Wedged between the Caspian and Black Seas, the less visited countries of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan showcase a wealth of cultural and historical treasures. Discover these special gems on this unique journey.
Exploring Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia
17 days from $8,395
Wedged between the Caspian and Black Seas, the less visited countries of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan showcase a wealth of cultural and historical treasures. Discover these special gems on this unique journey.
- What happened to the Sphinx’s nose?
- A Q&A with Expert Cassandra Potts Hannahs
- A Q&A with Expert Ross King
- A Q&A with Expert Grant Nel
Level 3: Moderate / Active
Expectations: The level of accommodation on this program is very high: world-class five-star hotels in Baku and Tbilisi, local standard five-star in Signagi, Borjomi and Vardzia, four-star in Sheki and Yerevan. All hotels offer air conditioning, clean running water, private bathrooms with western toilets in every room, and WiFi access. Travel times between cities will vary from 3 to 8 hours with the longest drives being approximately 300 km from Baku to Sheki, from Signagi to Borjomi, and from Tbilisi to Yerevan. Including touring and lunch stops along the way, these days will be as long as up to 8 hours. The coaches are all modern and equipped with air-conditioning but do not have restrooms on board. There are no extreme elevations on this program. We start in Baku below sea level and finish in Yerevan at 3,250 with the gradual elevation gain throughout the program. We never exceed 5,000 feet during the drives between cities.Western toilets are available at all hotels and most restaurants that are chosen for this program. However, squat toilets are prevalent at roadside stops. While this program is designed to be the most comfortable possible for travel in this region, it is rated as rigorous touring due to the fast pace, daily walking involved, the length of some bus rides and the overall shortcomings of local infrastructure. This itinerary features a significant amount of touring on foot. Many streets are cobblestone, and some attractions are only accessible via steep staircases with tall uneven steps without handrails. In particular, the caves in Vardzia have some steep ascents and descents along narrow winding passageways. To reap the full rewards of this adventure, travelers must be able to walk unassisted for at least two miles a day and keep up with the group. Flexibility, a sense of humor and a willingness to accept local standards of amenities and services are essential components to the enjoyment of this trip.
Appropriate for: This program requires that participants be in good physical condition: you must be capable, without assistance, of walking approximately two miles per day over uneven terrain and of climbing stairs that may not have handrails. Participants should have sufficient stamina to keep pace with an active group of travelers on long days of touring.
To see itinerary, please click on an option below.
Day 1 – Depart U.S.
Depart USA on flights bound for Baku, Azerbaijan.
Meals: In flight
Day 2 – Arrive Baku, Azerbaijan
Arrive in Baku in the evening and transfer to a centrally located hotel.
Day 3 – Baku
Breakfast at the hotel, before a morning lecture followed by a full day of exploration of Baku and environs.
Begin with a discovery of Azerbaijan’s modern capital at the Martyrs’ Lane, set on a terraced hill above the harbor. It pays homage to the 137 people killed during the Black January of 1990, when the Soviets sent tanks into the city and fired on Azerbaijani civilians. The attack marked the turning point in the country’s drive toward independence.
Walk through Baku’s Old City, or Icheri Shere. Once the whole city, this is the best place to picture Baku’s history. It is completely encircled by the old city walls with their medieval gates. The winding streets and alleyways are home to private residences, mosques and madrassahs, carpet merchants and tiny shops. The aura of the past that permeates the town rewards exploration and careful investigation with surprising glimpses of a bygone era.
On a hill above the Old City, the Shirvan Shah Palace complex is part of a World Heritage site, along with the Maiden Tower and the Old Town itself. Founded in the 13th century, most of the Shirvan Shah complex was built in the 15th century. Encompassing the royal residence, mosques and tombs, the complex is a highlight of Azerbaijani architecture.
Overlooking the sea to one side and the Old City to the other stands the Maiden Tower. Scientific and historical researchers have a difficult time firmly fixing the date of its construction, the reason for its existence or the function it once served. Stories and theories abound: that it once touched the sea, that it was a place of Zoroastrian sky burial, that a maiden chose an honorable death by plunging from its parapet to the sea, or that it was simply a part of Baku’s defensive battlements. The 98-foot structure is a beacon to travelers now as it may once have been to sailors.
