Treasures of Caucasus
13 days / 12 nights
Tour code: 12C/3
The Caucasus comprise three unique yet interconnected former Soviet republics – Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – each with its own distinct customs and traditions. Connected historically with the great Silk Road, this rich region was once traced by ancient caravans from the East carrying delicate jewels, precious stones and spices. Our own tracing of the Caucasus will begin in oil-rich Azerbaijan, from where we journey west into the famous wine-making regions of Georgia, north into the mountainous provinces of the Greater Caucasus, and finally into Armenia, one of the oldest Christian countries along with its Georgian neighbor. We will visit architectural monuments, monastic jewels and cities steeped in a long, rich history of Soviet, Christian, pagan and Arab influence. The itinerary covers as much as possible important and valuable cultural sights. Along the way we will experience fabulous food, wine, music, art, and warm hospitality from our Caucasian hosts. Indeed, the celebration of the table - with endless toasts of wine - is part of the Georgian celebration of life and one in which we will be fortunate to participate.
Day 1: Arrival in Baku
Day 2: Baku sightseeing tour
Day 3: Baku - Shemakha - Sheki
Day 4: Sheki - Telavi
Day 5: Telavi - Tbilisi
Day 6: Tbilisi sightseeing tour
Day 7: Tbilisi- Mtskheta - Gori - Tbilisi
Day 9: Lake Sevan- Selim-Noravank-Khor Virap-Yerevan
Day 10: Yerevan city tour-Zvartnots-Etchmiadzin
Day 11: Yerevan-Aruj-Harichavank - Gyumri
Day 12: Gyumri - Amberd-Agarak-Shamiram-Yerevan
Day 13: Garni-Gueghard-Yerevan
Day 14: Departure
Day 1: Arrival in Baku, Azerbaijan
Arrival at Baku Airport. Transfer to the hotel. Dinner and overnight at the hotel.
Day 2: Baku- City Tour
H.M. Stanley once called the Azerbaijani capital of Baku "the Paris of the Caspian." Few have seen it in such rosy light, yet Baku, one of the great oil gushers of the world, is an intrinsically fascinating place. The atmospheric medieval town surrounded by an impressive defensive wall dating from the 12th century was one of the five biggest cities in the former USSR and the most prosperous of the Caucasian capitals.
This morning we begin our exploration of the city with a walking tour around medieval Baku, a UNESCO World heritage site. Starting from the Maiden Tower - the city's most photographed building, we'll follow the old walls past hammams, mosques, and caravanserais to the 15th century Shah's Palace - the finest surviving example of Shirvan architecture. We'll walk through the old town, the Icheri Shey Har, with its maze of narrow, cobblestone streets then drive past 18th century classical architecture and palazzo-style mansions to the restaurant. After lunch we'll visit the OPTION 1: Gobustan stone carvings museum and Carpet Museum. Housed in the former Lenin Museum, this impressive collection displays many rare and beautiful Azeri carpets from Azerbaijan itself, northern Iran and villages in Georgia and Armenia.
OPTION 2: Ateshgah and flaming mountain. Flaming Mountain, one of few remaining natural gas flares in the area. Dinner in the old Kervansaray refurbished to a stylish restaurant. Overnight at the Hotel.
Day 3: Drive to Sheki via Shemakha
Today we drive to Sheki via Shemakha, traveling past small villages nestled among steep mountains and lush valleys dotted with vineyards. We stop in Shemakha, a city that served for many centuries as the capital and commercial center of western Azerbaijan before being replaced by Baku in the latter part of the 19th century. Nearby sit the famed Yeddi Gumbaz (Seven Tombs), of which only three remain completely intact, the royal tombs of the last Shirvan Khans to rule before the region became part of the Russian Empire. In town, we stop at Juma Meschid, or Grand Mosque, whose 10th century foundations are part of the first mosque, built in the Caucasus. Lunch in Gabala.
We continue to Sheki, a city grown rich as a trade center linking mountain traders from Dagestan and the north with the Caucasian trade route, and today an architectural preserve famed for its silks and crafts.
Visit to Khan's Palace. Set in the midst of dilapidated fortress walls, it is adorned with detailed mosaics and shebaka windows made from fragments of colored glass and hand-shaped wooden cross-pieces. Dinner in a local restaurant. Overnight at the hotel in Sheki.
Day 4: Sheki-Azerbaidznian -Georgian Border-Telavi
We will have the morning to continue our explorations to Kish village, where we will visit Albanian church.
