The Caucasus is an intoxicating mix of unique local cultures with the legacy of some of the world’s most powerful empires. Discover a kaleidoscope of colours, styles and traditions against a spectacular, everchanging backdrop of towering mountains and dusty plains, vineyards, forest and semidesert. This new 16-day tour immerses you in the intriguing cultures of this region, its stunning landscapes and fabulous cuisines. Discover the story of survival at the junction of the Middle East, Black Sea and Eurasian steppe, where Persians, Romans, Arabs, Turks and Russians have all left their mark.
Exceptional UNESCO World Heritagelisted sites: from 12,000-year-old petroglyphs to medieval palaces and rock-hewn monasteries
Baku, where Islamic traditions mix with high-rise modernity on the Caspian Sea
The vine-covered hills of Tsinandali, where the vine has been cultivated for 7,000 years
Georgia’s celebrated gastronomy, from ancient vineyards to the fine restaurants of Old Tbilisi
The peaks and valleys of the Greater Caucasus and the 14th-century church of Tsminda Sameba at Kazbegi
The 13th-century Haghartsin monastery, in the forested Dilijan National Park
Days 1–3: Arrive Baku. Explore the old town and Gobustan’s World Heritage-listed rock art.
Days 4–6: Take the Silk Road to Sheki’s caravanserai. In Georgia, visit Tsinandali village and picturesque Signagi.
Days 7–8: In the high Caucasus, spend a night in Kazbegi National Park. Marvel at Uplistsikhe’s cave town and visit Stalin’s birthplace at Gori.
Days 9–11: Visit Tbilisi’s museums, the Narikala Fortress and Mtskheta cathedral.
Days 12–16: In Armenia, visit the 13th-century Haghartsin monastery and continue to Yerevan. Explore the Matenadaran Museum, survey Garni’s Greco-Roman temple, Geghard and Lake Sevan.
The tour begins at our hotel in Baku and ends in our hotel in Yerevan. Qatar and Emirates offer the best flight options into Baku and out of Yerevan from most Australian cities. Contact us for quotes and bookings.
Included meals are shown with the symbols B, L and D.
Sunday October 11: Arrive Baku
Your tour leader, Matthew Dal Santo, will meet the group in the lobby of our first hotel at 2.30pm, followed by a short orientation walk in the afternoon towards Fountain Square, a public square in Baku city centre containing many boutiques, restaurants, shops and, of course, of dozens of fountains. Continuing on foot, we make our way to the Boulevard, a tree-lined promenade on the shores of the Caspian Sea offering great views of Baku’s modern skyscrapers and a popular place for locals to run, cycle and roller skate. After time to freshen up in the evening, we enjoy a light welcome dinner together. Overnight Baku (D)
Monday October 12: Traditional Baku
The morning begins in Baku’s UNESCO-listed Old Town, whose winding streets, alleyways, mosques, madrassahs, and carpet merchants recall life in medieval Shervan (as Azerbaijan was known in the middle ages). We visit the heavily-restored, 14th-century Shervan Shah’s Palace as well as Baku’s oldest and most mysterious structure, the 30m-high medieval Maiden Tower (whose builders remain a mystery). Exiting the Old Town through the medieval Double Gates, we enjoy a coffee at one of the many cafes in relaxed Fountain Square, followed by lunch in a nearby restaurant. In the afternoon, we discover Azerbaijan’s national art of carpet-weaving at the National Museum of Azerbaijani Carpets. Housed in a modern building designed to resemble a rolled-up carpet, the Museum displays an extraordinary collection of bold Azeri carpets, while local weavers demonstrate traditional weaving techniques. We enjoy dinner at the renowned Mugham Club, which pairs traditional Azeri dishes with the national folk music, mugham. Overnight Baku (B, L, D)
Tuesday October 13: From the Ancient to the Modern
This morning we travel by coach to Gobustan, a UNESCO-listed archaeological site 40km south of Baku whose mud volcanoes, eerie landscapes, petroglyphs and accompanying interpretative centre offer a unique glimpse of human life on the shores of the prehistoric Caspian Sea (c. 10,000 BC). After lunch, we return to Baku and plunge into White City, Baku’s “high-octane” modern quarter with its skyscrapers, and shopping and business centres serving Azerbaijan’s oil industry. Here we visit the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre, a conference and exhibition hall whose iconic flowing white curves are the work of the acclaimed Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, and MIM, as Baku’s avant-garde Museum of Modern Art, designed by equally acclaimed French architect Jean Nouvel, is known. To finish the day, we visit the nearby Villa Petrolea Nobel Brothers Museum. Built in 1884 in early art moderne style, the mansion and its lovely garden belonged to Robert and Ludvig Nobel who had important holdings in Baku’s first commercial oil wells. Dinner is at leisure. Overnight Baku (B, L)