In the afternoon, travel outside the city to explore important archaeological sites around the Absheron Peninsula. Visit the Atashgah Zoroastrian Fire Temple, originally built over a burning natural gas vent, a place of worship for the early Zoroastrians; and Mardakan Castle, whose watchtowers make up part of the Caspian Shore Defensive Constructions and have been on the UNESCO tentative list since 2001.
During the course of the day’s program, meet with a local archaeologist who will give a first-hand account of the most important archaeological discoveries in the area and the work still being done by archaeologists in Azerbaijan today.
Gather in the evening gather for a festive welcome dinner before returning to the hotel. (B,L,D)
Day 4 – Baku
After breakfast at the hotel, depart for Gobustan.
This morning travel just thirty miles south of Baku to an important site of ancient petroglyphs, Gobustan, added to the World Heritage list in 2007.
On the way make an en route visit the Bibi-Heybat Mosque, originally constructed in the 13th century but destroyed in 1934 by Stalin’s decree. Local legends say that a white-robed woman was seen disappearing into the sea the day after the mosque’s destruction. Reconstructed from plans and photographs, the new mosque was dedicated in 1998. Today it sits near one of Azerbaijan’s first oil fields, developed during the first oil boom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Quarry workers discovered the rock carvings at Gobustan by accident in the 1930s. Since then, the carvings depicting men, women, animals and artifacts have been the focus of much study and speculation. Thor Heyerdahl famously proposed that the carvings of boats show that the Scandic people of Norway descended from the prehistoric residents of this area, though his theory hasn’t been proven. The record left by these ancient people does attest to a far vaster Caspian Sea, and gives insight into details of daily life such as hunting and recreation, culture and economy.
Back in Baku, see the vivid colors and bold designs of Azeri, Caucasian and Iranian carpets on display at the State Museum of Azerbaijani Carpets and Applied Folk Art. The museum collection was begun in the late 1960s, but the carpets in the museum today date as far back as the 16th century. Regional differences and stylistic details are highlighted, revealing how traditional carpets marry practical value, artistic merit, historical significance and beauty.
Tour the interior of the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, the swooping architectural work that has become a landmark of modern Baku. Opened in 2012, the center was named after Azerbaijan’s leader from 1969 to 1982 and from 1993 to 2003, and includes an innovative performing arts auditorium and spaces for major art exhibitions. The 619,000-square-foot building was designed by famed Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, one of the most influential female architects of the 20th and 21st century and the award-winning master behind such buildings as the London Aquatics Center, the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the Guangzhou Opera House in China.
Enjoy a free evening, taking in Fountain Square, a newly renovated pedestrian plaza in the center of the city, a place to relax and a great vantage point from which to people-watch, or stroll along Baku Boulevard, the pedestrian waterfront promenade with views over Baku Harbor and the Caspian Sea. (B,L)
Day 5 – Baku / Sheki
After an early hotel buffet breakfast, check out and depart by coach for the charming town of Sheki.
En route make a short stop at Shemakha to stretch your legs before continuing overland to Sheki, arriving about midday. Shemakha is the former capital of the once-powerful Shirvan Khanate from the 6th to the 15th centuries. Pass by the 10th century Djuma Mosque, the oldest mosque in the Caucuses.
Sheki is one of the oldest towns in Azerbaijan. Surrounded by beech and oak forests in the foothills of the Greater Caucasus, Sheki was moved in 1772 after a terrible mudslide destroyed the original town. It is home to a well-preserved khan’s palace with 500-year-old trees in its rose garden. The town is renowned for its carpets and its special type of sweet halvah.
Embark on a brief walking tour of this very charming small town, visit Khan's Palace and meet with a stained glass maker.
