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Explore the beauty of the Caucasus Mountains
February 28, 2018 | 2:22 PM
by Times News Service
 
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Situated between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea and bordering the two continents of Europe and Asia lie Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The three countries are home to the Caucasus Mountains, which have the highest mountain range in Europe: Mount Elbrus at 18,510 feet. Even today, these three countries retain a heady mix of European, Soviet, and modern atmosphere.

Georgia

At the intersection of the continents, this former Soviet Republic has both the grandeur of snow-capped mountains and the best Black Sea beaches. Also, Georgian wines are well known across the world, and Kakheti has the best vineyards in Georgia.

Capital Tbilisi on the Mtkvari river is the most happening city of the country. The Rustaveli Avenue is the main artery and the hub of commerce and high-end glitz. The area of Abanotubani is famous for its bath houses, and Pushkin and Alexander Dumas have written extensively about them.



The most famous sight in the city remains Mother Georgia or Kartlis Deda. The 20-feet aluminium statue has become the symbol of the city. A woman holding a sword in one hand and a goblet of wine in the other is a metaphor for the Georgian attitude of passionately fighting the enemies but welcoming guests with their famous wines. A walk around the town is rewarding, with a chance to see the confluence of architectural styles, especially the Metekhi Church or the Echmiadzin and the Tsminda Sameba Cathedrals.

A short drive north of the capital at the confluence of the Aragvi river brings one to Mtskheta, the spiritual heart of Georgia since Christianity was established. The Svetitshoveli Cathedral, where the mantle of Christ lies buried, still remains the setting for important ceremonies of the Georgian Orthodox Church. It had frescos as well but they were whitewashed during the Soviet regime.

To many Georgians, the nearby Jvari Church is the holiest of holy places. Another short drive away from the capital, albeit in the opposite direction, is Gori, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. His house is now a museum, and still, many drive down to discover the man who governed the largest country in the world for close to 25 years.

Kutaisi, Georgia’s second city built on the Rioni river, is one of the most ancient in the world. One can soak in the incredible historical legacy that the city carries. From cathedrals to mythological links to the change of ownership down the ages, Kutaisi has it all. Batumi is the country’s Black Sea resort and its port city as well. The iconic 130-metre Alphabetic Tower, adorned with Georgian script, with a seaside observation deck, stands on the promenade. While in Georgia, sampling the famed Khacahapuri, a unique Georgian cheese pie with many layers of dairy, is a must.



Armenia

Armenia a former Soviet Republic, with its ancient monasteries and candle-lit churches, Armenia, again a former Soviet Republic, is among the earliest Christian civilisations. Hence, religious sites are aplenty. The Greco-Roman Temple of Garni, the 4th-century Etchmiadzin Cathedral, headquarters of the Armenian Church, and Khor Virap Monastery, a pilgrimage site near Mount Ararat, a dormant volcano just across the border in Turkey, are just some of the examples.

Soviet-era architecture symbolises Yerevan, the capital of the country. The hub of the city is the Republic Square, around which life revolves. The buildings around this section are all built in the neo-classical style. The National Gallery, showcasing an unbelievable range of artwork, the Matedaran Library housing thousands of ancient manuscripts, and the Museum of Armenia crowd the square.

During the Soviet period, it was called the Lenin Square and a statue of Lenin was installed there. A bit to the north is the Cascade, a giant stone stairway, with Victory Park on the top, which gives an unobstructed view of the city and Mount Ararat. The exterior is of multiple levels and adorned with fountains and modernist sculptures. At the base of the Cascade is an Opera House-like amphitheatre. The western part of the city has the 18th century old Blue Mosque and the Genocide Museum overlooking Mount Ararat.

But the real beauty of Armenia lies outside the capital city.

Surrounded by stunning monasteries lies Lake Sevan in the heart of the country. A holiday destination for locals due to the recreational activities available there, the lake itself is majestic, with a lot of popular beaches in this land-locked country. The Sevanavank Monastery is worth visiting. Mount Ararat is one of Armenia’s most stunning natural sights, with the dormant volcano located in the north. It is Armenia’s highest peak and there is a lot of rock art to be enjoyed around its base, with paintings of animals and human-like figures dating back hundreds of years.

Snow covers the peak almost all year. The best view of Mount Ararat can be found from the Khor Virap monastery, which is one of the most important historic sites in Armenia’s history, as it was here that Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for 14 years before he cured King Trdat III of his disease. The king then converted to Christianity, paving the way for Armenia’s religious future.

Monasteries are one of Armenia’s defining characteristics and the example at Noravank is one of the most beautiful in the country. Sheer brick red cliffs shield the monastery, which was built in the 13th century. Noravank is famous for its Astvatsatsin Church. If you choose only one monastery to go to during the trip to Armenia, Noravank would be a good selection.

Armenia’s version of Stonehenge is Karahunj, made up of over 200 massive stone tombs. The main area has 40 stones standing in a circular formation, supposedly built in honour of the Armenian main deity Ari, named after the Sun.

Azerbaijan

According to travel guides, Azerbaijan is “neither in Europe nor Asia, and is an incredible tangle of contradictions, a fascinating nexus of ancient historical empires”. The Azeri capital Baku is the largest of the Caucasus cities and the most cosmopolitan. It is famed for its medieval walled Inner City.

Within the Inner City lies the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a royal retreat dating to the 15th century, and the centuries-old stone Maiden Tower, which dominates the city skyline.

Baku, the capital, is a Caspian coastline City. Other sights include the Flame Tower, which is a combination of three pointed towers covered with LED screens. The Carpet Museum houses a vast collection of ornate carpets, while the National Flag Square has one of the tallest flagpoles in the world. A short drive from the city is Yanar Dag, a continuously blazing natural gas fire. The Baku Museum of Miniature Books is the only such museum in the world. A collection of over 6,500 books from 65 countries are on display.

The Baku Ateshgah, often called the “Fire Temple of Baku”, is a castle-like religious temple in Surakhani town. The temple was used as a Hindu, Sikh, and Zoroastrian place of worship. “Atesh” is the Persian word for fire.

The pentagonal complex has a courtyard surrounded by cells for monks and an altar in the middle. It was abandoned in the late 19th century, probably due to the dwindling number of Indians in the area.

The natural “eternal flame” went out in 1969, after nearly a century of exploitation of petroleum and gas in the area, but is now lit by gas piped from the nearby city. The Baku Ateshgah was a pilgrimage and philosophical hub of Zoroastrians from the northwestern Indian Subcontinent, who were involved in trade in the Caspian area via the famous Grand Trunk Road.

Indranil Chowdhuri is based in Oman and an avid traveller who has completed foot printing in more than 100 countries.

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