SILK ROADS AND CRUSADERS
Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia & Turkey
Join our small group tours to the Caucasus region and discover this fascinating, yet relatively unexplored, part of the world, with its' unique mix of cultures and history.
Baku- Arrival Day
Azerbaijan a country that lies at the cross-roads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East and a land of legendary hospitality and fantastic cuisine. Where else can you cool off in the crytal waters of the Caspian Sea and watch natural fires burning from the ground. With its’ enticing blend of Middle Eastern and Eastern European flavours we’ll sample some of the best food that Baku has to offer at our welcome dinner.
Get your walking shoes on today as we explore Baku together. We’ll wander through the winding alleyways of the old city and visit Memory Alley (Martyr’s Lane) a cemetery and memorial dedicated to those killed by the Soviet Army during Black January and also for those killed in the Nagorno-Karabakh War. We’ll see the Maiden’s Tower a powerful eight storey fortress and the Shirvanshah’s Palace complex parts of which date back to the 15th century. After lunch visit the world class cultural centre named after Heydar Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s third president. The Heydar Aliyev Centre consists of various exhibitions and is recognised as one of the world's most famous buildings, the masterpiece of Zaha Hadid has become an architectural landmark of modern Azerbaijan. After dinner we will head to the Upland Park viewpoint and check out the light show on the Flame Towers and gaze at the stunning sunset view of the city and the Caspian Sea.
Baku - Absheron Peninsula - Gobustan - Baku
After breakfast we’ll head to the Absheron Peninsula and the Gobustan National Park where you will see the petroglyphs from 10 thousand BC. We’ll visit one of the most exciting sites in the area - mud volcanoes in Gobustan. It is believed that almost half of world’s mud volcanoes are in Gobustan. You will understand why Azerbiajan is labelled the “land of fire” when we visit an ancient temple of fire worshippers called Ateshgah. After a leisurely lunch we head to “Yanardag” (burning mountain) a place that has attracted visitors for thousands of years. We’ll return to Baku and head to the famous Nizami Street where this busy boulevard comes to life at night and enjoy the best “Lavangi” this city has to offer.
Baku - Shamakhi - Lahich - Sheki
This morning we’ll travel the historic trade route from Baku to Sheki stopping along the way in the village of Maraza known for its unique monument, a 15th century two-story mausoleum-mosque called Diri-Baba. We’ll continue to Shamakhi and visit the historical Juma Mosque purported to be the oldest and largest mosque in Azerbaijan. A scenic drive will bring us to the village of Lahich and you will be forgiven if you think you are back in the middle ages. With its’ cobbled sidewalks this quaint 5th century corner of the Caucasus Mountains is rich in history and architecture. Tonight we will sample “piti” Azerbaijan’s signature dish and a Sheki specialty.
Sheki - Kish - Sheki
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. In the afternoon we’ll visit the nearby village of Kish and check out the Armenian church. Built around 1st century AD it has functioned at different times as a Caucasian Albanian Apostolic church, a Chalcedonian church within the Georgian Orthodox Church and later as Armenian Apostolic Church. We’ll also get to see how the traditional “Kelagai” headscarves are handmade in one of the many workshops along the cobbled streets of this beautiful town.
Sheki - Kvareli (Georgia)
This morning we’ll say goodbye to Azerbaijan and cross over into Georgia. No only famous for its’ breathtaking landscape and hospitable people Georgian wines are renowned the world over, so of course our first stop will be Khareba’s Tunnel winery. The temperature in the tunnel stays at an idyllic 12-14 degrees throughout the year. After a leisurely lunch and a nip or two! we’ll continue to Kvareli for the evening.
