Travel through the Caucasus region and discover the diversity of a land straddling two continents. Explore lively cities, discover ancient cultures, walk through spectacular mountain scenery and indulge in hearty local cuisine on this journey through the ages. Georgia - Explore medieval Tblisi and sample wine in Kakheti Armenia - Wander through ancient monasteries and stay in the shadow of Mount Ararat Extension - Add on an optional extension to explore contrasting Azerbaijan
Arrive in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Tree-lined streets encase both grand soviet-era architecture and traditional Armenian coloured stone buildings; all set to the dramatic backdrop of the fabled Mount Ararat. For those arriving on time our Leader plans to meet you in the hotel reception at 6pm for the welcome meeting. There are no other activities planned today, so you are free to arrive in Yerevan at any time although please note that your hotel room may not be available until after 2pm. If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you'll need to arrive into Zvartnots International Airport (EVN), which is 20 minutes' from the hotel. Should you miss the welcome meeting, your Leader will inform you of any essential information at 9am on day 2. If your flight arrives earlier in the day, perhaps you might choose to witness Mother Armenia; the female personification of Armenia located in Victory Park.
This morning we head out of the city to visit the archaeological site of the 7th century ruins of the UNESCO listed Zvartnots, its remaining columns set against a magnificent backdrop of the snowy peaks of Mount Ararat. We continue on to Armenia's Holy City of Echmiadzin, the former capital, where we plan to visit the UNESCO listed Echmiadzin Cathedral in time to coincide with part of Sunday service. Returning to Yerevan, we pay a make our way to the Cascade complex - a Soviet period structure that resembles a giant stairway that houses a modern art museum. We continue on to see the expansive Republic Square before some time to enjoy a wander through the lively open air Vernisage craft market.
Today we again leave the city behind as we drive east through small villages and a landscape of alpine meadows to out to the Hellenistic temple at Garni. This pagan monument dedicated to the worship of the sun was built in AD 77 and is an extraordinary sight to be found in Armenia, so far from the rest of the Hellenistic world. From the temple we take an easy walk down the Garni river gorge, where we can see the striking basalt rock formations that make up the towering walls of the gorge. We continue on to the nearby UNESCO listed Geghard Monastery found in a beautiful location surrounded by mountains. Partly made up of caves and partly built from local stone, this tranquil monastery dates from the 4th century and houses two main churches and a fountain of spring water alleged to have rejuvenating properties.
Today we head northwest and make an excursion to the imposing Amberd Fortress on the southern flank of Mount Aragats (4090 m). Its construction began in the 7th century and continued through into the 11th. The Fortress is surrounded by cliffs on three sides, which protected it for a long time until Tamerlane managed to sack it in the 14th century. Afterward we head towards Oshakan village, where a local family invite us into their home to see how they bake traditional Armenian flatbread known as 'Lovash'. We then enjoy a lunch prepared with this freshly baked bread, before returning to the city. Back in Yerevan we have time to visit the remarkable Matenadaran library, which houses over 17,000 rare manuscripts.
We depart Yerevan today and travel south through the vast plains of Ararat to visit Khor Virap Monastery. Mount Ararat is a constant companion on the horizon and provides a spectacular backdrop to the monastery. As we continue on our way the plains give way to undulating hills as we start making our way into the mountains. We pass through the wine-making village of Areni where we stop at a local winery to taste the best wine in Armenia. Continuing on our way, the scenery becomes more mountainous and we head into a spectacular gorge where we make a stop at the picturesque Noravank Monastery, taking pride of place in a lofty position overlooking the gorge below. After a break here for lunch we climb higher making our way over Selim Pass (2410 m) providing wonderful views of the mountains and Alpine meadows with its many wild flowers in the spring. As Selim Pass was once part of the Silk Road we find can the remains of a caravanserai here, where travellers would find food and shelter on their journey. The road then starts a descent and once again we start to pass through villages, eventually catching our first glimpse of the expansive waters of the beautiful Lake Sevan with its backdrop of mountain peaks. Located 1900 m above sea level Lake Sevan is famous for its ever changing hues, and depending on the weather the colour of the water can range from a deep steely blue to a stunning turquoise. This huge body of water is the largest lake in the Caucasus region covering an area of 940 square km, and one of the largest fresh water high altitude lakes in the world. We have the chance to walk up to Sevanavank Monastery, where, from its high position we gain a different perspective of the lake. Our hotel for the night sits on the banks of the lake itself.
