Armenia is a small enclosed country in the Caucasus area, on the western part of the Asian continent.
It’s a nation with history dating back to the Classical antiquity and is full of tragedies. This place was part of the Byzantine, Ottoman, Persian and Russian empires. The Kingdom of Armenia was the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity as an official religion, in 301 AD. The most painful moment in its history was the infamous Armenian Genocide, which ended during the First World War under the Ottoman yoke. An estimated 1.5 million people have been expelled to paths of death, deprived of food and water, robbed, raped, and slaughtered. Today, the Armenian diaspora is larger in number than the citizens within Armenia. Turkey still denies the Armenian genocide.
Armenia was a member of the Soviet Union, a period of progress, economic and cultural prosperity for the country. But this was at a cost, with arbitrary borders being drawn between Armenia and Azerbaijan, creating the background for subsequent conflicts.
Armenia’s relations with Turkey are strained and the two countries’ borders are closed. But even more violent is the conflict with Azerbaijan, with the last war raging in 2020, resulting a complicated border line between the two countries. In the southwest of Armenia is the Nakhchivan enclave, which belongs to Azerbaijan but does share geographical borders at any point. To the east is Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory, internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but most of it is ruled by the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh and is inhabited by Armenians. In the 2020 war, Azeri troops occupied much of Artsakh, including the second-largest city of Shusha, displacing 40,000 civilians and causing casualties on both sides. Armenia has the support of Russia, which plays a role of peacekeeper, especially in the Lachin corridor, which connects Artsakh with Armenia.
Armenia is not a very popular tourist destination, often visited as a trip extension of neighboring Georgia, with which shares similarities but also differences. Presenting a strongly post-Soviet image and a rich and resilient culture, it will attract travellers who admire such raw charm. Dozens of medieval monasteries are scattered throughout the country making it the most typical monument attraction, along with the interesting landscape ideal for hiking and other outdoor activities.
References to the Armenian ethnic group are found aged since 6th BC. century. The Armenians are one of the most noble, likeable and down-to-earth peoples. Apart from the local language with the unique alphabet, Russian language is widely spoken, instead English is not.
The capital Yerevan, a city of one million inhabitants, lacks the beauty and picturesque architecture of Tbilisi in neighboring Georgia, but still has its own charm and authenticity. Modern elements coexist with the traditional gray style of the Soviet era which in some cases shows an image of abandonment. The countryside has a similar image, but without modern elements. Thus Armenia is a tempting travel experience for travelers who admire beauty beyond typical sightseeing and outstanding architecture, things that do not exist in Armenia. The roads in the country are not that good, the traffic of heavy vehicles is intense and the driving is tedious, but usually the best way to explore one place is a road trip. The mountain passes, valleys and gorges make Armenia look much bigger than it really is, and the great Lake Sevan also offers a spectacle of vastness. In addition to its geographical diversity, Armenia’s climate also varies greatly, from barren lunar landscapes to lush forests and snow-capped peaks.
Mount Ararat is an inactive volcano on the Armenian-Turkish border. Its highest peak, with an altitude of 5,137m, although located in the Turkish part, being the highest point of this country, is the main national symbol of Armenia and is considered a sacred mountain by the locals. The mountain is described in the Bible as the place where Noah’s Ark ran aground.
Under the shadow of mount Ararat….
The trip to Armenia is a very interesting experience for the traveler who seeks the charm and authenticity in forgotten places that seem to have remained in the Soviet era, in the cloudy mountain landscapes and semi-desert plains and of course the characteristic architectural of stone churches and monasteries. Armenia rewards the visitor who has to drive on hard roads, with low visibility and heavy fuel trucks from neighboring Iran, with much road construction that cause delays and test driver’s patience. The road conditions reminded me a lot of some other road trips like a recent one in Colombia. The weather conditions of Caucasus in autumn bring low temperatures, rains and fog, but also adds a mysterious atmosphere to the landscape
Exploration of capital Yerevan will wait for the last part of the trip that begins with an interesting circular route towards south. Cash is the payment method almost everywhere, the use of credit cards is not widespread in the country.
