touring | armenia & georgia - life after the iron curtain
'at the eastern frontier of europe these humble countries are making a splash on the world travel scene'
Arriving in kutaisi in the middle of the night from london i couldn't help but wonder what awaited me in georgia, armenia & azerbaijan. i had heard so many stories about these amazing countries that have all gone through a renaissance since the collapse of the soviet union. now georgia seems to have had the biggest impact on tourists due the the government's initiatives for increasing tourism and investment so we start there.
what's so special about georgia??
quite simply its the nature of this country, it has been untouched for so long from over tourism and mass development that you really get a true sense of being a traveler and while this is the country that is most geared towards tourism due to infrastructure & investment you still feel like you are at the edge of europe. so we start this blog post in georgia and more specially tbilisi the capital of this incredible country.
from the moment i arrived to the bus station then took a walk along the streets of dilapidated houses to my hostels this place reminded me of the hipster areas of london. what you will notice is the sheer amount of young people here. there seems to be a vibrant youth culture and no place more emphatically states this than the fantastic fabrika hostel on the east side of the river
located in the more residential side of the city this place has been at the heart of the youth culture since it opened. from the moment i arrived in this hostel i felt immediately at home this place will be best best hostel you have ever stayed in as not only has everything been thought of but the courtyard at the centre of the hostel (pic above) attracts huge amounts of locals each night and for me as a traveler getting to know the locals is one of the best parts of traveling. they have restaurants, bars, coffee shops and even a florist if you meet the love of your life here and feel the need to purchase some flora. i also need to give a big shot out to the three ana's that work at the hostel for making my time amazing there especially the supra dinner on the rooftop.
getting around the city is super easy as they have a metro system and buses that will take you anywhere you need its only around $0.20 per ride. this is a city where you can discover lots of little places to chill-out, shop for antiques on the dry bridge and of course taste wine in the many wine bars, we will get onto the wine a little later for those that don't know; georgia is one of the oldest producing wine countries in the world. yes really!!. one of my favourite places to visit was mtatsaminder park its hill that towers over the city that you need to ride a funicular to the top from here you get spactatular views of the city by day and night, don't forget to try the bakery at the top they have amazing cakes. i thought since its difficult to find i would tell you about a secret bar that's near the centre its called woland's speakeasy its an underground bar that's hidden at the back of a vegetarian restaurant. the trick is to enter the restaurant go straight to the bookcase at the back of the restaurant and say the password to the server and like magic the bookcase opens for you to descend down into one of the coolest cocktail bars in the world. check their facebook page for the password.
kakheti wine region
home to the local famous town of signagi that looks like it comes straight out of fairytale book this region is most famous for its wine. i decided that the best way to get the most out of this region was to take a wine tour as the public transport was a little sporadic, to say the least. taste of georgia organises wine-centric tours in the region. i had the pleasure to go on a 12 hour journey of georgian wine that i was not prepared for the sheer number of vineyards and varieties in this region is unbelievable. we had the opportunity to go to a few wineries all with their charm from commercial producers to local but all i can say is that every glass i tried was sublime. they do something quite special here that is not seen in other parts of the world. the maturing of the wine in underground clay pots that have been in their tradition for generations. the tour is a must to visit the best vineyards in the region and the final part of the tour was a stop in the beautiful village of signagi. this is somewhat a poster child of georgian tourism a project by one of the former presidents to bring tourists to the country and regions showcasing the beauty of the village and surrounding landscape. you will not find another place looking like this anywhere in georgia so its a must see place. its located at the top of a hill with unbelievable views so grab a glass of wine and drink the day away. make sure you seek out okro's organic wine restaurant.
technically the town is actually called stepantsminda but is commonly referred to as kazbegi and if you taking the local bus from tbilisi then this is the sign your looking for in the window. it takes around 3 hours to kazbegi and en route if you take the more expensive bus 20lari ($8) to be exact the driver will stop at all the nice points of interest along the way i highly recommend it as they have some great scenery along the way that you don't want to try and take a picture from the back of an old bus.
i stayed at the fanatic lela and mari homestay, you can find them on booking.com. the house from the outside looks a little disheveled like a lot of buildings in the area but the inside has been renovated to a high standard and the double rooms at the front offer views of the famous mountain monastery, it's a view not to be missed. breakfast and dinner can be provided every day for a small fee and we also had the chance to make local dumplings. even a barbecue outside under the stars. if your looking for a more upmarket place to stay then look no further than the famous rooms hotel.
