Tour Dates for 2011: September 30 - October 16.
Day 1: Group gathers at the airport and departs for Turkey.
Day 2: Arrival in Istanbul, change planes, flight to Keisari, the largest city in the region of Cappadocia. Transfer to the hotel, rest and supper.
Day 3: Cappadocia is doubtlessly one of the most interesting parts in all of Turkey. All through the Byzantine history, and in part even till 1920’s Cappadocia was a center of Christian activities. Due to that there were an abundance of richly decorated churches and monasteries and many of the monuments are preserved till the present day. We will start our sightseeing with a visit to the Goreme open air museum, an ancient settlement with the most significant cave churches. There are many of them that are scattered around, and we will definitely make an effort to visit the most significant of them.
Almost all of the churches are known by their local “folk” nicknames. Perhaps the most famous of them all are the Buckle Church and the Dark Church. The Buckle Church is the oldest known rock-cut church in the region. It bears depiction of the saints and various Biblical scenes. The Dark Church is famous due to its uniquely preserved frescoes as the absence of light helped to preserve the very vivid colors of them.
After lunch we will continue the exploration of the Goreme Churches and those monuments that are located in the vicinity of the museum. On our way to Urgup we will explore the churches of St. John the Baptist and Nicephorus Phocas in Cavusin. We will end our day with the exploration of the churches in Urgup area. Most famous of them is the Pancarlik one nave church with flat ceiling. The frescoes in this church are well preserved and are done by two different masters.
Day 4: Cappodocia. We will transfer to the town of Gulsehir to explore the Church of St. John, that dates back to 1212. The two floor complex houses a church, living quarters, storages, and graves on the lower floor, and a richly decorated church on the upper floor. Church’s decoration contains multiple well known scenes, but also the depiction of the Last Judgment a scene rarely depicted in Cappadocian churches can be found on the south and west walls. The frescoes in the church underwent complete restoration in 1995.
For lunch we will transfer to the valley of Ilhara, but in route we will try to stop and see the church in the town of Tatlarin. Then we will start the walking tour of the spectacular Ilhara valley and exploration of the some of many churches that are hidden in the valley. The decorations of the monuments are dated from various periods, covering the time span from the 6th to the 13th centuries. Churches are also can be divided by the influence that can be read in frescoes. Some oriental features can be traced in some monuments, verses more distinctive Byzantine style of the others.
Day 5: Cappodocia. We will start our day by exploring Keslik Monastery in Soganli Valley. Keslik Monastery is on of the largst in the area and has several churches and various monastic facilites cut in the rock. It churches are interesting due to the surviving austere Iconoclastic decorations. Soganli valley itself was inhabited since the earliest days of the Christian era, and many churches, just as in the Ilhara valley date from the various periods. Many churches contain inscriptions that help to date them rather precisely to various dates from the 9th to 13th centuries.
In the afternoon we will visit we will stop for a visit to Eskigumus Monastery, the most impressive and most southerly of all Cappadocian monasteries, lost in history and rediscovered only in the mid-20th century. It is very well preserved and has some of the best preserved frescoes in all of Cappadocia.
Day 6: After breakfast we will transfer to the airport and board our plane for Istanbul. We will start our visit of the glorious imperial city with a visit to what was once the heart of Eastern Christendom, the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia. We will continue the exploration of the city with a visit to Hagia Irene church, Church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus and then the most beautiful Chora Church with its world famous mosaics and frescoes. Savior’s Church is not the largest Byzantine church of the period, but perhaps one of the most beautiful from those that survive till the present day.
Before the end of the day we will visit Pammakaristos Church, also known as the Church of the Theotokos Pammakaristos (Joyous Mother of God). This monument is very essential to the theme of our trip as it contain numerous mosaics, in quality and quantity second only to the Cathedral of St. Sophia and the Chora Church. In time when the scholarly debate is still going on about when the church was actually built, mosaics in the interior are firmly attributed to the reign of Andronicus II Paleologos (13-14th centuries).
Day 7: We will start this final day of our tour with a visit to Phanar, the residence of the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch. Phanar is also the name of a district where most of the remaining Greeks of Constantinople live. It is interesting and a bit rustic area where many churches and secular buildings survive till the present day from the medieval period. Your afternoon will be at leisure. During you free time you can explore the remaining monuments of that once glorious city, the capital of the eastern Christendom. Many historical, archeological and civil monuments, along with some splendid museums, markets and shopping areas are located within short distance from our hotel. In the evening we will embark on the overnight train for Thessaloniki.
