Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan. Photo Credit: Sanaan Aliyev

The three republics of theCaucasus


By Patricia SchultzJuly 20, 2015

Straddling the Europe/Asia divide

Made up of the three former Soviet republics of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, the South Caucasus is among the most culturally genuine, historically rich and religiously diverse --not to mention under the radar -- parts of the world. The area is geopolitically sensitive yet stable, with pockets of ongoing conflicts that remain unresolved but unthreatening to visitors. Snug within a dramatically mountainous region wedged between the Black Sea on the west and the Caspian Sea to the east, these three small nations, independent since 1991, could not be more different from each other. Yet they share a timeless and deep-rooted tradition of hospitality, family and food.

Long seen as a strategically important bridge linking East and West, North and South, this was the realm of Silk Road caravans, coveted and conquered by Persians, Byzantines, Ottomans, Russians and Soviets. The region is regularly misconstrued and misunderstood today (it doesn't help that the Republic of Georgia is forever confused with the state of Georgia in the U.S. and that the Iowa caucuses pop up in a Google search).

The Caucasus (more specifically, the Transcaucasus) sits at the standard Europe/Asia divide. When asking locals -- from our Armenian driver to the night manager of our white-glove hotel in Baku -- whether they felt European or Asian, the question was always met with hesitation and thoughtful reflection. Though leaning toward Europe politically and economically, the truth is that there are no easy demarcations (or so I concluded after a fascinating tour with Exeter International, which specializes in custom luxury travel to the former U.S.S.R.). These three pieces in the puzzle, in an area the size of the U.K., deserve their own distinctive world region.

"It is an area that is little known, barely visited and amazingly underrated," Greg Tepper, founder and president of Exeter International, told me. "It is Nirvana for those with passports bulging with extended pages, those curious about the world's ancient and obscure corners." And tourism is negligible. If there were any other American tourists visiting during our stay, I did not see them.

Thanks to recent developments, travel here can also be done in great comfort and style. "Many upscale travelers were afraid to step into this part of the world due to its reputation for bad food, poor hotels and a general lack of infrastructure or luxury ... even considered unsafe perhaps," said Tepper. "But that has all changed in the last few years." He outlined what our recent June adventure would reveal: "Armenia has wonderfully charming hotels in the midst of a dramatic countryside and a cuisine that is only topped by that of Georgia." In fact, Georgia's role as an exciting and emerging food destination was what little I knew of the area.

And what about oil-rich Azerbaijan, whose thrumming capital has been called both the Paris and the Cannes of the Caspian? "It has a new Four Seasons Baku that is one of my favorite Four Seasons hotels in the world," said Tepper, who made himself personally familiar with the region's finest accommodations before booking his discerning travelers.

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Our first stop was Armenia, landlocked, isolated and surrounded on three sides by Muslim neighbors (Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan). Although small in size, it boasts a big reputation: In 301, it was the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion, and many of its hundreds of churches and monasteries date back more than 1,000 years. Commonly built in high, breathtaking locations where they were less vulnerable to attacks, they stand as visual reminders of the nation's religious heritage.

Don't even try to decipher Armenia's unique Indo-European language, spoken only by its 3 million inhabitants and some of the vast diaspora of 7 million (or more) scattered across the globe. Its spikey and impenetrable alphabet was introduced in the 5th century to translate the Bible. Both religion and language are twin pillars of Armenia's national identity.

Looming large in the nation's present is its tragic past, the inescapable account of the 1915 genocide when 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of the Ottoman government during World War I and subsequent conflict. This year's 100th anniversary commemoration was on our minds as we climbed to our first stop in the capital city of Yerevan: The hilltop genocide memorial with sweeping views of the million-strong city pays silent tribute to a people and religion that have survived the millennia.

