Enjoying the ‘Best of the Caucasus’ on a 2-week guided tour

By Arlene Lichtenstein
This article appears on page 32 of the November 2019 issue.

The Flame Towers in Baku, Azerbaijan.

When my husband, Alan, and I decided to tour lesser-visited destinations on our quest to see as much of the world as possible, we determined that the South Caucasus countries of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia would be perfect.

I usually compare offerings from many travel companies for each trip we take to determine the best itinerary, price, etc. When I received information from Flo Tours (a company I saw advertised often in ITN) while doing research for this trip, I knew that what they offered was all that we could want. Their 14-day tour “Best of the Caucasus” cost $4,995 per person, double, including airfare from New York’s JFK. We set off in April 2019.

Into Azerbaijan

Wonderful guides met us in each country, informing us about the political, economic, historical, religious and cultural lives of the people in their countries.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner were included each day. The breakfast buffets were excellent, and we were astounded by the hospitality in each restaurant we visited for lunch and dinner, where more-than-generous amounts of various salads, breads, soups, etc., were served to our congenial group of eight travel junkies.

Although hotel stays are not the reason we travel, we were often delighted by the quality of the hotels chosen for us by Flo Tours. In particular, the new Holiday Inn in Baku, the Museum Hotel Orbeliani in Tbilisi and the Grand Hotel in Yerevan (the latter listed as one of the Small Luxury Hotels of the world) made us feel special.

Each day’s itinerary was full. In Baku, Azerbaijan, we found the city to be both surprisingly modern, with high-rise buildings, and historical. The Flame Towers, the Maiden Tower, the Palace of the Shirvanshas and many other sites were featured on our comprehensive and compact tour of the city.

In addition to the sites listed on the itinerary, our wonderful guide, Arif, took us to see a beautiful Metro station with mosaics depicting scenes from the works of a famous Azeri author. He also took us to Highland Park at night to see the light show projected onto the very modern Flame Towers.

Outside of Baku, we visited Gobustan, with unique cave paintings and petroglyphs dating back to 10,000 BC, and Ateshgah, or the Temple of Eternal Fire, a Zoroastrian shrine. Shamakhi, Kish Village and many other sites rounded out our very thorough visit to Azerbaijan.

On to Georgia

Friends of ours had expressed trepidation for us because of the three border crossings we would have to do on this trip. However, at each border crossing our guide came with us and safely delivered us to the guide in the next country. Only the border crossing from Azerbaijan to Georgia took much time and energy.

Alan in traditional Kazakh dress holding a golden eagle, high in the mountains near Shymbulak.

Phase 1, out of Azerbaijan, had us walking up an incline with ramps on which to pull our suitcases and steps for the traveler. Phase 2, into Georgia, included many more ramps (45 of them). Luckily, our guide and driver helped with our suitcases, so all was doable.

Other crossings had only short walks through no-man’s-land.

We discovered that each country in the Caucasus was unique. Georgia, a country between the high and low Caucasus and between the Black and Caspian seas, is a multicultural country that is home to Georgians, Russians, Azeris and Armenians.

Vinoculture is an important part of its economic life, and hundreds of families are in the wine-making business. Tasting these lovely wines was, of course, part of our itinerary.

During our first dinner in Telavi, a 50th-birthday celebration was being held for a local, and we greatly enjoyed the wonderful Georgian folk songs that were performed. How could so many people have such wonderful voices?

Our itinerary continued to impress us as we visited many churches from early Christianity and learned about Nina, who brought Christianity to Georgia in the 4th century. In addition, we walked the walls of Signagi, a former fort, to see the picturesque town from on high.

In Uplistsikhe, a first-millennium- BC complex, our intrepid group climbed up boulders to see rock-cut halls, temples and shops. Then it was on to Gori for a visit to the museum and birthplace of Stalin, Georgia’s infamous native son.

Armenia

The border crossing into Armenia was our easiest, and we were met by our wonderful guide, Vilena. She explained that Armenia was actually situated in the Transcausasian Mountains, not the Caucasus, as we marveled at the beautiful snow-covered peaks.

Christianity is very important there, and we saw many ancient churches and monasteries, their religious histories written on the walls. Cross-stones with the blooming Armenian cross — the Tree of Life vining around the cross — were magnificent.

Beautiful landscapes abound in Armenia. Mt. Ararat could be easily seen, and Lake Sevan, the largest lake in the Caucasus, was another wonderful sight.

Arlene at the monastery on Lake Sevan, Armenia.

Some of us took a side trip into a canyon to see the Symphony of Stones, hundreds of basalt stones looking like organ pipes that lined the walls of the deep canyon.

In Yerevan, our itinerary included the Cascade Monument, an open-air museum of modern art from all over the world.

The Genocide Memorial, recalling the Armenian genocide, was very moving.

Our last day in Armenia took us to the tiny Karmravor Church and on to a village where children in traditional dress greeted us and we were shown how Armenians celebrate Easter. Then we traveled back across the border to Tbilisi, ending our “Best of the Caucasus” tour.

Alan and I continued on to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan on a one-week extension that Flo Tours was able to arrange for us. Since we were in the neighborhood, we wanted to see the two ’Stans that we had not previously visited. Wonderful guides, hotels and itineraries awaited us there.

Kudos to Flo Tours (Lake Mary, FL; 800/417-3880, flotours.com). We couldn’t have been more pleased by our experience with them!