, and escape tunnels. It was extraordinary and felt like I was wandering around an Indiana Jones film set. The main period of construction dates to the middle of the 12th century.
In Georgia’s north, in the rugged mountainous province of Svaneti, brooding stone watchtowers stand guard over ancient villages. Mestia, one such village, was my base and in particular the charming guesthouse Ushba where I was treated like a member of the family. Dinner on my first night at Ushba will stay with me forever. A steaming, spicy bowl of beef and tomato soup, freshly baked bread, tomato and cucumber salad sprinkled with parsley, barbecued pork, bean salad, delicious khachapuri, the ubiquitous cheese filled flatbread, all washed down with excellent local wine. The family said that I was more Georgian than English, as I ate and drank everything that they put before me. Perhaps they said greedy rather than Georgian?
After a blissful night’s sleep I awoke to more snow and the magical two-hour drive to Ushguli, one of Europe’s highest permanently inhabited villages. Mamuka, my wonderful driver, was all too happy to stop time after time to allow me to take photographs. Ushguli was awesome. Surrounded by massive snowy peaks Mt Shkhara, at 5193 metres above sea level the highest of them all, flirted with us coyly from behind a rolling blanket of cloud.
People usually choose countries to visit according to their interests; some are fascinated by mountains, some by remote villages, some by arts and architecture, some by delicious cuisine and great wine or by song and dance traditions. What makes us return to a country, to fall in love with it and even to call it our second home? I strongly believe it is its people and their rituals of hospitality that you experience during your visit.
I couldn’t agree more with Steinbeck. He defined Georgia far more succinctly than I could ever presume to, “If one tried to describe Georgia using one single word, the right word would definitely be hospitality.”
Across the border, in Armenia, biblical Mt Ararat was my near constant companion, looming majestically across the land. Although in present day Turkey, Mt Ararat remains very much Armenia’s pride and joy, and lends its name to beer, wine and brandy, the latter a favourite with Winston Churchill who was apparently gifted 300 bottles a year by Stalin. A tour of the Ararat Brandy factory is informative and fun, and ends with a highly enjoyable tasting session from which I emerged blinking into the bright sunshine outside.
I based myself at the Grand Hotel in Yerevan, Armenia’s cosmopolitan capital city. From the architectural delights of Mashtots Avenue and Republic Square to the splendours of the State History Museum and Matenadaran to the Genocide Museum and Memorial which left me feeling very deeply moved, Armenia’s capital is full of surprises.
So too its hinterland. It is not until I left the city centre and look back that you realise how many hills and gorges there are in and around the different areas of Yerevan. I was quickly out of the city and into the countryside where walnut trees dot the landscape. There are many roadside stalls selling tomatoes, cucumbers and water melons as well as dried walnuts, plums, cherries, apricots and apples which are dipped in grape juice and threaded on string and are quite delicious. Fabulous fresh breads are also for sale in villages, including sweet almond or cheese breads.
Travelling further afield, I was taken aback by the compelling medieval monasteries such as Geghard, one of many staggering UNESCO World Heritage sites. So too the dazzling Lake Sevan and its picturesque 9th century Sevan Monastery and charming Dilijan which is often referred to as Armenia’s ‘Switzerland’. For three days the sun shone from a bright blue sky illuminating an ancient land covered in snow.
Two weeks passed in the blink of an eye and I left vowing to return next Summer. You should do so too. You won’t be disappointed.
GEORGIA & ARMENIA
12 days from $3,180 pp, excluding flights.