Kvareli - Tbilisi
After a leisurely breakfast we’ll head to the Georgia capital of Tbillis but first we’ll stop at the picturesque village of Sighnaghi (labelled recently as the “city of love”) and check out the Nekresi Monastery. Perched high on a forested slope some parts of this monastery date back to the 4th century. We’ll hunt around for the wine room where you can see a set of qvevris embedded in the floor. Think this combination of religion and alcohol is strange? You’d better get used to it. Viniculture is as old as the hills in Georgia. The country’s signature vino is unlike any wine you’ve tasted before and sampling wine is a lesson in Georgian history. We’ll visit Bodbe Monastery acclaimed to have the best kept grounds in Georgia. - it’s nuns, not monks, who live here and are responsible for tending the gardens. A woman’s touch! Tonight we’ll share platters of some famous Georgian “khinkali” slightly chewy, doughy dumplings filled with minced meat and herbs, or potato and cheese and a glass or two of wine.
Tibillsi is a city that draws you in, reveals itself ever so slowly and then gets under your skin. Its’ charming, eclectic and oozing with history and tradition. Where else can you find a synagogue, mosque, basilica, Armenian church and a Zoroastrian fire temple all within 15 minutes walk from each other- welcome to Tibillis!!! This afternoon we will learn how to cook Georgian style!details about the event or activity, where it’s located and any other relevant information for your visitors. Add photos to make it shine.
Tbilisi - Kazbegi
A tour to Georgia would not be complete without a visit to Kazbegi, a small town close to the border with Russia. The area is a treasure trove of mythology - it was to the majestic Mount Kazbegi the highest peak in this region that Prometheus was chained. This part of the Caucasus is a protected area and home to a variety of flora and fauna. Upon arriving in Kazbegi we’ll change to 4-wheel-drive vehicles and head to the Gergeti Holy Trinity church, nestled on top of one of the highest hills at 2170 meters above sea level. This afternoon we'll chill out, relax and enjoy the mountain air and views before we sample some of the of the tastiest food this town has to offer.
Kazbegi - Ananuri - Gori - Tblisi
After a leisurely breakfast we'll head back to the Georgian capital but first stopping at the castle complex in Ananuri. Perched along the turquoise waters of the Aragvi River the complex is a prime example of Georgia’s unique blended architectural aesthetic. We'll head to the Soviet style town of Gori where Georgia's most famous son, Stalin, was born for lunch and check out the museum dedicated to his life. Some free time this afternoon in Tbilis so why not head to Orbeliani Baths, not only renowned for its' sulphur bath but also its' stunning mosaics.
Tblisi - Dilijan
This morning we'll cross the border into Armenia a small nation but certainly big on character with its' breathtaking countryside and make our way to Dilijan known as the "Little Switzerland" of Armenia. We'll stop at the Goshavank Monastery, a perfect sample of medieval architecture which housed a school/university known for its' "Book of Laws". Not to be outdone we'll head to the Haghartsin Monastery the spiritual and cultural center of medieval Armenia. Finally arriving in the picturesque town of Dilijan we'll check out Museum Street famous for its' preserved houses dating back to the 18th century with typical fretwork wooden balconies as well as local handicraft studios. Tonight we will sample some of the best Tolma this country has to offer.
Dilijan - Garni - Yerevan
Barheev! Welcome to Armenia. We'll head this morning to Armenia's capital Yerevan but first stopping at the Hellenistic Temple in Garni. Built in AD77 this pagan monument is dedicated to the worship of the sun. After lunch we'll head to the UNESCO listed Geghard Monastery ( according to legend the monastery of Geghard was named in honour of the spear, with which the Roman legionary pierced the body of Christ on the cross). Try the spring water is purported to have rejuvenating properties!
The capital of Armenia is a busy and cosmopolitan city, looking to the future but deeply rooted in its often tragic past. It has an easy-to-navigate city centre and a street cafe culture that could easily rival London or Rome! On a clear day there are splendid views across the Ararat Plain to the silhouette of Turkey's Mount Ararat, the legendary resting place of Noah's Ark. We'll visit the Matenadaran, a depository of ancient manuscripts that contains historical documents from all over Europe and Asia. The building also holds the first copy of the Bible in Armenian. After all that wandering around we'll head on over to one of our favourite brewpubs for lunch and maybe sample one (or two) of their boutique brewed beers.
