AZ1 The Caucasus

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TOUR HIGHLIGHTS:

Cosmopolitan Yerevan: City tour; Major Armenian Christian sites; Spectacular views of Mt Ararat (weather permitting); Tbilisi: City Tour & Mtskhetai, ancient capital; Travelling the Georgian Military Highway to the high Caucasus; Legacies: Russian, Arab, Mongol, early Christian and many more!

Full Itinerary


Day 1 Arrival in Baku
Today we arrive in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Overnight in Baku.
Meal plan: dinner

Day 2 Baku: City Tour
Today we tour the 'City of the Winds' and start with a visit to the Martyr's Cemetery, located on the higher slopes of the city's west-end. This is the best place for viewing the city and the Bay of Baku. We proceed to the Old Town 'Iceri Sehir', which is also a fortress. We see the highlights of Iceri Sehir including the Palace of the Shirvans, the most striking example of the Medieval palace structures in Azerbaijan, dating to the middle of 15th century; and the Maiden's Tower, the ancient, eight storey fortress originally built as a fire beacon.

This afternoon we visit the Baku Fire Temple, known locally as the Atashgah. This is a castle-like Hindu temple and monastery complex in Surakhani near Baku. The complex is now a museum and is no longer used as a place of worship. Local legend associates the temple at Surakhany with the fire temples of Zoroastrianism, but this is presumably based on a misunderstanding of the term 'Atashgah,' which in Azerbaijani is literally any fire-place, but in Zoroastrianism is synonymous with Middle Persian Atashdan, the technical term for the altar-like repository for a sacred wood-fire.

Overnight in Baku.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 3 Baku - Shemakha - Sheki
This morning we leave the capital and travel by road west to Shemakha, for a long time the capital and trade centre for western Azerbaijan and now a small town. We briefly visit the Grand Mosque, a very large and attractive building from the late 19th century; and the Yedi Gumbez 'Seven Tombs', yet only three of these desecrated octagonal royal tombs remain reasonably complete. They are the 18th-19th century mausoleums of the Khans of Shemakha.

We continue to Sheki, one of the most ancient settlements and architectural centers of Azerbaijan founded more than 2700 years ago. The setting here is stunning -- lying in forested hills with views of the Caucasus. On arrival we visit the mosaic-fronted Khan's Palace, a beautiful piece of Islamic architecture, and the History Museum. We will also have a walk through the busy market of Sheki.

Overnight in Sheki.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 4 Sheki, Azerbaijan - Telavi, Georgia
This morning we travel along the foothills of the Greater Caucasus range and arrive at the Azerbaijan border / Lagodekhi check-point. After completing customs and immigration formalities (which can be lengthy!) we continue to Telavi.

Throughout this region, snowy peaks can just be made out through the haze, and the towering white poplar tree. The emptiness of the road today belies the fact that this is an ancient trade route, a tiny part of the old Silk Road that linked China with Western Europe before an alternative route was discovered by sea. In the Telavi area, we visit some of the highlights of Georgian architectural monuments: Alaverdi Cathedral (11th c) and Ikalto Academy (4th-13th). In Telavi we also visit the Tsinandali Park. En route, we may be able to stop in at a local winery and learn of the rare endemic wines produced for a thousand years.

Overnight in Telavi.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 5 Telavi - David Gareji Monastery - Tbilisi
Today's journey takes us through Kakheti Province, Georgia's famous wine district, a landscape dotted with fine old churches and vineyard after vineyard.

We then drive to David Gareji Monastery, situated deep in semi-desert about 75 km (47 mi) south-east of Tbilisi. Founded in the 6th century by the Christian Father St. David, the monasteries are remarkable for their original cave frescoes that date from the 8th to 13th centuries, and the site is considered to be one of the most important landmarks of Georgia.

Later in the day we arrive in Tbilisi.

