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Explore the land of Fascinating Caucasus

Caucasus - Cultural Tour (20 days)

The journey through the south Caucasus begins in Armenia, a country whose tiny size belies its importance in the history of this region. Christianity came early to Armenia (in about 301 AD, making it the first Christian nation) and today this mountainous country is dotted with an astonishing number of churches, cathedrals and monasteries, mostly dating back to the 9th and 10th centuries - Armenia's golden age. Arguably the origins of all western church architecture can be traced back to this rugged land. After five days in Armenia, we cross into Georgia. An old Georgian fable tells that when God was distributing the land to the peoples of the earth, the Georgians were drinking hard and arrived late. God told them there was no land left for them, to which they replied they had been lifting their glasses in praise of Him - God was so pleased he gave the Georgians the piece of land he was reserving for himself! Georgia is a remote, mysterious and romantic country, steeped in myths and legends - it was here that Jason found the Golden Fleece, Prometheus was chained to Mt. Kazbegi after he stole fire from the gods, and the fearless women tribe, the Amazons, lived beside the Tergi River. Tucked between Azerbaijan, Turkey and Armenia, Georgia could be described as Europe's final bastion and despite being invaded throughout history, maintains its own unique culture and heritage. You can also lengthen your trip to the Caucasus by adding a five day excursion into Azerbaijan, a fascinating country whose complex history stretches back several millennia. We travel via Sheki, an important silk weaving centre in former years, to the capital Baku, situated on the Caspian Sea.

Day 1Arrival in Yerevan
Meeting at the airport. Check-in at the hotel. Overnight.

Day 2Yerevan / Garni
Situated in the shadow of mighty Mt Aragats (4090m) the capital of Armenia is a busy and cosmopolitan city, looking to the future but deeply rooted in its often tragic past. On a clear day there are splendid views across the Ararat Plain to the silhouette of Turkey's Mt Ararat (5165m), once part of 'Greater Armenia' and to many Armenians still symbolic of a glorious past. We firstly visit the remarkable Matenadaran library which houses over 17,000 rare manuscripts. Afterwards we drive up to the extraordinary Roman site of Garni, located in a Nature Reserve east of Yerevan. The main attraction here is the exceptionally well preserved Temple of the Sun, built in AD77. The architecture of Garni, whilst interesting in its own right, seems bizarrely out of place here on the upland plateaux of Armenia, so far from the rest of the Hellenistic world. We also visit the nearby monastery of Gegard before returning to Yerevan. Overnight.

Day 3Yerevan / Holy Echmiadzin
This morning we visit the ruins of St Gregory's church just outside Yerevan at Zvartnots, one of the earliest churches in Armenia and in its day reputedly one of the most beautiful in the world. Then to Echmiadzin, the former capital, to visit the holiest monastery complex in the country. We hope to see at least part of the Sunday service here before returning to Yerevan. This afternoon we will visit the Genocide Memorial Complex, after which you will be at leisure and there is the chance to stroll through the 'Vernissage', an open air weekend handicraft market. Overnight.

Day 4Amberd Fortress
Leaving the capital, we head northwest and make an excursion to the Amberd Fortress on the southern flank of Mount Aragats. Its construction began in the 7th century and continued through into the 11th century. 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. We take a short walk and on a clear day the views over the Ararat Plain are spectacular. The highlight however is the view of Mt Ararat, the legendary resting place of Noah's Ark. Overnight.

Day 5Khor Virap / Noravank
Monastery, Selim Pass to Chambarak We depart Yerevan and travel south through the plains of Ararat to visit Khor Virab Monastery. Mount Ararat rises behind the monastery providing a great opportunity for photos. Our next stop is Noravank Monastery, situated on the hill of a twisted gorge. The Noravank Monastery is not only a place of breathtaking natural beauty but also an architectural delight. We take the road over the Selim Pass - a thoroughfare since the medieval ages when the Silk Road was operating. Continuing on we reach the turquoise blue waters of Lake Sevan, located 1900m above sea level and famous both for its ever changing hues and fresh fish. We overnight on its shores at Chambarak. Overnight.

