- Discover Tbilisi, the ‘city of light’ and Georgia’s capital
- Explore the ancient rock-hewn town of Uplistsikhe
- View the classical Hellenistic Temple of Garni in Armenia
Day 1 – 30 September 2018
We depart from the United States, landing in Armenia on the morning of Day 2.
Day 2 – 1 October 2018
Our explorations begin in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, on the banks of the Hrazdan River. After touching down at the airport, we transfer to our hotel in the midst of the bustling city, and take the afternoon to unwind after our flight, perhaps venturing out for a wander around the neighboring streets at our own pace.
This evening we have an enlightening introductory talk from our Guide Scholar, before ending the day with a welcoming dinner of Armenian cuisine.
Day 3 – 2 October 2018
After a restful night we take a short drive west to enchanting Echmiadzin, otherwise known as the country’s spiritual capital – a city inhabited since the 3rd millennium BC. Here we find the ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site constructed during the Byzantine era, which lay collapsed and undiscovered until the beginning of the 20th century. On site is a romantic assortment of columns and elaborate carvings, as well as remnants of structures dating back as far as the Urartian era of the 7th century BC.
Our next stop is Echmiadzin Cathedral, another World Heritage attraction, thought to have been built in around 300 AD by Armenia’s patron saint, Gregory the Illuminator. Echmiadzin is widely considered to be the oldest cathedral in the world, and is often described as the Vatican of Armenia. Its magnificently-preserved interiors have endured a colorful, and sometimes turbulent, past. We learn all about it during our guided tour.
Following lunch we return to Yerevan for a visit to the Matenadaran, a magnificent building housing thousands of priceless books and manuscripts, dating back as far as 405 AD.
Day 4 – 3 October 2018
Our first destination this morning is Geghard, a fairytale monastery rising out of the Azat River Gorge. Founded on the site of a sacred spring in the 4th century by Saint Gregory, the monastery’s main chapel was constructed in the 1200s, and is noted for its excellent collection of khachkars, or Medieval cross-stones. It is also home to a fascinating reliquary, within which is the spear allegedly used to wound Christ during his crucifixion.
We proceed down-river to the Temple of Garni, the only Graeco-Roman temple still standing in Armenia. Constructed in the 1st century AD, it is believed that the temple was later converted to a royal summer house, only to be destroyed by an earthquake some centuries later. In the 1960s and 70s it was painstakingly reconstructed.
This afternoon we dive in to Yerevan’s History Museum, a national treasure boasting a vast collection of archaeological and ethnographic artefacts. Don’t miss the exhibit on transport from the 15th and 14th centuries BC, including wooden carts and chariots, or the gigantic Urartian vessels that hold up to 1,200 liters of liquid, and which were once used for religious ceremonies.
Day 5 – 4 October 2018
Our fifth day begins at Shengavit, an enigmatic archaeological site near Lake Yerevan. Settled since at least 3200 BC, it is still not known what happened to this formerly prosperous town. Since its rediscovery in the 1930s, the excavated remains of cyclopean walls, towers, underground passageways and burial mounds have yielded tantalizing hints of what used to be.
We continue on to the hilltop ruins of Erebuni Fortress, home to a long line of Urartian kings, and an important stronghold against the northern territories. Here we find traces of dormitories, storerooms, a colonnaded royal assembly hall, and even a temple dedicated to Khaldi, a Urartian warrior god.
Returning to Yerevan we have free time to explore the city at our leisure, or join an optional excursion to the Genocide Museum, for an opportunity to learn more about the systematic extermination of Armenians by the Ottoman government in 1914-1918. A somber and significant reminder of atrocities past.
Day 6 – 5 October 2018
This morning we leave Yerevan and make our way to Khor Virap, a 7th-century monastery stunningly located on the open plains near Mount Ararat. Khor Virap began life as a prison, and became a pilgrimage site following Saint Gregory’s 13-year incarceration in one of the prison’s pits. The site is still used for religious ceremonies, with animal sacrifices taking place here as part of local weddings and baptisms.
Following lunch, our journey takes us to Noravank. This 13th-century monastery stands among the rugged scenery of the Amaghyu Valley, and contains such highlights as the ornately-carved tomb of Prince Tarsayich Orbelian, not to mention the elegant Surb Astvatsatsin Church.
Our next stop is Areni Cave, an early Bronze Age site beside the Arpa River, at which the oldest shoe, earliest winery, and even the oldest brain tissue have so far been discovered!
Later today we arrive at Dilijan – a lush alpine spa town known to locals as “Little Switzerland” – and check in to our second hotel of the trip.
Day 7 – 6 October 2018
After breakfast we set out to discover the sights of Dilijan, taking in its gorgeous old town streets with their workshops and museum. We then head for Haghartsin, a popular complex of 10th- to 13th-century churches, as well as beautiful khachkars and an intriguing hollow column, in which hidden riches were once stored.
This afternoon we visit the monasteries of Sanahin and Hagpat, two UNESCO sites both cherished as important centers for religious learning. Expect a wealth of intricate stonework, majestic interiors, and even a scriptorium, where valuable manuscripts were concealed in secret pits.
Traveling across the border, we end our day in Tbilisi, the distinctive, multi-cultural capital of Georgia.
Day 8 – 7 October 2018
Our eighth day is devoted to the sights of Tbilisi, beginning at the heights of Metekhi Church, which looms over the city from the cliffs. Founded as a church by King Demetrius II in the 1200s, Metekhi was fortified as a garrison in the 17th century, and became a barracks under Russian rule.
