Georgia and Armenia - Caucasus Discovery
Georgia and Armenia - Caucasus Discovery
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. We spend time in Tbilisi and marvel at the various cultures that have left their mark on this city, from Imperial Russia to Ottoman Turkey and beyond. We travel into the High Caucasus at Kazbegi and walk up to a dramatically situated ancient church. Explore 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 and see the cave town of Vardzia. To top it off in Georgia experience local hospitality and taste wine in the charming region of Kakheti. Armenia is the world’s oldest Christian nation with an astounding collection of ancient churches and monasteries which will captivate you. 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?
Fitness ●●●○○ | Off the Beaten Track ●●●○○ | Culture ●●●●● | History ●●●●● | Wildlife ●○○○○
- Explore the mystical cave towns of Vardzia and Uplistsikhe
- Marvel at the view of Mt Ararat from Khor Virap Monastery
- Wander through the delightful streets of old Tbilisi
- Get off the beaten track in Svaneti to see some of Europe’s most remote villages
- Walk up to the Gergeti Trinity Church under the dramatic Caucasus peak of Mt Kazbegi
- Wine tasting and local hospitality in Kakheti
- Fascinating pagan and Christian architecture
Accommodation: Mix of comfortable hotels and locally run guesthouses
Included Meals: Daily breakfast (B), plus lunches (L) and dinners (D) as shown in the itinerary.
Group Size: Maximum of 12
Start Point: Tbilisi
End Point: Tbilisi
Transport: Minibus or coach
Countries: Georgia & Armenia
Optional Extension: Tusheti region of Georgia
Day 1 - Tbilisi
Arrive in Tbilisi and transfer to the hotel (this should take around 45 minutes). The rest of the day is at leisure. We will stay in a central location near the old town where you can explore delightful Old Tbilisi. Overnight Hotel Shardeni 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 Middle Eastern influence, and there are plenty 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 restaurants and cafes strung out along both the left and right banks of the river where you can sample some of the local delicacies and watch the life of the city pass you by.
Day 2 - Tbilisi – Armenia border - Haghpat
We begin our day by travelling from Tbilisi to the border with Armenia. The journey should take around 1.5 hours to the border. After completing border formalities we drive to Haghpat monastery a journey of around 2 hours from the border through beautiful scenery. Haghpat, (10th century UNESCO Heritage site) used to be a spiritual, cultural and educational centre of the region and is one of the masterpieces of Armenian medieval architecture. We also visit Sanahin monastery a further masterpiece and UNESCO side dating to the same century. For those that wish, it is possible to walk between the two monasteries and a hiking guide will accompany us. Later we can take a walk in the village and then transfer to your accommodation for the night which is blessed with fantastic views over Dedbed gorge. Overnight Qefo Hotel or similar (BLD)
Walk between Sanahin and Haghpat
A drive of approximately one hour takes us to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Sanahin, and from here we’ll be walking to another UNESCO World Heritage site at Haghpat. We’ll take the route linking these two important monastic masterpieces of Armenian architecture. During the walk we’ll pass through rural villages typical of the Lori region and meet the locals and observe their way of life observing the typical Armenian rural houses and gardens with orchards along the way. We then head through the woodland that brings us to the edge of the Debed gorge. The views across the gorge are incredible with beautiful forested hills and meadows. The descent to the valley floor is relatively short, but steep on a sometimes muddy trail. It’s then up to Haghpat and this is a mostly gradual ascent. Anticipated walking time approx. 3-4 hrs. with 300m of ascent and 400m descent.
Day 3 – Haghpat – Dilijan – Sevan -Yerevan
We begin our day early driving through wonderful scenery to Dilijan known as the little Switzerland of Armenia. We have a short stop to have a look around the old part of the town. En route to Dilijan we can visit a village home to the minority Molokan (milk drinkers) people who were exiled to Armenia from Russia in the 19th Century. Visit Haghartsin monastery beautifully nestled in the heart of the forest. We then travel on to the picturesque Lake Sevan and the Sevanavank monastery which is a 9th century monastery founded on the peninsula that used to be an island. The monastery affords a panoramic view of the alpine lake. We then continue to Yerevan where you can enjoy some leisure time before we enjoy some traditional food tonight in a local restaurant in Yerevan. The journey time in the vehicle today is around 3.5 hours. Overnight Royal Plaza Hotel (BLD)
Day 4 - Yerevan, Geghard and Garni
This morning we drive around 1 hour to Kotayk province to explore the Geghard Monastery and Garni Pagan temple. On arrival we take a walk with a hiking guide, 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 around 1 hour to Yerevan where we will have a short city tour visiting the most interesting places in Yerevan (The Cascade, Opera House, Victory Park, and Abovyan Street). Overnight Hotel Royal Plaza or similar. (BL)
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 5 – Khor Virap Monastery and Wine Tasting
After breakfast we will visit the Khor Virap Monastery which gives an excellent view to Mt Ararat. 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 home of the mother cathedral. The driving time today is around 4 hours. Overnight Hotel Royal Plaza or similar. (BL)
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 6 – Amberd Fortress – Gyumri – Bavra – Vardzia
This morning there will an opportunity to spend some leisure time in Yerevan before a late morning departure to Amberd fortress. The fortress is situated at an altitude of 2300m above sea level which once again affords fine views of Mt Aragats. We may also get the opportunity to meet some of the minority Yazidis who inhabit this area. Continue to Gyumri with its excellent 19th century Tsarist architecture which suffered greatly in the 1988 earthquake. If time allows we will have a short stop in Gyumri before crossing the border into Georgia at Bavra and travelling on to Vardzia. The driving time from Yerevan to the Georgia border is 4 hours. The journey time from the border to Vardzia is around 2 hours. Overnight Valodia Cottages or similar (BLD)
