The following itinerary describes daily activities which may change or be rotated and/or modified in order to accommodate alterations in opening hours, flight schedules etc. Participants will receive a final itinerary together with their tour documents prior to departure. The tour includes breakfast daily, lunches & evening meals indicated in the detailed itinerary where: B=breakfast, L=lunch and D=dinner.
Baku, Azerbaijan - 2 nights
Day 1: Wednesday 4 September, Arrive Baku
- Tour commences at 12.30pm in the foyer of the Four Season Hotel Baku
- Buffet lunch at the hotel
- Introductory Meeting
- Heydar Aliyev Center (Zaha Hadid architects)
- Introductory Lecture
- Welcome Dinner
Meeting Point: The tour commences at 12.30pm in the foyer of the Four Seasons Hotel Baku.
We shall then proceed immediately to the hotel restaurant for a light lunch. In the afternoon we begin with a short introductory meeting and then board our coach and travel north of the city to view the extraordinary fluid shell-like Heydar Aliyev Center by the Islamic world’s foremost contemporary architect, Zaha Hadid. In the evening we regather for an introductory lecture before enjoying a welcome dinner at a local restaurant. (Overnight Baku) LD
Day 2: Thursday 5 September, Baku
- Coach Orientation Tour including view of Baku city from Martyrs’ Lane & view of Flame Towers
- Baku’s UNESCO-listed Old City including the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, Maiden Tower & Multani Caravanserai
- Azerbaijan National Museum of Art
- Azerbaijan Carpet Museum displaying the vivid colours and bold designs of Azeri, Caucasian and Iranian carpets
This morning we take a coach orientation tour of Baku. Modern Baku constitutes three cities: the UNESCO Heritage listed old walled city (icheri shekher), the boomtown and the Soviet-built town. The boomtown, south of the old city, developed during the early 20th century when Azerbaijan was the world’s greatest oil exporter. The boomtown that oil export supported has interesting beaux-arts architecture particularly of mansions of pre-Revolutionary millionaires. Modern Baku spreads out from the walls rising up hills that rim the Bay of Baku. It has some fascinating contemporary architecture.
We begin with a visit to Martyr’s Lane, dedicated to those killed by the Soviet Army during Black January and later to those killed in the Nagorno-Karabakh War. From this memorial there are excellent views of the city and Bay of Baku. Adjacent to Martyr’s Lane we also view the iconic trio of flame-shaped towers which have transformed the city’s skyline. Designed by HOK, they were inspired by Baku’s history of fire worship.
Next, we take a walking tour of the tightly packed old walled city of Baku, visiting major historic monuments. These will include the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, whose complex includes a palace, mosque, bathhouse and other buildings. Nearby is the powerful Maiden Tower, a remnant of the city’s 12th-century fortifications. We also visit the Multani Caravanserai and Hajji Gayyib bathhouse, the Bukhara Caravanserai and Gasimbey bathhouse, the Synyk-Kala Minaret and Mosque and the Lezgi Mosque.
After lunch we visit the Azerbaijan National Museum of Art, in which you will have time to explore both the European collection, with works by artists like Andrea del Sarto, Guercino, Frans Hals and Charles le Brun, and the collection of Eastern art, represented in particular by Persian, Turkish, Chinese and Japanese art. The museum also includes decorative-applied arts of Western Europe (France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece, Flanders, Denmark, Spain), the East (Iran, Turkey, Japan, China, India, Egypt, Middle East) and Russia.
We end the day with a visit to Baku’s extraordinary Carpet Museum that takes the form of a huge rolled up carpet. It boasts the country’s greatest carpet collection as well as a large corpus of ceramics, jewellery from the Bronze Age, medieval metal work, gold and silver adornments, national garments and embroidery and modern applied art works. Carpets constitute the most eloquent expressions of Azerbaijani ethnic identity. Praised by Marco Polo, they were prized throughout Europe during the Renaissance; Holbein depicted them as a sign of wealth in a number of portraits. For eons they have been used in Azerbaijan to adorn marquees, huts, houses, nomads’ tents, and other structures. (Overnight Baku) BL
Sheki, Azerbaijan - 1 night
Day 3: Friday 6 September, Baku – Gobustan – Sheki
- Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape – an important site of ancient petroglyphs added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2007
- Khan’s Summer Palace (UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Sheki’s caravanserai
This morning we drive out of Baku to Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape, an outstanding site with more than 6000 rock engravings bearing testimony to 40,000 years of human settlement. The remains of inhabited caves, settlements and burials reflect an intensive use during the wet period that followed the last Ice Age, from the Upper Paleolithic to the Middle Ages.
