Georgia & Armenia: Beyond the Golden Fleece

Detailed Itinerary
May 2014

Friday, May 2, 2014 - Depart USA
Depart the U.S. on international flights bound for Tbilisi, Georgia.
Saturday, May 3 - Arrive Tbilisi, GEORGIA
Connect through a European gateway and arrive in Tbilisi late in the evening. Transfer to the Tbilisi Marriott. Overnight in Tbilisi for three nights.
Sunday, May 4 - Tbilisi
Following breakfast and an introductory lecture, embark on a full-day tour of the capital of Georgia. Admire the Narikala Fortress, the 4th century citadel built to keep watch over the narrowest point on the Kura River. The citadel, which was expanded and built upon throughout the centuries, was recently restored and maintains its position overlooking the Central Botanical Gardens, with excellent views of the Old Town. See Mother Georgia, a soaring monument above the city bearing a sword for her enemies and a bowl of wine for her guests, and the 6th century stone Anchiskhati Basilica, the city’s oldest church. Pause at Sioni Cathedral, sheltering the Cross of St. Nino, the woman who brought Christianity to Georgia, and the 19th century caravanserai built to house traveling merchants.
Tour the 13th century Metekhi Church of the Virgin, constructed on an outcropping above the river on the site of David the Builder’s former palace. Gain the peak of Mtatsminda, the Holy Mountain, on one of the longest and steepest funiculars in the world, and descend to wander Rustaveli Avenue, the main street of Tbilisi. In the afternoon, visit Tbilisi’s wonderful museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts and the State Museum of History, home of the Georgian Treasury. Enjoy a private champagne reception followed by a welcome dinner at a local restaurant. (B,L,R,D)
Monday, May 5 - Tbilisi | Dmanisi | Bolnisi | Tbilisi
Today is reserved for an exploration of the 9th century Dmanisi archaeological site and the Sioni Church of Bolnisi. Dmanisi was a medieval town overlooking the confluence of two rivers where Silk Road caravans used to pass. In the Middle Ages, townspeople dug their cellars and storage pits through layers of strange bones and stone tools that in the 20th century were found to belong to some of the earliest hominids found outside of Africa. The discovery here of four 1.7 million-year-old Homo erectus skulls have made the Dmanisi site crucial to the study of human evolution. Nearby, stop in Bolnisi to visit what is probably the oldest Christian church in Georgia. Called Sioni (“Zion”), the square stone church shelters what may be the oldest example of Georgian script in the country. Return to Tbilisi for a free evening and dinner on your own. (B,L)
Tuesday, May 6 - Tbilisi | Mtskheta | Kutaisi
Today we drive to Kutaisi with a stop at Mtskheta, a UNESCO World Heritage site that was the capital of the eastern Georgian kingdom of Iberia from the 3rd century B.C. until the 5th century A.D. Because of its location at the confluence of the Kura and Aragvi rivers, it was an important market town. Georgia’s conversion to Christianity took place here in A.D. 337, and the Orthodox churches built during this period are considered among the finest in the country.
An expert archaeologist will guide us around the Bagineti archaeological site before we visit Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, its interior decorated in murals, and Jvari, one of the first Christian churches in Georgia. Also visit the Dzalisi archaeological site and meet a local archaeologist. Dzalisi is a remarkably complex site from the period between the 5th and 8th centuries A.D., when it served as the capital of the Kartli Kingdom (also known as Iberia). Visible are the remains of four palaces, an acropolis, and barracks. We arrive this afternoon in Kutaisi and check into Lali’s Guesthouse in the hills overlooking the city. Tonight dine with local hosts, renowned for their hospitality and humor. Overnight in Kutaisi. (B,L,D)
Wednesday, May 7 - Kutaisi | Vani | Bakuriani
Kutaisi is an ancient city that served as an important merchant center on the route from Greece to India, and it was the capital of Georgia from 978 until 1122, when King David the Builder moved the capital to Tbilisi. It is thought that the legend of Jason and the Argonauts, searching for the Golden Fleece, told of their travel to the region of Kutaisi, then the Kingdom of Colchis, where King Aeëtes reigned and guarded the Fleece.