Overnight in Tbilisi.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 6 Tbilisi: City Tour
Tbilisi, capital of Georgia from the 5th century AD, has a long and fascinating history. Founded in the 4th century by King Vakhtang Gorgasali on the site of its warm mineral-water springs, it developed into the main city of the Caucasus. By the 12th century Tbilisi was one of the more important political, economic and cultural centres of the Middle East. It stood as a key stop on the famous Silk Road, right on the border between Europe and Asia. Tbilisi's Old Town, the most ancient part of the city, is renowned for its wonderful mix of cultures. The mosque, the synagogue, the Armenian and Roman Catholic churches mingle harmoniously with the splendid Georgian churches and architecture. The balmy sulfur baths have hosted poets, writers, musicians, and kings down through the centuries. The multi-ethnic markets with large variety of produce and languages, give the city an Eastern, cosmopolitan feel.

We will explore much of the old town by foot, starting at the Metekhi Church (12th C), Abanotubani, the area famous for the sulphur baths with Asian style buildings and 19th C Georgian houses. We will visit the citadel of Narikala, the main fortress of Tbilisi, where we have panoramic views of the city. We visit the National Museum (which has a very interesting exhibit about the Soviet Occupation) and walk Rustaveli Avenue, the most beautiful street of Tbilisi.

Balance of the day for independent exploration.

Overnight in Tbilisi.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 7 Tbilisi - Mtskheta - Kazbegi (Stepantsminda)
This morning we leave the capital and depart for Mtskheta, an ancient town of extraordinary importance to the Georgian nation, located about 20km out of Tbilisi. It was the capital of the eastern Georgian kingdom of Iberia (not to be confused with the European peninsula) from the 3rd century BC to the 5th century AD. Mtskheta was the site of Georgia's adoption of Christianity in 334 and remains the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox Church. We visit the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (11th c.) and Jvari Monastery (6th c.); both are among the finest architectural monuments in Georgia.

We continue along the Georgian Military Highway, a historical road leading north from Tbilisi into Russia. It passes the spectacular Ananuri Fortress (we'll make a stop here), and then climbs the sides of the dramatic Aragvi River Valley, over the Jvari Pass (2395m / 7,857 ft) and down into Kazbegi (officially Stepantsminda; 1700m / 5577 ft). Surrounded by gigantic mountains, Kazbegi is a picturesque settlement overlooked by the biggest of them all -- Mount Kazbek (5047m / 16,558 ft) -- one of the six 5000+ metre peaks of the Caucasus.

Time permitting upon arrival, we'll begin our area sightseeing. The town and rugged surrounds provide some of the most picturesque scenes in Georgia.

Overnight in Kazbegi.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 8 Kazbegi Area
Today will be spent exploring the Kazbegi. We can walk up (or drive) to Gergeti Trinity Church and enjoy the spectacular views of Mt. Kazbek (5047m / 16,558 ft). This is a popular area for walking and trekking, and our time here is somewhat freeform allowing for some easy walking in the beautiful surrounds and the tiny, charming village.

Overnight in Kazbegi.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 9 Kazbegi - Uplistsikhe - Bakuriani
Today we continue down the Georgian Military Highway and turn east to Gori, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. We'll visit the Stalin Museum here before travelling the 8 km to Uplistsikhe, ('the Lord's Citadel'), a cave town hewn into rock. The citadel dates back to the 7th century BC, and had served as a strategic point on the ancient Silk Road from ancient times until the 15th century AD. As part of our visit, we'll see the large central hall for pagan rituals, living rooms, and a 9th century church.

We continue to Bakuriani, established by the Tsar in the 19th century as a spa town and game reserve.

Arrive in Bakuriani.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 10 Bakuriani - Vardzia, Georgia - Gyumri, Armenia
Today we travel to Armenia, stopping at first at Vardzia in the Meskheti province of southern Georgia. Here we see a thirteen story cave town built between 1186-9 by Georgia's famous Queen Tamara. It stands as a unique example of the Georgian 'renaissance' construction in an area of many medieval sites.

We then drive south of Ninotsminda to the border with Armenia at Bavra. We break up our journey to Yerevan with an overnight stop in Gyumri, a city of stately Russian architecture, cobbled streets, and a bustling market. Depending on our timing today, we may do some Gyumri sightseeing today and / or possibly tomorrow before departing for Yerevan.

