Depart Auckland late afternoon on our Emirates flight to Dubai via Australia.
Arrive Dubai early morning and transfer to the Hotel Sea View for overnight accommodation. Day is free to relax or go exploring. An optional afternoon city tour for those who haven’t been to Dubai before will be arranged. Overnight Dubai.
This morning we transfer back to the airport and travel with Fly Dubai to Yerevan, capital of Armenia. Upon arrival we will be met by our Armenia hosts and commence a 3 hour city sightseeing tour to the Republic Square with panoramic view, North Avenue (a pedestrian mall connecting the opera house with Republic Square), the Cascade complex, which is considered the modern art centre of Yerevan with art pieces displayed from throughout the whole region. From the top we can enjoy the panoramic views of the city and Mountain Ararat. Cascade is home to the Cafesjan modern art museum. This place becomes even more charming in the evenings, when locals and tourists, enjoy the magic and the warmth of the capital, and if time permits a visit to a handmade carpet factory Overnight in Yerevan. (B)
After breakfast we drive to Etchmiadzin, the spiritual and administrative centre of Armenian Apostolic Church. Here we visit the 4th c Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the museum, St. Hripsime’s Church (7th c.), the ruins of Zvartnots temple (7th c. and UNESCO World Heritage site). Also a visit to the Genocide Memorial & Museum. We then continue on to Garni and take a hike down the Garni Gorge to see the basalt formations of great natural beauty that are also part of the UNESCO World Heritage site. For those who prefer to be driven there is transport available on the spot for USD50.00 per car. We will also visit the Temple of Garni which is the only Pagan temple which survived Christianisation in the 4th century. It is also the only "Greco-Roman colonnaded building in Armenia and the entire former Soviet Union. Later we will enjoy a short concert in Geghard Monastery followed by a family hosted lunch in village house where we can watch the making of “Lavash” (Armenian traditional flat bread baked in stone-make oven). Drive back to Yerevan and visit a local market. If time permits we can visit one of 2 malls in Yerevan and/or a jewellery factory for some shopping. Return to Yerevan late afternoon. (B)
We start the day with a visit to the remarkable Matenadaran which houses over 17,000 rare manuscripts plus a famous Armenian brandy factory where we can enjoy a ‘degustation’ of 2 types of brandy! Leaving the capital, we then head northwest and make an excursion to the Amberd Fortress on the southern flank of Mount Aragats. Its construction began in the 7th century and continued through into the 11th century. The Fortress is surrounded by cliffs on three sides, which protected it for a long time, until Tamerlane managed to sack it in the 14th century. We take a short walk and on a clear day the views over the Ararat Plain are spectacular. The highlight however is the view of Mt Ararat, the legendary resting place of Noah’s Ark. After our visit to the Amberd Fortress we will head towards Oshakan village and have lunch at a private house. After our busy day we will return to Yerevan. (B,L)
We depart Yerevan and travel south through the plains of Ararat to visit Khor Virab Monastery. Mount Ararat rises behind the monastery providing a great opportunity for photos. We will also stop in Areni village at a local winery to taste the best wine in Armenia. Our next stop is Noravank Monastery, situated on the hill of a twisted gorge. The Noravank Monastery is not only a place of breathtaking natural beauty but also an architectural delight. We take the road over the Selim Pass – a thoroughfare since the medieval ages when the Silk Road was operating. We will take a stop here and will walk down into the pass providing wonderful views of the mountains and Alpine meadows with its many wild flowers. Continuing on we reach the turquoise blue waters of Lake Sevan, located 1900m above sea level and famous both for its ever changing hues and fresh fish. We overnight at Chambarak. (B,D)
Today we head to the Armenia/Georgia border at Sadakhlo. We will visit Dilijan town, where we will walk through a museum street, which still has preserved houses in it dating back to the 18th century and also a local craftsman’s studio. Travelling on we stop at the Monastery of Haghpat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on account of its outstanding ecclesiastical architecture. Crossing the border in the afternoon, we arrive in Georgia and continue to the capital, Tbilisi. Time permitting, there may be the opportunity to take a stroll up to the Narikala Citadel for fine views over the city or perhaps take a relaxing sulphur bath for which Tbilisi is famous. Overnight at Tbilisi. (B)
The capital of Georgia is an ancient and cosmopolitan city; there is a synagogue, a mosque, a Georgian basilica, an Armenian church and a Zoroastrian fire worshipper’s temple all within a 15 minutes walk. One of Europe’s most fascinating capitals, we include a half day orientation tour on foot which takes in the important Church of Metecki, Sioni Cathedral and the State museum and allows plenty of time free to wander the boulevards and back streets of the city, absorbing its unique ambience. Overnight Tbilisi. (B)
