The Caucasus

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Day 1: Arrive in Baku

Upon arrival in Baku, you will be met at the airport and transferred to your hotel. Baku is one of the five biggest cities in the former USSR and the most prosperous of the Caucasian capitals. The remainder of the day is free to explore on your own before meeting with the group for dinner and our orientation meeting.

Overnight in Baku.


Day 2: Baku - Old Town, Shirvan Shah's Palace

Today your introduction to Baku and the Caucasus will begin with sightseeing at Memorial Hill with a breathtaking view of the Caspian and city shoreline. We continue our walking tour of 'Icheri Shey-Har', the old town (UNESCO), with its maze of narrow, cobblestone streets lined with small mosques nestled between terraced cafes and grand turn-of-the-century architecture. This atmospheric medieval town is surrounded by an impressive defensive wall, that dates from the 12th century. Our tour will include visits to the Historical Museum and State Museum of Azerbaijani Carpets and Applied Folk Art, and the Shirvan Shahs Palace - a royal palace built in the 15th century and the finest surviving example of Shirvan architecture. We end our sightseeing this day with a leisurely cruise on the Caspian Bay.

Overnight in Baku.


Day 3: Absheron Peninsula & Gobustan

This morning we will continue further along the Caspian coast to Gobustan (UNESCO) where over 4000 Stone and Iron Age petroglyphs have been discovered in the hill caves above town, depicting scenes of hunting and dancing rituals and a varied repertoire of animal figures, along with thousands of artifacts and tools. As the easternmost extension of the Caucasus Mountains, the Absheron Peninsula was the site of the some of the world's first petroleum production in the 19th century and shows the ravages of its oil-rich history to this day in the many rusting oil derricks that still dot the landscape. Our journey today offers excellent views of the Caspian Sea, as well as providing several unique sightseeing stops. Time permitting along the way, we may stop at the Nobel Brother's House before visiting both Atesgah, the sacred Zoroastrian fire temple built on the site of a natural gas vent, and Yanar Dag or Flaming Mountain, one of few remaining natural gas flares in the area.

Overnight in Baku.


Day 4: Baku to Shemakha, Lahij and Sheki

Today we head northwest along one of the most scenic routes in Azerbaijan. We will pass through stark, arid landscapes dotted with mud volcanoes, before arriving in Maraza where just off the main road lies Pir Diri Baba Mausoleum built precariously into the side of a cliff.

Continuing past small villages nestled among steep mountains and lush valleys dotted with vineyards, we will also stop in Shemakha, a city that served for many centuries as the capital and commercial center of western Azerbaijan before being replaced by Baku in the latter part of the 19th century. Nearby sits the famed Yeddi Gumbaz (Seven Tombs), of which only three remain completely intact. These were the royal tombs of the last Shirvan Khansto rule before the region became part of the Russian Empire. In town, we will stop at Juma Meschid, or Grand Mosque, whose 10th century foundations are part of the first mosque built in the Caucasus. Later we will leave our bus and transfer to a minivan to make the drive up into the mountains to explore the craft town of Lahij, whose small population still speak their own language. The town is famous for its coppersmiths.

Later continue to Sheki and overnight.


Day 5: Sheki

With an early start to the morning we visit Kish Church, a beautiful Albanian Caucasus church which dates from the 1st century, located just outside of Sheki. After we return to Sheki and tour the town. The main attraction of this charming town is the exquisite Khan's Palace, set in the midst of dilapidated fortress walls and adorned with detailed mosaics and Shebaka windows made from fragments of colored glass and hand-shaped wooden cross-pieces. Later, we will have the opportunity to visit a Shebaka workshop, as well as a silk shop and the town market.

Overnight Sheki.


Day 6: Sheki to Telavi, Georgia

This morning we depart for Georgia and lunch at a local winery in the Kakheti region of eastern-Georgia (which is synonymous with wine) as a fitting place to begin our introduction to the world-renowned Georgian hospitality and delicious food.

A short drive from Telavi will take us to Gremi and its impressive citadel complex consisting of a 16th century domed church, tower and king chamber. We will also visit Alaverdi Cathedral which was built in the 11th century and at 155 feet (55 m) is the 2nd tallest religious building in Georgia. Our road winds further to the Ikalto Academy, beautifully located in a grove of cypress trees. Founded by King David the Builder in the 12th century, the academy was the largest center of education in medieval Georgia and was said to have served as a place of study for the celebrated poet Shota Rustaveli who wrote the Georgian national epic, The Knight in the Panther Skin.