Wednesday October 14: The Old Silk Road
Today we travel by coach along a stretch of the Old Silk Road connecting the Caspian to the Black Seas. Crossing the plains west of Baku, we ascend through the foothills of the Greater Caucasus Mountains to the town of Shemakhi, capital of medieval Shervan, where we stop for lunch and to visit the giant Djuma (“Friday”) mosque. Originally dating from the first decades of the 8th-century Arab conquest, the mosque is renowned as the oldest in the Caucasus but has been repeatedly enlarged and re-built. After lunch we proceed further up the mountains to Sheki, an ancient town surrounded by oak and beech forest that was relocated to its present site in 1722 after a mudslide destroyed the original settlement. Briefly the capital of an independent khanate, Sheki possesses a wonderful, atmospheric old town. We visit the Shah’s summer palace (with its beautiful walled rose garden, mosaics and stained glass), the evocative caravanserai (among whose arched arcades Silk Road merchants once rested themselves, their camels and horses), and the busy local markets. Dinner is in the hotel. Overnight Sheki (B, D)
Thursday October 15: Georgia – Cathedrals, Palaces & Wine
Today we cross the border into Georgia. After several hours’ drive, we stop at the 11th-century Georgian Orthodox Cathedral of Alaverdi, picturesquely situated in open fields in the shadow of the towering Caucasus Mountains. From here we travel the short distance to Telavi, the leading town of Georgia’s renowned wine-growing region, Kakheti. Settled since antiquity, Telavi was twice the capital of an independent east Georgian kingdom. We visit the 18th-century palace of Georgia’s last great king, Erekle (Heraclius) II, with its impressive walls and Persian-inspired throne room, before stopping for lunch at Marleta’s Farm, a family-run restaurant in the heart of Telavi that makes its own cheese (an essential ingredient in Georgian cooking). Another short drive brings us to the 19th-century palace of the famous Georgian poet Prince Alexander Chachavadze in the wine-growing village of Tsinandali. Having long produced Georgia’s most famous wine label, the vineyards and landscaped parks of the beautiful Chachavadze Tsinandali Estate are now the site of an exclusive five-star resort that will be our base for two nights. The rooftop infinity pool is not to be missed. Dinner is in the hotel’s superb restaurant. Overnight Tsinandali (B, L, D)
Friday October 16: Convents and Vineyards
This morning we visit the Bodbe Convent of St Nino, the resting place of Georgia’s first saint, the 4th-century woman missionary St Nino who brought Christianity to Georgia, and as such one of the country’s most important pilgrimage destinations. In addition, the convent’s views are spectacular and the gardens, lovingly tended by the nuns, radiate a special tranquillity. From here we drive to the renowned Pheasant’s Tears Winery to sample some of its organic qvevri wines and enjoy a lavish, “Georgian-table” style lunch prepared in the cellar restaurant run by one of the country’s leading woman chefs, Ketavan Mindorashvili. Afterwards, a local ensemble will perform songs from Georgia’s distinctive polyphonic vocal tradition, before we head up the hill to the charming walled town of Signagi. Dinner is at leisure. Overnight Tsinandali (B, L)
Saturday October 17: The Georgian Military Highway
Today we traverse one of Georgia’s (and possibly the world’s) most scenic drives: the Georgian Military Highway. Running from the lowlands around Tbilisi across the border into Russia, the Highway follows the route of one of the only extant passes across the Greater Caucasus Mountains. Stopping at the 12th-century fortress of Ananuri, with its impressive stonework and picturesque location overlooking the Zhinvali river, we climb 1700m in elevation through the alpine meadows, plunging mountain valleys and snow-capped peaks to the village of Kazbegi. On arrival we visit the stunningly situated, 14th-century church of Tsminda Sameba (the Holy Trinity). Perched on a mountain top high above Kazbegi, it has long served as a last redoubt for the nation in the event of foreign invasion. Dinner is in the hotel restaurant. Overnight Kazbegi (B, D).