Just 50 kms distance from the capital, is Khor Virap, a stone-built monastery with typical local architecture, next to the border of Turkey. As part of the ancient city of Artashat founded in the 2nd century BC, it was originally used as a prison. In 301 AD Armenia became the first Christian nation and the first church in Khor Virap was built in the 7th century. Architecturally plain, the monastery was built around a large precinct that surrounds the ruins of the old church. This church, known as Church of Virgin Mary, has the typical twelve-sided dome. Although most Armenian churches have an east-west orientation, with the sanctuary at the east end, this chapel has a northwest-southeast orientation. The impressive location has a spectacular view of Mount Ararat with its two imposing, snow-capped peaks. Over a hill, a huge flag of the country is flowed by wing and underneath lies a valley that looks barren in the beginning of winter season.
The road towards the south is one lane per direction and the traffic of heavy vehicles is increased. Overtaking is risky and requires extreme caution while driving. At some point, a car from the opposite lane tries to overtake a truck at distance of frontal collision with my car. Fortunately, it’s maneuvering to my right side out of the road so I manage to firmly pass between the car on the right and the truck on the left.
Noravank is 120 kms away from Yerevan and is located in a gorge with impressive reddish cliffs all around. The 12th century monastery has a special feature of two storeys, where the access to the second floor is made through a very narrow stone staircase that protrudes from the facade of the building. A rope helps secure access to the guests, who are numerous at this time. Among them is a tourist group from Greece, at a time when people had enough of the pandemic lockdowns and are trying to travel again. The energy of the place is more felt without the annoyance of crowds and it’s worth waiting until everyone leaves.
Carahunge (meaning the sound of boulders), also known as Zorats Karer, is a prehistoric archeological site near the city of Sisian. Many describe it as the Stonehenge of Armenia, although I would not say that it looks so impressive like the English monument. It’s a prehistoric structure over 7,500 years old, believed to have been an observatory of celestial bodies, the oldest of its kind been discovered. In this area there are vertical monoliths that extend radially. Each stone weighs several tons and most likely these 220 stones were transported to this place from the nearest gorge. Of these stones, 84 have carved holes probably used by ancient astronomers to study stellar paths.
Inside a foggy plateau, lined up numerous electricity poles stand like giants and after a Soviet-style concrete bus stop, a gray village emerges underneath through fog from home stoves. Shinuhayr looks like an impressionist painting at dusk. Testing the endurance of the car, we drive uphills around the village, on road full of mud and potholes. The eyes of villagers curiously staring us, surprised like if they saw aliens. Some women stop talking and turn their heads at once, children run like chased and a shepherd leaves the herd out of his sight to explore the unexpected visit.
Halidzor is not a settlement, but a location on the road to Tatev where you can spend the night in one of the few accommodations. They are usually autonomous wooden houses, some of them having a cylindrical shape. Under the darkness, rain and fog we reach one of them and fortunately there is availability. Of course, there are not many tourists except from a Russian speaking group. The same language is spoken by the young manager of the hostel serving the small restaurant, but he doesn’t speak English at all. Nevertheless, the menu order is managed with success. My favorite pasta of the east, something between Turkish manti and Georgian khinkali with meat stuffing, turns out to be just as delicious as those of neighboring countries! The dinner will be complemented by rich, thin pies with grilled chicken, french fries and local wine.
By dawn the fog is still dense, the landscape is barely visible but enchanting. Halidzor is connected to Tatev by a 5.7 km long cable car called the Wings of Tatev, which is considered to be the longest uninterrupted cable car route in the world. Under the limited visibility it does not seem to work or even offer a satisfactory view, the alternative is to drive the road of continuous, sharp turns. Halfway, you can see the Vorotan Gorge and the famous Devil’s Bridge carved in rock by the rushing river that flows into a precipice. A cistern with thermal water is steaming, stalactites are hanging from above, but the cold, rainy weather is not motivating for a thermal bath. The narrow side path of the gorge is dangerously slippery under the rain and without protective railings.