so whats there to do?? actually it's all about nature here. your first point of call should be the monastery that a 2 hour hike from the town it offers truly fantastic views of mt. kazbegi. by far my favourite place was truso valley you can get a driver to drop you off there and pickup up at the end of the day. its a 2okm round trip on mostly flat land through the valley and for me was one of the best places that i have ever visited in the world the landscape has to be seen to be believed. if you're less inclined to walk and want a little adventure than i recommend take a quad tour with quadro tours kazbegi they offer personalised tours all over the area and its super fun too.
summing up georgia...
so my time had to come to an end in georgia and as i made my way back to tbilisi to take the night train to yerevan i was left with the need to revisit this beautiful country. there is so much that i missed out on and for sure i will be returning to this beautiful country. the people are so hospitable always inquisitive and happy to help you on any occasion.
i arrived in the capital yerevan not really knowing much about this country but as i soon came to find out this is an amazing country with diverse people whom are very humble and super hospitable towards travellers. the older parts of yerevan are marked by grand soviet era boulevards and huge building. the city is affectionally known as the pink city due to the extensive volcano rock that was used as the main building material that has a light pink hue to it.
i was in armenia for two weeks and while there i had to make my way back to yerevan a few times as this was the focal point for all travel to destinations around the country. i stayed at two places one was the fantastic ris dalma apartments near the centre. my apartment was located on the 11th floor with spectacular views of the city, especially in the evening. these apartments were of the highest quality and designed by professionals. everything has been thought of here they sleep a minimum of 4 so if great for families, from the connected tv's with wifi to the 24 hours reception and security you will not be disappointed in your stay here.
as most of you already know by now im more of a hostel traveler and most of my time is spent in hostels meeting travellers from all over the world. one of the best hostels to stay in yerevan is hostel bivouac located in central yerevan. they have super comfy beds, privacy curtains and electrical outlets on all beds, breakfast is even included all for around $10 its great value.
yerevan is quite a small city its easy to navigate on foot to most places of interest around the city. some of my favourite places are; the cascade complex this a huge outdoor staircase and opener museum offering breathtaking views of the whole city and the mountains in the distance. one of the most popular places to visit where it seems all tourist and locals go every night is the dancing water fountains at republic square. every evening they have a 2 hour illuminated water fountain show that is set to music its a cool place to be in the evening. ohh and i cannot forgot victory park on the hill overlooking this city this was one of my favourite places as it hosts the mother armenia statue but also a soviet era amusement park that has to been seen to be believed its like you have traveled into the past, most rides i wouldn't dare to try but the ferris wheel looked safe enough and sure enough we survived the trip and actually i can say it was fun although a little unsteady.
armenia is known for its food and since i am a firm believer that food = culture. so i had to try some of the local cuisine along with some more hipster places that the youth are developing in the city. i have to start with my favourite place eat & fit healthy cafe located near the centre this is a super healthy cafe attracting a lot of tourists and locals for its focus on healthy food and drinks, make sure to try one of the fresh juices for less than $2. you may not know but armenia is also known for its wine, actually its the oldest producing wine country in the world. in vino is a super cool wine bar serving a huge array of local wines by the glass and bottle accompanied with local charcuterie boards of cheese & meat its a great place for lunch sitting outside under the shade of the trees.
in and around yerevan
most of you know me by now and if not then ill let you into a secret i love adventure activities. i had the great privilege to do a few things while in yerevan and the (pic above) was of an air balloon flight with sky ball we made the flight just outside yerevan close to the tourist site of garni. i have to say that the experience was truly magical. i have been on an air balloon in the past and loved it. this was no exception the whole trip was amazing from start to finish. the location could not have been better the views are a photographers dream the whole experience was something special, nairi and the team made sure that we were 100% safe and the flight could not have gone more perfectly. champagne and chocolate were also supplied as tradition dictate when taken a balloon flight. i truly think this is a must while in the city...
now speaking of flying i also did an alternate type of flying, actually a zipline. yerevan zipline airlines has recently opened the longest zipline in the region at over 1.5km and the only one in the world that takes you under a bridge its also been certified by the european zipline professions who helped to design it so you know its 100% safe. we had an amazing afternoon on the zipline the team are super friendly and helpful i also loved that they were renovating the local park that has been neglected since the soviet area giving back to the community which is a big plus in my books.