For those who prefer not to have the leisure time in Yerevan there will be an optional visit to Saghmosavank with its 13th Century 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. Aragat
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 7 – Vardzia – Akhaltsikhe – Kutaisi
if time allows we make a stop at the Khertvisi Fortress built in the Middle Ages before exploring the fascinating cave town of Vardzia dating back to the 12th century. We then travel for 1 hour to visit the recently restored Rabati Castle dating from the 13th century before continuing to Kutaisi. The journey to Kutaisi will be around 3 hours. Overnight at a family run guesthouse with private bathroom. (BLD)
Day 8 – Kutaisi – Zugdidi – Mestia
This morning we drive to Zugdidi (journey time 2 hours) passing through the Colkhida lowlands and some typical local villages. We visit Dadiani palace and its museum housing some fine natural exhibits of Georgian culture. From Zugdidi we start climbing through the Enguri river valley and the Enguri reservoir up to Mestia situated at 1400 metres above sea level. Mestia is the provincial centre of Svaneti. On arrival we will visit the iconic Svanetian towers. The journey time from Zugdidi to Mestia is around 4 hours with time for photo stops. Overnight at a family run guest house with private bathrooms (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 traveller. 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 9 – 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. . Please note that the road today is of a very poor quality and as such it is necessary to drive very slowly to avoid damage to the vehicle. The overall travelling time should be around 4 hours but the distance is only 90km in total. Overnight in Mestia at a family run guesthouse with private bathroom. (BLD)
Day 10 – Mestia, Svaneti - Kutaisi
A morning drive of around 3.5 hours to Zugdidi passing the Colkhida lowlands with some picturesque villages. From Zugdidi we journey to Kutaisi (around 2 hours) along the Enguri river valley. We have photo stops and great views of the mountain summits. 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 (UNESCO), 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 private bathroom (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 11 – Kutaisi – Gelati – Gori – Uplistsikhe - Kazbegi
This morning we drive to Gori (journey around 3 hours) a town almost entirely known as the birthplace of J. Stalin. Visit the museum where you can explore Stalin’s personal train carriage and also see the small house where he spent his early years. Gori train station is also worth a stop for its imposing waiting room which houses a statue of Stalin. Then we drive a short distance to Uplistsikhe, a cave town dated to 7th Century BC. It is then time to turn on to the Georgian Military Highway and snake our way up into the Caucasus Mountains. We shall take a stop at the castle complex of Ananauri attractively situated on the Aragvi River. We continue to climb through dramatic scenery until our destination for the evening which is Gudauri. Driving time from Uplistsikhe to Gudauri is around 3 hours. Overnight Hotel Alpina or similar (BLD)
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.
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 12 - Kazbegi – Mtskheta – Tbilisi
This morning we cross the Jvari Pass at 2395 metres above sea level and into Kazbegi (journey time around 1 hour) situated at 1700 metres above sea level and surrounded by 5000 metre peaks. You will have the opportunity to take the walk up to the Sameba Church with its stunning setting below Mt Kazbek. For those that do not want to walk it is possible to hire jeeps for an extra charge to go by up via a track. Later we drive to Mtskheta (journey time around 2 hours), 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 taking the short trip back to Tbilisi (journey time 0.5 hours). Overnight Hotel Shardeni or similar (BL)
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
Day 13- Tbilisi
A guided walking tour around old 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. Tonight enjoy Georgian food at a local restaurant. Overnight Hotel Shardeni or similar. (BLD)
Day 14 – Kakheti
Visit Kakheti, Georgia’s famous wine district which lies due east from Tbilisi in a land dotted with fine old churches and vineyard after vineyard. First we visit Signaghi (journey time 2 hours), a beautiful hill-town providing panoramic views of Alazani Valley and the Eastern Caucasus Mountains. Then continue to a local farmer’s house to taste home-made wines. Lunch with delicious home-made food. A fitting way to end your time in Georgia. Return to Tbilisi (journey time 2 hours). Overnight Hotel Shardeni or similar. (BL)
Day 15 – Depart Tbilisi
Pick up from the hotel and transfer to the airport. (B)
Tusheti 5 Day 4 night Optional Extension
Day 14 - Kakheti - Telavi
As the main group leaves for Tbilisi from Kakheti, those on the Tusheti extension will continue to Telavi. Overnight comfortable hotel in Telavi (BL)
Day 15 - Telavi – Tusheti - Omalo – 6 hours driving – 100km distance
We journey from Telavi to Tusheti crossing the Greater Caucasus over the Datvis Jvari Pass (2930m). Visit the village of Omalo and overnight in the village of Dartlo situated beautifully at 1900m in amongst the high Caucasus Mountains. Overnight at a local guesthouse with private bathroom. (BLD)
The region of Tusheti was not even accessible until the 1980’s when the road was built. It is a wonderfully scenic part of Georgia with peaks us to 4500m dominating the landscape along with deep gorges, high waterfalls and pine forest. In this area you can expect age old traditions to still be firmly in place and wonderful hospitality to be enjoyed by the local people.
Day 16 - Dartlo – Parsma - Dartlo
We take a tour around Dartlo and then we enjoy a half day walk to the village of Parsma with a picnic lunch. Parsma is noted for its fine medieval towers. Return to Dartlo and stay overnight again at the local guesthouse (BLD)
Day 17 - Omalo – Tbilisi – 8 hours by car
This morning we visit the villages of Shenako and Diklo. Later we return to Tbilisi. Overnight Hotel Shardeni or similar (BL)
Day 18 - Departure
Transfer to the airport. End of the tour. (B)
Arrival and departure transfers
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
Visas if applicable
Items of a personal nature