Straddling the isthmus between the Black and Caspian seas, where Asia meets Europe, the two small countries of Georgia and Azerbaijan can easily be visited together. In fact, sitting side by side they remind one of Ali and Nino, the star-crossed couple in the eponymous novel by Kurban Said set in Baku just before World War I, which has become something of a classic. Ali is a young Muslim of noble descent who defies convention and marries Nino, his schoolgirl sweetheart from an aristocratic Georgian family settled in Baku. Their relationship survives the clash of cultures till it ends with Ali getting killed resisting the Red Army as it advances to absorb both countries as provinces of the new Soviet Union. Today they are independent again, flourishing in their own way, connected by strategic oil and gas pipelines, their capitals a scenic eight-hour train ride from each other.
Georgia is the more visited of the two. Imagine a country that is uniformly green, with blue skies and day-time temperatures of 25 degrees in May and June. It has snow-covered, 5,000m peaks as well as seaside resorts, is inexpensive, extremely tourist friendly (it guarantees e-visas in five days) and not too far away from India. Georgia was one of the first countries to adopt Christianity, and is studded with churches, many of them teetering on the edge of cliffs or perched on mountain tops. It is famous for its traditional polyphonic singing, best heard in Sunday morning church services. It is also strongly influenced by Islam since the Persians were here on and off over the centuries.
Tbilisi (the T is not silent) is one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals. It snakes along a winding valley, overlooked by ancient churches and a spectacular fortress. Today it is kept safe and crime-free by a police force appointed by the government that came to power after the Rose Revolution of 2003 and which sacked the entire corrupt force.
Perhaps most important for visitors, Georgia is widely credited with having invented wine 7,000 years ago. It is still made in almost every home. Archaeologists have uncovered the kvevris or huge clay pots which were lined with beeswax, filled with grape juice from a choice of 40 different varieties of grape, sealed with wooden lids, and buried in the ground over the winter. Since the cold halts fermentation, before all the sugar becomes alcohol, Georgian wines are often sweet. Without any additives, these ‘natural wines’ are becoming fashionable in Europe. Most families still produce several hundred litres a year for their own consumption as well as for sharing with neighbours at festivals and feasts. We took the funicular up a hill overlooking the city to a wine fair held to mark the new season. A happily inebriated crowd was moving from stall to stall sampling the latest offerings from dozens of winemakers, large producers and exporters, as well as small family operators.
Georgia is small enough for it to be visited on day trips out of Tbilisi. But to do full justice to its many attractions one should relocate at least once to a town further west, perhaps Kutaisi, the cultural capital of western Georgia, and now the seat of the Georgian parliament, or to Batumi, a charming resort on the Black Sea, stuck in a time warp from Soviet days but rapidly reinventing itself. They are both a comfortable and scenic train ride away, on the same line, or for those in a hurry, a few hours away by marshrutka, Russian for the minibuses that go tearing all over the country. If possible, one should also try to spend at least one night in the wine-growing eastern region of Kakheti, perhaps in the small hill town of Sighnaghi with its Italianate architecture and beautiful views of a sun-drenched sea of vineyards stretching across a broad valley to the hazy blue of the Caucasian mountains in the distance. There are dozens of wineries to visit as well as an excellent museum with many paintings of Georgia’s most famous artist, Niko Pirosmani.
Visitors who can spare only a day usually head north for a couple of hours up the so-called Russian Military Highway, to the town of Kazbegi nestled in the Great Caucasus, just 15km short of the border with Chechnya in Russia. From here they drive or trek up to the iconic Tsiminda Sameba Church, silhouetted against Mount Kazbegi. Kazbegi is a great base for trekking, river rafting, paragliding and horse riding. One forgets that the highest mountains in Europe are not in the Alps, but in the Caucasus, which run in a south-easterly direction, forming the border of both Georgia and Azerbaijan with Russia. The highest peak, Mount Elbrus (5,842m), is just over the crest from Georgia in Russia.
A remoter part of the Great Caucasus lies in the northwestern part of the country, made more accessible now by a low-cost flight to Mestia, the centre of a wild and inaccessible region called Svaneti, which has remained proudly independent of central control and has its own language and culture. Protected not only by its inaccessibility but also by almost 200 defensive stone towers scattered over the region, Svaneti has acted as the guardian of Georgian culture, serving in troubled times as the safekeeper for icons and other treasures ferreted away here. Many of these have been donated to the local museum. Some travellers set out from Mestia on multi-day treks to even more remote Svan villages and glaciers through beautiful alpine scenery. Far less commercialised than the Alps, delicious home-cooked food (and home-brewed wine) awaits them in the many guesthouses.
Given the strong feelings Stalin arouses, not everyone takes the day trip to his museum in the little town of Gori, where he used to come first in class, while honing his leadership qualities in street gangs and town brawls after school. One of his buddies (and possibly half-brother) from that period, later became his food taster, and another a bodyguard. He then joined a seminary in Tbilisi for four years, where he was in and out of trouble for rebelliousness and the Marxist literature he would smuggle in. He failed to complete, but left with an excellent classical education before joining the conspiratorial and murderous world of revolutionary activity. The seminary is on the main square, where Stalin, as the chief fundraiser for Lenin in exile, went on to mastermind the daylight hijacking of a bank stagecoach carrying a huge sum of cash, after creating chaos and scattering the Cossack guards with 11 explosions. Today it stands next to the Marriott, and Freedom Square is a different place, as Mercs and BMWs come tearing at you around the tall central column that has replaced a statue of Lenin, holding aloft a golden St George on a rearing horse spearing his dragon.