This morning enjoy a short tour of Bagrati Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the best examples of the domed-church architectural style of the highly developed medieval period. Continue on to Kutaisi’s most impressive site, the Gelati architectural complex. Georgia’s most famous king, David the Builder, founded Gelati Monastery in 1106 and his son completed it in 1130. The monastery housed Georgia’s first academy and was the burial place of the Georgian rulers. Representing the flowering of art and architecture in Georgia’s “Golden Age,” the Gelati Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
After lunch we drive to Vani, where the beautiful gold pieces we saw in Tbilisi were unearthed. Excavations began at the Vani archaeological site in 1947 and continue today. A sacred city of the Kingdom of Colchis, Vani is believed to have been founded sometime in the 8th to 7th centuries B.C. Located on a beautiful hill overlooking the Rioni River, the ancient city has yielded hundreds of gorgeous artifacts, some of them gold. A winding road leads us up the side of the mountain to the alpine village of Bakuriani, a charming traditional town surrounded by a 100-year-old fir forest, where we check in to the Hotel Vere Palace. Overnight in Bakuriani for two nights. (B,L,D)
Thursday, May 8 - Bakuriani | Vardzia | Bakuriani
Today embark on a day trip to the cave town of Vardzia, in an area often regarded as the “cradle of Georgian culture.”  Twelfth 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. Frescoes in the caves that remain represent the pinnacle of the Golden Age of Georgian painting, among them portraits of King Giorgi and Queen Tamara. A tour includes hiking through the cut-rock town. While here, explore the Khertvisi Castle, a massive stone fortress that sits on a rocky outcropping above the confluence of the Javakhta Mtkvari and the Artaani Mtkvari. The sturdy inner keep was built sometime in the 10th century, and during Queen Tamara’s time in the late 12th century the two main towers were erected. Return to Bakuriani tonight for dinner. (B,L,D)
Friday, May 9 - Bakuriani | Uplistsikhe | Tbilisi
Set off for Tbilisi with stops along the way at Uplistsikhe and the Samtavisi Cathedral. Spend time exploring the cave town of Uplistsikhe (“Lord’s Castle”), which was once one of the most important towns along the trade route linking Byzantium with India and China, and was primarily inhabited by artisans and merchants. People may have populated the naturally occurring caves before 1000 B.C. Although heavily eroded and damaged by earthquakes, the town is still fascinating to explore. Samtavisi Cathedral is one of the oldest extant churches in Georgia. It dates back to the 11th century, though the cupola and western wall have been rebuilt since then. The elegant architecture of the church is typically Georgian, with an emphasis on the structure’s long, vertical lines. Arrive in Tbilisi this evening and check into the Tbilisi Marriott. Dinner tonight is on your own. Overnight in Tbilisi for two nights. (B,L)
Saturday, May 10 - Tbilisi | David Gareja and Udabno Monasteries | Tbilisi
This morning we tour the David Gareja monastery complex, one of the most sacred sites in Georgia, a complex of twelve different cave monasteries. One of Georgia’s thirteen Syrian Fathers, David Gareja founded the monastery in the 6th century when he made his home in a natural cave above the silent desert. By the 12th century, over 2,000 monks lived here and the place was known for its distinctive school of fresco painting and manuscript illumination. Sacked and looted by the Mongols in the 13th century, the monastery was just being revived when Tamerlane’s armies overran it in the 14th century. Some of the worst destruction in several of the monasteries was caused in recent years by the Soviet army, which used the area as an artillery range because of its physical similarities to Afghanistan. The Udabno Monastery, a short hike up a hill, is home to many culturally important frescoes. Enjoy the views with a picnic lunch before returning to Tbilisi. This evening enjoy a traditional Georgian table with musical entertainment. (B,L,D)
Sunday, May 11 - Tbilisi | Haghbat and Sanahin Monasteries, ARMENIA | Yerevan
After breakfast, depart for the Armenian border. Proceed through customs formalities, change over to an Armenian coach, and stop in the Lori region to visit the Haghbat and Sanahin monastery complex, the perfect place to begin an exploration of Armenia’s cultural history. The complex was founded in the 10th century and these fortified monasteries, expanded over two centuries, were literary, artistic, and educational centers as well as monastic compounds. Comprising atmospheric stone churches, bell towers, mausoleums, and numerous kachkar (carved stone crosses), Haghbat and Sanahin are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Arrive in Yerevan, capital of Armenia, late this afternoon. Check in to the Marriott Hotel Yerevan, take a short rest, and then enjoy a discussion opportunity with a local guest over dinner. Overnight in Yerevan for three nights. (B,L,D)
Monday, May 12 - Yerevan
Today we will explore Yerevan, a city older than Rome that was founded as “Erebuni” in 782 B.C. In the 4th century, Armenia became the first country in Europe to adopt Christianity as its official religion. Yerevan changed hands fourteen times between 1512 and 1735, and the city center today includes a wide range of architectural styles as a result of the fusion of Armenian and Russian design. The city features the large, central Republic Square, with broad avenues radiating from it, and a ring of park land. Mountains surround the city, including the snow-covered peak of Ararat to the south and the four peaks of Mount Aragats to the northwest. Make a brief visit to the fruit and vegetable market before setting off to explore one of Armenia’s most stirring sites, the Genocide Memorial, standing in a park at the top of Tsitsernakeberg (“Swallow Castle”).
