At the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, the Caucasus region encompasses three ancient nations – two Christian, one Islamic – against a backdrop of craggy snow-capped mountains, rolling vineyards and arid semi-deserts.
Our 17-day tour takes us first from Azerbaijan and its cosmopolitan capital of Baku along the old Silk Road route and on to Georgia. After two nights in the Kakheti region with its ancient vineyards, we take the scenic Georgian Military Highway into the towering peaks of the Greater Caucasus. From here we descend to Tbilisi to explore its potent mix of twisting alleys, handsome balconied houses and crumbling Soviet-era apartment blocks as well as its dynamic arts scene and renowned cuisine. Then we journey across the ridges of the Lower Caucasus to Armenia, an ancient adopter of Christianity dotted with weathered, rock-hewn churches and monasteries, often in stunning locations. We finish our tour in the modern city of Yerevan, the fun-loving capital of Armenia.
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Uncover a city on the shores of the Caspian Sea where palaces, mosques and madrassahs of Azerbaijan’s Islamic heritage mix with the region’s most extensive ensemble of award-winning modern architecture.
The Vineyards of Tsinandali
Sample the flavours of Georgia’s 7000-year old viticultural tradition in the rolling hills of the country’s premier wine-making region, Kakheti.
Driving Through Scenic Georgia
Enjoy a breathtaking climb of 1700m in elevation on our drive along the scenic Georgian Military Highway, one of the only passes along the Greater Caucasus Mountains.
Explore the restaurants of Tbilisi’s Old Town and savour Georgian cuisine’s characteristic flavours, especially its imaginative use of nuts, pomegranates and flavourful herbs.
Discover the alluringly exotic but little-known monastic complexes of the world’s oldest Christian country: from the thousand-year old churches of Haghpant to Khor Virap’s awe-inspiring vista of biblical Mt. Arararat.
The tour begins Thursday 6 October at 2.30pm, at the Shah Palace Hotel
The tour ends on Saturday 22 October, after breakfast.
Thursday 6 October – Arrive Baku
You’ll meet your tour leader in the lobby of our first hotel at 2.30pm, followed by a short orientation walk in the afternoon towards busy Fountain Square and continuing to the Boulevard for great views of Baku’s modern skyscrapers. After time to freshen up in the evening, we enjoy a light welcome dinner together. Overnight Baku (D)
Friday 7 October – Traditional Baku
The morning begins in Baku’s 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 14th-century Shervan Shah’s Palace as well as Baku’s oldest and most mysterious structure, the 30m-high medieval Maiden Tower. Exiting the Old Town through the medieval Double Gates, we enjoy lunch in a nearby restaurant. In the afternoon, we travel by coach to Gobustan, an 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). Dinner will be at the renowned Mugham Club. Overnight Baku (B, L, D)
Saturday 8 October – From the Ancient to the Modern
This morning, we discover Azerbaijan’s national art of carpet-weaving at the National Museum of Azerbaijani Carpets. We then plunge into Baku’s “high-octane” skyscraper district, White City. Here, we visit the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre with its iconic flowing white curves, designed by acclaimed Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. After lunch, we visit the avant-garde Museum of Modern Art (MIM), designed by Jean Nouvel, a French architect of equal renown. To finish the day, we enjoy caviar and champagne at 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. Overnight Baku (B, L)
Sunday 9 October – The Old Silk Road
This morning we travel by coach along a stretch of the Old Silk Road connecting the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea. 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 to visit the giant Djuma (“Friday”) mosque. After lunch we proceed further up the mountains to Sheki, a wonderful, atmospheric old town. Here we’ll see the busy local markets, the Shah’s summer palace, and the evocative caravanserai, among the arched arcades of which Silk Road merchants once rested with their camels and horses. Overnight Sheki (B, D)
Monday 10 October – Georgia: Palaces & Wine
Today we cross into Georgia, stopping first at Telavi, the leading town of Georgia’s renowned wine-growing region. We visit the 18th-century palace of Georgia’s last great king, Erekle 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 wine-growing village of Tsinandali, where the ancestral estate of the famous Georgian poet Prince Alexander Chachavadze is now the site of an exclusive five-star resort that will be our base for three nights. The rooftop infinity pool is not to be missed. Overnight Tsinandali (B, L)
Tuesday 11 October – Vineyards and a Cathedral
This morning, we explore the wooded avenues of the Chachavadze estate on foot, concluding the tour in the museum dedicated to the estate’s founder, Prince Alexander Chachavadze, one of the founding fathers of modern Georgian literature. The afternoon is at leisure to enjoy the facilities on the estate or join an optional tour of the picturesque 11th-century Georgian Orthodox Cathedral at Alaverdi. Overnight: Tsinandali (B)
Wednesday 12 October – Tsinandali
This morning we visit the Bodbe Convent of St Nino, the resting place of Georgia’s first saint and one of the country’s most important pilgrimage destinations. 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 chefs. 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. Overnight Tsinandali (B, L)
Thursday 13 October – The Georgian Military Highway