From here we continue towards Lagodekhi: Azerbaijan-Georgian border. Prior to crossing the border we'll stop for lunch in a nice restaurant within woods. We enter Georgia in the region of Kakheti, synonymous in the country with wine, and a fitting place to begin our introduction to the world-renowned Georgian hospitality and delicious food. Before arriving in Telavi we stop at Gremi, an impressive citadel complex consisting of a 16th century domed church, tower and king's chamber. Time permitting we'll visit the Batonistsikhe castle, former residence of the 17th and 18th century Kings. Tonight we assist our hosts in the preparation of a traditional barbeque feast to celebrate our arrival.
- After dinner, we'll be treated to a singing performance at the guesthouse.(at an extra cost)
Day 5: Telavi - Tbilisi
A short drive from Telavi will take us to Gremi and its impressive citadel complex consisting of a 16th century domed church, tower and king's chamber. Our road winds further to the Ikalto Academy beautifully located in a grove of cypresses. Founded by King David the Builder in the 12th century, the academy was the largest centre of education in medieval Georgia and said to have served as a place of study for the celebrated poet Shota Rustaveli who wrote Georgia's national epic, The Knight in the Panther's Skin. Also visit Alaverdi Cathedral.
The Tsinandali Museum and Residence is the former residence of the 18th century Kakhetian prince and poet, Alexander Chachavadze, who turned the residence into a center for Georgian intellectual life. The lovely grounds boast a beautiful English-style park filled with roses and exotic plants. It also houses one of the oldest wine cellars in existence with wine dating from 1814. Leaving this sybaritic place we set out in a westerly direction towards Tblisi.
Day 6: Tbilisi
Today we will explore this wonderful city. In over 1500 years since becoming the capital of Georgia, the city has been destroyed and rebuilt on nearly 30 different occasions following a long history of fighting off Persian, Arab, Turkmen, Mongol, Turk and, finally, Russian invaders. The city has rebounded in recent years to become one of the most lively and cosmopolitan cities in the Caucasus. Today we wind through Tbilisi's narrow streets and inner courtyards and stroll down Rustaveli Avenue, the main thoroughfare running east through the city.
We begin our sightseeing today with a visit to Metekhi Church of the Virgin; this cross cupola church dates from the 12th and 13th centuries and replaced the original 6th century structure which was destroyed by the Mongols in 1235. Part of the Royal residential complex, it houses the grave of St. Shushanik, one of Georgia's most beloved saints who was tortured by her husband for refusing to convert to Zoroastrianism in the 6th century. If we are lucky we may see a service. We drive back to the town center visiting Sioni Cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the main cathedral of Tbilisi. Its claim to fame is the sacred cross of St. Nino which according to legend is made from vine branches bound with the saint's own hair. It also serves as the seat of the Catholicos (Patriarch) of the Georgian Orthodox Church. In addition we'll see the synagogue, the bath houses which have been a favorite place of Tbilisi residents and visitors for over a century, and have hosted the likes of Pushkin and Tolstoy among others, an herbal medicinal shop and the history museum.
Day 7: Tbilisi - Mtskheta- Gori- Tbilisi
Today we drive west along the fertile lands of Kartli province. Our first stop of the day will be in sacred Mtskheta, the ancient capital of eastern Georgia, at the southern end of the highway. Georgia's conversion to Christianity occurred in Mtskheta in 337 AD and it is considered one of Georgia's most important religious centers. We will visit several of its historic monuments including the beautiful Church of Jvari perched on a cliff overlooking the city, Sveti-Tskhoveli Cathedral, the first Christian church to be built in Georgia and its largest functioning cathedral. Next site is in Gori, a town whose place in infamy is linked to being the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. We'll visit the museum which traces his life from his humble beginnings to his death. The house where he was born and raised is in front of the museum itself. Gori provides a convenient jumping off point for our explorations of nearby Uplis-Tsikhe, an ancient cave town dating from the first half of the 1st millennium BC. The entire town is a complex of rock-cut streets, residences, churches, secret tunnels, water passages, markets and the oldest theatre in Georgia. Of the 700 existing caves, visitors have access to a mere 150. After lunch drive back to Tbilisi. Upon arrival in Tbilisi, we have some free time to rest-up before our wine-and-song-filled Georgian farewell feast at Mukhrantubani restaurant replete with a group of Georgian singers and a Tamada (Toastmaster).