Day 8: We will start our day in Thessaloniki with a tour of the “Upper town,” where the complex of Medieval fortifications that so effectively guarded the city from multiple barbarian incursions is preserved. From there we walk down through the web of narrow and charming streets to see the Vlatadon Monastery, the church of Hosios David, and the church of St. Nicholas Orfanos. All three sites are very striking in their own individual way. The church of Hosios David (St. David), so named after the ascetic who lived in the vicinity, is all that is left from a main church of the monastery of Christ the Savior. There are also several important fresco compositions in the church, the only ones that survive in the city from the Komneni period.
The nearby church of Saint Nicholas is rather humble in its appearance, but it boasts the best preserved fresco cycle from the 14th century. These wall paintings come to us from the first quarter of the 14th century and represent the true glory of the Palaeologan style in Sacred Art. In the afternoon we will continue the exploration of the city center, where we will visit numerous monuments from the Byzantine period. Most interesting among them are the Rotonda building with some surviving mosaics that date back to the 6th century, the churches of the Transfiguration, St. Catherine and some others from the late Byzantine period. We also try to visit some newer churches with interesting new icons, murals and mosaics. For dinner and overnight we will return back to the hotel.
Day 9: We will start our day with the Byzantine Museum of Thessaloniki. This modern and fascinating museum offers exhibits on the various aspects of life in the Byzantine Empire. One of the most interesting permanent exhibits is on the history and development of Christian Sacred Art. Many ecclesiastical objects, icons and frescoes from the Paleo-Christian times through the post-Byzantine period are on view. After our visit to the museum we will continue our exploration of the Byzantine monuments of the city. Today we plan to visit numerous churches from various periods.
Of these the most famous are the basilica of Ayios Demetrios (St. Demetrius) and one of the largest churches of Thessaloniki, that of Ayia Sophia (Holy Wisdom). The basilica of St. Demetrius was built in several phases, starting in the fifth century. A devastating fire destroyed it in early 20th century, but magnificent restoration work made the Basilica appear most likely in the way that was intended by the original builders. The basilica also houses the relics of the Holy martyr and underneath the basilica we can still see the remains of the Roman baths where saint was martyred.
The church of the Holy Wisdom was built in the 7th century on the place of an earlier Christian basilica. The interior of that splendid cathedral is adorned with mosaics from various periods. It is especially interesting, as one can see the simple cross mosaics from the iconoclastic period, and much more elaborate and ornate mosaics from the later period. Some 11th century frescoes survive in the narthex and window apses of the church. Late afternoon and evening will be at your leisure. We will gather back at the hotel for dinner and overnight.
Day 10: This morning we will transfer to Kastoria, a smaller town in the North West of Greece. It was established in the 6th century by the Emperor Justinian. Kastoria had very turbulent history: through the Middle Ages the city was occupied a number of times by various invaders. Finally it fell into Turkish hands in the 14th century. But what brings true glory to this pristine but somewhat remote location is a great number of churches with well preserved frescoes. Many of them were built during the Komneni period or in the years when Kastoria was a part of the Despotate of Epirus.
We will explore a number of the most important churches. Among them is the Basilica of St. Stephen, one of the oldest surviving churches in the town. The earliest surviving frescoes here are from the 9th century, but in various parts of the church frescoes from the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries can be found. The church of the Holy Unmercenaries Cosmas and Damian is also a basilica. It has interesting tile decorations and important frescoes. In fact, there are two layers of frescoes in the church that date back to the 11th and 12th centuries.
In the afternoon we will explore the Byzantine Museum of Kastoria. It was opened relatively recently and is among the best Byzantine museums of Greece. It has a sizable collection of Byzantine Sacred Art, with several dozen of the most important icons on display. We will remain in the city for dinner and overnight.
Day 11: Today we will continue the exploration of the city. We will begin our day with a visit to the monastery of the Virgin Mary “Mavriotissa”. Surviving frescoes in the interior of the church date back to the 11th and 13th centuries. In the mid 16th century a chapel dedicated to St. John the Theologian was built in the monastery. Frescoes there were done by the artist Eustathios Iakovou in 1552. Another interesting church that we will visit today is that of St. Nicholas. This small one-aisle church boasts interesting 12th century frescoes. They are very nicely executed and their style gives a very good representation of the style that was particular for the Komnenini age. In the afternoon we will transfer some hours south to a little town of Kalamata, situated at the foot of the Meteor cliffs.