Today we take one of Georgia’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. After a stop at the 12th-century fortress of Ananuri, with its impressive stonework and picturesque location overlooking the Zhinvali river, we climb 1700m in elevation through 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). Dinner is in the hotel restaurant. Overnight Kazbegi (B, D)
Friday 14 October – 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, 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. After lunch in a local restaurant, we explore the ancient troglodyte (cave) town of Uplistsikhe before arriving in the afternoon. Overnight Tbilisi (B, L)
Saturday 15 October – 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 Tbilisi’s oldest church and the 13th-century Sion Cathedral to the historic sulphur bath houses of the Abanotubani district. After stopping at a bakery to sample fresh tonis, we take the cable car to the Nariqala Fortress, whose 18th-century walls offer excellent views over the Old Town. In the afternoon, we visit the recently refurbished Museum of Georgia. The highlight is the Archaeological Treasury, a fascinating display of exquisite gold jewellery from the ancient Kingdom of Colchis. Overnight Tbilisi (B)
Sunday 16 October – Tbilisi’s Modern Arts
Today we embark on a journey through the history of Georgia’s vibrant modern arts scene. Beginning at the National Gallery, we discover Georgia’s avant-garde painters, especially the acclaimed Niko Pirosmani. 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. We’ll visit the State Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema, which conveys the history of Georgia’s performing arts – from opera and ballet to folk music and modern cinema – in a visually arresting way. Overnight Tbilisi (B)
Monday 17 October – Free Day
This day is at leisure for you to take at your own pace. Return to the 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, you can join an optional tour of Georgia’s ancient spiritual capital, the 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. In the evening we gather for a performance at Tbilisi’s renowned State Conservatoire. Overnight Tbilisi (B)
Tuesday 18 October – To Armenia
Today we cross the Lesser Caucasus Mountains for the ancient land of Armenia. From here we continue to Lake Sevan, where for panoramic views, we visit the 9th-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)
Wednesday 19 October – 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, before continuing on foot to the Soviet-era Cascade monument and the remarkable Cafesjian Center for Modern Art. 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. After lunch in the fashionable café district of 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. Overnight Yerevan (B)
Thursday 20 October – Echmiadzin
Today we explore Armenia’s ancient spiritual capital, Echmiadzin. We visit the 7th-century cathedral, with its beautiful stonework and Near-Eastern style internal frescoes, 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, 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. Overnight Yerevan (B, L)
Friday 21 October – 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, dramatically located on a high promontory overlooking the treeless Avan Gorge. From here we drive the short distance to the 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, with its unbeatable array of Armenian handicrafts and other souvenirs. Alternatively, take this day to remain in Yerevan to explore some of the sites independently. In the evening we gather for our farewell dinner. Overnight Yerevan (B, D)
Saturday 22 October – Departure
The tour concludes after breakfast. (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.”
Unless otherwise stated in the itinerary, our tours include the following:
All accommodation at properties mentioned in the itinerary
Land travel by private air-conditioned coach. Taxis may also be used for short trips on some tours. Some city stay tours may involve local transport
Lunches and dinners indicated with the letters L and D in the itinerary
Beer, wine and soft drinks at sit-down lunches and dinners. Picnic and light lunches may not include alcoholic drinks
Services of tour leader throughout tour
All entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary
Local guides at some sites
All tips for drivers, local guides and restaurants for included meals
On international tours only
Costs involved in obtaining visas for countries visited, where required, and when stated as included
Background talks on tour, site notes and online resources
Any flights mentioned in the itinerary that take place during a tour
Some trips may be made by public transport such as high-speed train and subway
What is not included in the tour price?
Our tours do not include the following:
Air or land travel from your home city to the tour start/end points
Local taxes and airport levies that we are not able to prepay on your behalf. We will advise you of these charges (if any) before you depart
Lunches and dinners not specifically indicated with the letters L or D in the itinerary
Personal expenses such as passports, laundry and phone calls
Costs associated with any activity mentioned as “optional” in the itinerary, or any suggested free time activity
Airport Transfers on international tours
Tours may begin at either the arrival airport or the first hotel. 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
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, 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.
We require all tour participants to have adequate insurance coverage.
For domestic tours, Medicare and your private medical insurance should be used to cover any medical expenses.
Domestic travel insurance is available and strongly recommended to cover non-medical expenses such as cancellation.
For international tours, we require you to have comprehensive travel insurance. Prices vary according to your age, your pre-existing medical conditions, the countries you are visiting and the length of your journey abroad.