Tatev Monastery was built in the 9th century on the edge of a steep gorge on the Vorotan River. Tatev played an important role in the history of the region as a center of economic, political, intellectual and cultural activity. Together with Noravank they are the most important monasteries in Armenia.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, the monastery hosted one of the most important Armenian medieval universities, the University of Tatev, which contributed to the advancement of science, religion, philosophy and the preservation of Armenian culture and faith in one of the most turbulent periods of its history.
Under the hazy veil, the monastery seems to emerge from a supernatural dimension. The boulders of its structure look airy in the dense mist.
The fortified monastery consists of three churches, the church of Saints Paul and Peter, St. Gregory’s and the Church of Virgin Mary, as well as other administrative and auxiliary buildings.
During the 11th century, Tatev housed about 1,000 monks. In 1170, the Seljuk Turks looted the Monastery and burned about 10,000 manuscripts, then at the end of the 13th century it was rebuilt. The monastery was exempted from taxes during Mongol rule and in the 14th century, the university was founded as the center of Armenian culture.
It went through other catastrophes and rebirths over the centuries and in 1921 the independence of the Republic of Mountainous Armenia was declared here.
The same winding road leads back and forth to Goris, a city considered an important historical and cultural center of Armenia and a favorite tourist destination for locals.
Khndzoresk: The little Cappadokia
Just 8 kms east of Goris is one of the most interesting places in southern Armenia, Khndzoresk, nicknamed the “Cave City” and has been inhabited since antiquity. Along the steep slopes of the Khor Dzor gorge are about 3,000 natural or carved caves that offered protection to the inhabitants from weather conditions and invaders. In the 20th century there were about 1,800 houses, several shops and functional schools in the settlement. The Soviets decided to evict people from the area in the 1950s, as it was considered an uncivilized lifestyle. Some of the caves have a multi-storey structure, while others are located up to 25 meters above the ground offering security from attackers. At the edge of the gorge is a cemetery with typical and rather creepy images of the deceased, old, young and children, placed on large slabs of black marble.
Another interesting attraction in Syunik Province is the Khndzoresk Suspension Bridge. The bridge, 160 meters long and weighing 14 tons, connects the two shores of the village, the so-called Old and New Hndzoresk. It was made by the villagers and they claim that they did it by hand and without the help of heavy machinery. The locals also claim that the bridge can “hold” up to 700 people! The view of the gorge below the bridge is spectacular, the foggy weather conditions add a sense of mystery, definitely worth the visit. I wonder where the road leads at the opposite side, the location on the map shows that we are a step away from the borders of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) and specifically the territories recently occupied by the Azeris in the 2020 war. Unfortunately due to the situation it is not possible to visit the enclave at this time and the special visa permits have been suspended. In addition, the Russians, who have a noticeable presence in the area with heavy armored vehicle, are unlikely to allow tourists to cross the Lachin corridor.
Back on a route towards north, the road conditions become hard, with very dense fog that need vigilance and low speeds. Despite the stress of driving in these condition after the night fells, we decide to make a detour to the village of Jermuk. It is 30 minutes away from the main road in an interesting barren landscape. Jermuk is a mountain spa town that was a popular medical tourism destination in Soviet times. Jermuk has hot springs, a not so impressive waterfall, and hiking trails along the river surrounded by forests and water pools. The city is being rebuilt to become a modern center of tourism and health services.
Could not avoid night driving, still the plan to reach the north shores of Lake Sevan was too optimistic. Sleepiness limits driving time at the town of Martuni, on the southeast shore of the lake, where we found some accommodation. Access or view of the lake is not possible in the dark and I can hardly find a restaurant. A lady puts me alone in a private room with a wooden dining table and thick curtains of Soviet era. There is no written menu and to order something without common language proves to be not much successful. I am served a boiled soup with vegetables and hard beef, flat bread and cheese.
Lake Sevan is the largest in Armenia and in wider Caucasus region. It is one of the largest alpine freshwater lakes in Eurasia and is located at an altitude of 1,900 m. The lake provides 90% of the fish and crayfish catches. Sevan town is an important tourist destination.
