Georgia and Armenia - Caucasus Discovery
Georgia and Armenia - Caucasus DiscoveryStyle: TravellerCultural discovery away from the crowds
Duration: 13 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. 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 Varazi 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. Overnight Hotel Stepantsminda. (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 – Gori, Uplistsikhe and Kutaisi
This morning we take a trip along the Georgian Military Highway to the western part of the country, stopping enroute at Gori. Today the town is mainly known for its huge fortress and as a birthplace of J. Stalin. We will drive to Uplistsikhe, a cave town dated to 7c BC before we continue the journey to Kutaisi. Kutaisi, dated back to the Argonauts time, was the capital of old Colchida and later of Western Georgia. We visit the Gelati monastery, founded in the 12th century by Georgian King David the Builder (1073 – 1125). It was here that he founded an academy and monastery, which became the foremost centre of education in Georgia. Unique murals of saints and Georgian monarchs can be found inside the main Cathedral. Overnight in Kutaisi at a family run guesthouse. (BD)
A few kilometres off the main Tbilisi to Kutaisi highway, Gori is an undistinguished place with one main claim to notoriety; Stalin was born here, and the town has done its best to cash in on Georgia's most infamous son. This legacy is immediately obvious in the form of a 17m tall statue of Stalin, the only one remaining of the thousands that decorated the main square of every town in the Soviet Union. The museum itself is enormous, and presents an interestingly skewed version of 20th century events. Stalin himself, we learn, was something of a prodigy, a talented poet, former editor of Pravda (a publication not known, admittedly, for its journalistic merits), and an all round decent chap. Gori itself, like most of Georgia, glosses over any inconvenient facts about him, ignoring any genocidal qualities he may have had, and preferring to recall him as a strong leader.
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 – Kutaisi to Mestia, Svaneti
A morning drive to Zugdidi passing Colkhida lowlands with some picturesque villages. From Zugdidi we journey to Svaneti along the Enguri river valley. We have photo stops and great views of the mountain summits. Continuing along the mountain road we get to Mestia, the provincial centre of Svaneti. Overnight in Mestia at a family run guesthouse. (BD)
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.
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 6 – Ushguli
A 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). We return to Mestia in the afternoon. Overnight in Mestia at a family run guesthouse. (BD)
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 and a change of the guides and drivers we continue in to Armenia and spend the night in the town of Gyumri, with its excellent 19th century Tsarist architecture. Overnight Hotel Araks or similar. (BLD)
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 – Gyumri via Harichavank to Yerevan
Today we set off to drive to Yerevan, on the way visiting Harichavank, a 7th century Armenian monastery. Harichavank is known as one of the most famous monastic centres in Armenia and it was especially renowned for its school and scriptorium. Archaeological excavations in 1966 indicated that Harich was in existence during the 2nd century BC, and was one of the more well known fortress towns in Armenia. We also visit Saghmosavank with its monastery perched on the edge of the precipitous gorge of the Kasakh river. Its silhouette dominates the adjacent village with a background of the mountains crowned by Mt. Aragats. We continue the drive to Yerevan. Dinner and overnight in Yerevan. (B)
Day 10 Yerevan, Geghard and Garni trek
We begin with a short city tour visiting the most interesting places in Yerevan (The Cascade, Opera House, Victory park, Abovyan street) After lunch we then drive to Kotayk province to explore the Geghard Monastery and Garni Pagan temple. On arrival we take a walk , where we will view the Armenian Highlands stretched out before you. There are breathtaking views down into the canyon and to the strategically located Geghard Monastery below. We begin our descent and the views become even more impressive as we see the ruins of the 11th Century Havuts Tsar Monastery, which adds a certain additional atmosphere to today’s walk. Just past this ruin is a spring where fresh, mountain water can be obtained to quench your thirst as the temperatures noticeably rise as we get lower. We then follow a typical mountain trail that leads ever downwards, but now more gradually and we reach the Rangers Post of the Khosrov National Reserve. It’s then a short, but steep downhill to the floor of the canyon where we cross the Azat River by means of a bridge and follow a bumpy road to reach the “Symphony of Stones”. This is Garni, dating back to the 1st century AD and is the only pagan temple that remained after the adoption of Christianity. We drive back to Yerevan. Overnight in Yerevan. (B)
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.
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 11 – Khor Virap Monastery and Wine Tasting
After breakfast visit we will the Khor Virap Monastery which gives a excellent view to Ararat Mount. This monastery has always been a place of pilgrimage for Armenians. We will then drive to Areni Village for some wine tasting and explore the Noravank monastery with its surrounding rocky mountains. The monastery is surrounded with fascinating landscapes and in one of the surrounding caves a 5000 year old shoe was found! We will drive back to Yerevan and discover Echmiadzin. We overnight in Yerevan (B)
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.
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 12 - Yerevan-Sevan-Dilijan-Haghpat-Sadakhlo
We begin our day by visiting Lake Sevan and the Sevanavank monastery which is a 9th century monastery founded on the peninsula that used to be an island. Then we will drive to Alaverdi via Dilijan, known as the Small Switzerland of Armenia. We have a short stop to have a look around the old part of the city before we continue to Alaverdi and the Haghpat monastery. We then drive to the border at Sadakhlo and cross over back in to Georgia. You will be assisted by a new team for your drive back to Tblisi and your last night. Overnight Hotel Tori or similar (B)
Day 13 – Depart Tblisi
Pick up from the hotel and transfer to the airport. (B)
End of the tour.
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.