The starting point of any visit to Armenia, Yerevan was not what I expected. In contrast to predeparture research about historic massacres, a struggling economy and high unemployment rates, the impression awaiting travelers today is one of a modernizing capital and country of spectacular beauty, a helpful, friendly and fun-loving people and warm hospitality. Its simple cuisine has long lived in the shadow of Georgia to the north, but here we also feasted on delicious dishes of fresh vegetables, a variety of yogurts and salty cheeses, grape-leaf dolma and barbecue (pork is a favorite) with frequent toasts made with local organic wines. Armenian brandy, loved by Churchill, boasts a potency barely masked with the flavors of pomegranate, apricot or cherry. The Caucasian concept of locavore and farm-to-table are age-old traditions.

Tufenkian Heritage Hotel in Dilijan, Armenia, part of the country’s first chain of boutique hotels.
Tufenkian Heritage Hotel in Dilijan, Armenia, part of the country’s first chain of boutique hotels.

Nighttime is lively, and the entire world takes to the streets and fills the outdoor cafes and shaded squares. Young families with gelato-eating children join strolling couples and small groups of bar-hopping friends. Everyone winds up at the colored Bellagio-like dancing fountains in Republic Square that infuse the city with a holiday air. Notably, the city (and beyond) felt very safe.

In a city of mostly 18th and 19th century architecture, contemporary design and Armenian hospitality awaited at the 3-year-old, centrally located Tufenkian Historic Yerevan Hotel. A stylish showcase of good service, Frette sheets and fresh, delicious breakfast buffets, it is the brainstorm of James Tufenkian, an American-Armenian businessman who made his fortune in the luxury carpet industry by resuscitating the hand-weaving traditions of his ancestral homeland. It is the latest of the Tufenkian Heritage Hotels, Armenia's first chain of boutique properties found in Yerevan and throughout the scenic and uncommercialized hinterlands.

"I was convinced, and still am, that tourism is a key industry on which to build the economy of a nation," the New York-based Tufenkian told me. "International chains and homogenized experience that dominate tourism in most of the world does not exist here."

A self-described born-again Armenian, his goal is to help the local economy while having his guests leave thinking, "Wow! I never expected to find anything like this in Armenia."

The monastery fatigue I had anticipated never occurred, with each visit presenting a different legend or history, architectural style and post-card perfect location.

One-of-a-kind highlights were the Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the first built in Armenia and the oldest in the world. Begun in the 4th century, it is the headquarters of the Armenian Church and home to the Armenian pontiff, the Catholicos. The spooky Geghard Monastery, a remarkable complex of three interconnected cave churches, was also begun in the 4th century. In that same period, St. Gregory the Illuminator, responsible for bringing Christianity to Armenia, was imprisoned in a dank well for 13 years, and the iconic and much photographed Khor Virap monastery was built on that spot, against a breathtaking backdrop of the snow-capped Mount Ararat.

The Khor Virap monastery in Armenia, set against Mount Ararat.
The Khor Virap monastery in Armenia, set against Mount Ararat.

That mountain, which dominates the skyline of Yerevan, serves as a potent national symbol of Armenia. It lies just 28 miles away in what is now Turkey. Called Mount Masis in the Book of Genesis, it is the alleged resting place of Noah's ark, and Armenians pride themselves on tracing their lineage back to that moment.

Roughly the size of Belgium, Armenia is the smallest of the 15 former Soviet republics. It has a surprisingly good road system, and exploring small agricultural towns and remote corners appeared to be safe for solo travelers, but Exeter's car and driver guaranteed valuable local insight and visits to obscure gems that otherwise would have gone undiscovered. There were still monasteries and churches to explore, crumbling Silk Road caravanserais and ancient cemeteries to visit, lunch at a small restaurant whose owner regularly wins national barbecue contests, and wine and brandy tastings, all amid pristine forested mountains, rocky gorges and rushing rivers.

