Georgia and Armenia - Caucasus Discovery
Georgia and Armenia - Caucasus DiscoveryStyle: TravellerCultural discovery away from the crowds
Duration: 15 days
Type: GroupSmall group tours with a maximum of 12 travellers
Georgia and Armenia are two of the least known nations of Europe – in fact most people aren’t even sure whether they’re actually in Europe. Hidden away and often eclipsed by their monumental neighbours, these two countries hide a wealth of diverse secrets. This trip encompasses the very best of the region. Starting in Tbilisi we spend time marvelling at the various cultures that have left their mark on this city, from Imperial Russia to Ottoman Turkey and beyond. We head into the High Caucasus at Kazbegi and walk up to a dramatically situated ancient church, and then travel west into the remote and mystical land of Svaneti, home to an intriguing culture and some of Europe’s most remote villages overlooked by imposing stone built watchtowers. After exploring the cave town of Vardzia, we cross the border into Armenia, the world’s oldest Christian nation with an astounding collection of ancient churches and monasteries. In contrast is the capital Yerevan, a lively and engaging city which embraces modernity yet manages to retain its traditions, and is packed full of some of the best Soviet style architecture to be found anywhere. And as a unique twist, we visit the country that doesn’t exist – the unrecognised state of Nagorno-Karabakh. Isn’t it time you learned more about this intriguing region?
Day 1 - Tbilisi
Arrive in Tbilisi and transfer to the hotel. The rest of the day is at leisure. Overnight Hotel Tori or similar.
Surrounded by mountains on three sides, Georgia's capital feels neither European nor Asian but rather a fusion of both. 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 most important political, economic and cultural centres of the region. It stood as a key stop on the famous Silk Road - right on the border between Europe and Asia The city has a vaguely southern feel to it, with a relaxed atmosphere and an easy charm. In the old town, known as the Maidan, wooden houses with a distinctly Balkan feel overlook the Mtkvari River, and in the city centre there are imposing neo-classical and Art Nouveau buildings mingling with the inevitable Soviet-era concrete blocks. Gorgasali Square, on the opposite bank of the river to the Metekhi Church, was once the site of the old bazaar, and is a good place to start a walk taking in the sights of the city. A road from the Armenian Church on the south side of the square leads to the Narikala Citadel, built in 360 AD by the Persians, and ruined by an earthquake in the 19th century. You can walk along the battlements of the citadel which offer good views across the city. Tbilisi has a good range of good restaurants strung out along both the left and right banks of the river where you can sample some of the local delicacies, many of which have a Middle Eastern influence, and there are plenty of cafés along semi-pedestrianised streets where you can sit over a coffee or a glass of the local red and watch the life of the city pass you by.
Day 2 - Tbilisi
A guided walking tour around Tbilisi, taking in the fascinating history of this long overlooked region. We spend the day discovering sites such as the National Museum, home to many of the treasures that inspired the legend of the golden fleece, as well as the Narikala citadel, Metekhi Temple and the Sioni Cathedral, among other sites. Overnight Hotel Tori or similar. (BL)
Day 3 – Mtskheta - Kazbegi
We leave Tbilisi and drive to Mtskheta, the ancient capital of Georgia. Mtskheta is packed full of historical monuments and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We explore the 11th century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and the 6th century Jvari Monastery before heading north along the Georgian Military Highway. We stop at the fortress of Ananauri before driving through dramatic scenery to Kazbegi. Surrounded by gigantic mountains Kazbegi is a picturesque settlement overlooked by the biggest of all - Mount Kazbek (5047m) - one of the six 5000 metre peaks of the Caucasus. We walk up to the Church of the Holy Trinity, beautifully situated on the hill above the town and providing splendid views of Mt. Kazbek.Overnight Hotel Stepantsminda or similar. (BLD)
Pronounced like 'skater' with the first two letters silent, Mtskheta is Georgia's spiritual heartland. Occupied for over 3,000 years, there is evidence of Greek, Hittite and Sumerian civilizations, and the hilltops around the town were the setting of several pagan shrines, which in later years had churches built upon the sites. The main cathedral of Sveti Tskhoveli was built in 1010 AD, but the first church on the site was constructed of wood in the 4th century AD. All the other churches in the town are on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The Georgian Military Highway has existed as a route since ancient times, but until the 19th century it was little more than a track. The Russians made it into a major road as an aid to suppressing rebellious tribes in the Caucasus, and the highway bores through mountains in a sequence of tunnels and climbs over passes frequently blocked by snow in winter. A viaduct leads to the churches of Ananauri, the larger of which was built in 1689, with elaborate carvings decorating the exterior. Overlooking the church is a 12th century watchtower.
