September in Svaneti:

Mountains and Towers of the Caucasus

Saturday, Sept. 23rd - Sunday, Oct. 1st, 2017

Tour Details:

  • Arrive-Depart Tbilisi (airport designation TBS)
  • Accommodation in high quality boutique hotels specially vetted for comfort and location
  • No travel visas necessary for Georgia (for US or EU passport holders) - other nationalities check your country's visa requirements
  • Package tour includes 8 nights accommodation, 3 meals every day, all-you-can drink wine-beer, primary transportation in chauffeured minibus, additional 4x4 vehicles with drivers for day trips in Svaneti mountainous region, airport transfers, guides, entertainment, museum entrances and tips, all snacks and coffees, no hidden fees! (Tour fee excludes only international airfare and individual travel insurance)

Fees:

  • $2050 Full package tour
  • $220 Single supplement

Brochure:

Register:

  • Contact us for the registration form. Receipt of the required deposit secures your place on the tour, space limited to 16 participants

 

Sounds of the Tour

 

Travel Program...

We begin and end the tour in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia (airport designation TBS) and a beautiful city that featured prominently on trade routes from Asia to Europe. This is a tour of sites, sounds, and tastes to thrill even the most seasoned travelers. The focus of this unique itinerary will be the ancient, medieval, and modern architectural and cultural monuments in West Georgia - the region of ancient Colchis on the Black Sea coast, and the mysterious gold-producing highlands of Svaneti, where the medieval towers dotting the hillsides make each village looks like a defensive fortress.

Our first meeting will be a champagne toast at the hotel followed by a banquet of fresh local cuisine with Georgian wine. On our first day in the city, we'll visit the acclaimed national museums, then take a walking tour of the synagogue, mosque, Persian baths, churches, the botanical garden, and carpet shops of the Old Town. On the way from Tbilisi to Svaneti, we will take advantage of stopping over in the city of Kutaisi to visit its fantastic medieval Christian cathedral sites, synagogue, spice market, and local natural wonders such as the Prometheus cave complex and the Martvili canyon and waterfall. The jewel of the Caucasus is in the highland region of Svaneti, where we will explore the mountain tops and valleys by foot, and take 4x4 jeeps to the highest inhabited village of Ushguli. Our dedicated team takes care to locate and vet every hotel, restaurant, and transport for the best quality.

Historical and Cultural Overview...

Ancient seafarers plying the eastern shores of the Black Sea encountered misty and jungle-covered precipices plunging into the coastal beachheads. These were the lands of Colchis, an ancient kingdom that historians date to at least 1300 BC. Strabo, a Greek historian himself from the Black Sea region, wrote about both Colchis and the Soanes, one of the first references to the allied highland tribes of Svaneti. According to Greek mythology, Colchis was a fabulously wealthy land situated on the periphery of the Greek world. Here, in the sacred grove of the war god Ares, King Aeëtes hung the Golden Fleece until it was seized by the Greek heroes, Jason and the Argonauts. Jason escapes with the fleece, and the princess Medea, only to be pursued by the Colchians to the fortress of Apsaros (Gonio). The Romans called Colchis the kingdom of Lazica-Egrisi, and we visit two sites from this period: Gonio fortress on the coast, and the Archeopolis fortress inland. A unique language is spoken in former Colchis, Megrelian, which features a unique culture and folksong culture. Traveling up a narrow gorge from the plains of ancient Colchis, the hidden valleys of Svaneti eventually reveal themselves among the snow-capped peaks of the Great Caucasus range. In the 19th century, famous alpinist-explorers such as David Freshfield and Vittorio Sella recorded their travels through the area. Speaking an ancient language only distantly related to the Georgian and Megrelian languages of the lowlanders, the Svans are a fierce and proud people who have preserved aspects of their ancient rituals and traditions to the modern day. Certainly their three-voiced polyphony is unique: it preserves an ancient tuning system that is at once vigorous, intoxicating, and ear-ringing. Iconic defensive towers from the 10-11th centuries lend a feeling that these villages have been frozen in time. But Mestia, the regional center, has been renovated to accommodate growing tourist demand, and now features modern hotel facilities and a ski resort. The neighboring highland region of Racha is described as the jewel of the Caucasus. Our main cultural destination there will be 12th century Nikortsminda cathedral which has the finest exterior stone-carving and interior wall-paintings in all of Georgia. Further into the mountains, we find a synagogue, one reminder of the pre-emigrant Jewish community that thrived in this highland region until their voluntary emigration in the late 1970s.

Christianity in Georgia...

Georgia was one of the first states to convert to Christianity in the early fourth century, and it became an important socio-religious factor in the identity of Georgia as it struggled to survive against constantly invading empires. Many local legends describe the preaching of Apostles Andrew and Matias in West Georgia in the first century; Matias is said to be buried in the fortress of Gonio, and on the site where Apostle Andrew cut down a giant oak tree to prevent human sacrificies at Martvili, a seventh century limestone monastery marks the site. Certainly by the fourth century, Christianity had become stronger as a bishop from Lazica-Egrisi attended the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Monasticism became an important expression of Christianity, with the monarchy and local aristocracy supporting the construction of fantastic cathedrals in the city centers and ornately carved monasteries in remote mountain valleys. Georgian communities were also active abroad in monasteries in Greece, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Egypt. Christianity took hold in the highland region of Svaneti in the tenth century, when more than 200 chapels appeared in every village and a unique wall-painting tradition flourished. In addition to the early Christian influence, Georgians are culturally closest to the ancient Mediterranean societies with their joy of song and dance, cultivation of the grape, and strong clan affiliation. Over the centuries, Persian, Turkish, and Arab words, cuisine, and values have also entered the Georgian cultural consciousness.