Overnight in Telavi.


Day 7: Telavi to Sighnaghi Fortified Town, to Tbilisi

Today we will visit the fortified town of Sighnaghi, which is famous for its wine and carpet making culture. Enjoy breathtaking views of the Kizikhi area and the unique charm of Sighnaghi Royal Town. Have a walk in the narrow streets of the town shadowed by the wooden balconies, which are richly decorated with the lace of carved ornaments. Afterwards we continue on to Tbilisi.

Overnight in Tbilisi.


Day 8: Tbilisi

Tbilisi was founded in the 5th century and became the capital of Georgia in the 6th century. Since that time, the city has been destroyed and rebuilt on nearly 30 different occasions following a long history of fighting off Persian, Arab, Turkmen, Mongol, Turk and finally, Russian invaders. Tbilisi today is one of the most modern and cosmopolitan cities in the Caucasus. We begin our visit with a walking-tour through Tbilisi's narrow streets and inner courtyards and stroll down Rustaveli Avenue, the main thoroughfare running east through the city. We will also visit Metekhi Church of the Virgin, Sioni Cathedral, Anchiskhati Basilica and the Janashia Museum of Georgia, which houses an extraordinary collection of gold filigree work dating from the 6th century BC, among other items of repoussé work and jewelry.

Overnight in Tbilisi.


Day 9: Tbilisi to Gudauri

Today we will drive north along the famed Georgian Military Highway, the main transport artery linking Georgia with Russia into the mountainous provinces of the Greater Caucasus. Our first stop of the day will be in sacred Mtskheta (UNESCO), the ancient capital of eastern Georgia, at the southern end of the highway. Georgia's conversion to Christianity occurred in Mtskheta in 337 AD and it is considered one of Georgia's most important religious centers. We will visit Church of Jvari perched on a cliff overlooking the city, and the Sveti-Tskhoveli Cathedral, the first Christian church to be built in Georgia and its largest functioning cathedral.

Continuing our journey into the mountains, we will stop in Ananuri to see the incredible 16th century fortress complex built by the warring dukes of Aragvi in an attempt to control the main road.

This evening overnight in Gudauri, a popular winter mountain resort-town, which will serve as our base for the next 2 nights.


Day 10: Georgia Pass - Gudauri

Continuing our journey up and north through alpine meadows and mountain passes littered with medieval watchtowers, we will reach Dariali Gorge, a 9 mile (14 kilometer) gash in the Earth. We will marvel at the snow-capped Mount Kazbek (the highest mountain in Georgia), an extinct volcano that surrounds us and reaches to just over 16,500 feet (5047m).

We drive to the base of the hill and then walk across the meadow leading to the Tsminda Sameba Monastery - a 14th century church built on a mountain peak at 7,200 feet (2200m). After Tbilisi, it is the most popular sight in Georgia.

Later, we return to Gudauri for the night.


Day 11: To Akhaltsikhe via Gori

We journey down from the mountains today stopping in Gori, a town whose place in infamy is secured, as it is the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. We then travel through the Borjomi Gorge and make a stop in the Borjomi Forest for our walk to the Chitakhevi St. George (Green) Monastery, built between the 9th and 10th centuries.

We continue enroute to Akhaltsikhe for dinner and overnight.


Day 12: Day Trip to Vardzia

Today venture further into the southwestern region of Samtshke-Javakheti, named after two of the original Georgian tribes, the Meskh and Javakhs and often seen as the cradle of Georgian culture. The road to Vardzia leads past arid and stone-terraced landscapes including the famed 10th century Khertvisi Castle, one of the oldest fortresses in Georgia. Vardzia history is inextricably linked to Queen Tamar, Georgia's most famous and loved royal who reigned during the 12th century. Crowned as co-ruler by her father, Giorgi III, she became the first woman to ascend to the throne of feudal Georgia and is credited with extending and unifying Georgian rule with successful defeats against Muslim and Turk forces. With Georgia's strong economic and political position, she founded the cave town of Vardzia which became the most important monastery and primary center of culture in Georgia. We will explore the monastery to view the remarkably well-preserved frescoes depicting the young queen.

In the evening return to Akhaltsikhe.


Day 13: Akhaltsikhe to Tbilisi

Today we return to Tbilisi, stopping enroute to visit the Phoka St. Nino Nunnery. Established on July 23, 1992 by the Catholicos-Patriarch of all Georgia, Ilia II, the convent is situated in an Alpine zone 6,890 feet (2,100m) above the sea. As the legend goes, this very place was Saint Nino's entrance point to Georgia and she then followed the river Paravani to the city of Mtskheta. A beautiful basilica dedicated to St. Nino was built here in the 10th century and was later restored by the monastery in 2005.

