Selected departures from April to September 2019
Our eye-opening tour of the highlights of Georgia explores the fascinating current and ancient capitals of Tbilisi and Mtskheta, dramatic mountain scenery along the renowned Georgian Military Road, ancient citadels and churches in breathtaking locations, the unbelievable cave-city of Vardzia, the fruitful Kakheti wine region where ancient techniques are still used with modern methods, and so much more. Just over half the size of England, tiny Georgia boasts millennia of fascinating history, legacies of powerful civilisations from two continents, and spectacular landscapes certain to inspire wonder in even the most seasoned travellers.
Georgia has often been at the vanguard of world history yet remains little-known to modern-day travellers. Nestled at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, it played an important role as a stop along the ancient Silk Road. It is bordered to the west by the depths of the inky Black Sea, and to the north and south by the sky-piercing Caucasus mountains, which dramatically define the landscape and serve as natural boundaries with Russia, Turkey and Armenia. With eternal snow and glittering glaciers, the highest peaks stay silver-white year-round and shield much of the country from the harsh cold. For more than 8,000 years, the fertile valleys have been devoted to viticulture, perhaps making this the birthplace of wine.
Georgians proudly call their country ‘Sakartvelo’, land of Kartvelians, which became one of the first kingdoms to embrace Christianity – its unique alphabet was created to help evangelise the people. The land has inspired myths and legends, such as Jason and the Golden Fleece, and Amirani the Georgian Prometheus was chained in a cave in the Caucasus after stealing fire from the gods. The medieval epic poem, ‘The Knight in the Panther’s Skin’, was inspired by Georgia’s first female ruler, Queen Tamar the Great, who expanded the kingdom’s influence to what is now modern-day Iran and eastern Turkey. Throughout the centuries, successive invasions by Mongol, Ottoman and Iranian armies caused the kingdom to fragment. At the end of the 18th century, an alliance with the Russian Empire marked the start of Russian influence till the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Despite these past conflicts, Georgia has upheld a long history of religious harmony, with groups of different faiths living together peacefully for centuries. Ancient pagan temples, Catholic cathedrals and remote monasteries can be found along with incredible Orthodox churches, mosques and synagogues.
Every bit a revelation is Georgian cuisine and Russia’s beloved father of literature, Pushkin, was said to have enthused: ‘Every Georgian dish is a poem’. Every family is said to have their own recipe for the pleated ‘khinkali’ or soup-filled dumplings. Then there are the flaky flatbreads stuffed with cheese or vegetables, an array of salads and vegetable dishes, and ‘mtsvadi’ skewers of meat – all flavoured by the east and the west. Georgians delight in their culinary traditions and eating seasonally, making the most of local ingredients.
Along the way you’ll encounter the welcoming Georgians – rightfully proud of their culture and heritage, they are disarmingly hospitable to guests whom they genuinely consider to be blessings. Here, this saying couldn’t be truer: enter as strangers, leave as friends.
Take your late-afternoon or evening flight to Tbilisi via Istanbul, Warsaw or Munich.
We arrive in Tbilisi in the early hours and transfer by coach to the four-star Mercure Tbilisi Old Town Hotel, four-star Biltmore Hotel or four-star Radisson Blu Iveria. Included with your stay are breakfast daily and dinner on the first night at a local restaurant. The Mercure Tbilisi Hotel is located in the old town a short walk from Narikala Fortress and the Abanotubani baths, and features a restaurant, lobby bar and rooftop terrace bar. The Biltmore Hotel and Radisson Blu Iveria are both situated along elegant Rustaveli Avenue, the main thoroughfare of Tbilisi. The Biltmore offers an indoor pool, sun terrace and two restaurants, while the Radisson Blu Iveria has indoor and outdoor pools, four restaurants and a sky bar on the 18th floor offering fine views.
After time to rest, we begin discovering Georgia’s irresistible capital this afternoon on a walking tour. Set in the deep valley of the Mtkvari River, which flows through the old town, Tbilisi has blossomed under the watchful gaze of its founder, King Vakhtang Gorgasali – or rather, his statue, which stands near the 13th-century Metekhi Church and the rakishly perched clifftop houses of the Avlabari quarter. Across the river is the hive-like Abanotubani, the subterranean sulphur baths where literary greats, Dumas and Pushkin, once took a dip. The eclectic skyline is dominated by the imposing Narikala Fortress, which was established in the 4th century as a Persian citadel and offers glorious city views. At the foot of the hill is Jumah Mosque, a unique sanctuary where two sects of Islam worship side by side. In peaceful proximity are a 13th-century Armenian church, a medieval Georgian Orthodox Church and a late 19th-century synagogue – all worth a peek for their beautiful interiors.
As we wind our way through narrow lanes, we’ll see traditional wooden houses painted in ice-cream colours, with elaborately carved balconies and vine-covered pergolas. Tucked into a side street is one of Tbilisi's most unusual gems: a haphazard clock tower, supported by a steel beam, threatens to topple over at any minute. Fortunately, it’s a modern creation attached to a puppet theatre, with its own miniature display twice a day.
