...and where the last group of tourists was led by Alexander the Great

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Europe, the Middle East or Central Asia? Sadly nobody seems to care much. The three Caucasian republics are among the least visited by tourists in the world.

That swathe of mountains squeezed by the Black Sea to the west and the Caspian Sea to the east has been ignored by travellers since the days of Alexander the Great. The land routes from Europe to Asia went through Persia to the south, and (marginally) Russia to the north. Nobody went through the bit in between.

Partly this was an accident of topography, but added to that was 70 years of Soviet communism. Even until the early 1990s, border guards were under instructions to shoot to kill any backpackers from eastern Turkey who strayed too close to the border with the Soviet republic of Armenia.

Since the collapse of the USSR, the situation, if anything, has got even worse. The area has gained a reputation for ethnic strife, with Chechnya, Nagorno Karabakh and the breakaway Georgian republic of Abkhazia all appearing on foreign news pages far more frequently than in the travel sections.

While it is true that tourism to this part of the world is unlikely to take off in the immediate future , the war-free parts of the region have definite promise, as Mike Gerrard suggests in the article above. In addition to Georgia, the two remaining former Soviet republics - Armenia and Azerbaijian - are both intriguing destinations, and are not as inaccessible as is commonly imagined. The state of war that existed between the two countries has subsided into a tense stand-off.

Overland travellers can travel in and out of the region from Turkey, though if approaching through Russia you may end up having to travel via Grozny, which is not a brilliant idea. Crossing from Georgia to either Armenia or Azerbaijan by land is feasible.

Azerbaijan

Although culturally Azerbaijan seems more like Central Asia, in footballing terms it is decreed to be part of Europe. Along with the other Caucasian republics, its teams compete in "European" football competitions.

Despite these interesting identity problems, tourism is not exactly setting the country alight. Business visitors from all over the world, however, have been flocking to the capital, Baku, in search of oil riches. Eighty years ago this Kuwait-by-the-Caspian briefly enjoyed the status of a wealthy international city, and now those days are returning. One upshot is that the city can be very expensive, with everyone from taxi drivers to hoteliers demanding hefty payments in US dollars in cash.

This is not to say Baku isn't worth visiting. As well as relics of the pre-Soviet boom, parts of the old city dating back to the 12th century can still be found. The rest of the country is pretty much a blank as far as foreign travellers are concerned, though mountain villages, lots of caviar and traditional Turkish hospitality lie in store for anyone who wants to explore.

British Airways flies to Baku from London three times a week. The embassy of Azerbaijan is at 4 Kensington Court, London W8 5DL (tel: 0171-938 3412). Tourist visas are issued on the basis either of a letter of invitation, or of confirmed hotel bookings in Baku.

Armenia

The Armenians are an ancient people who, until recently, were looking for a country to call their own. Historically, they controlled an empire that extended well beyond Mount Ararat, which is today a part of eastern Turkey. On the Armenian side of the border, the story of the attempted genocide committed against their people in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire will not be forgotten.

Armenia may be tiny but it packs in a lot of mountainous landscape. It even has a reputation for producing fine foods and brandies, especially in the capital Yerevan, which is reputedly fun like Tbilisi. Ancient churches and religious relics also abound.

Armenian Airlines (tel: 0181-568 8899) flies from various European capitals to Yerevan, including Paris, though not London. A London-Paris-Yerevan ticket costs around pounds 650 - not exactly a bargain. The Armenian embassy (tel: 0171-938 5435) issues tourist visas without requiring letters of invitation.

JEREMY ATIYAH

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