Perfect Additions To A Southern Caucasus Itinerary

Nick Nomi

Senior Contributor

Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia make up the stunning Southern Caucasus (or Transcaucasia) — a culturally diverse region where fragments of Europe and Asia, tradition and modernity, mountain adventures and serene village life come together to paint societies as vivid and unique as they are familiar. Here, vast peaks flow into vineyards making some of Eastern Europe’s greatest wines, semi-deserts fade into hilltop-fortresses, and bucolic farmlands descend into vast lakes, shores bejewelled by centuries-old churches and mysterious medieval art.

Sighnagi, Georgia

Nestled in Georgia’s stunning Kakheti wine region just two hours from Tbilisi, this colourful hilltop town with its medieval walls wrapped along the town’s limits, church towers poking up from steep cobbled streets and red-roofed villas — many with colourful galleries and balconies attached to their façades, evokes a sense of place not far from that of Pienza, Montepulciano or another of Tuscany’s more scenic hilltop villages. It’s the kind of village where time passes slowly, where strolls are long and languid, where locals sit side by side on old wooden benches…. and rather more curiously, where almost anyone can get married twenty-four hours a day… which is where the village attained its romantic epithet “the city of love”. It is a perfect destination for a flâneur in search of a quiet place to walk and something pretty to observe.

With that in mind, the best way to experience Sighnagi is to walk its cobbled streets, peeking over wooden balconies, looking on as happy couples marry, imbibing the atmosphere inside centuries’ old churches, and listening in as octogenarians talk and walk. Foodies should seek out Churchkhela — the candle-shaped sweets sold at street-side all over Georgia and buy a few pieces as an accompaniment to one’s admiration of the local architecture, and in the evening drink a local wine on a terrace with views of the town and countryside — The Terrace Signagi is as good as any. Immerse oneself, in other words. For the best views of the village and the surrounding countryside stroll along either the city walls and one of the old defensive towers, or the much quieter Church of St. Stephen — both of which offer seemingly unending vistas of the Caucasus Mountains and the meditative topography of the Alazani Valley. 

Lake Sevan, Armenia

Armenia’s Lake Sevan is vast: it’s the biggest body of water in the Caucasus Region, one of the biggest high-altitude lakes in Eurasia, it’s home to scores of inviting beaches, and incredibly, it supplies almost all of the fish eaten in Armenia. It takes around two hours to make the journey to Sevan from the capital Yerevan but to properly experience all of the lake’s magnificent 480 square miles would take weeks.

On the lake, you’ll find various beaches equipped with windsurfing, sailing and jet skiing, but it’s beyond the lakeshore where one finds the real treasures. Here, ornate Armenian Khachkar formed from stone and in various states of disrepair poke up from grassy hillocks in their hundreds, the atmospheric 9th century Sevanavank Monastery sits at the top of a hill marked by two beautiful cruciform churches with idyllic lake views, herds of cows graze in grassy farmland unperturbed by human presence, fish restaurants pepper the shores serving up lavash-wrapped crayfish kebabs — with fish freshly plucked from the lake, while the haunting but so very beautiful Noratus Cemetery is often filled with packs of woolly sheep and is a superb spot for an afternoon stroll and a memento mori amongst the beautifully carved Khachkar memorial stones, each one unique and mystifying.

Hiking The Caucasus Mountains

The Caucasus Mountains form a rough and rugged natural border between the South Caucasus and Russia, a barely trodden cinematic landscape that unfolds in numerous colourful and dramatic scenes: vast mountain peaks falling into picturesque valleys, ruined watchtowers overgrown by nature staring out to dense forests, and idyllic rivers gushing alongside attractive villages, not used to greeting travellers.

In the past, hikers would journey along the lonely trails of the Caucasus Mountains to experience adventure where few people had trodden (often along paths left by livestock) but for the past few years, volunteers have been working hard to connect the Black Sea in the west to the Caspian in the east via a 1500KM route of rustic, easy to follow trails — of which approximately 300KM is open and ready to walk. But it’s still a hike made for those in search of long, highly immersive and adventurous routes. The Svaneti in west Georgia is one of the best options with a 10-day trail that takes in charming villages and glacier-formed rivers — only crossable by foot or with the help of packhorses — led by the local Svan populations. 

The Machu Picchu of Azerbaijan

One finds the Machu Picchu of Azerbaijan by journeying to the tiny exclave of Nakhchivan just south of Armenia (the fortress has an Armenian legacy and was once known as Yernjak Castle) — an area as old as the Bible and whose local legends tell us is the place where Noah landed with his Ark. But once there, the comparisons to Machu Picchu may be slightly lost. The land here is a mix of grassy plains rising to semi-dessert-like peaks. A far cry from the lush jungles and emerald coloured mountains of Peru. But clamber up the 1500 steps to the top of the rock where Alinja Fortress sits, and the comparisons will become a little clearer.

From afar, the ruins of the fortress resemble little more than a wall atop a huge rock jutting up from a desert terrain with hundreds of red brick steps ascending high into ochre-coloured hills, but clamber past the ruins to get a look from above and the fortress begins to unveil its semblances to iconic Machu Picchu. The rectangular structure looks like a set of foundations with two small gold domes, a garden centrepiece — a little like an open-air maze, and it’s protected by a jagged crag on one corner. And while the views from the fortress are stunning, the views from above the fortress are even better — incorporating Alinja and the vivid topographies of Nakhchivan.

As Nakhchivan is completely landlocked between Armenia, Iran and Turkey, the most sensible way to reach it is by plane from Baku, with Azerbaijan Airlines.

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