Day 12: The monasteries that perch atop bare cliffs of Meteora make it an important monastic center, second only to Mt. Athos. The rock caves here served as a refuge for hermits from the Ancient times, but monastic life started to truly blossom here in 14th century, when more and more monks sought refuge from the Turkish raids. At one time, there were over twenty functioning monasteries in the area, but today only six of them survive. We will visit some of the most important monasteries in Meteora. The monastery of Varlaam was established in the mid 14th century by a monk named Varlaam.
Two centuries later, the humble hermit’s refuge was much expanded and then decorated by Theban iconographers. In addition to splendid frescoes, the monastery also offers a small but very interesting museum where visitors can see medieval manuscripts and precious Byzantine icons. Another monastery that we will visit today is the convent of St. Stephen. The monastery is very easy to access as the bus can park almost at the gate. Originally it was built in the 14th century but was much expanded in the 19th century. The nuns keep their facilities in a perfect shape with numerous ongoing projects to improve the convent. Late in the afternoon we will transfer to Delphi where we’ll stay overnight.
Day 13: Delphi is known for its classical legacy: in the archeological park remains of the important place of the pagan worship are well preserved. But we are here to visit one of the absolute gems of the Byzantine heritage of Greece - the 10th century monastery of Hosios Lukas (St. Luke). The main church of the monastery is lavishly decorated. Mosaics are absolutely of the first caliber, along with other decorations, architectural design and exterior works of the church. Some compositions have been lost due to the earthquakes that are not unknown in the area. But what survives gives a very powerful and deep insight into the beauty of the Sacred Art and the grandeur of its expression in the period when the monastery was built. After a visit to the monastery we will transfer to Sparta for dinner and overnight.
Day 14: Mystras was a fortified town, near the ancient city state of Sparta that sprang up at the foot of the Frankish Castle built in the mid 13th century. But soon it came under Byzantine control and remained a Byzantine town till it was ceded to Turks in 1460, six years after the Fall of Constantinople. De-facto it was the last Byzantine Capital. The hill city was abandoned in 1821, when the new town of Sparta was built some distance north of the mountain. Impressive ruins and many surviving churches have made Mystras a UNESCO World heritage site.
Among many surviving buildings in Mystras there are twelve churches that were restored or partially rebuilt and are now accessible to visitors. Most of the churches are adorned with frescoes that in many instances are in surprisingly good shape. Most of them date back to the 14th to 15th centuries and represent the splendor of the Paleologian Renaissance. Exploration of Mystras will take up most of the day. In the afternoon we will visit the village of Chrysafa that is located just a few miles away from Sparta. There, in the Church of Panagia we will explore the splendid and well preserved 12 century frescoes. For dinner and overnight we will remain in Sparta.
Day 15: This morning, we will explore another important place. Situated some 20 miles away from Sparta, the village of Geraki can be called an artistic rival of Mystras. Shaded by the glory of the former, this less famous mountainous village boasts at least a dozen churches of the great importance and artistic significance. In many ways like Mystras, Geraki has lower and upper parts of the town, with an imposing Norman Castle at the very top of the hill. We will plan to spend here several hours exploring ecclesiastical monuments and gazing at the impressive artistic memorials of the medieval period. After lunch in one of the town’s restaurant we will transfer back to Athens for overnight.
Day 16: In Athens there are relatively few Byzantine monuments survive till the present day. There are even fewer churches with remaining Sacred Art. But in Athens there is an excellent Byzantine and Christian Museum. It was established in 1914 and contains some very important artifacts of the Byzantine culture from the 4th to the 19th centuries. The majority of the items on display are related to the ecclesiastic theme. Some fine icons and frescoes from destroyed churches can be seen in several exhibition halls.
In the afternoon we will Daphni Monastery*, one of the most important, and perhaps the most famous Byzantine monument in all of Greece. This 11th century monastery is on UNESCO's World Heritage list, and the glory of the monastery is due to its unique and exquisite mosaics. Many of the icons inside the church were executed by Modern Greek iconographer Fotis Kontoglou. After a recent earthquake, the monastery was closed for restoration that is going on already for some time. We hope that the restoration works won’t prevent us from visiting the monastery and admiring the beautiful mosaics of the interior.
Day 17: After breakfast we will transfer to the airport to the departure back home.
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