Moldova wasn’t the only country I barely knew before joining the Peace Corps. I also was unfamiliar with Armenia and Georgia, which Champa and I visited this past week during her school’s fall break.
Guess what: They’re beautiful, fascinating, filled with surprises and much easier to visit than you might expect, especially if you’re an American whose idea of “foreign travel” is limited to typical (and expensive) destinations such as Paris or London. Many of us who grew up during the Cold War tended to equate the Soviet Union with Russia, but it included so much more than that.
As you can see on the map, Armenia and Georgia are located on the other side of the Black Sea from Moldova. All three countries are small former Soviet states that declared their independence in 1991. They share many traditions, from Orthodox Christianity to cheese pastries, but Armenia and Georgia each have their own distinct identity. Both are more prosperous than Moldova, especially in their capitals, Yerevan and Tbilisi. Their histories range from Armenia’s genocide to Georgia’s famous son, Joseph Stalin. They are Caucasian in the original sense of that word, with the Caucasus Mountains and striking landscapes.
We flew from Moldova’s capital, Chișinău, via Kiev to Yerevan, where we spent our first full day visiting three friends serving in Peace Corps Amernia: Brent and Dee Beardsley and Karen Jean Hunt, all seen here with us. We then toured some of Armenia’s most famous sites, including the temples at Garni and Geghard, shown above, the cathedral and other treasures of Echmiadzin and the ruins at Zvartnots. We drove past countryside like you see below.
Next we hired a car to drive us north across the Georgian border to Tbilisi, a trip of about six hours including stops at Lake Sevan, Dilijan and a nondescript roadside cafe that served some of the best barbecue we’ve ever eaten. We checked into an Airbnb, shown below, and immediately tried some of Georgia’s cuisine, including its khinkali dumplings that reminded us of Nepal’s momos. The next day we toured Tbilisi and the nearby sites of Jvari and Mtskheta, enjoying still more churches, a synagogue, outdoor markets and a cable car ride.
We loved Yerevan and Tbilisi. Both offer amazing sights, rich history, good hotels and restaurants, lively nightlife, friendly people and reasonable prices. We felt completely safe and had little trouble communicating; many people in both capitals speak at least some English.
During our tours, we met more tourists from Dubai and Abu Dhabi than the United States. That’s a shame. Americans are missing out on a great travel experience: two welcoming countries that are relatively easy to reach and require no visas. As I wrote previously about Transylvania in Romania, if you’re the kind of person who enjoys looking beyond the beaten path, consider visiting Armenia and Georgia — and Moldova! — before they are “discovered.”
I won’t tell anyone if you need to peek again at the map to be sure where they are.