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Land of the Golden Fleece

Andy Stenning usually spends his days as part of the Explore I.T. team, but recently he swapped this for almost three weeks exploring Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

"Having visited Ukraine a few years ago, I was very interested to visit more of the former USSR states, and this trip gave me a chance to see how Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan compared to Ukraine.

Starting in Armenia, where they pride themselves on being the first Christian country, it was clear to see that there were many temples and churches worth visiting. For me, one of the highlights was the visit to the Echmiadzin Cathedral. We arrived in time to see part of the Sunday service, and had the chance to hear the choir singing. I found it interesting that the choir is not linked to the church, but rather paid singers, who come in just for the Sunday service. 

We were also fortunate enough to witness a wedding taking place at the Geghard Monastery, where it was explained to us that you could tell that the couple were from a local village due to the simple outfits they were wearing.
Heading over the border into Georgia we spent some time in Tiblisi where the mix of old and modern makes this one of the most interesting cities I have visited - it was great for exploring on foot. There is also a very modern cable car that takes you up to the Narikala Fortress, of which some sections date from 10th century.

My top highlight of the whole trip was the visit to Vardzia Cave Town, a series of man-made caves created during the 12th century.  There used to be two sides to the caves which were all hidden from view, but a major earthquake in 1456 collapsed one whole side of the mountain and opened the caves up to be seen. At one time there were over 3000 caves, but this number has been reduced to 550 since the earthquake. Walking around this area and going between the caves using the tunnels is a truly unbelievable experience. Knowing that these caves were cut so long ago makes you realise how impressive the task was!

In Gori we visited one of the stranger museums I have seen, the Stalin Museum where you can choose to have a guide who is pro-Stalin or anti-Stalin. It does seem a little strange to have a museum dedicated to someone who polarises opinion so much; however it is interesting seeing that there is a definite generation split which seems to determine if locals were pro or anti!

I was lucky enough to be going on the Azerbaijan extension for my trip. Starting in Sheki I felt that this was the real Azerbaijan, located in the Caucasus foothills. We visited the stunning Khans Summer Palace, which dates back to 1797.  

Finishing in the vibrant city of Baku, it was interesting to see how modern the downtown part of the city had become. We would go from the very rundown old city, which is almost hidden away, to the new Baku, which could be a little overwhelming.  

Situated where it is, on the cusp of Europe and Asia, Azerbaijan is often called 'the gateway to Asia'. It is very noticeable that, although it is a Muslim country, there is a very western feel to the new areas of Baku. As our guide (who was from Baku) said, for most Baku residents their heart is in Asia, but their head is in Europe.

Overall, this was a fantastic trip. The mix of Europe and Asia, Christian and Islam, and modern and ancient combined to make the sights, sounds and experiences ones that I will never forget."

Andy travelled on Land of the Golden Fleece and Azerbaijan Extension.

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