Today we head to the Armenia/Georgia boarder at Sadakhlo. The scenery changes again as we find ourselves amongst hills and valleys covered in pine trees. In picturesque Dilijan town, we walk through a museum street, which has preserved houses dating back to the 18th century with typical fretwork wooden balconies as well as local handicraft studios. As we continue on the scenery changes again and becomes more dramatic as we drive by towering escarpments as we make our way into the copper mining are of Armenia. Our final stop is at the dramatically located Monastery of Haghpat, listed by UNESCO on account of its outstanding ecclesiastical architecture. Crossing the border in the afternoon, we cross a river to arrive in Georgia and continue to the capital of Tbilisi. Time permitting, there may be the opportunity to take a stroll up to the Narikala Citadel for fine views over the city or take a relaxing sulphur bath for which Tbilisi is famous.
Leaving the capital this morning, we drive to picturesque Mtskheta, the spiritual heart of Georgia. Here we visit the hilltop 6th century Jvari Monastery where we have spectacular views of Mtskheta and the confluence of two rivers below. We make our way down into the town where we visit Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. The 11th century basilica contains the grave of Sidonia, who was said to have been buried holding Christ's robe. We head further west, snaking through the beautiful Imerti villages that dot the landscape. We stop in Merjevi to visit a traditional winery and sample some of the Georgian bio-wines that are produced here, differing greatly to the more-famous wines found in eastern Georgia. We continue through the old mining town of Chiatura where we find some 20 soviet cables cars that, remarkably, are still active despite appearances of being abandoned several years ago. The last stop before we reach our destination is Katskhi pillar, where we see a church precariously perched on top of a 40 metre limestone monolith. Arriving in Kutaisi, the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Colchis, we check into our guesthouse for a two-night stay. Kutaisi has always been an important town throughout the ages and for many years was the capital of Georgia, when the Arabs occupied Tbilisi. The period between the reigns of King Bagrat and Queen Tamar (roughly 900 - 1200) was the golden age for Kutaisi and most of the significant buildings date from this time. Now it is the main city of the Imereti region and here the people are renowned for their sense of humour and also a special kind of 'khachapuri' - the cheese bread unique to Georgia.
We set off this morning for the Batumi, Georgia's attractive summer capital that sits on the shores of the Black Sea. A renovation and regeneration project carried out at the turn of the century has transformed the city's skyline, now a mix of modern skyscrapers, sculptures and hotels, contrasting against charming 19th century buildings, all set against a backdrop of the rolling mountains that surround Batumi. We start our exploration in the Old Town, walking through European Square and Piazza Square, home to charming classic architecture featuring many mosaics, stained glass windows, clock towers and churches. We move onto the Batumi Botanical garden, created in 1912 to reflect vegetation found in all of earth's 9 geographic zones. After lunch we move onto the more modern seafront, where a stroll along Batumi Boulevard takes in the modern skyscrapers, dancing water fountains and the moving metal sculpture of Ali and Nino. We return back to Kutaisi in the late afternoon, a drive of approximately three hours.
This morning we drive to the magnificent UNESCO listed monastery complex at Gelati, which includes an Academy that employed some of Georgia's greatest thinkers. It was founded in 1106 by King David the Builder in gratitude to God for his victories over the Turks. The King wanted it to serve as a centre of Christendom, so as well as scholars many religious artists studied here. Many of the treasures which were made here have been lost over the centuries, however the buildings and frescos inside are extremely well preserved, and the setting of the monastery on a hillside with views over to the distant Caucasus peaks is attractive. We continue our drive south, travelling via the turquoise-roofed Bagrati Cathedral and the impressive natural wonder that is Prometheus Grotto with its impressive stalactites, stalagmites and petrified waterfalls. Our day's journey ends in Akhaltsikhe, a charming town which translates literally to 'new city', although ironically there isn't much that's new about this 12th century town. The skyline is dominated by the imposing Rabati castle, its old streets are home to a large Armenian population, and the forests just outside the town hide the beautiful 10th century Saphara Monastery. We have some free time late this afternoon to explore Akhaltsikhe.