The most sizeable town in Khevi province, Kazbegi is nevertheless a small place with just over 4,000 inhabitants. There are a few shops and market stalls which mainly seem to sell knitwear, and one solitary restaurant. The real draw in Kazbegi is the Holy Trinity Church, sitting high on a ridge overshadowed by the looming bulk of Mt Kazbek, third-highest in Georgia with a summit reaching 5,047m. A cable car was constructed in 1988 but did not have the support of the local population, who saw it as an assault on the sanctity of the church, and it has since fallen into disrepair. The church itself is surprisingly large given the location - it sits 2,170m above sea level - and the main body of it was constructed in the 14th century, the tower added in later years.
Day 4 – Gelati – Kutaisi
We leave Mt Kazbek behind and drive to Kutaisi, in the west, where we visit the Bagrati Cathedral and the Gelati Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site founded in the 12th century. Overnight in a local guesthouse. (BLD)
Kutaisi, dating back to around the 13th century BC, was the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Colchis, and it is believed that this was the final destination of the Argonauts on their quest for the golden fleece. The town today is home to a number of outstanding monuments. The Gelati Monastery was founded in the 12th century by the most famous Georgian King David the IV, the Builder (1073 – 1125). Here he founded an academy and monastery, which became the foremost centre of education in Georgia. Sacked by various invaders over the centuries, it was closed under communist rule but re-opened in 1988. The monastery contains some excellent murals of saints and Georgian monarchs and an incredible mosaic, and the site is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Day 5 - Mestia, Svaneti
Drive to Zugdidi to start our journey into the mythical land of Svaneti. Passing villages we visit the 11th century Latali church, before reaching Mestia, the ‘capital’ of Svaneti. We stay tonight in a local home to experience the traditional hospitality that Georgia is so renowned for. (BLD)
Svaneti, the mythological western province of Georgia, land of the ‘Golden Fleece’ (where locals still sift for gold through sheepskins) lies high up in the Greater Caucasus. Several 5000 metre plus peaks thrust glaciers down into this beautiful and remote region, where amazing stone towers rise up beside homesteads, some dating back to the 12th century. Never far away is one of Svaneti’s numerous, richly frescoed churches, focal points for lively communities where traditions have been preserved for two thousand years. Unique icons and manuscripts are on display in Mestia’s museum, overlooked by huge hanging peaks. Mestia is a well known climber’s launch point and the dramatic trekking trails will appeal more to the adventure traveler. The village of Ushguli, the highest permanently inhabited settlement in Europe, gives a stunning view of Mt. Shkhara (5201m) the highest peak in Georgia. Its ragged stone towers and the ongoing resilience of its population have led it to being declared a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Day 6 - Ushguli
Morning drive to Ushguli village, the highest permanently inhabited village in Europe at 2400 metres. On the way we visit Nakipari church. On arrival in Ushguli we explore on foot, visiting the stunning medieval towers as well as Lamaria Church. Those who wish can take an easy hike along the valley leading to the foot of Mount Shkhara (5201m). Overnight in local house, Mestia. (BLD)
The inhabitants of Svaneti make up their own distinct ethnic group, the Svans, with indigenous religious beliefs intertwining with Christianity to give them a very separate identity. The Svans have traditionally been fiercely independent, to such an extent that they expelled the local governor under the Tsar and functioned as an autonomous state for many years prior to Soviet rule. They have their own complex set of traditions and customs, and in the past have been known as an aggressive and hostile group, suspicious of outsiders. This is reflected in typical Svanetian architecture – huge watchtowers to watch for signs of intruders dot the landscape, most of which are 800-1000 years old. Svanetian hospitality is legendary within Georgia and while staying in local houses we can be sure to be treated to excellent food, and obtain a real glimpse into a lifestyle that is seldom seen by visitors.