The lake was used to irrigate the Ararat Plain and generate hydroelectric power during the Soviet period, reducing water volume by 40% and lowering the level by 20m. Later, some diversion projects stopped the loss and water level began to rise. Lake Sevan is considered the “jewel” of Armenia, the “national treasure” of the country.
To be honest, I wouldn’t compare the lake to anything like jewelry. Approaching the city of the same name on the northeast bank, I see a place of abandonment, at least in the autumn season. If I try to imagine an image of the area in the summer months, still seems unimpressive. Some tasteless tourist resorts and food stalls closed at this time, and quite quirky, makeshift caravans in cylindrical shape. Next to the settlement of Sevan there are two monasteries on an island, which with the retreat of the waters has become a peninsula.
Yerevan became the capital of the First Republic of Armenia after thousands of survivors of the Armenian Genocide during the Ottoman Empire arrived in the region. The city expanded rapidly in the 20th century as Armenia became part of the Soviet Union. In a few decades, Yerevan was transformed from a provincial city of the Russian Empire into the main cultural, artistic and industrial center of Armenia.
With the development of the Armenian economy, Yerevan has undergone a major upgrade. Many constructions have been made throughout the city since the early 2000s and the shops, restaurants and cafes that were rare in the Soviet era have proliferated.
The center of Yerevan, locally called kentron (from the Greek word “κέντρο=center”) is the heart of the capital and all of Armenia. Its architecture is varied, from the Belle Epoque to the Soviet blocks of flats. The center of Yerevan consists of two nodes – the large Republic Square and the most elegant district of the Opera. Almost all the museums, hotels and popular places for food and drink are located in the Center, so most visitors will probably visit it.
One of the most notable landmarks of Yerevan is St. Gregory’s Cathedral, the largest Armenian cathedral in the world. Around the majestic temple are Soviet-style neighborhoods. Other points of interest include the Armenian Genocide Memorial and the Republic Square with its fountains and impressive neoclassical buildings such as the Government House, the Historical Museum, the National Gallery, and the Marriott Hotel.
Personally, I am particularly fascinated by the local markets and the Vernissage open market on Aram Street with various types of folk art is no exception. Also very interesting is the food market named “GUM market Armenia”, a common name of department stores in the former Soviet Union.
The front of the GUM Market is dedicated to dried and candied fruits, nuts, spices and sujuk – a delicacy made of must and walnut that is similar to the Georgian Churchkhela and of course the traditional sujuk made by my ancestors in Greece. The variety of spices is also great and all these long lasting products are excellent gastronomic souvenirs.
A dominant impressive building is the Cascade Complex, a giant staircase made of limestone that connects the Kentron of Yerevan with the neighborhoods on a higher hill. Inside the Cascade, below the external stairs, there are seven escalators that rise along the entire length of the complex, with exhibition and art halls. The exterior of The Cascade has multiple levels decorated with fountains and modernist sculptures from the Cafesjian collection. The stairs offer walkers panoramic view of central Yerevan and Mount Ararat. At the base of the Cascade is a courtyard with statues of contemporary sculptors such as Botero, Lynn Chadwick and Barry Flanagan. I have to admit that I saw more works by Botero here than in his homecountry, Colombia.
At the top of the Cascade is the monument to the Soviet victory in World War II and a little further the Victory Park with the statue of “Mother Armenia”. The statue, erected in 1968 to replace one of Stalin’s, symbolizes peace through power, although the image of tanks and missiles surrounding it is more indicative of war. There are several similarities in style and symbolism with the statue of “Mother Georgia” in the neighboring country, that one holding in one hand a sword for enemies and in the other wine for friends.
The impressive Blue Mosque is one of the oldest surviving buildings in the center of Yerevan and the most important structure of the Iranian period of the city. It was the largest of the eight mosques in Yerevan in the 19th century and today is the only active mosque in Armenia.
Armenia is a country that does not have many typical attractions, neither a famous tourist destibnation. But a special charm of the wider Caucasus region will seduce travelers who seek the authenticity of forgotten places even with a vibe of abandonment.
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