Charming shops enliven the streets with wares spilling out to catch the eye, from souvenirs and fresh fruit to intricately patterned carpets. Look out for the strings of ‘churchkhela’ – often mistaken for sausages, they’re actually a Georgian speciality of walnuts coated with concentrated grape juice. It’s fascinating to think that just a few centuries ago, caravans of camels, donkeys and horses brought exotic merchandise along the historic Silk Road to Tbilisi’s bazaars. The city’s caravanserais, once inns for traders and their animals, now house museums, galleries and apartments.
Tonight’s dinner at a local restaurant provides the perfect opportunity to try some delicious Georgian dishes.
Today is dedicated to the discovery of Georgia’s 8,000-year-old tradition of viticulture, now protected by UNESCO. Archaeological finds reveal that wine has been produced here since 6000 BC, making Georgians the first to conquer the common grape. During Soviet times, local wines were the Russians’ preferred choice and production had reached 881,000 tonnes in 1985. We drive east through vast plains to fertile farmlands and vineyards dotted with tiny villages and churches, protected by the peaks of majestic mountains. As we travel through the villages, it’s not unusual to see roadside stalls laden with colourful produce for sale. Countless vineyards hug the Alazani River, which flows through the valley and nourishes the land. Scenic Kakheti is Georgia’s premier wine region, where villagers still make their own wine in traditional ‘qvevri’ clay jars stored in cellars. On special occasions, wine is served in ‘kantsi’ or drinking horns twice the size of a normal wine glass!
We visit the splendid estate of the princely Chavchavadze family in the village of Tsinandali, which was once Georgia’s cultural centre thanks to Prince Alexander Chavchavadze. He was an influential general in the Russian army and a patron of the arts, and his efforts as a pioneer of European winemaking in Georgia can be seen in the estate’s cellar, where some 16,000 bottles and vintages over 150 years old are kept! The estate’s English-style gardens are set in a lush park filled with mature trees, such as magnolias and sequoias. As we tour the palace’s elegant rooms furnished with antiques, the story of this illustrious noble family comes to life.
Afterwards, we visit a nearby winery to discover Georgia’s unique wine-making process, which blends the best of ancient and modern European techniques. Of course, we’ll sample its excellent wines along with an included lunch.
We then visit the pretty fortress town of Sighnaghi, set on a hill overlooking green Alazani valley. The charming red-roofed buildings bear the appearance of an Italian town, but the brightly coloured balconies and ornate latticework are very much Georgian. There’s free time to wander the cobbled streets and take in the incredible panoramas over the valley to the Caucasus beyond. In town, you’ll find hand-knitted goods for sale in traditional patterns and all colours of the rainbow.
This morning we leave Tbilisi and take a short drive towards the former capital, Mtskheta, situated in an extraordinary location where the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers meet. Georgia’s religious heart and the scene of its conversion to Christianity, Mtskheta is home to several UNESCO-protected monuments which we visit today. Crowning the hilltop overlooking the town is the 6th-century Jvari church, perhaps Georgia’s most sacred monument for its holy cross, which is said to have been built by the evangelist who converted the king. We also visit the 11th-century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, an outstanding example of medieval ecclesiastical architecture and another important pilgrimage site, as Christ’s mantle is said to be kept within its beautiful frescoed walls.
We continue to Gori, birthplace of Stalin, to tour its famous Stalin Museum, which opened in 1957 and remains largely unchanged since the days of the USSR. Explore the intriguing halls of memorabilia, which include his eerie death mask, and follow Stalin’s journey from his schooldays to his death in 1953. You can also see the tiny house where he lived during his first four years, preserved under a temple-like structure.
Next, we head west to the picturesque resort town of Borjomi, nestled in a deep gorge of the Lesser Caucasus surrounded by coniferous forests. The picture-postcard scenery, mineral springs and crisp air attracted the attention of Georgians as well as the Russian Romanovs, who had a summer palace built nearby. We stay two nights, with breakfast and dinner, at the four-star superior Crowne Plaza Borjomi, just a few minutes’ walk from the entrance to the park.
After breakfast we drive through the Kura River Valley till we come to a magnificent 14th-century structure perched precariously atop a rocky crag. Khertvisi’s impregnable fortress, first built in the 2nd century BC and reputedly destroyed by Alexander the Great, is a marvel and we stop to admire it. Then we continue to a highlight of our day: the extraordinary cave-city of Vardzia is a cultural symbol of Georgia and, astonishingly, a working monastery! Nothing can prepare you for the jaw-dropping sight of this multi-storeyed rock dwelling across the sweeping valley. Impressively hewn from the steep side of a deep canyon, Vardzia was built in the 12th century as a fortress before it became a holy city home to 2,000 monks. During our guided tour, we explore this mind-boggling architectural wonder and see impressive murals including one depicting Queen Tamar the Great with her father. While a reasonable level of fitness is needed to navigate the uneven terrain, you can still admire Vardzia and the stupendous views from the viewing platform.