Day 7 - Bakuriani
We leave Svaneti behind and drive south to Bakuriani, in the Lesser Caucasus. En route we visit the 9th century Ubsi church. Overnight Hotel Eurika or similar. (BLD)
Day 8 - Vardzia – Gyumri
Drive along the Kura Valley to the cave town Vardzia, dating back to the 12th century. On the way we also stop at Khertvisi fortress, built in the Middle Ages. We explore the caves before heading to the border with Armenia. After border formalities we enter Armenia and drive to the city of Gyumri for the night. Overnight Araks Hotel or similar. (BL)
Vardzia is an impressive site, with hundreds of caves hewn into the rocks to function as monasteries and churches. The cave city was first constructed in the 12th century by King George III but is nowadays mostly associated with Georgia’s most famous woman, Queen Tamar, who turned it into a monastery. In its heyday Vardzia contained stables, barracks, and stores, but it has suffered over the years from earthquakes and invading armies. What is left is still fascinating to wander around, with the Church of the Assumption being the main highlight and containing detailed frescoes of Queen Tamar herself.
Day 9 – Haghpat – Sanahin - Dilijan - Sevan
Visit the superb monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, before continuing to Dilijan and then the vast Lake Sevan to visit the monastery of Sevanavank, situated on the lake shore. Overnight Bohemian Resort or similar. (BLD)
Sanahin and Haghpat
The monasteries of Sanahin and Haghpat were both constructed around the 10th century. Sanahin is a delightful place to explore – a collection of buildings including a library, mausoleums and separate chapels complement the main building, the Church of the Holy Redeemer. Overgrown with grass, the grounds surrounding it contain numerous examples of khachkars, a unique Armenian carving of a cross with intricate patterns. Haghpat, overlooking the Debed River, is similar – a collection of buildings, its churches supported by impressive columns and pillars and with an excellent belltower.
Dilijan is a pleasant little town, once a Soviet health resort and surrounded by woods in the Dilijan National Park. The town is known for its well preserved old houses, with unique wooden carved balconies overhanging the streets. Part of the town has been preserved and maintained as a historic centre, giving a great glimpse of what much of the region used to look like.
Day 10 – Noraduz – Tatev – Goris
Drive across the Selim Pass, visiting the 14th century caravanserai along the way, a superbly preserved building reminiscent of old Silk Road journeys. We stop at Noraduz to see the vast field of elaborate khachkars (carved crosses) and then continue to Tatev monastery. We end our day at Goris, one of Armenia’s most attractive towns. Overnight Mirhav Hotel or similar. (BLD)
The site of Noraduz is one of the most visually striking in the country, a collection of around 900 khachkars, carved crosses that are found only in Armenia. Although they can be found throughout the country, nowhere else are they gathered in such numbers and the number and variety of the designs is quite astonishing, with each one different. It is not clear why they were erected here, but whatever the reason a visit here is one of the most memorable experiences that Armenia can offer.
Day 11 – Nagorno Karabakh
Cross the border into the unrecognised state of Nagorno Karabakh. We stop first at Shushi to see the Ghazanchetsots church and then continue to the capital, Stepanakert. Explore the city including the market and the 13th century Gandzasar monastery. Overnight Armenia Hotel or similar. (BLD)
Nagorno Karabakh belongs to that small club of states which to all effects and purposes are independent nations but unrecognised by the outside world. Long fought over between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Karabakh has its own government and flag and a predominantly Armenian population, and is also renowned as having some of the finest scenery of the Caucasus region. Under Soviet rule the territory was annexed to Azerbaijan but following the dissolution of the USSR ethnic tensions ran riot and it was engulfed in civil strife and ethnic conflict which cost hundreds of lives but today the situation is calm. Karabakh is home to a number of fine monasteries and superb landscapes – its name means ‘mountainous’ (Nagorno – Russian) ‘black garden’ (Karabakh – Turkish).
