Morning at leisure. In the afternoon, a short drive brings us from the bustle of the city to the village of Garni where will walk in the hills around the temple of Garni before the short drive to Geghard monastery (another UNESCO site) where on the hillsides you can still see caves that housed monastic cells. We return to the city, before going out to sample the thriving café culture of Yerevan.
The morning begins with a visit to the Genocide Memorial dedicated to the massacre of 1.5 million victims in 1915 will help us understand how the huge Armenian diaspora community has developed. We then visit the Matenadaran, Armenia's ancient manuscripts library, imposing building at the top of Yerevan's grandest avenue. A visit to Yerevan's Synagogue is an opportunity to learn about another religion and traditions present nowadays in Armenia. A short drive takes us to the Holy See of Echmiadzin and the impressive 7th Century ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral. Echmiadzin was the capital of Armenia from 180 to 340 AD (when Christianity was first adopted by the Armenian people). The main Cathedral sits amongst hedges and lawns where bearded clergy in dark robes sit in theological debate. In the gardens there are many fine khatchkars (carved cross stones) and bell towers. We return to Yerevan for our last night in the city.
We leave the hotel early as we have a long drive ahead. Firstly we will visit the monastery of Khor Virap, one of the holiest sites in Armenia, with stunning views of Mount Ararat behind. Our next stop is Areni village where the finest Armenian wine is produced. Here we can visit a winery and have a tasting. Our next stop is Noravank where the monastery (masterpiece of the 13th Century architect Momik) is dramatically located in the canyon. Our bus cannot make the last few metres so this we must do on foot! We then visit Tatev Monastery, perched on the edge of the Vorotan Canyon. The drive from the main road to Tatev is spectacular as we pass through villages clinging to the side of the gorge; though the road has quite a few potholes! Our final destination of the day is Goris.
We then follow part of the ancient Silk Road climbing up and finding the well-preserved stone ruins of the 14th Century Selim caravanserai. From here we continue to the top of the pass where the landscape changes, before descending to the blue waters of the Lake Sevan. We make a brief stop at Noraduz to see the 'forest' of khachkars (cross stones which incorporate both Pagan and Christian symbols) before continuing to lunch on the shores of Lake Sevan. The lake is volcanic and lies at an altitude of 1950m reflecting the sky like a mirror and changing colour several times a day. Fresh fish is on the menu here. After lunch we will climb up a flight of steps to visit Sevanavank, the monastery with commanding views of the lake. We stay in Sevan.
We head north today, to Lori - the lush alpine region of northern Armenia. Here, nestled in a forest valley, lies the 12th Century Haghartsin Monastery. This beautiful monastery, whose name means 'Dance of the Eagles', was built by two brothers, princes of the Bagratuni kingdom. From here we drive to Dilijan, a small town known for its arts and crafts. On the way to Dzoraget, we pass Molokan villages. Molokans (Milk Drinkers) are a sect of Russian Old Believers who broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 16th Century.
Our final morning in Armenia takes us further north to the town of Alaverdi where, over the centuries, the monastery of Haghpat vied for supremacy. We will probably visit Haghpat as the road to it is a little better than to Sanahin but both are equally impressive UNESCO sites. After lunch in Alaverdi we will continue on to cross the border into Georgia and to Tbilisi. Our hotel is centrally located in the old town and it's a short walk to the cafes and restaurants in the wonderfully restored Tbilisi streets.
Much of Tbilisi can be visited on foot and in the morning we will explore the old town. We will see the ancient sulphur baths, Sioni Cathedral, the main church of Tbilisi, which dates from 7-19th Century, and the beautifully decorated synagogue, built at the beginning of the 20th century. Church attendance is flourishing now, and on Sundays the churches are packed. You will find it almost impossible to get inside a church when a service is taking place. We can visit Rustaveli Avenue, the main artery of Tbilisi and the Treasury of the State Museum (if it is not closed for restoration) with its fantastic collection of pre-Christian gold artefacts and jewellery. The afternoon will be free and there is a lot to explore with many art galleries, handicraft and painting markets and the enormous new Holy Trinity Cathedral all within reasonable distance from our hotel.
After breakfast we will start our drive up the Georgian Military Highway, through the great Caucasus Mountains. Our goal for the day is the town of Stepantsminda (formerly Kazbek) and a walk up through the village of Gergeti to the landmark Holy Trinity church. The walk will take us about 2-3 hours in total. For those who don't want to walk, local jeeps can usually be rented for a reasonable cost. Hopefully we will have clear views of Mount Kazbek, the third highest of the Georgian Caucasus Mountains soaring to 5047m. We will drive back to the ski resort of Gudauri, where we have dinner, maybe trying khinkali (local dumplings) and spend the night in a cosy alpine hut style hotel.
We head to Gori, birthplace of Stalin (Josef Dzhugashvili) and visit Stalin Square where a huge statue of him used to stand and with the fascinating museum. Stalin's bulletproof train carriage, which he apparently used to travel to the Potsdam Conference in 1945 lies in the grounds of the museum and is well worth a visit for its simple but elegant interior. The small house where he was born is also here encased in a temple like structure! There are still people in Georgia who greatly admire Stalin. From here we will make an excursion to Uplistsikhe which was once an enormous cave city dating from pre-Christian times. In times of seige dead bodies were temporarily buried in jars until they could be peacefully re-buried and a large underground tunnel to the river for water collection still exists. Ancient temples and theatres can still be identified and we can walk up sandstone steps for a windy view across the river and plains. We continue to Kutaisi where we spend the night at a comfortable local guesthouse and enjoy genuine Georgian hospitality.
After breakfast, we visit the ruins of the 11th Century Bagrati Cathedral poised on a promontory above the river and the Gelati Academy and Monastery - founded by King David the Builder in the 12th Century - it is no surprise to find he chose yet another superb location for this monastery, where the monks were members of the royal court. Both sites, Bagrati and Gelati, are on the UNESCO World Heritage in Danger list since 2010. From here we drive to the lovely Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park. Once inside the gates of the park we are surrounded by the smell of jasmine, wild strawberries, wild roses and fir trees. After spending a few hours here we will drive to the small ski village of Bakuriani where we will spend the night in an alpine hut style hotel.
We now travel east to the wine growing region of Kakheti. We will stop at Mtskheta, the former capital of Georgia where we will see the 11th Century Sveti-Tskhoveli Cathedral, the largest functioning cathedral in Georgia. However, the main reason people visit Mtskheta is to see Jvari church, perched on a hill overlooking the valley and built in the 6th Century on the spot where St. Nino set up her cross in the 4th Century; converting the town from paganism. Heading on to Telavi, it is well worth wandering around this charming town. If there is time, we visit some noble houses from the XIX century, wine cellars and lovely park around town. Our comfortable local guesthouse here has great character and we eat our dinner in the wine cellar - surrounded by old pottery artefacts. The khachapuri cheese pies here are also a speciality.
After breakfast we leave Telavi to visit the 11th Century Alaverdi Cathedral - the main spiritual centre in Kakheti - surrounded by impressive defensive walls dating mainly from the beginning of the 18th Century. From here we continue to the citadel of Gremi on the banks of the Intsoba river, and then visit the recently renovated royal town of Signag. In the afternoon we make our way back to Tbilisi for last minute shopping and a final evening out in the city.