Discover Georgia Tours
Monastery Tour 2015
June ... dates to be announced
In our tenth season, join us for an exploration of Georgia's oldest monasteries, founded in the sixth century by Christian ascetics from Assyria. Be among the first westerners to rediscover the frescoes and acoustics of these ancient houses of worship set amidst rolling vineyards, towering peaks, and the desert vistas of the Caspian basin. Taste the exquisite Saperavi and Mtsvane home-made wines, grape varietals found only in the cradle of wine civilization.
The Monastery Tour was originally founded by friends Luarsab Togonidze and John A. Graham, the current incarnation of this unique tour is led by John with other professional guides. Our aim, in brief, is to share with you the sounds and wonders of medieval Georgia, while presenting the world-famous hospitality and charm of modern Georgia.
Read more about the program below.
Seeking: World travelers, medievalists, musicians, self-educators, spiritual pilgrims, and adventurers of all varieties for an immersion experience at the crossroads of Europe and Asia: welcome to Caucasus Georgia!
2015 Itinerary: A brand new itinerary improves on past experience for an ideal 12 day/night tour that both covers essential sites but also leaves breathing room for spontaneous trips and free time before dinners. Destinations include the 6-7th century churches of Jvari, Ateni Sioni, and Martvili, the 11-12th century Gelati Cathedral, Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, and Alaverdi Cathedral, the cave cities of Vardzia and Davit Garegi, and fantastic vistas of many of Georgia's diverse geographical micro-climates from desert plateaus to lush canyons to high mountain expanses. Contact the tour leader for the full itinerary.
Tour Fee: $2350 per person (single occupancy), or $4450 for friends or spouses rooming together (double occupancy); Covers all transportation, accommodation, guides, musical entertainment, all you can eat delicious seasonal meals + traditional Georgian table wines for the duration of the tour. Does not include airfare. Discount incentives available for groups, contact for more details.
Impressions: Curious what former participants have to say about their experiences in Georgia? See our Impressions link at the top left of this page.
Deposit: The tour is limited to fifteen participants on a first come, first serve basis. A $750 deposit per person is required to secure a place. The full fee is due by December 31st. In the event of cancellation, refunds are available on the following basis (percentages of total tour fee): 90% refund through Dec. 31st; 50% refund through March 31st; 25% refund through May 31st.
Application/Waiver: Please fill out the 2014 Application form and return it via the address listed below (electronic submission preferred). Application is available as a downloadable word doc file by clicking the link above.
Contact and reservations:
John A Graham
145 Windsor Dr.
White River Jct.
VT 05001 USA
jagraham [at] princeton.edu
Kolkheti - Samegrelo
+ Historic Georgia was divided by the Surami mountain range into two kingdoms: Iberia in the East (Tbilisi), and Kolchis in the West (Kutaisi). The area 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, Kolchis, 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 a new stop to the ancient Greek fortress city of Archaeopolis, as well as the later Christian sites at Martvili (7th c.), Bagrat (10th c.), and Gelati (12th c.). We'll stay in Kutaisi, the bustling capital of West Georgia.
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 is 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 33 AD. Further up the Mtkvari, we will stay overnight in summer resort of Borjomi, famous for its mineral waters and Soviet-era spa houses. But our real destination lies far up-river, near the Turkish plateau where the Mtkvari river originates, where the 12th century Vardzia cave complex awaits your exploration. Along the way, we pass many abandoned fortresses defending the common invasion route of the Turkic tribes into the Southern Caucasus, with stops at the Khertvisi Fortress and the cliff-hanging Sapara Monastery.
+ Sighnaghi, a hilltop fortress town built by King Erekle in the 18th century; boasts twenty seven towers and a four kilometer defensive wall overlooking the broad Alezani valley, commanding a 180 degree view of the Great Caucasus Range. Once an artisan capital, Sighnaghi is quickly re-establishing itself as a center of the artistic renaissance of 21st century Georgia, hosting three dance troupes, folk and sacred choirs, painting, music, carpet-making, and wood-working studios, as well as a regional branch of the State University. We will make ourselves at home in this charming town for the first half of the tour while we visit the incredible treasures of medieval architecture in the region including the Bodbe, Alaverdi, Ghirsa, and Iqalto monasteries.
