Exotic vistas, unfamiliar landscapes, and extraordinary antiquities propel this Far Horizons journey from one side of the Caucasus to the other. Won’t you join us on an expedition to territory few know and fewer visit and to sites and relics you won’t find in most guidebooks? We are headed to ancient Colchis, in the Republic of Georgia, where Jason and the Argonauts collected the golden fleece of a ram and Armenia, the first country to have adopted Christianity as its state religion.
The itinerary includes all UNESCO World Heritage Sites in both countries. In Georgia, we will visit Gelati Monastery, Bagrati, Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, and Jvari Church, some of the most outstanding examples of medieval religious architecture in the Caucasus. We will drive high into the mountains to Ushguli, a community of four villages located in Svaneti and one of the highest continuously inhabited settlements in Europe. In Armenia, we will view the ancient churches and monasteries at Echmiatsin, Haghpat, Sanahin, and Geghard.
Much of the ancient history of the Caucasus region is a mystery due to lack of fieldwork, but the region is filled with megalithic structures similar to those found in England, Brittany, and Malta. In Georgia, stand alongside the tallest menhir in the country, and in Armenia, walk along the Megalithic Pathway at Hartashen.
Join Far Horizons as we spend 18 days traversing this remote and surprising region’s stunning mountain scenery and remarkable roadside attractions.
Located along Georgia’s northern border, the Ushguli area is known for lofty fortified towers dotting the landscape built by the Svan people. For centuries, the Svan have lived by ancient tribal traditions based on a medieval feudal system. Their strongholds, frequently four to five stories tall, were built as long ago as the 8th century to protect these mountain people from marauding invaders and conflicts due to blood feuds.
(If you have any questions about this tour itinerary, get in touch.)
Depart on a flight bound for Georgia.
Arrive into Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. The afternoon is free to rest after the long flight. Gather this evening for our welcome dinner. Overnight for three nights in the 5-star Marriott Hotel, located in the center of the city near the opera house. (D)
Start an all-day tour of Tbilisi at Nariqala Fortress, towering over the city. Its ramparts offer a gorgeous view of the city, the Mtkvari River, and the surrounding countryside. In the old town, enter Sioni Cathedral and the city’s synagogue, and in the Janashia Museum (the Georgia National Museum), see antiquities that span the country’s history including the extraordinary collection of gold filigree jewelry, some dating back to the 6th century BC. Our special dinner tonight will be in the Funicular Restaurant, on the top of Mtatsminda Mountain with breath-taking views over Tbilisi. (B/L/D)
Travel into the heart of the Kldekari Reserve and home to the ancient Trialeti culture during the Bronze Age. On the slopes of the mountain range are found a multitude of stone circles, standing stones, and other prehistoric remains. In the tiny community of Tejisi, see an ancient church that was constructed within a stone circle and thus, Christianized. Then climb to the top of the hill shadowing the village where a field of stone circles may be seen along with St. Nicholas Church. Standing inside this medieval sanctuary is a 15 –foot tall menhir, the biggest monolith in Georgia, modified by Christians who carved a huge cross on the face of the stone. (B/L/D)
Depart Tbilisi this morning and head north to see three UNESCO World Heritage monuments under the umbrella of the Historical Monuments of Mtskheta. Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, founded in 1010, contains a zodiac in one of its murals and houses the graves of Georgian kings. Jvari, a 6th-century monastery, is built on ancient pagan shrines where St. Nino introduced Christianity. Nearby Samtavro Monastery was the former residence of the lords of Mtskheta and the burial and coronation site of the Georgian royal family. Continue to Gori, hometown of Joseph Stalin, and visit the Joseph Stalin Museum. The interpretation is the Soviet version of this former leader of the Soviet Union, as nowhere in the displays are there comments on the 30,000 Georgians who were either executed or imprisoned during Stalin’s rule. Next to the museum sits the wood-and-mud brick cabin where Stalin lived for the first four years of his life. In addition, on the other side stands the bulletproof train carriage that carried Stalin to Yalta in 1945. Drive on to Kutaisi and overnight in the Best Western Hotel for one night. (B/L/D)
Located within the city limits of Kutaisi, both Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The cathedral was built at the end of the 10th century and named after Bagrat III, the first king of united Georgia. Gelati Monastery is adorned with richly ornamented capitals and houses the tomb of its founder, David the Builder, who defeated the Turks in 1122. It was under his leadership that Georgia became the strongest state in the Caucasus. Stop in the Kutaisi History Museum with superb collections from western Georgia. After lunch, drive through spectacular mountain scenery to Continue to Mestia and overnight for two nights in the 3-star Posta Hotel. (B/L/D)