About the Tour Leaders...

Ethnomusicologist and Georgian chant scholar, John A. Graham completed his Ph.D. at Princeton University, and has lectured at Princeton and Yale. The tours began in 2006 as a side business that has continued through the years by popular demand. John brings his developed organizational skills, knowledge of Georgia, and passion for music and history to our tour. John’s tours always involve singers who act as accomplices in bringing voice to the ancient stone cathedrals and monasteries of Georgia. If you also like to sing, we can teach songs, otherwise we hope you'll enjoy the singing of the leaders!

 

ITINERARY...

Day 1, Sept 23, Tbilisi

Guests arriving at the Tbilisi international airport (BUS) will be met by chauffeur and transported to a 5-star hotel downtown.

Day 2, Sept 24, Tbilisi

We know that you’ll be excited to explore the fascinating capital city of Tbilisi, founded in the fifth century and retaining many important historical buildings. After visits to the impressive, newly renovated National museum, there will be a walking tour of Old Town district featuring visits to the Catholic church, several Georgian Orthodox churches, an Armenian church, the one remaining historical mosque, one synagogue, the historic Persian baths, and the Narikala fortress. Option to attend Vespers service at 5pm to hear traditional chanting, or go off exploring on your own!

Day 3, Sept 25, Kutaisi

Departing Tbilisi, we’ll visit two sites in Mtskheta, the ancient capital of East Georgia: Jvari --the 6th c. Church of the Cross-- and Svetitskhoveli --the monolithic 11th c. Cathedral of the Life-Giving Pillar. After lunch, we travel west to the city of Kutaisi, in the region known to ancient Greeks as “Colchis”. Though Colchian architecture is unknown, we will visit the 12th c. Gelati Monastery complex, renowned as being the first University in Georgia and featuring a massive cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mother. In the evening, we'll have a banquet and sing "urban" songs originally composed in Kutaisi during the late-19th c. under the influence of Italian art songs.

Day 4, Sept 26, Mestia

Leaving Kutaisi, we travel west through the Colchian plain towards the Black Sea, then turning north into the highlands of Svaneti. Time permitting, we’ll shop for fresh fruit in the sprawling tent city of the Zugdidi farmer’s market before making our way past the massive Enguri dam - largest in the Caucasus - on our way into the highlands of Svaneti. In the late afternoon, we'll visit the National Museum of Mestia, one of best in Georgia, before checking into our hotel (staying three nights). In the museum are several of the oldest illuminated Georgian manuscripts in existence, one Gospel dating from the year 897 AD.

Day 5, Sept 27, Mestia

Leaving the bus behind, we’ll take 4x4 jeeps on a day excursion to see the 10th c. church of Jonah and 12th c. church of Our Savior in the village of Latali, both featuring remarkably well preserved original frescoes. We'll have lunch with a local family and sing songs from the local Svan tradition. In the afternoon, we drive up to the Koruldi Lakes for a spectacular view of the Caucasus peaks in every direction with a chance to walk in high mountain meadows.

Day 6, Sept 28, Mestia

In the morning, we continue with the jeeps, this time driving through the mountains towards Ushguli, the highest inhabited village in the Caucasus mountains and a UNESCO World Heritage site. On the way, we’ll stop to see several tenth century frescoed chapels in the hamlets of Ipari and Khe. In Ushguli, we’ll go on a hike through the village, exploring the medieval defensive towers that still dot the landscape and visiting the iconic Lamaria Church before returning to the hotel in Mestia in the evening. Bring walking shoes!

Day 7, Sept 29, Kutaisi

Returning to the lowlands, we spend the afternoon splashing in the water at the Martvili Canyons and waterfalls, a natural wonder and Agency of Protected Areas site. Nearby is the superbly situated hilltop monastery of Martvili (10th c.), which is made of white limestone and features 14th c. frescoes. Back in Kutaisi for the evening, we'll have time to relax along the Rioni River and take a walk before dinner.

Day 8, Sept 30, Tbilisi

We start our final day with a visit to the Bagrat cathedral, made of white limestone and completed in 1003 AD, which still dominates the hill in the center of Kutaisi. Driving back to the East, we'll stop at the 9th c. Ubisa monastery to see its world-renowned frescoes and have lunch before crossing the Surami Pass on our way to Tbilisi. Time permitting, other sites beckon, but most folks will want to get back to do a bit of afternoon souvenir shopping before our final banquet. With that in mind, I help everyone find their desired stores and carpet shops, while leading the rest of the group to a large flea market selling all sorts of Soviet and pre-Soviet paraphenalia, as well as modern art and sculpture for sale.