Enjoy dinner this evening with traditional Azeri musical entertainment. Musical history in Azerbaijan dates from before 3000 BC. Its most well-known form is mugham, a fusion of Persian and Turkic traditions honored as a World Cultural Masterpiece by UNESCO. This mesmerizing music is usually sung, accompanied by traditional instruments. Ancient and modern poems, in the Azeri, Persian and Arabic languages are set to music, using a subtle scale of 84 micro-intervals and no time signature. The resulting unwritten pieces are passed by ear through generations to provide the improvisational bases for the songs. (B,L,D)
Day 6 – Sheki / Signagi, Georgia
After breakfast drive to the Georgian border, undertake customs and passport formalities, and transfer to the Georgian coach.
Travel through the Kakheti region, Georgia’s wine country. In the villages, houses are backed up against each other with one family's roof serving as another's terrace, and so on up the hill. This part of Georgia historically suffered from foreign invasions, and the architecture allowed defenders to retreat through the maze of interconnected houses if necessary.
Stop in at Pheasant’s Tears Vineyards for a tour of the vineyards that produce organic wines from varietal grapes that grow well in the Kakhetian micro-region. The name of the winery comes from a Georgian legend in which the hero claims that it takes a “wine beyond measure” to make a pheasant cry tears of joy.
Sample Pheasant’s Tears wines and see where the grapes are grown and visit the cellars where the grapes are macerated and aged in huge ceramic vessels lined with beeswax. Called qvevri, the clay jugs have been used for winemaking for over 6,000 years in this part of the world.
Get to know the chef and learn how traditional Georgian dishes are prepared – take part if you wish – and then enjoy a meal paired with Pheasant’s Tears wines from a vantage overlooking the beautiful vineyards.
Transfer to the hotel in Signagi at the end of the welcome to Georgia celebration for overnight. (B,L)
Day 7 – Signagi / Qedeli / Signagi
Today explore the town of Signagi and environs, including the nearby village of Qedeli.
Walk through Signagi’s narrow streets, and admire the town’s famous wooden balconies, richly carved with lacey ornamentation. As the tour continues, enjoy panoramic views of the brilliant green of Kizikhi’s fertile farmland surrounding the town.
In the 18th century, King Erekle II constructed a defensive wall around the hill-town of Signagi. Its towers were named for the surrounding villages, and the townspeople were meant to gather at their tower in times of trouble. The town’s location in an agricultural region helped it to grow quickly, and it became an important agricultural center for the Soviet Union. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Signagi suffered an economic crisis and has since undergone an extensive reconstruction project.
A little over a mile away, visit the 9th-century Bodbe Nunnery, where St. Nino is buried. It is said that toward the end of her life she lived as a hermit in the Bodbe Gorge, and died here. The working convent overlooks the Alazani Valley and was used as a coronation venue by the kings of Kakheti. Its main basilica features some fine frescoes, and its surrounding gardens are refreshing. Some of the nuns here may speak English.
Stop at Qedeli Village and Lost Ridge Inn, overlooking the green Alazani Valley, for lunch featuring their outdoor kitchen and a locally-produced micro beer tasting.
Returning to Signagi, you can choose to rest up before the coming feast, or, explore town on your own.
Celebrate this evening with a traditional Georgian Table feast at Pheasant’s Tears Restaurant, accompanied by a folk ensemble and costumed dancers performing the spirited dances of the Caucasus. The seasonal menu for this special dinner is selected and prepared by the wine restaurant’s famed chef. Learn all about Georgian table toasting traditions as you same natural wines and cuisine.
Walk back to the hotel. (B,L,D)
Day 8 – Signagi / Borjomi via Gori
Set off westward this morning for a deeper exploration of Georgia.
Our first stop will be for lunch at Art Villa Garikula for lunch. Art Villa Garikula is a multifunctional contemporary arts center that brings together local and international artists to exchange ideas, educate, and work collaboratively on modern art projects. The villa is home to a well-known artist-in-residence program and also hosts regular symposia and workshops on site. Enjoy lunch with the artists, and learn more about their creative work and processes.
Next, head to Gori for a visit to the Stalin Museum. Gori’s name comes from the Georgian word goraki, meaning hill. A 7th-century Georgian chronicle marks the first mention of the fortress, but the walls that survive today date from the Middle Ages.