Lunch is included at a family-owned restaurant, whose dishes are made with locally grown ingredients, before we journey back through the valley to Rabati Castle in Akhaltsikhe. Meaning ‘new castle’, the citadel was actually founded in the Middle Ages and rebuilt by the Ottomans. During our guided tour of this impressive fortress, complete with a gold-domed mosque and 17th-century madrasa, it’s easy to imagine life under Persian rule. Our visit includes entry to the castle museum, which displays a fascinating collection of artefacts from 4000 BC to the 19th century. After a wonderful day of discovery, we return to Borjomi.
This morning we visit Borjomi’s beautiful national park to take the air, as Georgians have done for centuries, and taste the refreshing mineral waters known for its healing properties. Then we head east, stopping for an included lunch at a local restaurant. Resuming our journey, we retrace the path of ancient traders along the famous Georgian Military Road, an ancient passage that winds across the Caucasus mountains to Russia. Before the road was constructed in the 19th century, travellers had to contend with treacherous conditions, wild animals and fearsome bandits. As we venture north, the dramatic mountains draw closer and the road hugs the turquoise Zhinvali Reservoir. The dazzling lake provides a marvellous backdrop to the impressive Ananuri fortress, seat of the dukes of Aragvi and where we stop to take in the superb panoramas.
From here the road follows the Aragvi river, growing steeper and narrower while the landscape becomes even more spectacular: crystal-clear streams appear along the road, remote villages dot the forested valleys and pristine waterfalls can be seen. Look out for locals selling fluffy sheepskin hats, and roaming herds of cattle, goats and sheep with their shepherds close by. As we climb above the tree line, the lofty peaks of the High Caucasus begin to close in around us. We arrive in Gudauri, a picturesque ski resort skimmed by clouds and crowned by serrated green peaks. Our overnight stay at the four-star Marco Polo Hotel includes breakfast and dinner.
After breakfast we continue on the Georgian Military Road to Jvari Pass, which peaks at 2,395 metres, before our descent leads us to the strikingly situated village of Stepantsminda just 10 miles from the Russian border. Still commonly known by its old name, Kazbegi, the village nestles in a verdant valley at the foot of snow-dusted Mount Kazbek, one of the six peaks of the Caucasus over 5,000 metres. Our destination is the iconic Gergeti Trinity Church, built in the Middle Ages and perched unbelievably on a hilltop over 2,000 metres above Kazbegi. In times of trouble, its isolated and almost inaccessible location made it the ideal sanctuary for Georgia’s precious relics from Mtskheta. Historically the only way to reach it was by hiking the steep trails through the mountains; thankfully these days we have 4x4 vehicles, which we take with an experienced driver who can expertly navigate the rugged and somewhat bumpy track. Once at the top, the fresh air and awe-inspiring views make this one of the most memorable moments of our trip.
As we return to Tbilisi along the Georgian Military Road, we have another opportunity to admire the scenery. We stop at Château Mukhrani, a French-inspired winery set in a castle once owned by the Bagrationi royal family. Prince Ivane introduced the wine château concept to Georgia, complete with vineyards, gardens and cellar housing 60,000 barrels of wine! We’ll taste delicious local wines and take a cooking class to learn how to make traditional Georgian favourites.
For our final night, we stay at the four-star Mercure Tbilisi Old Town Hotel, with breakfast and dinner in a local restaurant.
This morning we discover more of Tbilisi with a local guide, starting with a visit to Sameba, the outstanding Holy Trinity Cathedral and symbol of modern Georgia. The granite and marble structure is a lavish expression of Georgian architecture, rivalling the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages. We’ll stroll along Davit Agmashenebeli Avenue, one of the city’s most popular shopping streets lined by elegant 19th-century buildings. Spanning the Mtkvari river is the eye-catching Bridge of Peace, whose wavy canopy of glass and steel adds a touch of modernity to the historic centre. We take the cable car connecting Rike Park with Narikala Fortress for a bird’s-eye view of the old town and more wonderful views from the fortress. For a deeper dive into Georgia’s past, we visit the National Museum of History to see its treasure trove of artefacts going back to the 3rd millennium BC.
Transfer to the airport for your return flight. Some dates depart in the early morning.
The price of this holiday is per person, based on two people sharing a twin room. Single rooms are subject to availability at a supplement from £479 per person. The price includes return flights, eight nights’ accommodation* with breakfast, three lunches and five dinners, all local taxes and transfers, all tours and entrances as mentioned and the services of a Riviera Travel tour manager.
* Due to flight times, arrival will be in the early hours of day two.
We want to ensure you make the correct choice before you book your holiday with us. If you have any concerns regarding the suitabilty of the holiday due to reduced mobility we would encourage you to call us to discuss these concerns. General information on mobility in connection with our tours can be found here.
All transfer times listed here are approximate, and dependent on traffic. If you have a question regarding transfer times please don't hesitate to contact us.
|Airport||Hotel location||Transfer time|
|Tbilisi Airport||Tbilisi||35 mins|