Overnight in Gyumri.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 11 Gyumri - Yerevan: City Tour
Today we travel the short distance to Yerevan, the present-day capital of a nation that was the first in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion (AD 301). The Yerevan of today is a city of Christian cathedrals, theatres and museums, universities and academies, parks, squares and industrial sites and, finally, an art-loving and sophisticated people.

Upon arrival we tour Yerevan, including the Genocide Memorial and Museum at Tsitsernakaberd ("Swallow Castle"). The memorial sits on the site of an Iron Age fortress, all above-ground traces of which seem to have disappeared. The museum's testimony to the 1915 destruction of the Armenian communities of Eastern Anatolia is moving, and the monument itself is austere but powerful. The spire symbolizes the Eastern and Western branches of the Armenian people. From here the view over the Ararat Valley is striking.

We will also visit the Matenadaran's Manuscript Collection, of prime importance for the study of the history and culture of Armenia, as well as Transcaucasia, Asia Minor and many Middle Eastern countries. Works by some philosophers of antiquity survived only in their Armenian translation. These include Eusebius of Gaesaria's "Chronicle", the ancient Greek philosopher Xenon's treatise "On Nature," and many others. The archives preserve over 100,000 documents of the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries: various deeds, decrees, treaties and letters, which contain vast material on the political and socio-economic history of Armenia and neighbouring countries.

We also visit the National History Museum on Republic Square. The square was built in the 1940s in a traditional Armenian architectural style. The arches of the buildings lining the square and the motifs of the bas-reliefs are unique in their conception and resemble the structural shapes of the Armenian architectural and spiritual monuments of the 10th-13th centuries. In Yerevan, most buildings comprise a pink shade of "tuff" stone quarried locally. This is the most prominent feature of Yerevan's otherwise utilitarian Soviet architecture and is unique to Armenia.

While in Yerevan we will also visit the Echmiadzin Cathedral (AD 301) located outside the city. This is the centre of the Armenian Church and their most important Orthodox cathedral.

Overnight in Yerevan.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 12 Garni Temple & Geghard Monastery Complex
Not far from Yerevan we will find two places where the people expressed their beliefs: the Hellenistic Mithras Temple of Garni, dating back to the first century, and the Geghard Monastery in the gorge of the River Asat. Garni Temple was destroyed by an earthquake in 1679 and reconstructed in the 1970s. The temple is erected on a basalt base, on top of the gorge of the river Asat, surrounded by the ruins of the Garni Citadel, which also served as the summer residence of the Armenian kings in the third and fourth century.

The monastery at Geghard is a unique architectural construction, partially carved out of the adjacent mountain, surrounded by cliffs. While the main chapel was built in 1215, the complex was founded in the 4th century.

At some point during our time in Yerevan we will visit a brandy factory for a tour and tasting. Today we include a typical lunch at a private home.

Overnight in Yerevan.
Meal plan: breakfast,lunch,dinner

Day 13 Exploring South of Yerevan
This morning we visit Khor Virap Monastery (AD 4-17 c). Khor Virap has a very long and rich history, both secular and religious. It is situated in the Ararat Valley against the Biblical Mt Ararat (where Noah's Ark cast anchor) on the left bank of the River Araks on one of the high hills. From ancient times Khor Virap was highly esteemed for its geographical and territorial advantages. Weather permitting we will have spectacular views of Mt Ararat from the Yerevan-Artashat motorway.

We also visit Noravank Monastery, located in a narrow gorge of brick-red cliffs. Noravank ("New Monastery") was founded by Bishop Hovhannes, Abbot of Vahanavank, who moved there in 1205. During the 13th and 14th centuries a series of princes of the Orbelian clan built churches that served as burial sites for the family. The monastery became the center of the Syunik bishopric. The church, completed in 1339, is said to be the masterpiece of the talented sculptor and miniaturist Momik.

We return to Yerevan. Tonight's dinner will be held at a typical Armenian restaurant, possibly with live Armenian music.

Overnight in Yerevan.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 14 Departure
Departure from Yerevan.

BON VOYAGE!!
Meal plan: breakfast