The city of Gori is perhaps best known for its connection with Stalin, who was born here in December 1879 and lived here as a boy. Stalin's father was a local shoemaker named Vissarion Dzhugashvili. The original wooden hut located on Stalin Prospekt is today part of the Stalin Museum. The Stalin statue which, until June 2010 stood on the main square of Gori, was the last one which still existed in its original location inside the former Soviet Union. One can still see the statue in its new location in the park near the original hut. Also on the grounds of the museum is Stalin's former private railway car that he used for travel throughout the Soviet Union and beyond. Continue on to the town of Borjomi. Upon arrival check into our hotel and time permitting, you might have time for a quick stroll in the area before dinner, or after, or enjoy the hotel spa.
Borjomi is a resort town in the beautiful Borjomi Gorge. Nearby is the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, a protected area that began as the hunting reserve of Czar Alexander II’s nephew, Mikhail. Borjomi is celebrated for its mineral water, which is still bottled and sold throughout the region. Believed by Georgians to have enormous health benefits, Borjomi’s mineral springs were popular both for drinking and for bathing. After the revolution, Soviet vacationers replaced 19th-century royalty at the spas and sanitoria.
The mountain scenery and spa water of Borjomi attracted both royalty and commoner alike during the 19th-century when the Romanovs built a summer home here and bottled the water in crystal bottles. The palace grounds and gardens form Likani Park. The palace is undergoing a long-awaited multi-year renovation project and may reopen to the public in the future. (B,L,D)
Day 9 – Borjomi / Vardzia
This morning begin with a lecture at the hotel and then drive south to Vardzia.
Enjoy lunch on arrival at the Vardzia hotel, and take in the beautiful view of the hillside overlooking the valley.
This afternoon, tour the Vardzia caves. 12th-century King Giorgi III began digging the caves at Vardzia as a stronghold against the Turks. Giorgi’s daughter, Queen Tamara, completed the complex and transformed it into a monastic center. Over time, earthquakes have altered the layout of the 3,000 caves and corridors that existed in Tamara’s time. Frescoes in the caves that remain represent the pinnacle of the Golden Age of Georgian painting; among them are portraits of King Giorgi and Queen Tamara. A tour includes hiking through the cut rock town.
Dinner and overnight at the hotel. (B,L,D)
Day 10 – Vardzia / Tbilisi via Poka
Following a hotel breakfast, we will make our way to Tbilisi with an en route stop at Phoka.
Stop at the delightful Phoka Nunnery of St. Nino to meet with some of the nuns and enjoy lunch here and a tasting of the many varieties of cheese they produce themselves. The convent encompasses gardens, an apiary, a vineyard, and pastures where their animals graze. The Phoka nuns make not only cheese, but honey products from their bees, and chocolates. They have also revived the art of enamel cloisonné, and sell all these products in their lovely little gift shop.
On our route today we pass by Lake Paravani, a lovely high-altitude volcanic lake situated at some 7,000 feet. Several small rivers empty into the lake, which mainly gets its water from snow, rain and underground springs. Paravani is a popular fishing destination.
Continue on to Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia. Georgia’s strip of central lowlands has long been an important link between East and West. Tbilisi is set at the mouth of this passageway, in the Mtkvari River valley, and has changed hands many times. Most notably, the city was ruled by the Arabs for 400 years before King David the Builder defeated them in 1121 and moved his capital here from Kutaisi. The Georgian king fostered tolerance for Tbilisi’s Arab population, and the city still has a multiethnic atmosphere.
The red-roofed Old Town, its houses sporting carved wooden balconies, sits beneath the Narikala Fortress on the hill above. Tbilisi was last razed in 1795 by Aga Khan, and most of the current buildings date from that time. The domed sulfur baths and the stone Anchiskhati Church were all that survived.
On arrival to Tbilisi, we check into our centrally located hotel and enjoy some free time this evening. (B,L)
Day 11 – Tbilisi
After enjoying a buffet hotel breakfast this morning, set out for a full day tour of this vibrant capital city.