Board 4-wheel drive vehicles and climb into the lofty mountainous region of Svaneti with its snow covered peaks, beautiful alpine valleys and rushing rivers. Upper Svaneti, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a treasury of history and art and is celebrated for its remote medieval villages and tower-houses. Called koshki, these unique stone fortifications were built to protect against invaders who plagued the region and were used both as dwellings and as defense. Ushguli is the highest permanently settled village in Europe at almost 7,000 feet and still preserves many of these tower houses, in addition to medieval castles and churches. The Svaneti area also contains an astonishing chronology of Georgian Christian art displayed within 9th and 10th-century sanctuaries that are richly adorned with wall paintings, and decorated icons and crosses made in local workshops. Visit several of these religious structures as you travel from village to village. The walls of the 12th-century Church of St. Barbara in Kala are covered with ornate paintings. In Ipari, the 12th-century Nakipari Church, or St. George, was adorned with frescoes on the exterior walls and the royal painter Theodore painted the interior in 1130. In Ushguli, the 10th-century Church of the Mother of God, or Lamaria, contains frescoes from the 10th and 12th centuries. Apart from its churches, Svaneti’s greatest wealth is the hundreds of painted and chased icons and crosses which are preserved in the museum of Mestia and in the main village churches. Many of them can be found in Latali, one of the richest communities. Icons like the Archangel Gabriel from the 12th to 13th century, an icon panel from the 13th or 14th century, or the Saviour with two layers from the 10th and 12th centuries, are important cult objects of the villages. In the late afternoon, return to Mestia. (B/L/D)
This morning’s explorations of Mestia begin in the Museum of History and Ethnography housed within one of the best-preserved machub, a typical Svan fortified dwelling consisting of a tower and an adjacent house. Filled with rich treasures of the area – archaeological artifacts, Georgian manuscripts, weapons and armory, jewelry, musical instruments – a highlight is the room filled with 10th to 14th-century icons from Svaneti’s churches, most painted in tempera on wood in the unique Svan style. Located in Laghami, the oldest part of Mestia, the Transfiguration Cathedral is a two-story basilica that dates back to the 9th century. The second floor was added in the 13th and 14th centuries and both the interior and exterior are decorated with stunning frescoes. Finally, we go to the Church of St. George featuring depictions of animals, and the Antique Svan Margiani family residential complex. In the afternoon, drive from Mestia back to Kutaisi and overnight again in the Best Western Hotel. (B/L/D)
As we leave Kutaisi, we stop to view Vardzia Cave Monastery. Reminiscent of Cappadocia in Turkey, the rooms were dug out of the side of the Erusheli Mountain and when finished covered thirteen levels with more than 6000 rooms, including a throne room. The only entrance to this stronghold was through a hidden tunnel. The warrior-queen, Tamar, built these fortifications more than 800 years ago as protection from Mongol invaders. After lunch, it is on to the town of Akhalsikhe and Rabati Castle. First constructed in the 13th century, the complex was conquered by the Ottoman Empire and then the Russians in the 19th century. The massive complex has been beautifully restored with colonnaded pavilions and water works reflecting the exquisite architecture. Within the fortification walls are found a Church, a Synagogue, and a Mosque and medrese, or Islamic school built in the 1750s. At the top of the hill and next to the citadel is the Samtskhe-Javakheti History Museum, with excellent displays of artifacts from 4,000 BC through regional costumes from the 18th and 19th centuries. After walking through the fort, there will be time to wander around Akhaltsikhe’s rabati, or old town, to see its multicultural architecture, including rare examples of traditional Georgian houses, or darbazebi, scattered along the castle fortification walls. Overnight for one night in the Gino Wellness Rabath Hotel, located within the Old Town. (B/L/D)
An early departure takes us to the border. We say goodbye to our Georgia guide and cross into Armenia where we transfer to local vehicles. On the way to Gyumri, we will stop to walk through a field of Bronze Age standing stones near Harteshen village. Thought to date from 6,000 BC, parallel rows of standing stones, all inclined downhill, stretch almost half a mile across the hillside in regular formation. This magnificent Megalithic Avenue rivals those in Brittany. Continue to the town of Gyumri, dominated by Sev Ghul, a huge circular fortress built by the Russians in the 1830s on top of a Chalcolithic tell, an ancient mound composed of layers of continual settlements. Overnight in the Nane Hotel in Gyumri. (B/L/D)
Our drive up Mt. Aragats, an extinct volcano and the tallest mountain in Armenia, takes us to Amberd, one of the impregnable fortresses of the Middle Ages. Amberd is protected by walls with inclined towers. Excavations have shown that the interior was lavishly adorned with carved decorations. In the eleventh century, a bathhouse was built outside the castle and is still visible along with the water supply system. Vahramasen Church, near the fort, was built in 1026 for Vahram Pahlavuni, prince of the Bagratuni kingdom of Ani. In the afternoon, see two outstanding examples of Armenian monastic architecture. The oldest part of Hovhannavank was begun at the beginning of the 4th century by St. Gregory the Enlightener. Adjoining the original church is the cruciform, domed Church of St. John dating from 1216. Featuring an altar decorated with frescoes, as well as unusual cantilevered staircases on its north and south sides, the entrance is through an impressive 13th-century gavit, or entry hall. Nearby Saghmosavank was a renowned center for calligraphy, and several manuscripts written and copied here have been preserved. Built by a princely family, the cross-winged domed structure contained a library. Drive on to Yerevan with dinner on our own this evening. Overnight in the Paris Hotel for three nights. (B/L)
