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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Day 20: Depart Yerevan
Transfer to the Yerevan Airport for your departure flight.
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