Explore the oldest part of the charming town of Tbilisi on foot. Walk towards Gabriadz’s leaning clock tower, something out of a fairy tale. Visit Anchiskhati Basilica, continue walking to Maidan and Abanotubani historic district with Sulfur Baths of Tbilisi.
En-route enjoy lunch at a local restaurant, and later take a cable car to Narikala Castle and walk towards the Statue of Kartlis Deda (mother of Georgia) where lovely views of the town can be had. Take a walk down the slope to visit Betlemi Street and its famous stairs, continue walking through pedestrian streets towards Kote Apkhazi street and then to Freedom Square.
At the spiritual heart of the Georgian Orthodox religion in Tbilisi is the Sioni Cathedral, named for Mt Zion in Jerusalem and located in the Old Town. Though a cathedral has stood in this spot since the 5th century, what remains today tells the story of Tbilisi itself in its many reconstructions throughout the city's history. The church features unique golden stonework, but the draw for many visitors remains the chance to see St. Nino's Cross. Legend says that when St. Nino brought Christianity to Georgia in the 4th century, she constructed this cross from vine leaves and her own hair; today it is the most important relic in the Georgian Orthodox church.
Tbilisi’s earliest sulfur baths were probably built during Arab rule in the 7th or 8th centuries when it was discovered that hot springs are just under the surface in the old part of Tbilisi. In the 13th century, there may have been up to 68 baths in Tbilisi; now there are six or seven. Most of the baths in use today were built in the 17th century. Pedestrians can see steam issuing from the dome-shaped underground baths as they pass by. The temperatures of the different baths range between 46 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit and are considered therapeutic.
Take a three-minute funicular ride up the wooded slopes of Mt. Mtatsminda to ancient Narikala Fortress, with a mid-stop at the Monastery of Father David. The tram first began operation in 1905, and is a popular means of reaching the top with its 4th-century hillside fortress overlooking the town. Nearby is a Soviet-era amusement park with a cafe and two Georgian-cuisine restaurants. Ride the funicular back down, or enjoy a slower pace along the scenic walking path.
Next, by special arrangement we will tour the Presidential Palace, and meet with one of the President’s advisors. Or visit the Justice House as an alternative. (Subject to government schedules).
Early this evening we will gather together for an aperitif at the Elene Akhvlediani House Museum to the sounds of classical music. Elene Akhvlediani (1901-1974) is probably best remembered in Georgia for her atmospheric paintings of old Tbilisi. She was one of an influential generation of Georgian artists who began their careers in the early 20th century. Her interests included stage and costume design, and during her lifetime she produced designs for over 70 productions. Her studio, always a gathering place for artists, musicians and poets, was transformed in 1978 into a house museum.
Dinner this evening will be at a local restaurant with Georgian folk show. (B,L,D)
Day 12 – Tbilisi
Enjoy buffet breakfast at the hotel this morning. Following breakfast time is set aside this morning for a lecture in the hotel meeting room.
Today we start the touring with a visit to the national museum, followed by a stroll down the city’s main thoroughfare for a look at the beautiful Opera and Ballet theatre. The remainder of the afternoon and evening are yours.
Visit the Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia, a component of Georgia’s National Museum, for a look at some of the country’s most significant archaeological finds. Visitors can see one of the largest collections of ancient gold decorative arts – 5th century BC golden jewelry and artifacts discovered in a tomb in Akhalgori – and a golden trove of treasures from 3,000-year-old burial mounds of the Trialeti culture. The most famous exhibit here, however, may be the 1.8-million-year-old Homo erectus skulls unearthed at Dmanisi, Georgia, from 1991 to 2005. This site was discovered by David Lordkipanidze, General Director of the museum.
Stroll along Rustaveli Avenue. The main thoroughfare of Tbilisi, Rustaveli Avenue was named for Shota Rustaveli, a medieval Georgian poet. The Parliament and many of the city's museums and cultural centers are located along the street. Notice the numerous elaborately carved wooden balconies attached to the houses in the Old Town, a feature of the city’s architectural landscape that often appears in paintings.
Stop in for a private tour of the Zakaria Paliashvili Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre.