Day 8: Tbilisi -Armenia / Alaverdi-Haghpat-Sanahin-Lake Sevan
Check-out from the hotel. Drive to the border, Border formalities, guide and driver change. Drive to visit monasteries Sanahin and Haghpat, which are listed as a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO. The architectural complexes of Sanahin and Haghpat are among the outstanding works of medieval Armenian architecture. The monasteries are situated in the north of Armenia. Sanahin was an important literary and educational centre in medieval times. It was founded in 966. One of the most beautiful monasteries Haghpat was founded later in around 976. Haghpat was also a major literary center in the middle ages. One can never describe these monasteries by words, one should see them. Old Bridge overview. Drive to the mountainous and forested region of Dilijan and visit the magnificent complex of Haghartsin Monastery 11th c. Trip to the high-mountainous Lake Sevan - the emerald of Armenia. Tasting local fish "SIG" and white wine. Overnight at the hotel in Sevan.
Day 9: Lake Sevan Pass- Selim-Noravank -Khor Virap-Yerevan
Sightseeing tour to the Sevan peninsula with Sevan Monastery (8-9 cc.). Drive to Noradous - the old cemetery with numerous khachkars. Continue the tour through Selim Carvansarai to Areni village for local Red wine tasting. Visit to Noravank Canyon with the monastery - a great religious and cultural centre 12th c. Noravank is listed as a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO. Noravank ("New monastery") was founded by Bishop Hovhannes, who moved there in 1205. During the 13th and 14th centuries a series of princes of the Orbelian clan built churches which served as the burial site for the family. The monastery became the center of the Syunik bishopric. The church of St. Karapet (the 9th-10th centuries), which has come down to us in ruins, is the most ancient monument of Noravank. The nearest and grandest church completed in 1339 is the Astvatsatsin ("Mother of God"), also called Burtelashen in honor of Prince Burtel Orbelian. The last highlight of the day will be Khor-Virap monastery 17th c., the place of pilgrimage of Armenians, with view of the twin peaks of Mount Ararat. Khor Virap is one of the popular destinations in Armenia for a number of reasons, primarily because it is where Grigor Luisavorich (St. Gregory the Enlightener)-the first Catholicos of all Armenians- was imprisoned. This caused the convertion of Armenia into the first official Christian nation in the world in 301. Here you can descend the underground chamber where Gregory the Enlightner was imprisoned for 13 years. This monastery rests atop of a little hill in an otherwise very flat Ararat Valley.Overnight at the hotel in Yerevan.
Day 10: Yerevan city tour-Zvartnots-Etchmiadzin
Tour around Yerevan, including visit to Armenian Genocide museum and the History Museum. Then drive to Zvartnots ruins (7th century). The cathedral had been standing for about 300 years and was destroyed by a disastrous earthquake. But even in ruins it has a majestic beauty. Continue trip to Echmiadzin, visit The Holy Church of Echmiadzin. Echmiadzin is the center of the Armenian Church. Here is the location of Echmiadzin Cathedral - the most ancient Christian temple of Armenia. The cathedral, built in 301-303 by Grigor Enlightner the adoption of Christianity, is located in a walled compound with gardens and various structures. (Both Echmiadzin and Zvartnots are listed as a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO). Return to Yerevan. Overnight at the hotel in Yerevan.
Day 11: Yerevan - Amberd-Agarak-Shamiram-Yerevan
Trip to Amberd, a fortress of 12-13th cc A.D. Fortress of Amberd, 9th century, 6 km from the village of Byurakan, stands halfway up Mt. Aragats, at the height of 2300m. The fortress stands on a rocky cape formed by the rivers Amberd and Arkhashen. There are also vestiges of a fortified three-storied palace, a church built in 1026, a palace bathhouse with two domes, a central heating system, water tanks, a water-supply system, and a secret passage to a nearby cleft, and other buildings. Continue tour to Ashtarak, Agarak,visit to Shamiram Hellinistic Monument, remains of fortified city. Lunch at a local Armenian house. This lunch will give a good chance to communicate and feel everyday Armenian life as well as taste home made dishes. Return back to the capital city. Overnight at the hotel in Yerevan.
Day 12: Garni-Gueghard-Yerevan
Visit to the Matenadaran - depository of ancient manuscripts. Continue tour to the Hellenic - Pagan temple of Garni (1 A.D.). Then drive to the cave monastery of Gueghard (13th century) another incredible ancient Armenian monastery, partly carved out of a mountain. Though the monastery has been around since before the 4th century, the main cathedral was built in 1215. The entrance of the compound is surrounded by the high walls on three sides and mountain on the other. Outside the monastery complex there are some caves which have a bunch of little cave rooms of little cave-rooms and are quite interesting. Gueghard Monastery is also listed as a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO. Return to Yerevan.
Day 13: Departure
Transfer to the airport. Departure home!