Day 12 – Noravank – Khor Virap – Yerevan
Leave Nagorno Karabakh and drive to Noravank Monastery, one of the most splendid monuments of medieval Armenia and built in a stunning location. From here we head to Khor Virap, a once famous pilgrimage site with great views of Mt Ararat. Our final destination for today is Yerevan, a very pleasant city with a cosmopolitan feel to it and some spectacular architecture. Overnight Metropol Hotel or similar. (BLD)
Standing on a hill in the middle of Ararat Plain, Khor Virap, which translates as 'deep dungeon', is a monastery with great historical significance as it was the place where St Gregory the Illuminator, patron saint of Armenia, was imprisoned by King Trdat III in the 3rd century. Most of the monastery dates from 1661, but in St George's chapel you can still see the cell where the unfortunate monk was held - a pit 6m deep which can be reached by ladder.
Set on the edge of a ravine above the River Hrazdan, Yerevan is a mixture of architectural styles, with some imposing Soviet-era buildings as well as residential homes where different types of stone are used. Concentric boulevards spill outwards from the city centre interspersed with parkland, and this sense of space and greenery gives Yerevan an almost rural feel at times. The main street of bars, restaurants and shops is Abovian, running north from Republic Square. The cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator was built with money from the enormous Armenian diaspora to celebrate 1,700 years of Christianity in Armenia. The covered market stands opposite the Blue Mosque, which has been recently restored. A range of museums cover everything from art to natural history – one of the most impressive is the Matenadaran, devoted to ancient manuscripts.
Day 13 – Yerevan
Explore Yerevan on a tour of some of the city’s highlights. We visit the Matenadaran Museum, housing a unique collection of ancient manuscripts, and the Genocide Museum to learn about Armenia’s tragic recent history. We also explore some of the city’s architectural highlights including Republic Square and Abovyan Street. Overnight Metropol Hotel or similar. (BLD)
The Genocide Memorial
On the west bank of the Hrazdan River lies Tsitsernakaberd - 'Swallow Castle' - which is the location of the Genocide Memorial and Museum. It's an essential site for anyone seeking to understand the history of Armenia and its people. The genocide took place in 1915 when the Turks, allies of the Germans in World War I, carried out a policy of ethnic cleansing across 12 provinces of Armenia which became part of the Ottoman Empire. The memorial is a ring of 12 basalt slabs representing the 12 lost provinces, and a wall is inscribed with the names of villages and towns where massacres took place. The museum was added in 1995 and has a display of photographs taken by German army photographers at the time.
Day 14 – Echmiadsin – Garni – Geghard
Visit the religious complex of Echmiadsin, Armenia’s ‘Vatican’. We then head to the 1st century Roman style temple at Garni, before heading to the cave monastery at Geghard, supposedly once home to the spear that that pierced Christ on the cross. Overnight Metropol Hotel or similar. (BLD)
Geghard means 'spear', and this church set in a narrow gorge is reputed to have once contained the spear which pierced the side of Christ on the cross; the spear now lies in the treasury at Echmiadzin. Built up against a cliff face, the main cathedral was constructed in 1215, but the first monastery on the site is thought to date from the 4th century AD. The monastery is decorated with reliefs depicting animals, crosses and geometrical shapes.
The spiritual centre of the Armenian church, Echmiadzin was the setting for a series of visions by St Gregory the Illuminator, where columns of fire turned into churches. The first monastery was built, like many others in Armenia, on the site of a pagan temple in the 4th century, rebuilt in the 5th century in a different style and then renovated in the 17th century. The cathedral treasury is a museum of religious relics, and is where the spear from Geghard that is said to have pierced Christ as he hung on the cross is stored. The treasury also contains a piece of wood said to be from Noah's Ark, which came to rest on the summit of Mt Ararat, today situated in Turkey but long part of Armenia.
Day 15 - Yerevan
Tour ends. (B)
Tour style: Traveller
Arrival and departure transfers
All accommodation on twin share basis
Services of English speaking guide / tour leader
Meals as listed (B – Breakfast, L – Lunch, D – Dinner)
Entrance fees for sites listed as part of the itinerary
Any airport taxes
Please note that you should also read the Country Notes in association with this itinerary for practical information about your trip and the destination you will be visiting. The itinerary and supplementary information has been compiled with care and provided in good faith. However it may be subject to change, and does not form part of a contract between the client and Undiscovered Destinations.