Touring holidays to Armenia & Georgia

Kieran Meeke / 27 June 2017

Armenia and Georgia are both ex-Soviet Republics, with an early history of Christianity that has left a legacy of picturesque mountaintop churches and monasteries. However, despite these similarities, they are two very distinct, and fascinating, countries.



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Must-see sights in Georgia and Armenia

Armenia

Armenia is less mountainous than Georgia but still averages a height of more than 5,000 feet. The Armenia plateau is the origin of the Euphrates and Tigris, the two great rivers of the Middle East.

Armenia’s main attraction is its picturesque churches and monasteries. Chief among these is Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church. 

It is said to date to the fourth century, being converted from a temple when the country converted to Christianity around 303 AD.

Added to over the subsequent centuries, it is a primer for Armenian religious architecture and is now part of a Unesco World Heritage Site. Its design is thought to have influenced many later churches of the Byzantine Empire.

The Greco-Roman Temple of Garni is an unexpected sight after seeing the many Christian churches of the country. The only Greco-Roman building still standing in the former Soviet Union, it dates to the first century.

Geghard (“Spear”) Monastery also dates to the fourth century and takes its name from a relic said to be the spear used to stab Jesus at the crucifixion. (The spear is now held at Etchmiadzin.) 

Another Unesco site, several of its churches have been cut out of rock, modifying existing caves, and the acoustics are extraordinary. The site has a good collection of khachkars, freestanding memorial stones carved with early Christian art.

Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, is a city of broad avenues and Soviet-style buildings. It can appear bland on first sight but its young population means it has a lively restaurant scene and varied nightlife. 

When shopping, look for Armenian carpets, Soviet memorabilia and local cognac (see Food & Drink below).

Any Yerevan tour will take you to Matenadaran Museum to see its ancient manuscripts and the Armenian Genocide Museum. 

Turkey disputes this massacre of perhaps 1.5 million people by the Ottoman Empire ever took place but you can see the emotions this tragic event evokes in visitors to the imposing Genocide Monument nearby.

Georgia

Georgia’s Caucasuses are the highest mountains in Europe, a paradise for hikers and with a number of ski resorts. 

They remain a dramatic wilderness and a growing tourism industry is starting to offer other options such as paragliding, white-water rafting, caving and horse riding.

Most visitors to Tblisi, Georgia’s capital, fall in love with the city. Its Soviet era isolation and hilly setting has left it with great character.

Ancient, tumbledown buildings, fascinating markets (shop for Soviet memorabilia, jewellery and art) and quirky shops, make for great strolls with a treat on nearly every corner. Only the grandiose new steel and glass government buildings spoil the vistas.

Narikala Fortress overlooks Tbilisi and a walk around it offers fine views of the city. It’s especially popular in the evening when the streetlights come on.

Uplistsikhe is a city of caves whose temples predate Christianity. Some 20,000 people lived here when it was an important centre on a main caravan route between Asia and Europe.

Gergeti Trinity Church has a lovely setting on a hilltop and dates to the 14th century. It is a three-hour hike to the church but FWD vehicles can manage it in 30 minutes.

Batumi is a resort on the Black Sea and Georgia’s second-largest city. In summer, it is crowded with holidaymakers who enjoy subtropical weather, Black Sea beaches and international hotels and casinos.

The People of Georgia and Armenia

There are approximately ten million Armenians worldwide and only three million actually living in Armenia. Exiles sending money home are an important part of the economy, and this openness to the outside world is also key to understanding the people.

This diaspora makes hospitality to guests a matter of pride. It is not unusual to be invited into a home for a shared meal, although widespread post-Soviet poverty means there might not be much.

Soviet Russia was hard on Georgia – despite Joseph Stalin being a local man – and there remains a deep distrust of government. There is also a reliance on extended family, and being very neighbourly is a given. 

That – and the religious belief that “a guest is a gift from God” – helps make the country a delight for visitors; as soon as you have one Georgian friend, a whole world of friendship opens up.

Anyone who visits Georgia will come away with memories of almost overwhelming hospitality. Prepare to party hard, enjoying endless toasts, if you fall in with any local people, who may well act insulted if you try to pay for anything.

Expect some surprises in the Caucasus countries of Georgia and Armenia… there’s to more to discover than you may have thought… Find out more here.

Language & culture in Georgia and Armenia

Armenian is an ancient language that is hard, but fascinating, to pick up. Knowledge of Russian remains useful in this region as it was taught to many older people as well as the many younger ones who have studied or worked in Russia. 

English is also widely spoken as there is a large Armenian diaspora with a strong history of business that makes English language skills essential.

Both Armenia and Georgia stand at a crossroads of the Silk Road, where Europe and Asia met and blended. Aspects of both cultures can found in customs, costumes and faces even today.

Armenia prides itself on being the first country in the world to become Christian, in 301AD (a claim disputed by Ethiopia). More than 90 per cent of the population are nominally the Armenian Apostolic Church but church attendance is low.

Traditional family life is central to most people’s lives. The man is the head of the family and the eldest son is respected as the link to next generation. Guests are treated as part of the family

Music plays a big part in Armenian life, including traditional as well as more modern forms such as jazz. The country takes part in the Eurovision Song Contest and has twice reached fourth place.

Georgian is among the world’s oldest languages, with a script derived from Ancient Greek, but the good news for visitors is that its second official language is English, which has replaced Russian.

The Orthodox Church holds a much more central place in Georgia than in Armenia, having acted as a cultural bulwark against Soviet excesses and providing a readymade sense of national identity afterwards. 

Church attendance is booming and religious processions, baptisms and weddings are a common sight.

There are differing views on whether the Caucasus Mountains are in Asia or Europe but Georgians very much see themselves as Europeans.

Embark on an eastern adventure to the exotic cities of Uzbekistan, an historic crossroads on the Great Silk Route's path across Central Asia. Find out more here.

Food & drink in Georgia and Armenia

Armenia’s traditional flat bread, "lavash", has now been recognised by Unesco as part of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”. It is an important part of any meal, which usually starts with a wide selection of starters.

Anyone who has enjoyed a middle-eastern meal will recognise dishes such as “dolma” – meat and rice wrapped in vine leaves – or tabbouleh salad.

Mains might include lamb stew, moussaka or kebabs, and dishes such as baklava will also be familiar. However, meals tend to be bland and oily compared to Georgia.

Georgia’s most notable food is “khachapuri”, a delicious bread stuffed with cheese that is served at every meal. “Khinkali” are dumplings, stuffed with juicy spiced meat and eaten with the hands.

The rich soils and good climate of Georgia produce a near endless list of great foods that are creatively cooked. A meal here consists of dozens of dishes and rounds of toasts that will leave superb memories.

Winston Churchill discovered Armenia’s “Ararat” cognac during the Yalta Conference in 1945 and liked it so much that Stalin ordered a case shipped to him in Britain every month until his death. It’s one souvenir well worth taking home.

Georgia’s tipple is wine, although connoisseurs might not rate it too highly. In both countries, vodka is cheap and plentiful, and local beers are well worth trying.

Health and safety

Armenia is a safe place for visitors, apart from its roads which are often badly maintained, something that is also true of Georgia. In both countries, there is also a risk from drunk driving and unsafe vehicles.

However, there are no unusual health risks in either country and tap water is safe to drink.

Georgia’s reputation of friendliness does not extend to gay rights and LGBTW visitors should exercise caution.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.