Continue on to view the incredible collection of ancient manuscripts at the Matenadaran Institute. A vast collection of more than 17,000 manuscripts and nearly 300,000 archival documents, the Matenadaran has existed since the 5th century and is one of the world’s oldest book depositories. Next, pay a visit to the ruins of Erebuni fortress, accompanied by a local archaeologist. The citadel of Erebuni was built on a hill on the outskirts of present-day Yerevan in 782 B.C. by Argashti I, leader of the Urartu kingdom. The 36-foot stacked stone walls enclose the foundations of temples, dwellings, ceremonial courtyards, and storehouses. A site museum houses many of its treasures, including splendid metalwork, cuneiform tablets, and weaponry.
Finish the day with visits to two other important archaeological sites on the outskirts of Yerevan: Karmir Blur and Shengavit. Karmir Blur refers to the red hill where the ruins of Teishebaini, a fortified Urartian city from the 7th century B.C., were discovered in 1939. Carved ivory, pottery, helmets, swords, and jewelry have been found at this site. The Shengavit archaeological site contains the remains of a 4th century B.C. center of the early Kura-Araxes culture. In 2010, it was announced that a large quantity of horse bones had been discovered here—more than at any other site in the ancient East. The rest of the evening is free for independent discovery and dinner on your own. (B,L)
Tuesday, May 13 - Yerevan | Echmiadzin | Metsamor | Yerevan
The first visit of the day is to the ruins of the 7th century Zvartnots Cathedral, once the largest round church in the world. It was sacked in the 10th century by Arab invaders, possibly because they wanted no building to stand higher than their mosque. Continue to Echmiadzin, the spiritual center of Armenia and seat of the Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Founded as Vargarsapat in A.D. 117 and once the capital of Armenia, Echmiadzin has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000, and is also an important place of pilgrimage for Christian Armenians from the world over. The visit includes a short tour of the 7th century Hripsimeh Martyria Church, with its 18th century mother-of-pearl altar piece.
Continue to Metsamor, accompanied by a local archaeologist who has taken part in excavations at the site. Metsamor (“Black Swamp”) is one of the most fascinating archaeological excavations in Armenia, in that this volcanic hill shows evidence of continuous occupation from the Neolithic period to the 17th century. Metsamor’s foundries sent metalwork along the ancient trade routes to Egypt, central Asia, and China; and there are remains of an astronomical observatory pre-dating the Babylonians by 2,000 years. After lunch, enjoy a free afternoon in Yerevan or tour the pagan Temple of Garni, once the summer palace of King Trdat I; admire Geghard Monastery which, literally carved into the side of a mountain, is home to some of the finest examples of the Armenian art form of kachkars; and enjoy a concert of sacred music. Dinner tonight is on your own. (B,L)
Wednesday, May 14 - Yerevan | Noravank Monastery | Sisian
Today travel to the southeastern Syunik region of Armenia, home to spectacular Tatev Monastery and several important prehistoric archaeological sites. En route, stop at the 13th century monastery of Noravank, surrounded by red cliffs, with its fine 14th century Astvatsatsin (“Mother of God”) Church standing on a ledge above a gorge. The two-storey church features remarkable carvings and a reconstructed stone roof. On arrival in Sisian, we check into Hotel Lalaner, where we have dinner. Overnight in Sisian for two nights. (B,L,D)
Thursday, May 15 - Sisian | Tatev Monastery | Carahunge | Ukhtasar | Sisian
Begin with a visit to Tatev Monastery, the region’s most impressive site. This powerful, fortified monastery complex was founded in the 9th century, overlooking a steep gorge, and includes the Sts. Peter and Paul Church, frescoed by the founders of the famous Tatev School that taught humanities and manuscript illustration. In the courtyard, a 10th century pillar called the Gavazan tilts at the touch of a human hand.