Day 6Trip to Tbilisi
On our last morning in Armenia we drive across rugged, mountainous terrain to the Dilizan Nature Reserve, where we visit on foot the remote monastery of Haghartsin. Constructed over a period of 300 years, this remarkable monastery blends harmoniously with the hills and forests that surround it. Continuing our journey north we stop at the Monastery of Haghpat: a UNESCO World Heritage Site on account of its outstanding ecclesiastical architecture. Crossing the border in the afternoon, we arrive in Georgia and continue to the capital, Tbilisi. Time permitting, there may be the opportunity to take a stroll up to the Narikala Citadel for fine views over the city or perhaps take a relaxing sulphur bath for which Tbilisi is famous. Overnight.

Day 7Tbilisi
The capital of Georgia is an ancient and cosmopolitan city; there is a synagogue, a mosque, a Georgian basilica, an Armenian church and a Zoroastrian Fire-Worshipper's temple all within a 15 minutes walk. One of Europe's most fascinating capitals, we include a half day orientation tour on foot which takes in the important Church of Metecki, Siohi Cathedral and the State Museum of Georgia, allowing plenty of time free to wander the boulevards and back streets of the city, absorbing its unique ambience. Overnight.

Day 8Tbilisi / Mtskheta / Kutaisi
We leave the capital this morning and drive to Mtskheta, the spiritual heart of Georgia. Here we visit what is considered to be the most sacred place in Georgia, the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. The 9th century basilica contains the grave of Sidonia, who was said to have been buried holding Christ's robe. We also visit the 6th century Jvari church before driving via Khosuri and Surami into the hills towards the Rikoti Pass, claimed to be a watershed between Asia and Europe. Here the road winds through narrow, forested valleys before dropping onto the fertile plains of the Rioni, Georgia's most important river. Arriving in Kutaisi, the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Colchis, we check into our guesthouse for a two night stay. It was here that Jason stole King Aeetes the Golden Fleece when he fell in love with the king's daughter Medea. Kutaisi has always been an important town throughout the ages and for many years was the capital of Georgia, when Tbilisi was occupied by the Arabs. 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. Overnight

Day 9Kutaisi / Gelati / Motsameta / Gelati / Bagrati
This morning we drive to the magnificent monastery complex at Gelati, which consists of a variety of churches and the Academy building. 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 in them are extremely well preserved, and the setting of the monastery on a hillside with views over to the distant Caucasus peaks is attractive. Later we drive via the smaller monastery of Motsameta, spectacularly sited on a cliff-edge, back to our guesthouse in Kutaisi. During free time this afternoon, it is possible to walk from our guesthouse through the attractive back streets to Bagrati Cathedral, completed in 1003. As with many cathedrals, it has been added to throughout the ages and today maintains grandeur and nobility despite its ruined state. Overnight

Day 10Kutaisi / Bakuriani
We appreciate the amazing diversity of landscape in this small country during today's drive. Heading for the alpine meadows of Bakuriani we retrace our route before turning south to drop into the majestic deciduous forests of the Borjomi Gorge. Stopping briefly at Ubisi church, well known for its 14th century murals, this small complex dates back to the 9th century. We then continue on to the picturesque mountain resort of Bakuriani which will be our base for the next two nights. There is plenty of time this afternoon to explore the area independently. Overnight.

Day 11Bakuriani / Vardzia
The first stop on our excursion today is a visit to Khertvisi Fortress, dramatically situated on a cliff above the confluence of two major rivers. Later we enjoy a leisurely visit to one of Georgia's most significant sites: the cave town of Vardzia. 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 3,000, 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 discovered. There are numerous churches, meeting halls, refectories and wine cellars, all interconnected by tunnels and stairways. Return to Bakuriani. Overnight.