Today we head towards one of Georgia's most significant sites, the cave town of Vardzia. On route we'll stop off at Khertvisi Fortress, dramatically situated on a cliff above the confluence of two major rivers, it is one of the oldest fortresses in Georgia dating back to the 2nd Century BC. We'll continue our drive through a remote and beautiful landscape of rolling hills, with mountain peaks on the horizon and pine trees occasionally standing like sentries along the sides of the road. Vardzia itself is cut into a towering cliff and was established by King Giorgi III in the 12th century, as a stronghold against the Turkish Sultanate (the Turkish border is only 10km away). Vardzia was subsequently developed by his daughter, Tamar (later to become Queen Tamar), who created a cave monastery that became a centre of Georgian culture. This network of caves above the Mtkvari (Kura) river once numbered 3000, with up to 19 tiers in some places. Much of it was destroyed after a huge earthquake in 1456 and only 550 caves have been since discovered. There are numerous churches, meeting halls, refectories and wine cellars, all interconnected by tunnels and stairways. We have time to explore and navigate our way around this fascinating place before returning to Akhaltsikhe
This morning we set off for Borjomi, travelling through the majestic forests of the Borjormi Gorge and stopping to sample the sulphurous water there. We then continue our journey, stopping at the very Soviet style town of Gori, where Georgia's most famous son, Stalin, was born. Here we visit the museum and learn much about his life. Interestingly he initially began training as a priest in the Georgian Seminary, before abandoning religion to become a brigand and join the new Bolshevik movement. It has been suggested too that Georgia escaped the worst horrors of Stalin's regime because he was afraid of his conservative Christian mother! En route we'll pay a visit to the Ananuri Fortress overlooking a reservoir on the Aragvi River. We then continue to head north into the mountains. The scenery becomes more dramatic as we ascend along the Georgian Military Highway. We drive through the spectacular and breath-taking mountain scenery of the Greater Caucasus as we make our way to Gudauri (2196 m), a winter ski resort overlooking an epic gorge, for a two-night stay.
North of Gudauri, the Kazbegi region is a picturesque area, with alpine meadows and towering snow-capped mountains. We spend the day in the mountains and plan to walk from Kazbegi town through Gergeti village and up to the Church of the Holy Trinity, stunningly located on a hilltop overlooking the snowy peaks of the Caucasus Mountains. The walk is a round trip of 3-4 hours. The area is a treasure trove of mythology - it was to the majestic Mount Kazbegi (5047 m), the highest peak in this region, that Prometheus was chained. This part of the Caucasus is a protected area, and is home to a variety of flora and fauna. Georgia has over 100 different mammals, and although the European bison and Caucasian leopard have become extinct, there are still wolves and bears in the mountains.
We descend from the mountains today and drive onto Tbilisi, a short drive of approximately three hours. The capital of Georgia is an ancient and cosmopolitan city; we can find a synagogue, a mosque, a Georgian basilica, an Armenian church and a Zoroastrian Fire-Worshipper's temple all within a 15 minute walk of one another. Tbilisi is one of Europe's most fascinating capitals, and we include a half day orientation tour on foot which takes us first through the picturesque Old Town to the important Church of Metecki, the Sioni Cathedral and then on to the fascinating State Museum. There is plenty of time free to explore the city further, perhaps a backstage tour of the Rustaveli Theatre or a wander through the narrow streets of the Old Town perhaps finding a quirky café to pass the time. A walk over the architecturally striking contemporary Peace Bridge is also a must.
Today we have a free morning to further explore Georgia's capital or to relax in one of the many city's coffee shops. In the afternoon we continue west to the Kakheti region where we first make a stop at the lovely 18th century town of Sighnaghi, referred to locally and tongue-in-cheek as the Paris of Georgia! The Kakheti region is famous for its wine production we visit to a local winery that has been operating for over 300 years. Here we can see a 16th century wine cellar and have the chance to sample both red and white wines before continuing to the charming town of Telavi where we overnight in a guesthouse with shared facilities.
This morning we visit the impressive 16th century Gremi Fortress. For lunch today we travel to a local farmer's home, where we enjoy a feast laid on by a farmer in his home. We have the unique opportunity to experience delicious traditional Georgian cooking and warm hospitality. This afternoon there is the option to travel to a wine factory for a fascinating insight into how the local tipple is created. We will see both European style production and traditional Georgian production methods. We will also be able to sample the wines and perhaps buy a bottle of Hilary Clinton's favourite. Our al fresco lunch is hosted by a local family at their home. In the afternoon we return to Tbilisi for our last night.
The trip ends after breakfast at our hotel in Tbilisi. There are no activities planned today, so you are free to depart from Tbilisi at any time. If your flight is departing later in the day luggage storage facilities are available at our hotel. If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you need to depart from Tbilisi International Airport (TBS), which is 25 minutes\ from the hotel.
15 Break Fast(s) 5 Lunch(es) 6 Dinner(s)
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