The striped neo-Moorish Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theater has had a rocky history, catching fire two different times and suffering neglect after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The foundation of the first rendition of the Opera House was laid in 1847, and the young Leo Tolstoy attended some of the first performances there in 1851. Destroyed by fire in 1871, it was not reopened for 22 years. Then in 1971 the interior of the rebuilt Opera House was again burned, but recreated in only five years. Today, reopened in 2016 after years of renovation, the Opera and Ballet Theater is lavishly decorated with stained glass, crystal, geometric motifs and plush seating. Its world-class opera and ballet troupes provide a full season of performances annually.
The remainder of the afternoon and evening is free for some exploration on your own. Keep strolling and find your way to the Dry Bridge Market. Browse the Dry Bridge Market, where vendors sell wares that run the gamut from jewelry, tchotchkes, carpets and tableware to car parts and tools. Paintings and handicrafts are exhibited in a small park nearby.
Tbilisi has many wonderful restaurants and our guide will provide dining recommendations on request. (B,L)
Day 13 – Tbilisi / Yerevan via Akhtala, Lake Sevan
This morning after breakfast, we depart Tbilisi and drive to the Georgia and Armenian border. We will say goodbye to our Georgian driver and driver and upon entering Armenia meet our Armenian guide and driver who will be working with us for the remainder of the journey.
We will cross at the Sadakhlo border, and after formalities make our way first to Akhtala Monastery, the Nurik Center, Dilijan and Lake Sevan before heading on to the capital.
Our first stop this morning is at Akhtala Monastery located in the northern part of Armenia.
Close by is the Nurik Center, which offers hands-on classes in traditional Armenian crafts and cooking, is run by the Armenian Young Women’s Association (AYWA) and promotes the social and economic participation of women through tourism. You can learn how to weave carpets, make candles or traditional yarn dolls and learn the traditions of each of these crafts as you make them.
Enjoy some traditional Armenian sweets at the Nurik Center, before driving onto Dilijan city.
Enjoy Lunch in Dilijan at Kchuch Food Experience. Over Armenian coffee and gata, Varda, the owner of Kchuch restaurant, will explain guests about food traditions from the region and the use of the ‘kchuch’ clay pots in cooking.
We will continue on our way toward Lake Sevan for a brief stop en route to the capital.
Located on a peninsula that was once an island in Lake Sevan, the Sevan Monastery is made up of two remaining churches – the Church of Saint Astvatsatsin and the Church of Saint Arakelots – though it was a much large compound at one time and ruins of other buildings can be seen. The monastery was founded in the year 874 AD and was an important center of pilgrimage for Armenian Christians throughout the Middle Ages. Some of the artifacts from the monastery, such as its 12th century carved wooden doors, are preserved in the State History Museum in Yerevan, but visitors to the site should note the carved green khachkars.
Lake Sevan, situated at an elevation of 1,800 meters, is one of the largest mountain lakes in the world. Surrounded by mountains, it has a stunning setting and is a popular summer resort for the locals.
There is a small island in the lake with church buildings dating from the fourth to ninth centuries, but archaeologists have found evidence of far more ancient settlements around the lake. Not far from Sevan, outside of Lechashen village, prehistoric cave dwellings have been found and some once-submerged hills have turned out to be Urartu settlements. The cuneiform tablets identify King Argisti and the city of Istikuni.
Archaeologists have unearthed an almost complete four-wheeled carriage, bronze vessels, axes, jewels and daggers, all evidence of a highly developed Bronze Age culture. The discovery of these ancient artifacts came about when the water level dropped significantly as a result of massive irrigation and hydroelectric schemes put in place during the Soviet period.
Armenia is also famous for khachkar, intricately carved stone crosses. These masterpieces can be found in various parts of the country, but the Sevan region is home to hundreds of them. They are a unique art form, distinct to Armenia, which originally appeared in both pagan and Christian periods. Initially wooden, the first stone crosses appeared in the 4th-7th centuries.
Continue to Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia. Upon arrival, check in to your centrally located hotel in Yerevan. Later enjoy dinner at a local restaurant. (B,L,D)
Day 14 – Yerevan
After breakfast at the hotel this morning, set out on an exploration of Yerevan.