Sunday October 18: Stalin and Troglodytes
Picking our way back down the mountains, we head today for Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. Along the way we stop at the town of Gori, remarkable in world history as the birthplace of Soviet dictator Joseph Dzhugashvili, “Stalin”. Almost unchanged since Soviet times, the museum is centred on the small house in which Stalin grew up and offers a thought-provoking encounter with Georgians’ attempts to grapple (or not) with the memory one of their most notorious sons. After lunch in a local restaurant, we explore the ancient troglodyte (cave) town of Uplistsikhe before arriving in the afternoon in Tbilisi. Dinner is at leisure. Overnight Tbilisi (B, L)
Monday October 19: Historic Tbilisi
We begin our exploration of Tbilisi with a walking tour of the Old Town, a charming district of narrow, twisting streets along the banks of the Mtkveri River. Starting at Tbilisi’s famous leaning Clock Tower, we descend the Old Town’s café-lined main thoroughfare past the 6th-century Anchiskhati church (Tbilisi’s oldest) and 13th-century Sion Cathedral to the historic sulphur bath houses of the Abanotubani district. After stopping at a bakery to sample fresh tonis (Georgia’s delicious, naan-style bread), we take the cable car to the Nariqala Fortress, whose 18th-century walls offer excellent views over the Old Town. In the afternoon, we travel by coach to Tbiisi’s modern Rustaveli district to visit the recently refurbished Museum of Georgia. The highlight is the Archaeological Treasury, a fascinating display of exquisite gold jewellery from ancient Kingdom of Colchis that occupied much of the territory of modern Georgia from the 8th to 3rd centuries BC. Dinner is at leisure. Overnight Tbilisi (B)
Tuesday October 20: Tbilisi’s Modern Arts
Today we embark on a journey through the history of Georgia’s vibrant modern arts scene. Beginning the day with a visit to the National Gallery, we discover Georgia’s early 20th-century, avant-garde painters who were heavily influenced by their contemporaries in the Russian Empire and Western Europe. The Gallery’s collection of the works of the acclaimed Niko Pirosmani is the largest in the world. From here we travel by coach to Tbilisi’s Agmashenebeli Street, a unique ensemble of late 19th-century pseudo-Gothic, -Moorish, -baroque and -rococo buildings dating from Tbilisi’s days as a leading provincial centre of the Russian Empire. Having fallen into neglect in Soviet times, this remarkable avenue has been the site of an extensive urban rejuvenation programme that has transformed a large stretch into a pedestrian zone that is a great window on Georgia’s modern cultural dynamics, where European style and local Caucasian traditions meet. A short walk from here stands Tbilisi’s so-called “Art Palace”, as the State Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema is known. Housed in a palatial, turn-of-the-century Moorish-Gothic fantasy, the museum’s artefacts tell the story of the development of Georgia’s performing arts – from opera and ballet to folk music and modern cinema – in a visually arresting way. Dinner is at leisure. Overnight Tbilisi (B)
Wednesday October 21: Free Day
This day is at leisure for you to take at your own pace. Return to the winding alleys of Tbilisi’s Old Town, go shopping in the fashionable Rustaveli district, explore Tbilisi’s remaining museums and galleries, or take the funicular to the top of wooded Mt Mtatsminda for a panoramic view over the city. Alternatively, join an optional tour of Georgia’s ancient spiritual capital, the UNESCO-listed town of Mtskheta 45 minutes from Tbilisi, where, in response to the preaching of St Nino, Georgian King Mirian first committed his people to Christianity. Dating from Georgia’s medieval Golden Age, the 11th-century Svetitskhveli Cathedral (decorated with beautiful stone carving) was for centuries the country’s largest. Meanwhile, the small but perfectly proportioned Jvari Church (erected on the very spot where, according to legend, Mirian raised the country’s first cross) offers spectacular views over the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi Rivers. In the evening we gather for a performance at Tbilisi’s renowned State Conservatoire. Dinner is at leisure. Overnight Tbilisi (B)