After exploring Gobustan we continue our journey west to Sheki. Situated 700 metres above sea level in a natural amphitheatre surrounded by mountains and oak forests, Sheki rises above fertile yaylags (pastures) and fields. The picturesque town has brick houses, shaded streets, with weeping willows lining canals carrying spring water. Originally a late Bronze Age settlement, it was occupied by Arab invaders in the 7th century. In the 9th century, when Arab power in the region weakened, a Christian kingdom was established here. The Shirvanshahs, a Persianised Arab dynasty then ruled the region as vassals of various overlords such as the Mongols and Timur (Tamerlane) until it was absorbed into Safavid Persia (1609). In the 18th century Sheki became capital of a Khanate, only to be taken by the Russians in 1805. Memories of its long history of silk manufacture remain in cottage silk production that can be seen today.
We shall visit the Khan’s Summer Palace, built in 1762 by Hussein Khan, the famed poet ‘Mushtaq’. The interior of the two-storey building is decorated with magnificent frescoes and lit by exquisite stained glass. We also visit Sheki’s reconstructed upper caravanserai located on the right bank of the river Gurjanachai. (Overnight Sheki) BLD
Tsinandali - 1 night
Day 4: Saturday 7 September, Sheki – Kvareli – Gremi – Tsinandali
- Lunch at Kvareli Gvirabi, Khareba Winery, Kakheti
- Gremi: Royal Citadel & Church of Archangels
We pass today from Azerbaijan into Georgia, visiting the Khareba winery and Gremi’s royal citadel on our way to Tsinandali. Kvareli Gvirabi in the Khaketi region, is Georgia’s largest wine cellar – 7.7 kilometres of tunnels and galleries that maintain a constant temperature of 12-14 degrees Celsius and 70% relative humidity all year round. Originally built for military purposes during the Cold War, the tunnels (gvirabi) were purchased by Khareba Winery who use them to store and age about 25,000 bottles of wine. We shall enjoy a light lunch catered by the winery’s excellent restaurant.
Gremi was the 16th-century capital of the Kingdom of Kakheti. Founded by Levan of Kakheti, it remained a lively Silk Route trading town and royal residence until razed by Safavid Shah Abbas I of Persia (1615). Gremi died and the Kakheti royal house transferred its capital to Telavi in the mid-17th century. Gremi, like many other Georgian cities, had a large Armenian population with its own churches and market. The town was composed of three parts, the Church of the Archangels Gabriel and Michael and its complex, the royal residence and the commercial neighbourhood. We shall visit the church complex that includes a three-storey citadel, a bell tower and a wine cellar (marani) encircled by a wall defended by embrasures, turrets and towers. King Levan of Kakheti built the cruciform, domed church in 1565. Its construction is of traditional Georgian masonry but its design is a local interpretation of contemporary Iranian architectural styles.
In the late afternoon we drive to the Radisson Collection Hotel located within the Tsinandali Estate. Tonight we dine together at the hotel’s restaurant which serves traditional Kakheti cuisine. (Overnight Tsinandali) BLD
Tbilisi, Georgia - 3 nights
Day 5: Sunday 8 September, Tsinandali – Alaverdi – Telavi – Tbilisi
- Alaverdi Monastery: Cathedral & Alapiani Winery Cellar
- Batonis Tsikhe
- Lunch and wine tasting at Togonidze Winery
We begin this morning with a visit to the monastery complex at Alaverdi which was founded by the Assyrian monk, Joseph Alaverdeli, in the middle of the 6th century. Located in the Alazani valley and silhouetted against the Great Caucasus Mountains, the complex is surrounded by extensive defensive walls dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. Within these walls lies the 11th-century cathedral built by Kakhetian King Kvirike the Great, which replaced a small church of St George. Over 55 metres tall, this is one of the largest cathedrals in Georgia. Alaverdi became the episcopal centre of the diocese, and the Alaverdi Cathedral became the tomb of of Kakheti royalty. The monastery is the focus of the annual religious celebration, Alaverdoba, which is celebrated throughout Kakheti. Within the monastery walls lies the Alapiani Winery Cellar, built on the site of the older 10th-12th century cellars. Here monks maintain the centuries-old Georgian wine-making tradition, producing wine using the endemic variety of Kakhetian vine in qvevri, clay vessels buried in the ground.