The capital city of Armenia is older even than Rome. Yerevan was founded under the name Erebuni in 782 BC. In the 4th-century, Armenia became the first nation in Europe to adopt Christianity as its official religion. The Armenian peoples’ faith, culture and language have managed to survive through centuries of conflict with Arabs, Mongols, Persians and Turks: Yerevan changed hands 14 times between 1512 and 1735.
The city center today includes a wide range of architectural styles as a result of the fusion of Armenian and Russian design. The layout of the city features a large central square with broad avenues radiating from it, and a ring of parkland. Mountains surround the city, including the snow-covered peaks of Ararat to the south and the four peaks of Mount Aragats to the northwest.
Take a walking tour of Yerevan, exploring the many layers of its history – medieval shrines hidden behind imposing Soviet-style façades, the narrow lanes of the Old Town with its stone walls, Republic Square, the new icon of the Cascade, soaring Mother Armenia, the Opera House, and Northern Avenue, the ambitious project of an independent Armenia.
The giant "Cascade" stairway links central Yerevan to the Mother Armenia Statue in Victory Park. The top of the Cascade and along the stairway offer fantastic views of Yerevan and Mt. Ararat on a clear day. Modern sculptures dot the outside of the structure, including signature pieces by Colombian sculptor Fernando Botero and Barry Flanagan. The Cafesjian Museum of Modern Art, built on the extensive collection of Gerard Cafesjian, is located inside and focuses on sculpture, glass, and paintings from contemporary artists.
Ride the escalators towards the top of the stairway, and walk the rest of the way up until you reach the Mother Armenia statue. Designed so that its interior resembles the iconic St. Hripsemeh Church at Echmiadzin, the base of this 167-foot monument was first used as a museum dedicated to WWII. In 1995, it was renamed the Military Museum of Mother Armenia and also includes exhibits pertaining to the Nagorno-Karabakh war.
Located within the steps of the Cascade, the exciting Cafesjian Museum of Modern Art is built on the extensive collection of Gerard Cafesjian. It focuses on sculpture, glass, and paintings from contemporary artists. Outdoor sculptures include signature pieces by Colombian sculptor Fernando Botero and Barry Flanagan, and indoors a great collection of glass art features pieces by Dale Chihuly and the Czech duo, Stanislav Libenský and Jaroslava Brychtová.
In the afternoon visit Matenadaran and enjoy some free time or a visit to the Armenian Wind Instrument Studio.
A vast collection of more than 17,000 manuscripts and nearly 300,000 archival documents, the Matenadaran Museum has existed since the 5th century and is one of the world’s oldest book depositories. The rooms of the museum showcase a variety of modern and ancient languages, with beautifully decorated manuscripts and literary treasures about all aspects of Armenian culture and scholarship. The documents are not only in written in Armenian, but also in Greek, Latin, Arabic, Persian, Syrian, Hebrew, Hindu, Japanese, and many other languages. The front of the hilltop building overlooking the city has statues of great Armenian scholars, most notably the inventor of the Armenian alphabet, St. Mesrop Mashtots, in honor of whom the Matenadaran received its own name.
Enjoy some free time, or:
Enjoy tea or coffee and dessert in an Armenian wind instrument studio. You can inspect and listen to the double-reeded duduk, with a sound reminiscent of a clarinet. The duduk and its music were inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008. The bagpipe is represented here since it was introduced in the 6th century and often accompanies folk dances. The shvi is an end-blown, or fipple, flute, typically made of apricot wood, and the sound that comes from it is close to the hearts of traditional Armenian music lovers.
Get acquainted with the different Armenian instruments and enjoy tea, coffee and some dessert in the house-studio.
Dinner at a local restaurant this evening. (B,L,D)
Day 15 – Yerevan
After breakfast this morning, enjoy a lecture before setting out for a full day of touring.
Carved into the side of a mountain, Geghard Monastery is one of the most fascinating monuments in Armenia. Beside the river at the foot of the rock, the church dates from 1215. It provides access to another building that has a roof formed by stalactites. The convent is in a cave adjoining this building; the only way in is through a narrow opening in the roof.