A quick drive-by visit to the lovely Lake Sevan, at 6,200 feet one of the largest and highest freshwater lakes in the world, promised yet more monasteries (with sweeping lake views), and an idyllic overnight stay in the nearby mountain town of Dilijan. Here, another inviting Tufenkian outpost awaited, this one with a rustic, Alpine aesthetic (the cool, verdant area is called "the Switzerland of Armenia"). We were making our way to the border with Georgia, where our next Caucasus chapter awaited.

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Until recently mired in post-Soviet poverty and corruption, Georgia's capital city of Tbilisi is a work in progress, with an extensive Old Town whose fast-track gentrification is often met with raised eyebrows, and a smattering of ultramodern architecture that has met with resistance ("If only it weren't in the very middle of town," suggested our guide). During Soviet rule, Georgia was the tourism center of the U.S.S.R., and Russian and East European tourists make up the few numbers seen today. American-friendly hotels are available -- the Marriott, Courtyard by Marriott and Radisson Blu (refashioned from an old Soviet hotel) -- but our stay at the trailblazing hotel called the Rooms provided a peak at Tbilisi's promising future. The country's first Design Hotel, it is a stylish mix of 1930s Downtown New York and old-world Tbilisi charm, housed in an old industrial publishing house in the artsy Vera neighborhood.

The lobby at the Rooms, the first Design Hotel in Georgia, which provides a peak at the promising future of Tbilisi.
The lobby at the Rooms, the first Design Hotel in Georgia, which provides a peak at the promising future of Tbilisi.

The vibe throughout is professional while young and friendly. An adjacent building under construction will house an InterContinental slated to open in late 2016; both belong to Adjara Group Hospitality, as does the nearby Holiday Inn. Tbilisi still feels like a secret, but expect that to soon change.

Georgia's outlying countryside demands a return visit to explore the remote Unesco-recognized Alpine region of Svaneti with its medieval villages and tower-houses, or the revitalized Black Sea resort of Batumi, once the warm-weather playground for top-ranking Soviet elite.

But for now, this first-time visit to Tbilisi had me immersed in its enigmatic charm. Tbilisi means "warm location," and the city was born where domed banyas or sulfur bathhouses still stand, once the haunt of Pushkin, and guarded over by a rambling 17th-century clifftop fortress. The bohemian atmosphere of the Old City prevails in its hidden courtyards and behind balconied facades, where art cafes and gallery bars stay open late. Shabby-chic buildings, once graceful and elegant, now stand decaying and peeling, while others survive heavy-handed restorations that barely leave their dignity intact. Within a few blocks you can visit centuries-old mosques and synagogues, Armenian churches and icon-filled Orthodox churches (Georgia is 70% Christian, having converted to Christianity just years after Armenia), suggesting a multi-faith tolerance that is still encouraged today.

You can't -- nor would anyone with a palate want to -- escape the subject of food when visiting Georgia, long famed for hospitality (a Georgian proverb states that "a guest comes from God") and an unending feast called a supra, when the table is piled high with multiple dishes of ingredients all enhanced by absolute freshness and fragrant spices. Our taste buds identified cumin, savory, garlic, paprika, tarragon and coriander and caraway seeds plus flavors I had never tasted, likely introduced via the Silk Road caravans. Georgia had me at khachapuri, a thick, calorie-be-damned flatbread stuffed with molten cheese that comes in various shapes and interpretations.

Georgia's winemaking traditions, meanwhile, stretch back some 7,000 years, while vintners today grow more than 500 varieties of grapes.

The writer makes bread in Tbilisi.
The writer makes bread in Tbilisi.

We heard all about it from the amiable and passionate Luarsab Togonidze, whose popular Azarphesha restaurant aims to keep alive the traditions of Georgian culture, food and wine in a cozy atmosphere of inspired dining and spontaneous outbursts of song.

Sharing the spotlight on today's food scene is Tekuna Gachechiladze, the face of Georgian cuisine's future. Having worked and studied in New York and returned home with a newfound appreciation for her mother's recipes, she is the force behind Culinarium, where courses in Georgian cooking are held and seven- and nine-course tasting menus are offered. We met her at Littera, her newest venture in a magical, candle-lit garden belonging to the art nouveau Writers' House.