The medieval royal palace, Batonis Tsikhe, (‘The Master’s Fortress’), is located in Telavi, the principal city of Kakheti. It was built by King Archil in 1667-1667 and was the main residence of the Kakhetian kings during the 17th and 18th centuries. The castle complex has undergone extensive reconstruction over the centuries; it was recently restored in 2018. Within the complex, which is surrounded by a monumental rampart and large corner towers, we view surviving sections of the Persian-style palace of King Erekle II, modelled on the Arg of Karim Khan in Shiraz, Iran. There are also two small churches, the royal baths and a combined history and art museum.
Togonidze Winery produces fine natural wines with traditional Georgian qvevri-style winemaking methods dating back over 8,000 years. The family uses non-irrigated, chemical-free production on vineyards to create the highest quality wines. The winery sits in the foothills of the Gombori mountain range overlooking the Alazani River Valley, with the Caucasus Mountains to the north. We shall sample their wines, enjoy lunch made from local produce, and learn more about the winemaking process from a member of the Togonidze family.
Mid-afternoon we drive to Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, where we shall be based for the next three nights. (Overnight Georgia) BL
Day 6: Monday 9 September, Tbilisi
- Walking tour of Tbilisi, including: Metekhi Church, Mosque, Orbeliani Baths, Synagogue, 19th-century caravanserais, The Anchiskhati Basilica of St Mary, Sioni Cathedral of the Dormition
- Cable car to Nariquala Fortress
- Afternoon at leisure
- Tbilisi’s Art Nouveau architecture (optional walking tour)
- Dinner at Azarpesha Restaurant incl. recital by ‘Ensemble Didgori’ (by special arrangement)
Georgia’s capital Tbilisi (pop. 1.6 million) was founded in the 6th century by the monarch of what was then the medieval kingdom of Iberia. We shall spend the morning walking through the historic core of the city that has been Georgia’s capital for the greater part of 1500 years. During our walk we visit a number of important churches, including the 13th-century Metekhi Church, the 6th-century Anchiskhati Basilica of St Mary and Sioni Cathedral of the Dormition housing the Cross of St Nina. We also view (exterior only) 19th-century caravanserais, the blue-tiled Orbeliani Baths and the Old Town’s mosque and synagogue.
We take the cable car up to the powerful Nariquala Fortress, founded in the 4th century and expanded by Iberia’s Umayyad (Arab) rulers and by king David the Builder (1089-1125). Most of the extant fortifications you will see date from the 16th and 17th centuries. From the the fortress there are magnificent views of Tbilisi.
Lunch will be served at a local restaurant in the Old Town which features organic Georgian produce. The remainder of the afternoon is at leisure for you to further explore the Old Town.
Tbilisi’s architecture is a fascinating mix of different period styles. Historic local architecture shows strong Byzantine and Middle Eastern influences. Tbilisi’s 19th-century precincts have many buildings in the Russian Neo-Classical style. At the beginning of the 20th century, during the Art Nouveau era, politics in Georgia were directly controlled by the capital of the Empire, Saint Petersburg, and Russian influence was evident. Despite all this, Tbilisi’s privileged location between Europe and Asia – that is, a city-bridge between two continents – helped to bring Art Nouveau inspired architecture, an unquestionable image of internationalism and modernity that was called ‘Modern Style’ in Georgia. In the late afternoon there will be an optional walking tour in the vicinity of our hotel viewing some examples of Tbilisi’s Art Nouveau buildings.
This evening we dine together at a local restaurant where we have engaged some members of the ‘Ensemble Didgori’ to sing for us. The men’s folk and chant ensemble Didgori was founded in 2003 with a leadership of Mr. Levan Tsitaishvili. The name Didgori honours the historical battle in 1121 that helped reunite Georgia and ushered in a period of growth in arts and culture. (Overnight Tbilisi) BLD
Day 7: Tuesday 10 September, Tbilisi
- The Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia with its exquisite gold treasures (Georgian National Museum)
- Dimitri Shevardnadze National Gallery incl. the art of Niko Pirosmani
- Private Classical Concert at the Mose Toidze House Museum
This morning we visit the Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia to see its exquisite gold treasures. Of special note is the 5th-century BC Akhalgori hoard that contains unique examples of jewellery, blending Achaemenid (Persian) and local styles and gold pieces brought here from various archaeological sites in Georgia. There is also a collection of medieval icons.