Overnight in Tbilisi.


Day 14: To Haghpat, Lake Sevan, Armenia

Marvel at the mountain scenery as we cross into Armenia today. After clearing customs, we will continue on to Haghpat Monastery (UNESCO). We will then travel to Lake Sevan, a popular summer resort and one of the world's highest freshwater lakes at just over 6,200 feet (1890 m). Lake Sevan, which was part of the famed Silk Road, is surrounded by steep mountains and pine forests. We will have the opportunity for a short hike around the lake shore, viewing the stunning turquoise waters or you may simply relax and enjoy the dramatic scenery.

Overnight Lake Sevan.


Day 15: To Sevan Monastery, Selim Pass, Karahunj, Tatev, Goris

Today we will visit Sevan Monastery. Located on the Sevan Peninsula, the monastery was built in the 9th century. Traveling south along Lake Sevan we will eventually climb up into the mountains and travel through the Selim Pass, where we will visit an ancient but well-preserved caravanserai that was built in 1332. Continuing further south we will visit one of the most fascinating places in Armenia and perhaps the world - the megalithic stone structures of Karahunj. 3500 years older than Stonehenge, scientists believe there is a connection between this ancient observatory and its much more famous English counterpart. Our final stop before reaching Goris is the 9th century monastery complex of Tatev, situated on the edge of a deep gorge. In the 14th and 15th centuries Tatev Monastery hosted one of the most important Armenian medieval universities, which contributed to the education of science, religion and philosophy, the reproduction of books and development of miniature painting. Once a long and difficult journey, Tatev can now be reached by cable car - the longest ride in the world at 5.7 km (3.5mi).

Overnight in Goris.


Day 16: To Khndzoresk, Noravank, Areni, Khor Virap, Yerevan

This morning we visit the cave village of Khndzoresk, comprising over 400 cave dwellings hewn into the soft rock along the canyon walls. Heading north to Yerevan, we will then explore the Monastery of Noravank, one of the most splendid monuments of medieval Armenia, built in a narrow gorge and surrounded by sheer brick-red cliffs. From here we continue to Areni, considered the cradle place of wine making in the world and where you will have a wine tasting opportunity. Our final stop this day is at the Monastery of Khor Virap, where we will see the spectacular vista of Mount Ararat.

Overnight Yerevan.


Day 17: To Geghard, Garni, Yerevan

For the remaining days, Armenia's capital Yerevan will serve as our base from which to explore the local sights. Our first visit will be to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Geghard, a magnificent monastery partly carved out of a mountain. We will also visit Garni, site of the Roman Temple of the Sun, built in the 1st century. Soon after, Armenia adopted Christianity and the temple became the summer residence of Armenian royalty. Featuring a sacrificial fire pit and Roman bathhouse within the complex, the temple was destroyed by an earthquake in the 17th century and was reconstructed from its ruins within the last forty years. We also visit the Museum of History, which hosts the oldest shoe in the world - dating from 3500 BC.

Overnight in Yerevan.


Day 18: Yerevan

Yerevan, as one of the most continuously inhabited cities of the world, has a history that dates back 2,800 years. Modern-day Yerevan underwent massive rebuilding under the Soviet era in an attempt to create the perfect city along the plans of classic European cities such St. Petersburg and Vienna. Today we will visit the Museum of Medieval Armenian Culture - the Matenadaran, which houses a unique collection of over 16,000 ancient manuscripts covering such topics as philosophy, law, mathematics, medicine and geography. We also visit the Genocide Memorial and Museum, and we stop at a brandy factory for a tour.

Overnight in Yerevan.


Day 19: Trip to Echmiadzin

This morning we visit the ruins of the church of St. Gregory at Zvartnots. We also visit the town of Echmiadzin (UNESCO), located just 30 minutes outside of Yerevan and considered one of the holiest sites in Armenia. This former capital city is now home to the Supreme Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox faith. The main cathedral was founded by St. Gregory in 303 AD and sits on a former pagan shrine - remnants of which may still be visible. Beautifully illuminated manuscripts, jeweled crosses and chalices are housed in the cathedral's treasury.

We return to Yerevan in the afternoon to enjoy some free time before our farewell dinner in the evening.

Overnight in Yerevan.


Day 20: Depart Yerevan

Transfer to the Yerevan Airport for your departure flight.

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