Yerevan – Khor Virap – Echmiadzin - Yerevan
This morning we’ll head south to the Ararat Valley and explore the Khor Virap Monastery where Grigor Luisavorich (Saint Gregory the Illuminator) was imprisoned for a period of 13 years until he cured King Trdat III. The backdrop is simply stunning as it is the closest point to Mount Ararat. We’ll head to the “Vatican of Armenia” Echmiadzin and visit the Cathedral of Echmiadzin. Founded at the beginning of the fourth century the cathedral is considered to be one of the oldest churches in the world. Legend has it the church was built in a place where an apparition of Jesus Christ came to the religious leader Gregory the Illuminator in a dream.
Yerevan – Gyumri
After a leisurely breakfast we’ll head to Armenia’s second largest city Gyumri. The first thing you’ll notice about Gyumri is its’ striking architecture. Churches, municipal buildings and houses all look as if they’ve been blackened by fire. The carbon colour is in fact the natural tone of volcanic tuff, stone quarried outside. We will explore city life together, enjoy lunch at one of the many cafes then head to the Black Fortress for picturesque views of Gyumri. Museum lovers be warned this city is home to some of the most significant cultural institutions this country has to offer.
Gyumri - Vardzia Caves - Akhaltsikhe (Georgia)
This morning we bid goodbye to Armenia and head back to Georgia for our crossing into Turkey. Along the way we will stop at the labyrinthian Vardzia Cave Monastery, an entire city carved within the very side of the Erusheti Mountain in Georgia. With its' double arched entry, a row of hanging bells on the outside and intricate paintings decorating the interior The Church of Assumption is regarded as the most impressive sight in the complex. We'll head to Akhaltsikhe for lunch and check out the newly renovated Rabati Castle with its' church, mosque, synagogue and a madrasa all within the walls of this fortress.
Akhaltsikhe - Kars - Ani - Kars
This morning we'll cross the border and head to the crumbling ruins of the once-great metropolis of Ani, known as "the city of a thousand and one churches." Ruled by a vast array of kingdoms and empires over time the city of Ani once housed over 100,000 people becoming both a cultural and regional power under the medieval Bagratid Armenian dynasty. We'll stop at Lake Cildir and sample some of their fresh fish and perhaps a raki or two (definitely with ice).
Kars - Erzurum
Known for its' distinctive rugs and kilims the city of Kars played an important role in Turkish history and was at the center of the Turkish-Russian War - you can still see the Russian legacy in much of the town's architecture to this day. We'll check out the Havariler Museum (the 10th century Church of the Apostles) as well as the Armenian Bagratid (Armenian Apostolic church) located in the centre of Kars city, After serving as a mosque, a Russian Orthodox church and a museum, it reverted back to a mosque in 1993 and is connected to a larger Islamic complex that includes Kars’ largest mosque, the Evliya Mosque. After lunch we will continue our journey to Erzurum famous for its' stunning Seljuk, Saltuk, Mongol and Ottoman mosques and medreses. Tonight we will dine on their famous Cag Kebab.
Erzurum - Trabzon
Due to its' location on the old silk road, Trabzon has been influenced by many cultures and religions over the centuries. Often called the "city of sultans" it was the birthplace of the famous Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. Today we'll visit Trabzon's take of the Aya Sophia. Once a church, a hospital, a museum and now a mosque it certainly is not as famous as its' counterpart in Istanbul but still equally stunning with its' frescoes of evangelists and soaring angels. Lunch stop at our favourite pide restaurant. We've come to realise why the Black Sea region's pide is so awesome - copious amounts of butter and not just used in the actual cooking but piled in a melting spoonful on top. This afternoon we'll head to the Ataturk Museum. The home now contains a museum of his belongings and photographs as well as the furniture he used for a total of five nights during his visits to Trabzon.