After lunch we visit the Dimitri Shevardnadze National Gallery which displays the largest Pirosmani collection in the world. Niko Pirosmani was born in the Kakheti region in the village of Mirzaani in 1862 where he became a self-educated artist. He later moved to Tbilisi where he made a living painting shop plaques, portraits and landscapes for bar owners. Known as one of the foremost self-taught Georgian painters, Pirosmani was discovered by prominent Georgian artists Lado Gudiashvili, David Kakabadze and Kirill Zdanevich. Despite this recognition, he struggled to reach a wider audience and faced limited work opportunities. It was only after his death in 1918 that he rose to prominence and gained international recognition.
In the early evening we attend a private classical concert at the house-museum of Mose Toidze (1871-1953), one the founders of modern Georgian painting. (Overnight Tbilisi) BLD
Kazbegi National Park, Georgia - 1 night
Day 8: Wednesday 11 September, Tbilisi – Mtskheta – Ananuri – Kazbegi
- Mtskheta, the UNESCO-listed capital of the early kingdom of Iberia including: Jvari (Holy Cross) Church (exterior only as interior currently under renovation) and Svetitskhoveli Cathedral
- Ananuri Fortress, built by the 17th century dukes of the Aragvi Valley
We drive north today into the awesome Greater Caucasus Mountain Range where we stay overnight high amongst snow-covered peaks. On the way we stop at Mtskheta, the UNESCO-listed capital of the early kingdom of Iberia where we shall visit Jvari (Holy Cross) Church and Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. Mtskheta, capital of Iberia before Tbilisi, was founded around 1000 BC. It is one of Georgia’s oldest cities and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Jvari Church was founded in the 6th century. Its façades are decorated with bas-relief sculptures that show strong Hellenistic and Sasanian (Persian) influences. Inscriptions on the façades are extremely important for documenting the earliest Georgian script. Grand Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, built in the 11th century over a much older sacred site, is Georgia’s second largest church. It is believed to be the burial site of Christ’s mantle and has long been the principal Georgian church; it remains one of the country’s most venerated places of worship. It is the seat of the archbishop of Mtskheta and Tbilisi, who is at the same time Catholicos – Patriarch of All Georgia.
Further north we visit Ananuri Fortress, a large complex consisting of two castles connected by a curtain wall, situated in an extraordinarily beautiful site overlooking the broad Aragvi River. Built by the eristavis (Dukes) of Aragvi, a feudal dynasty that ruled the area from the 13th century, it has seen many fierce battles. We continue to Kazbegi (Stepantsminda), which at 1740m above sea level nestles beneath Mount Kazbegi (5034m) and Mount Shani (4451m). (Overnight Kazbegi) BLD
Borjomi - 2 nights
Day 9: Thursday 12 September, Kazbegi – Grakliani – Borjomi
- 4WD excursion to Gergeti Trinity Church
- Grakliani Hill archaeological site
- Borjomi Gorge
This morning we make an excursion by 4WD to one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring sites in the world. Isolated in a mountain vastness, 14th-century Gergeti Trinity Church sits at an elevation of 2170 metres right under Mount Kazbegi.
Late morning we return to Mtskheta where we break for lunch at a local restaurant. Our next visit is to the site of the Iron Age temple at Grakliani. The site was declared a National Cultural Heritage Monument following the discovery of a mysterious script etched on the side of a collapsed stone altar in 2015. The script is believed to be the oldest example of a native alphabet in the Caucasus. As recently as 2020, archaeological expeditions undertaken by Tbilisi State University have revealed ceramic and metal items that date to the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Davit, who has previously worked at this site, will show us some of the archaeological findings which are on display in a small onsite archaeological museum.
From Grakliani we continue west to the picturesque spa town of Borjomi where will be based for the next two nights. Our journey takes us through the Borjomi Gorge, a canyon cut by the Mktvari River through the Lesser Caucasian Mountains. The canyon is the source of ‘Borjomi’ carbonated mineral water. The valley’s artesian springs are fed by water that filters from glaciers covering the peaks of the Bakuriani mountains. The springs were discovered by the Imperial Russian military in the 1820s and were famous throughout the Russian Empire. (Overnight Borjomi) BLD
Day 10: Friday 13 September, Borjomi – Vardzia – Akhaltsikhe – Borjomi
- Cave city of Vardzia including the Church of the Dormition
- Khertvisi Fortress (exterior only)
- Rabati Castle Complex incl. the Samtskhe-Javakheti History Museum, Akhaltsikhe
This morning we make an excursion to Vardzia, a vast complex of religious buildings and dwellings cut into the living rock on the slopes of the Erusheti Mountain on the left bank of the Mtkvari River. This site, inhabited from the Bronze Age, reveals four major building phases after it had become an important monastery. The site was first laid out and the first cave dwellings quarried during the reign of King Giorgi III of the medieval kingdom of Georgia (1156-1184). The second phase occurred between his death and the marriage of his successor Tamar in 1186, when the Church of the Dormition was excavated and decorated. The third phase lasted from 1186 until the Battle of Basian (c.1203), when many more dwellings as well as defences, a water supply, and irrigation network were added. The fourth phase was a period of partial rebuilding after heavy damage in the earthquake of 1283. The site was abandoned when the region was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century.