Leaving the capital this morning, we drive to Mtskheta, the spiritual heart of Georgia. Here we visit what is considered to be the most sacred place in Georgia, the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. The 9th century basilica contains the grave of Sidonia, who was said to have been buried holding Christ’s robe. We also visit the 6th century Jvari church before driving via Khosuri and Surami into the hills towards the Rikoti Pass, claimed to be a watershed between Asia and Europe. Here the road winds through narrow, forested valleys before dropping onto the fertile plains of the Rioni, Georgia’s most important river. Arriving in Kutaisi, the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Colchis, we check into our guesthouse for a two night stay. Kutaisi has always been an important town throughout the ages and for many years was the capital of Georgia, when Tbilisi was occupied by the Arabs. The period between the reigns of King Bagrat and Queen Tamar (roughly 900 – 1200) was the golden age for Kutaisi and most of the significant buildings date from this time. Now it is the main city of the Imereti region and here the people are renowned for their sense of humour and also a special kind of ‘khachapuri’ – the cheese bread unique to Georgia. Later we drive to the ‘cave town’, Uplistikhe. Here an entire town of streets, churches, palaces and residential buildings has been carved into the mountainside. Dating from the first millennium BC, it gradually grew to be an important city on the trade route linking Byzantium with India and China. Overnight at Kutaisi. (B,D)
This morning we drive to the magnificent monastery complex at Gelati, which consists of a variety of churches and the Academy building. It was founded in 1106 by King David the Builder in gratitude to God for his victories over the Turks. The King wanted it to serve as a centre of Christendom, so as well as scholars many religious artists studied here. Many of the treasures which were made here have been lost over the centuries, however the buildings and frescos in them are extremely well preserved, and the setting of the monastery on a hillside with views over to the distant Caucasus peaks is attractive. Later we drive via the smaller monastery of Motsameta, spectacularly sited on a cliff-edge, back to our guesthouse in Kutaisi. During free time this afternoon it is possible to walk from our guesthouse through the attractive back streets to Bagrati Cathedral, completed in 1003. As with many cathedrals, it has been added to throughout the ages and today maintains grandeur and nobility despite its ruined state. Overnight Kutaisi. (B,D)
We appreciate the amazing diversity of landscape in this small country during today’s drive. Heading for the alpine meadows of Bakuriani we retrace our route before turning south to drop into the majestic deciduous forests of the Borjomi Gorge. Stopping en route at a pottery we get the chance to see handmade artifacts being produced. Overnight at Bakurani. (B,D)
Today we visit Khertvisi Fortress, dramatically situated on a cliff above the confluence of two major rivers. Later we enjoy a leisurely visit to one of Georgia’s most significant sites: the cave town of Vardzia. Established by King Giorgi III in the 12th century as a stronghold against the Turkish Sultanate (the Turkish border is only 10km away), Vardzia was subsequently developed by his daughter, Tamar (later to become Queen Tamar), who created a cave monastery that became a centre of Georgian culture. This network of caves above the Mtkvari (Kura) river once numbered 3,000, with up to 19 tiers in some places. Much of it was destroyed after a huge earthquake in 1456 and only 550 caves have been discovered. There are numerous churches, meeting halls, refectories and wine cellars, all interconnected by tunnels and stairways. We return to our hotel in Bakuriani for a second night. (B,D)
Leaving the mountains behind we continue our journey, stopping at Gori, where perhaps Georgia’s most famous son, Stalin, was born. Here we visit the museum and learn much about his life. Interestingly he initially began training as a priest in the Georgian Seminary, before abandoning religion to become a brigand and join the new Bolshevik movement. It has been suggested too that Georgia escaped the worst horrors of Stalin’s regime because he was afraid of his conservative, Christian mother! En route we’ll pay a visit to the Ananuri architectural complex. We reach Gudauri and check our hotel for a two night stay. (B,D)
The Kazbegi region is very picturesque, with alpine meadows and towering snow-capped mountains behind – Gudauri itself is a ski resort in the winter. The day is spent exploring this region. We plan to walk from Kazbegi town through Gergeti village and up to the Church of the Holy Trinity, stunningly located on a hilltop overlooking the snowy peaks of the Caucasus Mountains, (approx. 3 hours walk). The area is a treasure trove of mythology – it was to Mt Kazbegi, (the highest peak in this region standing majestically at 5047m), that Prometheus was chained. This part of the Caucasus is a protected area, and is home to a variety of flora and fauna. Georgia has over 100 different mammals, and although the European bison and Caucasian leopard have become extinct, there are still wolves and bears in the mountains. We return to Gudauri for our overnight stay. (B,D)
We drive to Tbilisi this morning where we stop for lunch and have some free time. In the afternoon we will drive to the Kakheti region where we will visit an 18th century town of Sighnaghi. The Kakheti region is famous for its wine production and today we pay a visit to a local winery that has been operating for over 300 years. We’ll have the chance to sample both red and white wines before continuing to the town of Telavi for our accommodation. (B,D)
This morning we will visit the farmers market in Telavi. After seeing all of the produce we will travel to a wine factory where we can see how the local tipple is produced. We take lunch with a local family and experience traditional Georgian cooking and hospitality. In the afternoon we cross the border into Azerbaijan at Lagodekhi and drive on to Sheki for accommodation for 2 nights. (B,L,D)
Lost in the folds of the forested slopes of the Caucasus foothills, Sheki has for centuries been an important market town on the east-west trading route running across the Caucasus from the Caspian Sea in the east to the Black Sea in the west. A further trade route across the mountains to Dagestan in the north turned Sheki into a thriving commercial centre, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries, when there were no fewer than five working caravanserais providing safe lodging to merchants and traders. We visit the Palace complex including the museum.