Day 12Bakuriani / Gudauri
Leaving the mountains behind we continue our journey, stopping at Gori, where perhaps 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! Later we drive to the 'cave town', Uplistikhe. Here an entire town of streets, churches, palaces and residential buildings has been carved into the mountainside. Dating from the first millennium BC, it gradually grew to be an important city on the trade route linking Byzantium with India and China. We drive east and then north into the snowy Caucasus. Driving up the Georgian Military Highway, a highly important strategic link across the mountains to the northern Caucasus. This route has been an important trade route from the earliest times and was described by Strabo as 'the dangerous mountain route'. En route we'll pay a visit to the Ananuri architectural complex. We reach Gudauri and check into our hotel for a two night stay. Overnight.

Day 13Gudauri / Kazbegi
The Kazbegi region is very picturesque, with alpine meadows and towering snow-capped mountains behind - Gudauri itself is a ski resort in the winter. The day is spent exploring this region. We 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, (approx. 3 hours walk). The area is a treasure trove of mythology - it was to Mt Kazbegi, (the highest peak in this region standing majestically at 5047m), 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. Overnight.

Day 14Kazbegi / Telavi
The Kakheti region is famous for its wine production and today we pay a visit to a local winery that has been operating for over 300 years. We'll have the chance to sample both red and white wines before continuing to the town of Telavi. Overnight.

Day 15Telavi / Alaverdi / Sheki
Telavi is the main town for the Kakheti province, a wide and fertile valley overlooked by the snowy peaks of the Caucasus Mountains. From Telavi we discover the elegant Alaverdi Cathedral, dedicated to St George. In the afternoon we cross the border into Azerbaijan at Lagodekhi and drive on to Sheki. Overnight.

Day 16Sheki
Lost In the folds of the forested slopes of the Caucasus foothills, Sheki has for centuries been an important market town on the eastwest trading route running across the Caucasus from the Caspian Sea in the east to the Black Sea in the west. A further trade route across the mountains to Dagestan in the north turned Sheki into a thriving commercial centre - especially during the 18th and 19th centuries, when there were no fewer than five working caravanserais providing safe lodging to merchants and traders. We stay in a converted caravanserai and visit on foot the Palace complex including the museum. In the afternoon we visit the nearby village of Kis, from where there is an attractive walk through deciduous woods to the ruined remains of Gelersen Gorasen ('come and see') castle, so named because in the 1740s the Khan of Sheki defied the ruling Persians, challenging them to come and see the strength of the fortifications for themselves. Overnight.

Day 17Drive to Baku
We travel the historic trade route from Sheki to Baku, on the Caspian Sea, a scenic if winding journey in the shadow of the mighty Caucasus stopping en route at Samaki. The land is incredibly varied: from lifeless deserts at one extreme to dense green forests at the other. Overnight.

Day 18, 19 Baku Old City Tour
The history of Baku is long and fascinating, not least its recent past since the 'oil boom' of the early 20th century, when Azerbaijan produced more than half the world's supply of oil and the capital Baku grew uncontrollably. On our first morning however we walk through the delightful winding alleys of the Old City, whose old mosques, caravanserais and overhanging wooden balconies tell of a quieter era in Baku's history. We see the Maiden's Tower, a powerful, eight-storey fortress, and the Shirvanshah's Palace complex, parts of which date back to the 15th century. In the afternoon we make a trip by bus to the Absheron peninsula, to visit its remarkable Zoroastrian Atesgah (fire temple). The second day has been left free for personal exploration in this fascinating city, perhaps a visit to the renowned Carpet Museum or old Baku's antique and carpet shops. An optional excursion can be taken south of the city to the amazing petroglyphs of Qobustan, which date back to the Iron and Stone Ages, but also include some grafitti etched by a Roman soldier - said to be the easternmost Latin inscription yet found. Also in this region are dozens of so called 'mud volcanoes' no more than a few feet high these curious geological formations spew liquid mud into the air. Overnight.

Day 20Departure Transfer to the airport.

Other details available upon request
Note: Duration of the tour must be fit to your arrival and departure Flights.

Package Includes:
- Airport - Hotel - Airport Transfer
- Inland transportation
- Tour Guide
- Hotel Accommodation (in the cities) Double room
- Guest House Accommodation (in the villages) - FB Meal: BLD - 1 bottle of mineral water per person per day - Museums Entrance fees - Leaving party at the National restaurant - Wine tasting


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