Vardzia is particularly important for its wall paintings, which we shall view. Queen Tamar at Vardzia is an iconic image of Georgian history. Dating from 1184-86, her image forms part of the wall paintings adorning the Church of the Dormition, the focal point of this famous rock-cut monastery. Comprising images of the Virgin, donors and nationally revered saints, with scenes from the Passion of Christ, the wall paintings survive almost complete.
Founded in the 2nd century BC, Khertvisi is one of the oldest fortresses in Georgia, having been particularly important in the Middle Ages. The fortress sits atop a steep, high crag in a narrow canyon at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Paravani Rivers. Its church was built in 985, and its present walls constructed in 1354. We make a brief stop to view the fortress (exterior only) before continuing to Akhaltsikhe.
In Akhaltsikhe we explore Rabati Castle Complex composed of a citadel, mosque and the Samtskhe-Javakheti History Museum. The complex has recently been restored to its former glory when, from the 13th to the 16th century, it was the residence of the local Jakhely princes. Its great diversity of building types is equalled by the fascinatingly eclectic styles of its buildings, with strong Georgian, Byzantine and Islamic elements. Opened in 2012, the museum, which is part of the Georgian National Museum, is especially known for its collection of 13-19th century manuscripts, including the oldest version of Vepkhistkaosani (‘The Knight in the Panther’s Skin’), of the 16th century. (Overnight Borjomi) BLD
Kutaisi, Georgia - 1 night
Day 11: Saturday 14 September, Borjomi – Kutaisi
- Gelati Monastery, Kutaisi (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
- Time at leisure
This morning we drive west to the important western Georgian city of Kutaisi, capital of the Imereti region. Following lunch at a local restaurant we visit Gelati Monastery. It is surrounded by thick, verdant forest and contains the Church of the Virgin founded by the King David the Builder (1106), as well as the 13th-century churches of St George and St Nicholas. UNESCO World Heritage listed, Gelati was an extremely important medieval centre of learning. The monastery, with its distinctive Georgian church architecture, contains a number of royal tombs, including that of King David and a number of Georgia’s most important mosaics, frescoes and icons dating from the 12th to the 17th century.
The remainder of the afternoon is at leisure to explore Kutaisi which is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Our hotel is within walking distance of the Rioni River and the medieval Bagrati Cathedral whose interior is decorated with frescoes. This evening we dine at a charming local restaurant. (Overnight Kutaisi) BLD
Mestia, Svaneti, Georgia - 2 nights
Day 12: Sunday 15 September, Kutaisi – Engird Reservoir – Mestia
- Scenic drive into Caucasus Mountains, incl. Engird Reservoir
- Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography, Mestia
- Mikheil Khergiani House Museum, Mestia
Today we drive north into the Svaneti region, one of the most remarkable historic areas of the Caucasus, located in North West Georgia. Our journey takes us through some of the grandest, highest, most beautiful mountain landscapes of the Caucasus.
We drive up the Enguri Gorge where the first inhabitants, mainly gold prospectors, settled in antiquity. It was here that most of the famed gold of the ancient kingdom of Colchis was obtained. For centuries the Svan ethnic group, considered an ethnic subgroup of the Georgians, evolved here, cut off from the outside world by the high and inaccessible mountains, their local language and culture preserved almost intact. In earlier centuries, Svaneti was a recognized part of the Kingdom of Colchis.
Our destination today is the small town of Mestia, the major ‘townlet’ (daba) in the Svaneti region and, at an altitude of 1,500 metres, the highest town in Georgia. Mestia is graced with extraordinary Svan fortified dwellings consisting of a high defensive tower, an adjacent house (macho), and other household structures encircled by a defensive wall.
On arrival we visit the Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography which is a treasury of the history of Georgia, as it contains material culture from the Georgian lowlands which Svaneti’s isolation protected from the depredations of foreign invaders. The museum includes Christian masterpieces from the 9th to the 18th century including the Icon of the Forty Sebastian Martyrs, an embroidered Byzantine icon, Venetian cross, a jug donated by Queen Tamar, and the earliest remaining sample of an illustrated manuscript from the Adishi Gospels (897).
