I have to admit – the last time I’ve been to the Caucasus was more than 30 years ago. I was 3 years old and I’ve spent a summer with my family on a bee farm in Dagestan, or so they tell me. I have very limited recollection of the events myself. Nevertheless, the countries that now compose the Caucasus – Russia, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan (and the multitude of semi-countries like South-Ossetia or Nagorno-Karabakh) were part of the Soviet Union, so technically, I once lived in a “Caucasus country”. The region has been at the top of my wish list for a while, so I’ve gathered sufficient knowledge to write about it (*).
- Why go there?
In recent years, the Caucasus got a lot of bad publicity. Wars, poverty and crime have scarred the region. Most of the Russian Caucasus is a no-go area, where the security situation is best described by “what security?” However, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan have by now mostly recovered from the dramatic events of the past decades and are enjoying a vastly improved security situation, even though the international relations in the region remain very tense. With the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, the area is suddenly in the spotlight as a viable tourist destination. And if you’re ready to look past the dramatic headlines, you’ll find a region rich in sights, culture and most of all, exceptionally rich in excellent food and drinks.
- What’s it best for?
This is the place for the adventurous traveller. Of all European regions, the Caucasus has the highest content of what I call “the National Geographic sensation” – when you feel like a true explorer. Most of the region is still virtually untraveled by outsiders, so you’ll be as much of a revelation to the locals as they will be to you.
- When is the best time to go?
ASAP. Now. Before mass-tourism arrives and the prices go up, before you can read the menu’s, before the roads are paved. Go now, and be the first of your friends and colleagues to drink from a ram’s horn at a Georgian wedding, the first to pick pomegranates in an Armenian mountain village, the first to dip in the mud volcano’s of Azerbaijan. Amazing travel stories guaranteed.
- How to get around?
The transportation system in the region is improving, but is still badly hurt by years of conflict and economic hardship. Many rail and road connections are severed by conflict lines. The road will be a large part of your adventure in the Caucasus and especially in remote areas, hitchhiking might be the best way to get from A to B.
- Why is it best to avoid?
If you’re uncomfortable being close to active and dormant armed conflicts – stay away. In any of the region’s countries, having the “wrong” stamp in your passport or photographing a seemingly innocent building may lead to anything from a lengthy interrogation to expulsion, a heavy fine or even imprisonment in the extreme case.
- Where to go if you just have one week?
Georgia has it all – beaches, mountain resorts and wine cellars. Unlike many of its neighbours, Georgia is a democratic country, which earns it some bonus points. And Georgia is unique in being the home land of the Chief of all American Tribes, Father of all Nations, the Sun of the People, Jozef Stalin. The museum dedicated to Uncle Joe in his birthplace Gori is a must. Last but not least Georgia is well connected – it has rail connections to Azerbaijan and Armenia, you can get in by road from Turkey and there are even ferry connections to Istanbul and Odessa. Perhaps doesn’t mean much to you, but in the Caucasus this connectivity is pretty unique.
(*) – All images used in this post are from Wikipedia. I’ve done my best to credit the photographers, to all of whom I with to experience my gratitude for providing such beautiful images.