Another popular day trip is to Davit Gareja, where bearded monks in black robes still live and pray in a honeycomb of caves carved out of the steep hillside. Along a precarious path just below the crest on the other side of the hill is a string of more caves with well-preserved frescoes painted a thousand years ago. It is best not to meet any goats or sheep coming the other way, because if you slip, you fall a long way down the scree into the Azerbaijan desert stretching away below you.
An easier way to visit Azerbaijan is to fly, or take the modern overnight train from Tbilisi to Baku. Baku seems intent on reclaiming the place it held in the early 1900s when the Nobels and Rothschilds and many other fortune-seekers lived here in avenues lined by opulent stone mansions and when the country produced half the world’s oil. It clearly models itself on Dubai these days: gleaming new skyscrapers,a group of them curving up into the sky to resemble giant leaping flames (and lit up accordingly at night)are steadily transforming the city. So much so that the medieval but somewhat over-restored ichari shahr or old town, encircled by a crenellated wall, now consists only of carpet shops, restaurants and hotels. More lively is the nearby Fountain Square where Azerbaijan’s growing wealth is on display on the fashionable men and women (no burqas here) who crisscross the leafy square on their way from one department store or pavement restaurant to another. Another great place for people watching is the wide tree-lined bulvar (boulevard) which faces a somewhat oily Caspian seascape dotted with drilling rigs and oil installations of various kinds, and is thronged with residents who seem not to notice the industrial landscape out to sea, but have eyes only for each other and the well-watered parks and greenery on the landward side.
An important sight is the Ateshgah or fire temple in a suburb of Baku. While Zoroastrian in origin (Azerbaijan has been part of Persia on and off for centuries), it bears well-preserved stone inscriptions with salutations to Ganesha and Shiva dating to the mid-18th century. It was not only visited by but seems to have been used as a base for Gujarati and other traders from the subcontinent who stayed in the caravanserai built around the small temple with the flame. The flame used to be fed naturally by gas from an underground vent, but with the development of the surrounding gas field (you can see an oil rig sticking out over the walls), the gas from the original vent got exhausted and the temple flame has to be kept going these days by a piped connection. Although it did not make it into our guidebook, the Ateshgah was quite a hit with dozens of schoolchildren jostling each other to get closer to the model displays of Hindu traders in turbans tethering their donkeys, doing puja, making chapatis, etc, in the little rooms of the caravanserai.
The highlight of a visit to Baku, however, is the day trip past a shimmering sea and the occasional bather sharing the beach with nodding donkeys pumping oil, to the UNESCO-listed Qobustan Petroglyph Reserve. One turns off the coastal road to a low ridge set slightly inland, where a tumble of rocks provides overhang to a series of shallow caves (a bit like Bhimbetka). These were inhabited 12,000 years ago by hunter-gatherers who left behind an amazing series of etchings or ‘petroglyphs’, depicting animal and human figures, hunting and battle scenes, boats sailing towards the sunset, and other scenes. An excellent museum tells one more about the life and activities of these people. A little further on, along unmarked tracks in the grey desert, lies an eerie landscape of baby mud volcanoes, each of them no more than two metres wide and high, oozing and spitting and gurgling away happily as bubbles of gas rise and break in the little pools of hot grey mud that lie in their craters.
I left for Tbilisi as I came, by train, but got off to spend a night in Sheki, a beautiful little town which nestles amidst wooded hills in the northwest. It contains perhaps the most iconic building in the country, the (local) khan’s palace, which resembles a rectangular jewel box with its vividly coloured faÃ§ade of stained-glass windows set in intricate wooden fretwork. A series of hops by bus and taxi the next morning got me to the border in three hours, to find myself in the wine country of Kakheti again!
There are no direct flights to Tbilisi and Baku but several airlines connect them with Indian cities through the Gulf. Flying through Almaty with Air Astana, or via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines, are other options, especially for those interested in breaking journey. Fares start at about â‚¹35,000 return. By land, it is easy to cross into Georgia from eastern Turkey.
Many of Georgia’s highlights are accessible on day trips out of Tbilisi through tour buses, taxis and public mini buses. Trains run frequently, especially on the main east-west line connecting Tbilisi to the Black Sea resort town of Batumi. The same line runs in the other direction to Baku and is served by a modern sleeper train (railway.ge). In Georgia, a scenic mountain-hugging flight flies to the Svaneti region in the northwest. In Azerbaijan, buses are the main mode of transport to most destinations, and it is easy to travel by road across the two countries.
Where to Stay
Tbilisi has an abundance of reasonably priced tourist accommodation of all categories, including a choice of boutique hotels located in the tourist areas and traveller hostels, most of which also have single and double rooms (hostelworld.com). The Tbilisi Marriott in an Art Deco building offers luxury accommodation (from â‚¹15,000; marriott.com). Smaller towns in Georgia have excellent guest houses. Accommodation in Baku tends to be more expensive and geared to tour groups and business travellers but an excellent choice for independent travellers in Baku is the Buta Hotel in the Old City (from $42; butahotel.com). Sheki is well known for its reasonably priced Caravansaray Hotel, located in a beautifully restored caravanserai (facebook.com/shekikarvansaray).
What to See & Do
Georgian highlights, other than those mentioned in the article are:
>Festivals and cultural activities in Tbilisi and other towns, including the Black Sea Jazz Festival in Batumi.
>Vardzia in the southwest, a medieval city carved into a cliff.
>Tusheti, a pristine mountainous region in the northeast.
>The town of Telavi, which alongwith Sighnagi, is the best place to locate oneself for the partying and festivals during the grape-picking and pressing season from mid-September to mid-October.
Some more of Azerbaijan’s attractions are:
>The scenery and shepherd villages in the mountainous region around Quba.
>The copper-beating and carpet-weaving village of Lahic.
>Baku’s jazz festival.