Continue on to visit Carahunge, a mysterious collection of shaped rocks that were assembled here over 5,000 years ago, possibly as an observatory or a place of worship. Sometimes called “Armenia’s Stonehenge,” the grouping of over 200 stones has not yet been definitively explained. The petroglyphs on Ukhtasar Mountain were discovered in the 1960s. Carved on more than 2,000 dark stones scattered about the mountain, the petroglyphs are thought to represent an early form of writing. The carvings show most animals of the time, plus hunters and their gear, carts, and agricultural implements. Visit the home of a local family to catch a glimpse of their daily life. Over dinner, enjoy a performance of the region’s traditional music and dance. (B,L,D)
Friday, May 16 - Sisian | Yerevan
Today we make our way back to Yerevan. On arrival, lunch is on our own and the afternoon is free for independent exploration. Gather this evening for a festive farewell dinner at a local restaurant. Overnight at the Marriott Yerevan. (B,D)
Saturday, May 17 - Depart Yerevan | USA
Take an early morning transfer to the airport for return flights to the U.S. (B, time permitting)

Optional Pre-Tour Extension to Baku, Azerbaijan - April 30-May 3, 2014

Wednesday & Thursday, April 30 & May 1, 2014 - Depart USA | Arrive Baku, AZERBAIJAN
Depart the U.S. on international flights. Connect through a European gateway and arrive in Baku, Azerbaijan, in the evening of Day 2. Transfer to Hotel Qafqaz Point. Overnight in Baku for two nights.

Friday, May 2 - Baku | Absheron Peninsula | Baku
Begin our discovery of Azerbaijan’s modern capital at Martyrs’ Lane, set on a terraced hill above the harbor. It pays homage to the 137 people killed during the Black January of 1990, which marked the turning point in the country’s drive toward independence. Walk through Baku’s Old City, whose winding streets and alleyways are home to private residences, mosques and madrassahs, carpet merchants, and tiny shops. On a hill above the Old City, the 13th to 15th century Shirvan Shah Palace complex encompasses the royal residence, mosques, and tombs, and is a highlight of Azerbaijani architecture.
In the afternoon, travel outside the city to explore sites around the Absheron Peninsula. Visit the Atashgah Zoroastrian Fire Temple, originally built over a burning natural gas vent; Mardakan Castle, whose watchtowers make up part of the Caspian Shore Defensive Constructions; and Ramana Fortress, parts of which have been standing guard over this coastline since before Amir Timur’s (Tamerlane’s) invasion of Azerbaijan in 1380.
Enjoy Azeri tea and sweets near Yanar Dag, the Flaming Mountain. Fed by underground deposits of natural gas, Yanar Dag burned throughout antiquity and it is one of the few fire mountains still extant today. During the course of the day’s program, meet with a local archaeologist who will discuss the most important archaeological discoveries and work in the area, past and present. Return to Baku in the evening for a welcome dinner at a local restaurant. (B,L,D)
Saturday, May 3 - Baku | Gobustan | Tbilisi, GEORGIA
This morning travel 30 miles south of Baku to an important site of ancient petroglyphs, Gobustan, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2007. The carvings, depicting men, women, animals, and artifacts, give insight into details of daily life such as hunting, recreation, culture, and economy. Returning to Baku, see the Azeri, Caucasian, and Iranian carpets displayed at the State Museum of Azerbaijani Carpets and Applied Folk Art. The Museum’s carpets date as far back as the 16th century, and regional differences and stylistic details are highlighted, revealing how traditional carpets marry practical value, artistic merit, historical significance, and beauty. Enjoy free time in Baku this afternoon, perhaps taking in Fountain Square, a newly renovated pedestrian plaza in the center, or strolling along the Boulevard, a waterfront promenade overlooking the harbor and the Caspian Sea. This evening, we catch a short flight to Tbilisi where, on arrival, we check in to the Tbilisi Marriott and have an independent dinner. Join the main tour group the following morning. (B,L)

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