Trabzon - Sumela Monastery - Trabzon
Perched on the face of a cliff above a deep gorge stands the imposing Sumela Monastery. A former Greek Orthodox monastery, now an outdoor museum, this 1700 year old landmark is simply stunning . Inside the complex is the Rock Church, several chapels, kitchens, student rooms, a guesthouse, a library and a sacred spring revered by Orthodox Christians. Beautiful frescoes depicting biblical scenes decorate the inner and outer walls of the Rock Church. Tonight we'll have our final dinner together
Trabzon - Departure Day
All good things come to an end - after breakfast transfer to airport for flight home.
20 nights twin share accommodation with private facilities in boutique or special class accomodation
In a private, air-conditioned minibus
20 Breakfasts, 10 Lunches, 10 Dinners
Arrival and departure transfers
Services of an experienced Australian Tour Leader
Services of professional English-speaking local guide/s
To all sites listed in the itinerary
Organic Cooking Workshop
Full day cooking workshop Georgia
What's Not Included?
Visas and Departure taxes
Tips and gratuities for driver and guide
Meals other than those specified in the itinerary
Fees for optional activities
Drinks and Items of a personal nature
EMBRACING THE CAUCASUS CULTURE AND CUISINE
A World of Endless Travel Possibilities
The Turkic and Caucasian countries at Asia's core share a spare yet hearty form of cooking that mirrors the starkly beautiful landscape. The massive central span of the Asian continent has played host to innumerable kingdoms, khanates and empires over the millenia. Each has left its' own impression on local cuisines and spread cooking traditions and ingredients far and wide. Like all of the Caucasian nations, Armenian cuisine tends to be calorie-laden, hearty and satisfying, whilst Georgian cuisine is one of the brightest in the South Caucasus. It is all about spices and colours, much like the Georgian people. And there’s so much more to explore than the popular Georgian khinkali and khachapuri.
Some highlights on our Silk Roads and Crusaders tour
In Baku you will discover a constantly evolving tapestry of life and energy from bazaar to penthouse. Being a coastal city, Baku is intrinsically open-minded and hospitable. Guests are welcome to stroll along the Caspian promenade (the Boulevard), visit the Old City (known locally as Icherisheher) and enjoy the unique architectural blend of East and West.
Sheki is Azerbaijan’s true gem, a small city off the forested slopes of the Greater Caucasus Mountains rich in Silk Road history and renowned for its fascinating architecture, food and friendly residents. Head to the historic centre and Azerbaijan’s latest UNESCO World Heritage site to soak up the spirit of an old Caucasian trading hub, and enjoy exploring the city’s craft shops and caravanserais, cobblestone streets and colourful sweet shops.
From prehistoric rock art to musical stones, the Azerbaijani people’s age-old past is dramatically brought to life in the UNESCO-listed Gobustan Reserve, where an astonishing collection of over 6,000 ancient petroglyphs chart ways of life dating back as far as 40,000 years. The reserve is located among the Boyukdash, Kichikdash and Jingirdagh mountains, about 60 kilometres south of Baku and is also home to the remains of once inhabited caves, settlements and burial grounds, all reflecting intensive human use from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Middle Ages. What’s more, just a short drive away you’ll find some of Azerbaijan’s astonishing number of mud volcanoes, one of the world’s most intriguing natural wonders.
Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia is a lively, charming city, built along the twisting valley of the river Mtkvari and was for centuries one of the greatest multicultural trading cities along the Silk Road. Elegant 19th century buildings line its leafy boulevards and in the old town, wooden houses with carved overhanging balconies hug the mountainside. Georgians are famed for their hospitality; love of good food and wine and Tbilisi has many good restaurants where you can sample the local cuisine.