"I love Georgian cuisine," she told us, after a dinner that was sophisticated, delicate and delicious. "I truly believe it is unique. I am trying to modernize it, not destroy it. Without innovation, traditional recipes will disappear overtime."

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Our last-but-not-least stop on the Caucasus itinerary was Baku, the glamorous and cosmopolitan capital of oil-rich Azerbaijan on the shores of the Caspian Sea. "The new Dubai," Tepper calls it, "but with history and character." He wasn't exaggerating when he said it was like nowhere else. Air connections from Tbilisi are frequent and easy, as are those from Istanbul or Moscow, making it an interesting add-on to a longer itinerary (13-hour, nonstop flights from Baku to New York on Airbus-340s with the national carrier Azerbaijan Airlines began in late 2014). Since its independence in 1991, Azerbaijan has been using its ample petro dollars to become the economic engine of the region as well as a fledging cultural center, and if its dazzling array of futuristic architecture and urban planning is any indication, the pace of trailblazing has hit warp speed.

I flew into an airport that would not have been out of place in Qatar and was whisked along a waterfront boulevard lined with parks, splashing fountains and recently opened luxury shops, including Celine, Tom Ford, Ferragamo and Versace. My destination was the new Four Seasons Baku, which could effortlessly keep company with any of Paris' deluxe palace hotels.

A guestroom of the Four Seasons Baku in Azerbaijan. The new property could keep company with any of Paris’ deluxe palace hotels, and is just steps from the Old City, which was recognized in 2000 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A guestroom of the Four Seasons Baku in Azerbaijan. The new property could keep company with any of Paris’ deluxe palace hotels, and is just steps from the Old City, which was recognized in 2000 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo Credit: Paul Thuysbaert

This is Azerbaijan's second oil boom. At the turn of the 19th century, the country was the world's largest oil producer, attracting Russian and European investment. The Rothschilds and Nobel brothers (brother Albert of Nobel Prize fame would stay behind in Norway) together with local "oil barons" built opulent mansions thanks to immense fortunes amassed by Azeri oil. Their philanthropy was responsible for a Monte Carlo-inspired opera house that was the first in the Muslim world.

The mazelike Old City was kept intact within its crenellated, honey-colored limestone walls and in 2000 was recognized as a Unesco World Heritage Site. It has a lived-in energy, home to some 1,000 residents and provides the nicest way to spend an afternoon wandering its winding alleys, shopping for carpets and visiting mini-mosques, a 15th century palace complex and ancient caravanserais, some of which have been converted into atmospheric restaurants where local dishes (a delicious mixture of Caucasian, Turkish and Iranian influences) can be enjoyed.

From here, and just about everywhere, you can see the three new skyscrapers shaped like flames (one of them houses a Fairmont hotel). It is said that Azerbaijan translates from Persian as "The Land of Fire," and Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of fire worship, was practiced here.

Azerbaijan is an Islamic state, although resolutely secular, and relaxed dress is the norm (think miniskirts and platform shoes). Young couples hold hands at Parisian-style cafes, defying Muslim stereotypes. Most visitors come for special events, such as the prestigious inaugural European Games that were taking place during my stay in mid-June. Much of the futuristic architecture on view was completed in time to impress delegates from 40 European countries and the media that followed them. Without a doubt, one of the most eye-catching is the Heydar Aliyev Center by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, a concert hall and exhibition space that has been likened to a space-age Bedouin tent.

Nearby, the new home of the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum resembles the shape of a rolled-up carpet. Within the last three years, a host of five-star hotels have opened to accommodate some of the 2 million tourists who arrived in 2014. The Four Seasons is, hands down, the classiest, a calm oasis in a land of over-the-top glamour and glitz.