Day 9, Oct 1, Tbilisi Departures

Breakfast is available from 8:00-10:00, check out by noon. Optional attendance at Orthodox liturgy at the Sioni Cathedral in downtown Tbilisi. Many visitors opt to schedule themselves an extra day or two to explore Tbilisi. Airport transfers scheduled as needed.

 

Request the full brochure! Email: admin@johngrahamtours.com

 

 

Tour Locations:

Tbilisi

+ Tbilisi, capital city of Georgia, founded in the 5th century by King Vakhtang Gorgasali. A center of trade and conflict for centuries, Tbilisi has been sacked forty times by various invaders but survives today as the modern hub of the South Caucasus. Nevertheless, the downtown area is full of winding cobblestone streets, small shops and restaurants, as well as the churches, synagogues, and mosques that celebrate the diversity of this unique country. As we tour monasteries in the ancient capital region, a comfortable downtown Tbilisi hotel will serve as our home-base, affording a chance to sample the best of Tbilisi's dining and evening entertainment, and visit the wealth of museums, spas, and cultural delights in the "Old Town."

Mtkvari River Valley

+ Starting in Tbilisi (named for the hot springs along the river), we journey upstream to the ancient capital Mtskheta. Dominated by the 11th century Cathedral of the "Living Cross," Mtskheta was once the thriving trade capital of East Georgia but is now a quaint little hamlet at the confluence of Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers. The Romans reached Mtskheta in 65 AD, as evidenced by the remains of a bridge left behind, and in the early Christian era, St. Nino the Enlightener worked miracles, converting the Iberian King Mirian and his queen Nana to Christianity in 337 AD. Further up the Mtkvari River, we visit the Ateni Sioni Church (7th c.), before leaving the valley to venture past the Surami Fortress and over the pass into Imereti-Samegrelo in West Georgia.

Imereti - Samegrelo

+ Historic Georgia was divided by the Surami mountain range into two kingdoms: Iberia in the East with its capital in Tbilisi, and Colchis in the West with its capital in Kutaisi. This historic region has also been variously called Egrisi, Lazika, and today is called Samegrelo. According to legend, Jason and the Argonauts sailed to the ends of the known (Greek) world, Colchis, to steal the princess of the land and its wealth of gold. Indeed, exquisite jewelry and weaponry was created by a cadre of artisans given access to the valuable mines in the high Caucasus, some of which is visible in museums today. Our visit will include two nights in Kutaisi and two nights in Batumi, the coastal port city once inhabited by Roman traders. Sites include the ancient Georgian-Greek fortress city of Archaeopolis, the Roman fortress at Gonio (2nd c.), and the Kutaisi National Museum. From the Christian era we will visit the Martvili and Ubisa monasteries (7th-9th c.), the Bagrat cathedral (10th c.), the Gelati academy and monastery (12th c.), and the cathedral of Khobi.

Svaneti

+ Traveling up a narrow gorge from the plains of ancient Colchis, the hidden valleys of Svaneti eventually reveal themselves among the snow-capped peaks of the Great Caucasus range. In the 19th century, famous alpinist-explorers such as David Freshfield and Vittorio Sella recorded their travels through the area. Speaking an ancient language only distantly related to the Georgian of the lowlanders, the Svans are a fierce and proud people who have preserved aspects of their ancient rituals and traditions to the modern day. Certainly their three-voiced polyphony is intoxicating, preserving a unique tuning system without parallel in the world. Christianity spread to the region in the tenth century, where it thrived alongside animist traditions that remain in syncretism today. From this era, several chapels reveal a unique school of fresco painting, while the newly renovated National Museum boasts gold and silver icons from the 10th-14th centuries, four illuminated gospels from the ninth and tenth centuries, as well as priceless objects from many regions of Georgia spirited up to the mountains in times of war and protected there ever since. In each Svan village, defensive towers (10-11th centuries) protected each family from attack. These iconic towers dominate the hamlets, which seem frozen in time. But the capital city has been renovated to accommodate growing tourist demand, and now features modern hotel facilities and a ski resort. On our trip, we will visit several museums in towers, and stay in Mestia and Ushguli, two of the centers featuring some of the most historic towers in Svaneti.

Request the full brochure! Email: admin@johngrahamtours.com

Request tour brochure

Towers in Svaneti, Georgia
Towers in Svaneti, Georgia
Lapskaldi Gospels page, Svaneti Georgia
Lapskaldi Gospels page, Svaneti Georgia
Jvari Church of the Cross, Georgia
Jvari Church of the Cross, Georgia
Tbilisi Old Town, Georgia
Tbilisi Old Town, Georgia
Gelati Monastery, Georgia
Gelati Monastery, Georgia
Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Georgia
Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Georgia
Towers in Svaneti, Georgia
Towers in Svaneti, Georgia
Black Sea Coast, Georgia
Black Sea Coast, Georgia
Martvili Monastery, Georgia
Martvili Monastery, Georgia
Monks at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Georgia
Monks at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Georgia
Tour leaders singing
Tour leaders singing
oxen and sleigh, Svaneti
oxen and sleigh, Svaneti