Here’s a surprise: If any one region on earth personifies the phrase “eat, pray, love” it is the Caucasus! Here’s why.
EAT: If you are a dedicated foodie you will be “over the moon” in the Caucasus; there is a sophisticated cuisine that has benefited from the Turkish and Persian empires surrounding it. Fresh salads, the use of herbs and spices, fruits and nuts, makes for a delicious and healthful diet. No wonder the area is famous for its long-lived people. Add to this a seven thousand year old wine-making tradition in Georgia, famous mineral water and a world-class cognac produced in Armenia, delightful fruit beverages and modern wineries in Azerbaijan, (and of course, the Russian contribution of vodka) and you will want for nothing at the table.
PRAY: There is a mix of religions in the Caucasus. In Azerbaijan, you will find more influence of the Persian Empire, with traces of Zoroastrian culture under the predominant Islamic faith. Due to a contemporary, cosmopolitan outlook (helped along by its rich deposits of oil) in Azerbaijan, Islam has a devout but tolerant following.
Meanwhile, Armenia was the earliest nation to establish a Christian Church of its own, in 301 AD, and Georgia followed in its conversion to Christianity in 327 AD. That makes them two of the earliest converts in the world, and the outpouring of energy to the creation of places of worship is astounding. From the magnificent churches carved out of living rock in Armenia, to the mountaintop religious aeries of Georgia, the sheer impact of spiritual commitment channeled into beauty is enough to move anyone, of any religion. The presence of synagogues in urban areas is also a testament to tolerance.
LOVE: In the Caucasus you will find that people are so warm and welcoming that sometimes it is hard to accept the level of generosity and hospitality given to you even from strangers here. Having a guest is considered an honor, so be prepared for a red carpet welcome if you are invited to visit anyone’s home. Because these countries have had tumultuous histories, but have been “under the radar” of most travelers, you will also find that locals really want to show off their country to you, and tell you everything they know. And while no one can guarantee that you will find the love of your life there, you will find a true Love of Life.
But that’s only Eat Pray Love—there are more reasons to visit the Caucasus. Here are some.
Of course, there are amazing historic buildings—palaces, mausoleums, mosques and churches. And the old sections of Tbilisi, Baku and Yerevan hold great charm and beauty.
However, there is also simply stunning modern architecture, some of the most adventurous in the world. A great building is a great building, and in a break from ponderous Soviet municipal structures, and in appreciation of their liberation, the capitol cities of Azerbaijan and Georgia have embraced modern architecture. They have commissioned the finest modern architects to create new shapes and symbols. Witness the magnificent Heydar Aliev Center, designed by the late great Zaha Hadid in Baku, or the Bridge of Peace in Tbilisi. These are works of art to live and work in. Walk through them and feel inspired.
With all of the wonderful things to do, consume and buy, you will be thrilled with how far your dollar can go. If you are a back-packer you will feel positively flush! And if you are already flush, you can live like a king. Speaking of living like a king, luxury travel in the Caucasus is exactly that. The hotels are posh, with full spa and fitness facilities, elegant restaurants and all the amenities one expects from a five-plus star hotel anywhere.
We’ve mentioned how good the food is in the Caucasus. But not everyone is a total omnivore. For those concerned about organic, free range, and humane food sources—here’s the good news. The countries of the Caucasus simply do not have factory farms. When you eat something in the Caucasus whether it is flora or fauna, you can be assured it was grown on a family farm, as it has been for generations, and had a natural life.
If you are a music lover, you will find yourself in a world of auditory wonder. Between the soulful, cool sounds of the Armenian duduk, the passionate maqam of Azerbaijan and the stirring table songs of Georgia, you will be taken to the heights of emotion and musical pleasure. In fact, in Georgia, the tradition of choral singing is an official National Treasure going back thousands of years. Tradition also lives alongside modern explorations, and fascinating fusions with classical, jazz, rock and hip hop can be heard in clubs and concert halls.
The geographic barriers of the Caucasus Mountains have created these three distinctive countries, each with its own language and alphabet. But one thing they all share is the beauty of this mountain range. Whether you’re a trekker or a total tourist, be prepared for fantastic landscapes (and in the case of Azerbaijan and Georgia -- seascapes) that change with the shifting of the day’s light. Waking up to see Mt Ararat (where Noah’s ark ended up) outside your window is a truly moving experience, as is a walk by the Black Sea, on the Baku Boulevard, where an entire city’s population seems to turn out to stroll, socialize and enjoy the view.
Speaking of socializing, Yerevan, Tbilisi and Baku are known for their nightlife. Whether you are looking for a hot night of club-hopping, or a laid back cocktail at a jazz bar, you won’t have a problem finding exactly the right place. As a matter of fact, you may have a hard time deciding!
All this points to why NOW is the time to go to Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. At this point in time, they are still hidden gems, and not high on the bucket list of most travelers. But with all the amazing experiences these destinations have to offer, word is bound to get out.