Thursday October 22: To Armenia
Making the most of an early start, we bid farewell today to Georgia and set out across the mountains of the Lesser Caucasus Mountains (lower and drier than the Greater Caucasus chain we have already visited) for the ancient land of Armenia. We stop for lunch in the town of Dilijan, an Alpine town dubbed “Little Switzerland” by Armenians. Just inside the boundaries of the nearby Dilijan National Park, which protects one of Armenia’s most extensive surviving stands of broadleaf forest, the thirteenth and fourteenth-century, UNESCO-nominated monasteries of Haghartsin and Goshavank, with their impressive stone refectories and extensive exterior stone reliefs, can be found. We visit both before continuing to Lake Sevan, an entrancing body of blue-green water (80km long and 30km wide) 1900m above sea level in the heart of Armenia’s rugged uplands. For panoramic views of the lake, we visit ninth-century Sevanavank Monastery, picturesquely located on a peninsula that was until recently an island. We finish the day’s journey in Yerevan, Armenia’s modern capital. Dinner is in the hotel restaurant. Overnight Yerevan (B, D)
Friday October 23: Historic Yerevan
Older than Rome, Yerevan was founded in 782 BC, but much of the modern city dates from the country’s Russian/Soviet domination between 1828 and 1991. We begin our tour at Republic Square, the heart of modern Yerevan, before continuing on foot to the Cascade (a Soviet-era monument offering views of the city against the distant silhouette of cone-shaped Mt Ararat) and the remarkable Cafesjian Center for Modern Art that since 2009 has been located inside it. We continue to the imposing Matenadaran Institute of Ancient Manuscripts, built in 1959 to house the nation’s patrimony of 17,000 manuscripts, some of which are beautifully illuminated. We see the small part of its collection on display. After lunch in the fashionable café district of pedestrianised Northern Avenue, we travel by coach to Yerevan’s Genocide Memorial and Museum, a sober and compelling monument to the million or so Armenians who perished in massacres perpetrated by Ottoman authorities between 1915 and 1922. Dinner is at leisure. Overnight Yerevan (B)
Saturday October 24: Echmiadzin
Today we explore Armenia’s ancient spiritual capital, Echmiadzin. We visit the 7th-century, UNESCO-listed cathedral, with its beautiful stonework and fascinating, Near-Eastern style internal frescoes, that is the seat of the Armenian Catholicos, and the cathedral treasury. After an early lunch, we drive south to Khor Virap, a small monastery with one of Armenia’s most stunning vistas as it gazes across a vineyard-covered valley towards snow-capped Mt Ararat. Returning to Yerevan in the mid-afternoon, we gather again in the evening for a performance at Yerevan’s Opera House. Dinner is at leisure. Overnight Yerevan (B, L)
Sunday October 25: Monks and Pagans
This morning’s touring offers a window on Armenia’s pre-Christian history with a visit to the pagan Temple of Mitra at Garni. Dating from the first century AD, the Temple is dramatically located on a high promontory overlooking the treeless Avan Gorge. From here we drive the short distance to the UNESECO-listed cave monastery of Gerghard, whose monks’ cells, churches and tombs have all been hewn from solid rock. Returning to Yerevan at around lunchtime, we pay a visit to the relaxed Vernissage Art Market, whose traders offer an unbeatable array of Armenian handicrafts and other souvenirs. Alternatively, take this day to remain in Yerevan to explore some of the sites independently: the National Gallery of Art’s collection of European Masters is said to be the third-largest in the former Soviet Union, while the State History Museum’s exhibits include the world’s oldest shoe, some 5,500 years old. Meanwhile, Yerevan’s multitude of cafés offer literally endless opportunities for people-watching. In the evening we gather for our farewell dinner. Overnight Yerevan (B, D)
Monday October 26: Departure
The tour concludes after breakfast. Please consult individual itineraries for flight arrangements. (B)
Dr Matthew Dal Santo
A writer, historian and foreign affairs commentator, with Honours degrees from both Sydney and Cambridge Universities.