+ Telavi, regional capital of the Kakheti region. Telavi is situated at the top of the long Alezani wine-growing valley, at the base of the Great Caucasus range, and has been the seat of kings for several centuries. In the Telavi region there are many famous monasteries and castles, including the 8th century double domed Kvelatsminda church, the 11th and 12th masterpieces of Alaverdi Cathedral and Iqalto Academy, the 16th century Gremi fortress and Shuamta Convent, and the 19th century Tsinandali palace and winery.
+ 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."
+ Mount Qazbegi, the mythical mountain hold of Prometheus' epic torture, elevates to an impressive snowcap, 15,000 feet above sea level. Against this backdrop, the small hamlet of St. Stephens and the hauntingly silhouetted Gergeti Trinity Monastery (13th century) strikes an indelibly austere frame, and has become the ultimate destination for Caucasian alpinist-adventurer and Christian pilgrim alike.
Ethnomusicologist and Georgian chant scholar, John is a Ph. D. candidate at Princeton University, where he is pursuing research for a dissertation titled "The Transmission and Transcription of Georgian Liturgical Music, 1880-1910." Co-founder of the Monastery tour in 2006, John had already been studying music and language in Georgian since 2003, including on a Fulbright research grant in 2004, and dissertation research in 2009-2011. In 2005, he organized a US-based tour for the world-renowned Anchiskhati Church Choir, and promoted the energetic Zedashe Ensemble to the States in 2007. John brings his developed organizational skills, knowledge of Georgia, and passion for music and history to the Monastery Tour.
Occasionally, we are joined by the lovely Ekaterine Diasamidze, a passionate music promoter for Georgia's only classical music station, Radio Muza, and a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at the Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University. Eka holds a BA from the Tbilisi Conservatory in 2003 and a Masters in Musicology from the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 2005. She has studied Georgian history, is a church chanter, and brings her deep love and knowledge of the Georgian language and culture to our guide team.
A longtime friend and co-founder of the Monastery Tours in 2006, Luarsab is an enthusiastic and passionate ambassador of Georgia's many traditional arts. His company, Samoseli Pirveli, makes traditional Georgian garments; photos here. Luarsab has several publications on the history of Georgian monasticism on Mt. Athos, the preservation of church chant in the 19th century, and biographies on individual clergy members from the pre-Bolshevik era. His special hobby is collecting and identifying 19th century portrait photographs.
Born and raised in the highland region of Svaneti, Shergil's first language, and first musical influences stem from the archaic traditions he grew up in. Now a soloist in the Zedashe Ensemble and resident in East Georgia, Shergil performs and teaches traditional music both in Georgia and abroad. He has toured in the USA, Holland, Latvia, and the UK on several occasions, and brings his passion for music and fine sense of humor and poise to the guide team at Georgianchant.org.
Soso Kopaleishvili is a dynamic performer and educator of Georgian traditional folk and sacred music. As a soloist in the Sakhioba Ensemble, Soso has performed in the UK, Croatia, Ukraine, Poland, and the US, as well as in concerts throughout Georgia. Soso studied in the Tbilisi Seminary and the Patriarchate College of Chant Studies, and worked as a radio host in Folk Radio Tbilisi. He is accomplished on many instruments including the doli (drum), chiboni (bagpipe), chonguri (lute), and guitar. His energy and enthusiasm, combined with a skill for ordering the most delicious foods, make him an invaluable asset to our guide team.
Where is Georgia?
Georgia is a country nestled in the South Caucasus along the eastern coast of the Black Sea and is bordered by Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Daghestan, and Russia. Ancient names for Georgia include Kolchis, Egrisi, Lazika, Iberia, and Urartu, and is attested to in the histories by Strabo, Xenophon, and Herodotus. Georgians call themselves "Karts" and their land "Sa-kart-vel-o".
Information on the region can be found on the web. Please see our recommendations on the resources page of this website, or click here.
Airfare to and from Georgia is reliable, with hub airports in London, Vienna, Paris, and Istanbul. We recommend avoiding hub routes through Moscow.
From New York and Boston, prices range from $1000-$1400 roundtrip, from European destinations between $500-$800 roundtrip. Many guests find it convenient to route through Istanbul. Airline reservations before May 1st recommended.
The tour provides airport pickup to make your transition as comfortable as possible, and also makes additional hotel bookings per your requirements.
Contact and Reservations
John A Graham
145 Windsor Dr.
White River Jct.
VT 05001 USA