road trip around armenia
i did something a little unusual in armenia. most of the time i rent or buy motorcycles while traveling in countries. on this occasion, i rented a motorcycle but also a car for a week as i met some super cool people and we traveled around the country for a week. but lets start with my motorcycle rental, it was provided by dreamriders a company specialising in motorcycle tours and rentals in armenia. they are a super professional company that takes the utmost care and attention with all their bikes you can really see the passion they have for riding and customer service. i did not have a single problem the whole time i had the bike it was super smooth and well maintained so if your looking for a little adrenaline while in armenia then make sure to take one of there tours or rent a bike for yourself.
road tripping... armenia can be difficult to get around especially to some of the lesser known places on the tourist trail. while i was staying at the hostel i met some crazy philippino girls, janssen & jean. they wanted to travel around so we decided to rent a car together and do a classic road trip to all the places we wanted to visit.
setting off from yerevan the main tourist trail takes you to to the heritage sites of garni and geghard. its around an hour drive to these sites and well worth the trip i especially liked garni its a greco-roman colonnade temple its actually the only one still standing in the former soviet republics.
our next stop was the mountain town of dilijan. it was a relief to arrive here as the pervious days in yerevan had been unbelievably hot so for me and the girls the mountain weather was perfect and much easier to sleep. the main place to visit here is the hagharsin monastery and while it was impressive it was a small forgotten monastery in the hills above the town that impressed me most. matosavank monastery was abandoned long ago but myself and janssen on her birthday decided to make our way up there. it did not dissapoint. the erie felling and lighting inside was awesome.
areni & yaeghegnadzor; where our final stops before returning to yerevan. one the way we stopped off on the southern edge of lake seven, there we were welcomed by a friendly group of locals who gave us a huge amount of their fish barbecue and other dishes they had prepared for their families. i think this really summed up armenian people they are so friendly and hospitable to foreigners, the girls even got to wash the food down with a few shots of vodka.
the area surrounding yaeghgnadzor is famous for wine and especially the areni region. while we didn't have much luck locating wineries in the area we did come across some cool places that are definitely worth a visit if you have time. the noravank monastery had to be my favourite place in armenia we arrived around sunset and the lighting was perfect for getting some of the best photos of the trip. it's unlike any of the monasteries i have been to in the region with it outdoor geometric staircase, the surround hills and sheer cliffs are a photographers dream. after a little research we found the mountain resort of jermuk its actually a spar town that has some super fancy hotels but we came for the waterfall its the highest in armenia and while its not that tall it was the only waterfall i had seen in the country so i was impressed and it made for some good shots.
make sure that you also checkout the gondola to the top of the highest hill in the area once again the views are something to behold.
summing up armenia...
i had an incredible few weeks here. the country, the people and my experiences while in armenia i will remember this trip forever it was an eye-opening experience to say the least. i came to armenia without much knowledge of this country but i left with an abundance of happy memories and a yearning to come back and explore more.
baku & not beyond..
i took the night train from tbilisi to baku that arrived in the city at 7am. i can honestly say i was not ready for the heat even at 7am it was over 30c. i had a plan to only stay in azerbaijan for a few days as i already made plans in georgia so this is only a short section on baku as i did not have the chance to get out of the city. baku is an interesting place perched on the edge of the caspian sea this city was built on oil money and you can tell that in all the new skyscrapers around the city. they do have a nice little walled old town and thats where i felt most at home.
i think the only hostel to stay of a high quality is the sahil hostel. its a super modern hostel with a great communal area and bar that has half priced drinks in the early afternoon. as i was only there for a few days i didn't have the opportunity to explore too much but i would recommend taking a trip to the near by mud volcanos that you can swim in.
in the evening you have to check out barrel playground and for those whom want a little culture then the yarat contemporary art gallery showcases some of the best art from around the region. make sure to try the local tipple of pomegranate wine and for the non-alcoholic days feijoa juice its delicious.
its a shame i didn't have more time to explore this country but i hope to be back in the coming years to explore the countryside more.
- all of the counties have there own currencies are are very cheap compared with europe.
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country travel tips
atm: any is fine most are free just make sure not to do the conversion.
sim card: georgia- magti, armenia - mts, azerbaijan - azercell. all cost less than $5 for 5gb.
transport: small buses and cars are the best way to get around. georgia has a good train network.
taxi: georgia - taxify, armenia - gg taxi, azerbaijan - uber. always try to use taxi apps to avoid problems.