Next we visit the house-museum dedicated to the famous Svan mountaineer, Mikheil Khergiani (1932-1969). Khergiani, who conquered the most difficult peaks of the Caucasus, Pamir, Tian-Shan and the Alps, was acknowledged as one of the best mountain climbers of all time, and dubbed “Tiger of the Cliffs” by Queen Elizabeth II. (Overnight Mestia, Svaneti) BLD
Day 13: Monday 16 September, Mestia – Kala – Ushguli – Lenjeri – Mestia
- Lovers Tower (‘Tower of Lovers’), Kala village
- Ushguli: The four villages of Chvibiani, Murkmeli, Jibiani and Chazhashi
- Lashtkhveri church of the Archangel, or church of Taringzel, Lenjeri
This morning we journey by 4WD 36 kilometres further north and higher into the mountains of the Upper Svaneti region to explore the cluster of four villages located in the Enguri Gorge that take the collective name, Ushguli; they are designated a UNESCO World-heritage site. Within exceptional mountain scenery, these ‘medieval’ villages, have remained pristine due to their extreme isolation. At 2,200 metres, they are considered the highest continuously settled villages in Europe; from these villages it is possible to see Shkhara peak, the highest in Georgia. We shall focus on the village of Chajashi, dominated by distinctive koshki (defensive stone towers). These towers not only acted as strongholds for Svanian family clans, but were also used as retreats from avalanches in winter. Currently most of the towers have an important sacral function for local people. We also visit the so-called ‘lovers tower’ in the village of Kala.
Returning to Mestia we make an excursion to the small village of Lenjeri to view the Lashtkhverich church of the Archangel (also referred to as the church of Taringzel). This medieval church is avidly adorned with a series of frescoes painted on both internal and external walls which date to the late 14th and early 15th centuries. In addition to religious scenes and portraits, the paintings include a rare illustration of episodes from the epic romance on Amiran-Darejaniani. (Overnight Mestia, Svaneti) BLD
Kutaisi, Georgia - 1 night
Day 14: Tuesday 17 September, Mestia – Zugdidi – Kutaisi
Today we return to Kutaisi. Along the way, we visit Dadiani Palace in Zugdidi – a castle-like building from the 17th to 19th centuries. The museum houses one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s three bronze death masks, acquired through a 19th-century marriage between a Dadiani and a descendant of Napoleon’s sister. (Overnight Kutaisi) BLD
Tbilisi - 1 night
Day 15: Wednesday 18 September, Kutaisi – Gori – Tbilisi
- Joseph Stalin Museum, Gori
Today we return to Tbilisi. Along the way we stop at Gori to visit the house-museum of Russia’s most notorious Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. In a pavilion in front of the museum is the tiny wooden hut in which Stalin was born (1878) and spent his first four years. Stalin’s father Vissarion Jughashvili, a local shoemaker, rented the one room on the left hand side of the small building and maintained a workshop in the basement. The museum also has Stalin’s personal railway carriage, as well as a large number of photographs and various memorabilia. (Overnight Tbilisi) BLD
Dilijan - 1 night
Day 16: Thursday 19 September, Tbilisi – Akhtala Monastery – Haghpat Monastery – Dilijan
- Georgia/Armenia Border Crossing
- Akhtala Monastery with 13th-century frescoes
- Haghpat Monastery (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Today we cross into Armenia and visit two magnificent monasteries, foundations of medieval royal houses. Thirteenth-century Akhtala monastery’s great jewel is its cycle of medieval frescoes, arguably the finest in Armenia. It also has fine façade relief carvings. This isolated, seldom-visited complex, like so many Caucasian monasteries, perches high in its fortress enceinte dominating the surrounding countryside. Unlike the other monastery we visit today, Akhtala shows a strong Georgian architectural influence.