This afternoon we spend in Sheki, one of the most famous and ancient places of Azerbaijan. Situated 700 m (2297 ft.) above sea level like an amphitheatre surrounded by the mountains and forests of oak trees, this ancient city was long famed as a silk centre and an important stop on the Great Silk Route. There is an assumption that the name of the town goes back to the ethnonym of the Saks, who reached the territory of Azerbaijan in the 7th century BC. We’ll start our Sheki tour by visiting the 18th century Khan's summer palace with magnificent frescos and exquisite stained glass work. The Sheki History Museum is famous for its artifacts from several periods so it’s a must to visit there. We visit an Albanian church located in Kish village where legend says that the church was built in 78 AD, but the researchers place it a few centuries later. Overnight Sheki. (B,L,D)
After breakfast we travel to Shamakhy district and visit the town of Shemakha, the Diri Baba Tomb and Yeddi Gumbez. Shemakha was the capital of Shirvan Kingdom for several centuries. Yeddi Gumbez (The Seven Cupolas) Mausoleum is the burial place for members of the royal families. Overnight in Baku. (B,L,D)
The history of Baku is long and fascinating, not least its recent past since the ‘oil boom’ of the early 20th century, when Azerbaijan produced more than half the world’s supply of oil and the capital Baku grew uncontrollably. Today commences with a tour to Gobustan where rock paintings have perfectly remained with barrows and housing objects dated from X-XIII millennial BC to the middle-ages such as rock drawings and gravestone monuments. Nearby is Gaval Chalan, an original stone - tambourine, representing a huge plate. It is possible to hear rhythmic tones by knocking on it and it is considered that these sounds accompanied ritual dances and ceremonies. We then start exploring Baku. The city is shaped like an amphitheater, descending down to the horseshoe bay on the Caspian Sea. The tour covers the central part of the city showing the most interesting historical and architectural sites. We visit the ‘Old Town” or ‘Inner City’. The territory of the ‘Inner City’ is 22 hectares, which represents a small fraction of the total area of Baku (44,000 hectares). The concentration of architectural and historical monuments makes this part of Baku perhaps the most interesting to explore. We visit Maiden Tower (XII century), Palace of Shirvan Shahs (XV century), Castle Synyk Gala, Caravan Saray, Juma Mosque plus more. Overnight in Baku. (B)
Visiting of Temple of Zoroastrians, in Atashgah. The Temple of Zoroastrians, an ancient religious structure built in the place of a natural gas output was rebuilt in the 18th century and contains many unique original exhibits. Next we travel to Aspheron located on the Apsheron Peninsula. This region of Azerbaijan, surrounded on 3 sides by sea, with hot summers and mild winters could not be better suited for outdoors enthusiasts and seaside resorts. There are a large number of unique historical monuments, including numerous churches, castles, fortresses and watchtowers of the Middle Ages. Tonight is our final night and we celebrate our trip with a special farewell dinner and folk show at a local restaurant. Overnight in Baku. (B,D)
Very early morning transfer to the Baku International Airport where we join Azerbaijan Airlines flight to Dubai. Upon arrival we will be transferred to the Hotel Sea View for overnight accommodation. The rest of the afternoon and evening is free to explore on your own, or partake on an optional desert safari and dinner tour.
Transfer back to the airport and depart on Emirates flight back to Auckland via Australia.