This morning, drive to Vagharshapat and to Echmiadzin Cathedral, the Mother Church of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral, designated UNESCO World Heritage Monuments in 2000. These sanctuaries document the early establishment of Christianity in Armenia and the evolution of a unique Armenian ecclesiastical architecture. The Armenian church is cross-shaped with a dome over the central hall. Built 301-303 A.D., the Cathedral of Holy Echmiadzin is the most ancient Christian place of worship in Armenia. The Church of St. Hripsimeh is a perfect example of the cruciform plan and central cupola. The archaeological remains of Zvartnots, completed in 662 AD and destroyed by an earthquake in the tenth century, provide a unique example of Armenian architecture of the early Christian period. In the afternoon, we return to Yerevan and the Historical Museum of Armenia, which contains a collection of 400,000 objects and is considered the national museum of Armenia. Dinner this evening will feature traditional Armenian folk dancing. (B/L/D)
We begin today with the elegant Temple of Garni, a 1st-century Hellenic temple. It is the only pagan shrine in Armenia to survive the country’s Christianization in 301AD. Overlooking the Goghi and Azat River Canyons, it is built on top of an earlier Urartian temple. Continue to Geghard Monastery, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, that contains a number of churches and tombs, most of which are cut into the rock. These structures epitomize the high-water mark of Armenian medieval architecture. Dinner is free to enjoy one of Yerevan’s exceptional restaurants. (B/L)
Today is filled with fascinating sites. Originally established in 642AD, Khor Virap is picturesquely located on the slopes of Mount Ararat, an imposing snow draped volcano and the national symbol for the Armenian people. The monastery is a holy site of the Armenian Apostolic Church and an important place for pilgrimage. St. Gregory the Illuminator, the man who brought Christianity to Armenia, was imprisoned here for 13 years before curing the king of a disease. The king then made Christianity the state religion of Armenia. Move on to Areni, a large cave where archaeologists have found cultural strata from the Neolithic, with burial sites dating back to 5000 – 4000BC, to late medieval times. Our final stop, the beautiful Noravank Monastery, contains several churches and civic buildings encircled by a wall. During the 12th century, Noravank was the residence of the Orbelians, an influential feudal family. Continue to Goris, a charming town with typical stone houses with arched windows and balconies on tree-lined avenues. The city is famous for its homemade fruit vodkas. Spend two nights in the simple, but charming Hotel Mirhav, surrounding by lovely gardens in the town of Goris. (B/L/D)
Our day begins at Karahunj, or Zorats Karer, a 7,500-year-old stone circle, which, according to some archaeologists, is a Middle-Bronze-Age necropolis that continued to be used into the Iron Age. After lunch, drive to the village of Halidzor where we board Tatever Cable Car, the longest reversible cableway in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records. Our short, but scenic journey takes us 1000 feet above the Vorotan River to the promontory where Tatev Monastery is located. Constructed in the 9th century on the site of a pagan shrine, the Tatev bishopric was a feudal organization that in the 9th through the 11th century owned 47 villages and received tithes from 677 other villages. In the 11th century, Tatev hosted around 1,000 monks and a large number of artisans and was a renowned university. Today, only a few monks live here. Return to Goris for the night. (B/L/D)
Our first stop is Noraduz, a medieval cemetery with a large number of early khachkars. Also called a cross stone, some of these stelae date back to the 10th century. The graveyard is spread over 20 acres with almost 1000 of these memorial stones, most displaying a cross along with unique ornamentation including scenes of weddings and farm life. We then move on to Selim Caravanserai, built in 1332 by Prince Chesar Orbelian to shelter travelers and their herds. This ancient lodge was constructed of blocks of basalt divided into three sections, and is covered with a gabled stone shingle roof that rests on three arches. Overnight in the 3-star Tufenkian Avan Hotel in the village of Dzoraget. (B/L/D)
This morning we will visit the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Sanahin and Haghpat, two Byzantine monasteries and important centers of learning in the 10th to 13th century. Over three centuries more than twenty various churches and chapels and other monumental structures were constructed within the complexes. They are representations of the highest flowering of Armenian religious architecture, whose unique style developed from a blending of elements of Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture and the traditional vernacular architecture of the Caucasian region. After lunch, drive back into Georgia and to Tbilisi and overnight at the 5-star Marriott Hotel. (B/L/D)
Transfer to the airport for our flights home. (B)
Price is based on double occupancy and includes:
Trip prices are based on a minimum number of participants. If this minimum number is not met, trip prices are subject to change. Should the prices need to change, Far Horizons will reach out to registered guests to discuss directly.