Kvareli is a small town located in the northeast of the famed wine region of Kakheti, located near the southern foothills of the stunning Greater Caucasus Mountains. Although set in the heart of the wine region, Kvareli also offers some beautiful scenery, fascinating history and is a fantastic place to visit.
Stepantsminda town (commonly known as Kazbegi) sits in the shadow of Mount Kazbegi (5047m), and is one of the most picturesque places in Eurasia. From here you can do some fabulous walks up to the Gergeti Trinity Church, into the Truso Gorge or further up the Georgian Military Highway to see the Dariali Gorge and the border with Russia. This is where the true beauty and culture of rural Georgia kicks in, where hospitality is the creed and a laid-back way of life the "norm".
This fascinating cave town is one of the oldest settlements in Georgia. It was inhabited for the first time in the Bronze Age around 1000BC but developed mainly in the 6th to 1st century BC.
As the main Asia-to-Europe caravan trade route passed by along the Mtkvari River it was also a major centre on the Silk Road and, before Christianity was brought to Georgia in the 4th century AD, a special site for pagan worship. At the complex there is a theatre, pharmacy, bar and wine shop, temples and a multitude of homes. At its peak 20,000 people lived here.
The capital town of the region, Akhaltsikhe is dominated by the Rabat - castle - dating from the 12th Century and used by the Ottomans in the 17th-19th. The castle is the main draw to the town which has a large Armenian population.
In ancient times Mtskheta was the capital of Georgia and its' most important religious centre. Situated in the heart of the Kartli Region it sits at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi Rivers and houses some hugely important religious monuments. The most important among them is the 11th century Sveti-Tskhoveli Cathedral or cathedral of the life tree, which local tradition says houses the robe of Christ.
Surrounded by a heavily forested area of mountains, Dilijan is a popular spa town, famous for its' mineral water and the surrounding countryside is home to a great variety of fauna as well as 240 species of birds. The 19th century quarter of Dilijan has been restored with some fine two-story mansions and workshops.
Echmiadzin is a holy place for Armenians, the site of their most important Orthodox Cathedral and the residence of the Supreme Patriarch Catholicos of all Armenians. St Gregory the Illuminator is said to have founded the first church on this site in 303. Other fine churches dating from the 7th century can also be found in Echmiadzin including the shrines of St. Hripsime and St. Gayane. Nearby is the ruined church of Zvarnots dating from 641 which was reputedly one of the most beautiful churches of its day.
With magnificent views of the surrounding mountains, the pagan temple at Garni was built in 1st century AD in the Greek style. After the Armenian's conversion to Christianity, their rulers built a summer residence alongside the temple (now ruined) in the 3rd century AD.
Stands in a deep, heavily wooded valley and is a fantastic example of medieval Armenian architecture. Begun in 4th century AD it consists of the 'Mother of God' Cathedral and two chapels carved deep into the rock. It is said that the holy lance that pierced the body of Christ was kept here.
Travelling south from Yerevan the road leads through the plains of the Ararat valley to the magnificent monastery of Khor Virap, set against the backdrop of towering Mount Ararat. The monastery is a place of pilgrimage and is the site of the prison where St. Gregory the Illuminator (who brought Christianity to Armenia in 301 AD) was imprisoned. The town of Artashat nearby was the capital of Armenia from the 2nd to the 4th centuries AD and a major city on the Silk Road.
The largest and highest lake in the Transcaucasus the lake holds a special place in the heart of the Armenian nation. With its cool azure waters and fresh mountain air it is a popular holiday resort and is famous for its 'ishkan' trout and other freshwater fish. In recent times Lake Sevan has shrunk due to the tapping of the Razdan river.
Yerevan, Armenia's capital is arguably one of the best places to visit in Armenia. With a population of over 1 million people it is an attractive city of wide tree-lined boulevards and stylish buildings built of the local pink volcanic tuffa stone. From most places in the capital, one can see the towering peak of Mount Ararat, the reputed resting place of Noah's Ark.