The second monastery we visit, Haghpat, is justly famous. Located on a hillside looking down on the Debed River and across to a 2500-metre peak, it was founded by Queen Khosrovanuysh, wife of the Bagratid king Ashot III (c.976) and constitutes a superb example of the 10th-century flowering of Armenian architecture. The Cathedral of Surb Nishan (c.976-991) dominates the complex. Its high dome rests on four imposing pillars, typical of Armenian architecture of this period. The church has frescoes and fine relief sculptures, depicting Christ Pantocrator, the donor Prince Khutulukhaga, and his sons Smbat and Kurike with Queen Khosravanuche. A small hamlet usually surrounded monasteries in this region and over time the complex grew to include the small domed church of Sourb Grigor (1005), the so-called Hamazasp House (1257), the small 13th-century chapel of Sourb Astvatsatsin, a scriptorium, free-standing bell tower (1245) and refectory. We shall also view superb khachkars, cross-stones that were ubiquitous in medieval Armenia. In the afternoon we continue south to the spa town of Dilijan situated within the Dilijan National Park. (Overnight Dilijan) BLD
Yerevan, Armenia - 4 nights
Day 17: Friday 20 September, Dilijan – Lake Sevan – Vardenyants (Selim) Pass – Areni – Noravank – Khor Virap – Yerevan
- Lake Sevan
- Ancient caravanserai and Vardenyants (Selim) Pass
- Areni-1 Cave Complex
- Noravank Monastery (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
- Khor Virap Monastery, Ararat Valley
Today we continue southwest to Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. On the long drive we shall enjoy some of Armenia’s most powerful scenery. From Dilijan our route follows the western shore of Lake Sevan, one of the largest freshwater high-altitude (alpine) lakes in Eurasia.
We then follow a major trunk of the trans-Eurasian Silk Route up the Selim Mountain Pass where we visit Orbelian’s Caravanserai, constructed by prince Chesar Orbelian in 1332 for merchants making the long trek through the mountains. The basalt caravanserai, like Armenia’s medieval churches, sports interesting relief sculptures. Muqarnas gracing its portal and wall niches reflect the strong influence of Islamic architecture.
After lunch we visit the Areni-1 Cave Complex where archaeologists have found within a Copper Age burial site the world’s oldest known winery. In 2007 archaeologists unearthed a wine press for stomping grapes, fermentation and storage vessels, drinking cups, and withered grape vines, skins and seeds. This discovery provides archaeologists, for the first time, a complete archaeological picture of wine production dating back 6,100 years. The same cave also revealed a stunningly preserved 5500-year-old leather mocassin.
Next we enter the scenic upper Amaghou Valley to visit another of Armenia’s most famous monasteries, Noravank. Its site is particularly dramatic; it occupies a narrow gorge with tall, sheer, brick-red cliffs above the Darichay River. S. Astvatsatsin Church (1205) is a narrow high structure topped by a lovely drum consisting of an open arcade.
Even more dramatically situated is the last monastery we visit before driving to Yerevan. Khor Virap Monastery sits on a spur above the Ararat Valley, looking across to majestic Mount Ararat (5163 metres). In many ways the image of the monastery framed by a backdrop of one of the world’s highest mountains encapsulates the rugged beauty of this mountainous country. Khor Virap owes its fame to the fact that Armenia’s most famous churchman, Gregory the Illuminator (c.257–c.331), was imprisoned here by the Parthian-Armenian (Zoroastrian) King Tiridates III before Gregory eventually converted him, his court and aristocracy – and thus the country – to Christianity (301). Within the church stairs lead down into the pit in which Gregory was incarcerated. (Overnight Yerevan) BLD
Day 18: Saturday 21 September, Yerevan
- Short orientation coach tour of Yerevan: incl. House of Government, Victory Park and the Cascade
- Matenaderan: a repository of 17,000 illuminated manuscripts
- History Museum of Armenia
- Evening performance (details to be confirmed in 2024)
We begin with a coach tour of Yerevan’s major sites including the House of Government and Victory Park that affords dramatic views of the city framed by Mount Ararat. Victory Park also displays some interesting Soviet weaponry, including a Mig-19, the aircraft used by the communists during the Vietnam War.
Next we visit one of the world’s greatest collections of medieval manuscripts. The Matenadaran is a repository for 17,000 precious illuminated works that document the rise of Armenian literary culture and the country’s particular form of Christianity over more than a millennium.
In the afternoon we tour the History Museum of Armenia. Of particular importance are its archeological collections that span a vast period from 100,000 BC to the Middle Ages. They comprise the Paleolithic Collections (100,000-12,000 BC); the Neolithic-Chalcolithic Collections (8th millennium-2nd half of 4th millennium BC); the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Collections (2nd half of the 4th millennium-15th-12th cc. BC); the period of the great Kingdom of Urartu (Kingdom of Van) (9th century. BC-early 6th century BC); Collections of the 6th-4th c. BC when Persia’s Achaemenid Dynasty dominated the region both politically and culturally; the Hellenistic collections (4th century BC-3rd century AD) when Greek and Roman forms predominated, and the Medieval collections (4th-15th century).