Should a roommate be requested and one not be available, the single supplement must be charged.
As a tour company that benefits from the cultural and natural riches of our destinations, we have a policy of donating to the scientific and cultural sites and projects which we visit. This has created a bond between Far Horizons and the academic and local communities that has helped us establish an extensive list of lecturers and contacts in each of our destinations. We ask that each participant donate to the noteworthy project we designate. The donation amount is $150.00 per person. Note that the donation is required as part of your registration for the trip and that it is non-refundable.
Prices are based on currency exchange rates keeping below a projected level. While it is unlikely, if the exchange rates should change substantially, Far Horizons reserves the right to charge an additional amount to the trip cost.
A deposit of $1000 per person is required along with your registration & health forms, which will be linked in the email confirmation you receive once you pay your deposit on our booking platform. Final payment is due 120 days before departure. Prior to departure, you will be sent a reading list and a tour bulletin containing travel information.
Cancellations received in writing at least 120 days before departure will receive a refund less a $500 per person administrative fee. Cancellations received less than 120 days before the departure date will not receive a refund. If for any reason you are unable to complete the trip, Far Horizons will not reimburse any fees. Upon registering for the tour, the purchase of travel protection with both trip cancellation and emergency evacuation is strongly advised. Links to recommended insurance policies will be included in the email you receive confirming receipt of your deposit.
International round trip flights are not included in the cost of the trip. If Far Horizons must change the trip dates or cancel the trip for any reason, Far Horizons is not responsible for any air ticket you may have purchased. Please send your complete air schedule as soon as you have it. NOTE: Please contact Far Horizons if you would like for us to handle your air ticketing.
The private tours of archaeological sites and talks by specialists are scheduled in advance and include a donation to each. Specialists working at these sites are excited about showing their work to interested enthusiasts. However, please be aware that there may be times when the director or a member of the staff may not be on site when our groups arrive due to other commitments.
Far Horizons expects all participants to be physically active and able to walk and climb independently throughout the full touring days. This includes walking over uneven terrain (uphill and downhill) for 2 miles or more at each site. You should expect to be on your feet for much of each day, averaging as much as 5 miles of walking per day. As such, each participant should be able to walk unaided at a pace of 3 miles per hour for at least an hour at a time, and to stand unsupported for at least 60 minutes. Bearing this in mind, we suggest that, if you have not already done so, you begin walking several miles every day, ideally including stairs and hills. If you have questions about your ability to keep up with the group or the strenuous nature of this trip, please contact the Far Horizons staff.
This tour is designed for flexible, energetic people who like to be active, have a spirit of adventure and a positive attitude. We have designed this trip to be as comfortable as possible, while also aiming to visit some remote or unique sites that other companies do not attempt to include in their itineraries. There may be days where we have very long drives and the conditions of the roads may vary. Hotels and transportation in some remote areas may not be up to western standards. There may be times when no bellhops are available; please pack with the understanding that you need to be able to handle your own luggage at times. At times we may be walking over uneven trails for a mile or more; hiking boots are strongly recommended. Not every meal will not be haute cuisine and several lunches may be picnics or box lunches. By maintaining a flexible attitude we will soon be captivated by the beauty of the natural scenery, the hospitality of the local people, and the fascinating sites we will see. Your flexibility and patience will be appreciated.
Changes in our itinerary, accommodations, and transportation schedules may occur. While we are committed to keeping as close to the published details as possible, sometimes it is simply not possible. Weather events, government affairs, or other factors out of our control sometimes come into play. A good book to read as well as patience, flexible attitude, and a sense of humor are essential.