The compound includes monastic cells, churches, tombs and kachkars all hewn from solid rock. The churches are still functioning and for special events, such as baptisms, sacrifices of lambs sometimes take place.
Listen to the melodic sounds of sacred music performed a cappella during a private concert staged at Geghard Monastery. The quintet “Luys” (meaning “light”) was founded in 202 and consists of five feminine voices.
Continue your drive outside of Yerevan to admire the Temple of Garni, which stands on a cliff near the Azat River valley. With walls of huge basalt blocks, the temple was once the summer palace of King Trdat I who built it in the first century AD. Destroyed by an earthquake in 1679, the monument has been restored by Armenian architects in recent years, and skilled work continues on the third-century royal baths and their striking mosaics.
Enjoy lunch today in the home of a private family. Here you will learn and participate in lavash baking process.
Observe how local bakers make lavash, the traditional Armenian flatbread. Made with wheat flour, water and salt, the baker rolls the dough thin, then lays it over a special cushion, known as a batat or rabata, which helps to stretch the dough into its characteristically long shape. Once the lavash is ready, the baker quickly slaps the bread onto the sides of a wood-fired oven, called a tonir, and bakes it until puffed and golden. Sample some of the warm, flaky bread as it comes out of the oven.
Return to Yerevan in time for some free time before dinner this evening.
Enjoy dinner at a local restaurant with entertainment back in Yerevan. (B,L,D)
Day 16 – Khor Virap / Noravank / Areni
After breakfast at the hotel this morning, set out on an exploration outside of Yerevan to the south and east to Areni Cave, Khor Virap, then Noravank, and a visit to a winery.
The Areni-1 cave (also known as Birds’ Cave) is located near Areni village, famous for wine production. Excavations began in 2007, yielding well-preserved basketry, clothing, and the world’s oldest leather shoe. Within the first gallery of the cave, archaeologists uncovered numerous large vessels typical of wine storage dating from 4000 BCE. Chemical analyses of the contents of the vessels point to wine production, which makes it the earliest known winery in the world. As excavations continue, new finds highlight the role of the region in these early ages.
Enjoy a lunch of traditional favorites at Under the Walnut Tree B&B in the village of Yeghegnadzor. Family-owned and operated for more than 20 years, the B&B allows visitors to make and sample classic Armenian cuisine made from fresh, organically sourced ingredients. Dishes may include ubiquitous barbecued meats known as khorovats; rich, sweet gata pastries, stuffed with a custard-like filling; and grilled trout. Learn some of the secrets behind Armenian winemaking, and enjoy a chance to sample homemade fruit vodkas. You’ll also have a chance to witness demonstrations of local Armenian crafts, such as basket making.
The small monastery of Khor Virap is set on a ridge above the flat Ararat Valley, and behind it looms snow-covered Ararat. Gregory the Illuminator is said to have been imprisoned here for 13 years before converting King Trdat I to Christianity.
Surrounded by red cliffs, the 13th-century monastery of Noravank, with its fine 14th-century Astvatsatsin (“Mother of God”) Church, stands on a ledge above a gorge. The two-story church has remarkable carvings and a reconstructed stone roof.
Visit with Hovakim Saghatelyan at the Trinity Winery (Winemaker and Smithsonian Folklife Festival participant).
Trinity Canyon Vineyards, located near the Areni-1 cave, began in 2009, when three enthusiastic and determined Armenian wine aficionados decided to try their hand at winemaking. The efforts at their vineyards and winery in Yeghegnadzor include a great deal of experimentation: making wine in karas and working toward completely organic production. In addition to winemaking, the founders of Trinity are also responsible for a new wine culture in Yerevan. The opening of In Vino sparked a new life for Saryan Street, which is now the home of YereWine Days Festival.
Gather together this evening for a special farewell dinner and toast the journey (B,L,D)
Day 17 – Depart Yerevan
Breakfast at the hotel, and transfer to the airport for departures back to the U.S. (B)
Included meals are denoted as follows: Breakfast (B), Lunch (L), Reception (R), Dinner (D)