Dr Matthew Dal Santo is a writer, historian and foreign affairs commentator who currently resides in Copenhagen, Denmark. Born in Sydney, Matthew lived most of the past fifteen years in Europe. The current focus of his interest is Russia. From 2014 to 2017, Matthew was Danish Research Council Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Saxo Institute, University of Copenhagen, with a grant to study how Russians think of themselves in the light of their history 25 years after the collapse of Communism and 100 since the 1917 revolution. He is particularly interested in how the revival of Orthodoxy has encouraged the return of the age-old idea of ‘Holy Rus’ as well as rehabilitation of the culture and achievements of Imperial Russia, as for example in the canonisation in 2000 of the last tsar, Nicholas II, and his family as saints. Matthew has travelled extensively in the Russian-speaking world, from Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus to Siberia and the Russian Far East. He is currently writing a book called The Romanovs and the Redemption of Putin’s Russia: Remaking Holy Rus. Before returning to academic work, Matthew was briefly a policy officer with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Matthew has a PhD in Ecclesiastical History from the University of Cambridge, where from 2005 to 2008 he held the Lightfoot Scholarship. In 2007 he was elected Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge’s leading college, and was appointed Associate Lecturer in the award-winning Faculty of History. Matthew also has an MPhil from Cambridge and a BA (Hons I) from the University of Sydney, where he won the University Medal in 2004.
In addition to English, Matthew speaks Danish, French, Italian and Russian.
We asked Matthew, what motivates him to lead a tour to Russia?
“I lead Academy Travel’s annual Russia tour. This is something I really enjoy. My aim with the tour is not only to provide people the opportunity to visit Russia’s famous historical sights and great collections of art in St Petersburg and Moscow, but also a chance to engage first-hand with the way the identity and world view of this most perplexing of countries has been transformed in the two and half decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union. My lectures take a close look at Russian history and politics, with the aim of showing how ‘Putin’s Russia’ (so-called) is still grappling with processes set in motion hundreds of years ago, often in ways that have a deep effect on Russia’s often difficult relations with the West.
Coming from a long line of teachers, I also find the training and development tours that I lead for the NSW History Teachers’ Association a great source of pleasure and inspiration. Of course, Russia is a very big country and my view is that too few people ever get to its vast reaches east of the Urals.”
Located on the grounds of a former palace, the hotel offers stunning views of the Caucasus Mountains, vineyards and woodlands from every room.
Kazbegi – Rooms Kazbegi Hotel (1 night)
Located at the foot of Mt. Kazbeg, the hotel features a summer terrace with a view of the mountain.
Tbilisi – Tbilisi Marriott Hotel (4 nights)
Overlooking Tbilisi’s main avenue, this five-star hotel is in walking distance to all of Tbilisi’s main attractions.
Yerevan – Turfenkian Historic Yerevan Hotel (4 nights)
Opened in 2013, this comfortable hotel is located in the centre of Yerevan, just off Republic Square.
What is included in the tour price?
Unless otherwise stated in the itinerary, our tours include the following:
Any flights mentioned in the itinerary that take place during a tour
Land travel by private air-conditioned coach. Where appropriate, taxis or public transport are also used for short distance travel on some tours
All accommodation in hotels or apartments as stated in the itinerary
Breakfasts, lunches and dinners specifically stated as included in the itinerary
Drinks at welcome and farewell meals. Other meals may not have drinks included
Background talks on tour, site notes and online resources
Services of tour leader throughout tour
All entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary
Local guides at some sites
Tips for drivers, local guides and restaurants for included meals
Costs involved in obtaining visas for countries visited, where required and when stated as included
Tours begin either at the arrival airport or the first hotel, depending on the itinerary. If you have booked your international flights with Academy Travel and arrive before the tour commences, we will provide airport to hotel transfers to the closest main city on your arrival, and to the closest airport at the end of the tour. These may be either individual or group transfers.
What is not included in the tour price?
Our tours do not include the following:
Return international/domestic air travel unless those flights take place during the tour
Special taxes and airport levies that can only be paid in cash at the destination. We will advise you of these charges (if any) before you depart
Travel insurance. We require all participants to have comprehensive travel insurance. A typical policy for one of our tours will cost from $160 upwards, depending on your age, pre-existing medical conditions, the countries you are visiting and the overall length of your trip
Lunches and dinners not specifically mentioned as included in the itinerary
Personal expenses such as laundry and phone calls
Costs associated with any activity mentioned as “optional” in the itinerary, or any suggested free time activity