We continue to Sioni Cathedral, a Georgian Orthodox building dating back as far as the 5th century, with exceptionally rich Medieval frescoes and interiors. The Great Synagogue welcomes us next, a 19th-century building designed by Georgian Jewish migrants. We round off the morning at Anchiskhati Basilica, the oldest extant church in the city, beloved for its weathered interiors and antique naves.
We pause for lunch in a local restaurant, before entering the Museum of Georgia – a brilliant introduction to the country, with displays of jewelry, pre-Christian gold, and other archaeological delights dating from the 3rd millennium BC onwards.
Day 9 – 8 October 2018
This morning we drive south to Davit Gareja, a complex of monastic buildings founded in the 6th century, including cells, chapels, churches and living quarters, all cut into the slopes of Mount Gareja. A remote and otherworldly destination on the border of Azerbaijan, the complex once housed a thriving school of fresco painting – traces of which still linger on its decorated walls.
We take our lunch at a winery east of Tbilisi, for a chance to sample local vintages from one of the oldest wine-making regions in the world. We stop at further vineyards this afternoon on our way back to the capital: a wonderful and luxurious way to bring this day to a close.
Day 10 – 9 October 2018
Our action-packed morning begins at Mtskheta, the ancient former capital of Iberia. It was here, in 334 AD, that Christianity’s roots first took hold in Georgia. Today Mtskheta remains the Holy City of the country’s Orthodox faith.
This morning we discover regal Iberian remains at Armaztsikhe-Bagineti, as well as an array of important religious buildings, including the hilltop Jvari Monastery at which the female evangelist Saint Nino is said to have converted King Mirian III. We also take in the impressive Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, a site famed as the burial place of Christ’s mantle.
We return to Tbilisi for some free time this afternoon. Ride the funicular for astounding views at the top of Mount Mtatsminda, wander through one of the thrilling local markets, or breathe in the tranquility of the city’s Botanical Gardens.
Day 11 – 10 October 2018
We start today at Narikala Fortress, an ancient citadel overlooking the maze-like streets of Tbilisi’s old town. As well as enjoying commanding views across the city, we learn all about the fortress’s diverse history: from its Persian origins in the 4th century, to its expansion by King David “The Builder”, and its subsequent occupation by the Mongols.
After breaking for lunch, we make our way to the Museum of Fine Arts, one of the country’s foremost galleries, where we admire works dating from the Bronze Age to the present day – a spectacular encounter with the skills of the Georgian masters, as well as the sparkling finds of nearby ancient burial grounds.
Day 12 – 11 October 2018
We depart the capital and travel north-west to the town of Gori, birthplace of Joseph Stalin. Here we discover the controversial exhibits of the Stalin Museum, an institution based in the house of the tyrant’s parents, which presents its subject as something of a hero…
Our next destination is the incredible rock-carved settlement of Uplistsikhe: a unique, expansive town of abandoned cave-houses, churches, halls, and sites of Pagan sacrifice. Rising to prominence as a home of Kartlian kings after the Arab conquests, much of Uplistsikhe was destroyed by Mongol invaders in the 13th century.
This afternoon we drive to Bakuriani, a mountainous resort popular with both skiers and hikers. We spend the night here, on the slopes of the Trialeti Range.
Day 13 – 12 October 2018
This morning we rise for a visit to Vardzia, an unusual cave monastery on the banks of the Kura River, within which we find a set of wall paintings heralding back to the Christian Orient. In use during the Bronze Age, the caves are thought to have been abandoned during the rise of Ottoman rule in the 16th century.
Stopping to enjoy lunch as a group, we continue to the Medieval monastic complex of Gelati, a relic of Georgia’s Golden Age. Established by David the Builder, and sometimes referred to as the “second Athos”, in its heyday Gelati was a celebrated center of learning, with scholars studying subjects such as theology, philosophy and science. Dazzling frescoes grab our full attention, as does the tomb of King David himself.
We end the day in the forested city of Kutaisi, also known by its ancient name of Colchis. Kutaisi appears in Greek myth as the destination of the Argonauts, as well as the home of Medea and the Golden Fleece.
Day 14 – 13 October 2018
We set out this morning to explore Kutaisi, the current seat of the Georgian parliament. A highlight on our tour of the city’s charismatic cobbled streets has to be Bagrati Cathedral, an 11th-century domed masterpiece, lovingly restored after its destruction by the Turks in the 1600s. The cathedral has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1994.
Later we drive east to Nokalakevi, spending an afternoon exploring this active archaeological site and its fortifications. Excavations here have so far revealed extensive walls and towers, burial grounds, jewelry and weapons, indicating evidence of human habitation as long ago as the 8th century BC.
Our eastern journey leads on to the Black Sea coast, and the resort town of Batumi, one of the country’s most popular holiday destinations – and our base for the last section of this trip.
Day 15 – 14 October 2018
The final full day of our holiday gets going at a leisurely pace, as we take in the Roman fort of Gonio-Apsaros, an archaeological site on the Chorokhi River, just north of the Turkish border. The earliest mention of Gonio comes from the writings of Pliny the Elder, and excavations continue to unearth traces of its prosperous past.
We return to Batumi for an afternoon free to do whatever we wish. Discover the relics of the Archaeological Museum, tour the city’s eclectic array of churches, or gaze across the ocean from one of its long pebble beaches.
This evening we come back together for our last dinner as a group; a chance to toast the success of our adventures, and relive our favorite moments.
Day 16 – 15 October 2018
We transfer to the airport for our return flight home.