Tonight we attend a performance – details to be confirmed in 2024. (Overnight Yerevan) BL
Day 19: Sunday 22 September, Yerevan – Vagharshapat – Yerevan
- Church of St Hripsime Martyria
- The Holy See of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Echmiadzin (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
- Zvartnots Cathedral Ruins
- Armenian Genocide Memorial & Museum
- National Gallery of Armenia
- Vernissage Market (weekend flea market)
This morning we drive the short distance to Armenia’s ancient religious centre and the Holy See of Armenians throughout the World. Here we shall visit the Church of St Hripsimeh Martyria and The Holy See of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
St Hripsimeh is one of Armenia’s oldest surviving churches. Built between 395 and 618 AD this church of the ‘classical’ Armenian period was to influence profoundly the architecture of the 10th century revival. It has a very sophisticated tetraconch (four apsed) plan and the powerful supports that carry its dome have enabled the structure to withstand the earthquakes that have occurred regularly since it was built.
The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin is a complex that is dominated by the Mother Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin, built by Saint Gregory the Illuminator in 301-303. This cathedral, which was reconstructed in the 5th century and has been much added-to since, is believed to be the oldest Christian foundation initiated by a state in the world. Our visited is timed for the Sunday service marked by the pealing of church bells at 11.30am. Inside you may join the crowds to enjoy the Cathedral’s Choir. Should a second round of church bells occur, we may be fortunate enough to view His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians who traditionally proceeds from his palace into the Cathedral.
We also visit the 7th-century ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral before returning to Yerevan. This centrally planned tetraconch cathedral, which now lies in ruins, was built at a time when much of Armenia was under Byzantine control or influence and during the early invasions of Armenia by the Arabs.
After lunch we return to Yerevan to visit the Armenian Genocide Memorial (Tsitsernakaberd) that records one of the darkest hours of Armenian history, when the failing Ottoman Empire killed an estimated 1 to 1.5 million Armenians during and after World War I. The Turkish government still denies that this holocaust occurred.
Next we tour the National Gallery of Armenia which is situated in the Republic Square. Its collection of European, Russian, Armenian and Oriental art includes works by the great Armenian / Russian maritime artist Aivazovsky, Of special note are Aivazovsky’s Descent of Noah from Ararat (1889) and Lord Byron’s visit to San Lazzaro degli Armeni (1899).
We also enjoy some time at leisure for a relaxing stroll through Yerevan’s Vernissage market, Armenia’s largest flea market. The market, founded by artists in the 1980s, sells carved wood and art works, traditional carpets, old collections of coins and medallions, books, jewellery and musical instruments.(Overnight Yerevan) BL
Day 20: Monday 23 September, Yerevan – Geghard – Garni – Yerevan
- Monastery of Geghard and the Upper Azat Valley (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
- Hellenic Temple of Garni
- Time at leisure
- Farewell Dinner
This morning we drive east from Yerevan to the Monastery at Geghard and the extraordinary Hellenistic temple at Garni, one of the most important early cities of Armenia. Geghard Monastery, like so many Armenian monasteries, is located in a spectacular landscape. Formed in part by chambers carved out of the rock, it clings to the high cliffs of a gorge carved out by the Azat River. The complex was founded in the 4th century by Gregory the Illuminator at the site of a sacred spring inside a cave. The main chapel, however, was built in 1215. The monastery originally housed the spear that wounded Christ.
The area around Garni was first occupied in the 3rd millennium BC on easily defensible terrain on a bend of the Azat River. The Urartian King Argishti I had conquered the area in the 8th century BC. It was probably fortified sometime in the 3rd century BC when it became a summer residence of the Armenian Orontid and the Parthian-Armenian Artaxiad dynasties. Timur (Tamerlane) eventually destroyed the fortress in 1386. The temple collapsed during an earthquake in 1679 but was reconstructed brilliantly in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is a peripteral temple set on a high podium and was probable dedicated to the Zoroastrian god Mythras. It was the only pagan temple to survive the Christianisation of Armenia in the 4th century AD.
We return to Yerevan in the afternoon to allow you some time at leisure to relax or further explore the city. This evening we shall enjoy a farewell dinner together. (Overnight Yerevan) BLD
Day 21: Tuesday 24 September, Depart Yerevan
- Tour concludes in the morning
- At leisure/Check out
Our tour ends in Yerevan. In the morning you will be required to check out of the hotel. Please contact ASA if you require assistance with a transfer to Yerevan’s Zvartnots International Airport. B