When we headed off on our two week trip to Georgia, Armenia was just a distant possibility on the itinerary. Originally, we thought we might go for two nights, spend a full day in Yerevan, and then return to Tbilisi. This was not the case. Even before we arrived in Yerevan, as we drove in with an Armenian police officer bringing beer back from Georgia for his birthday party that day, we experienced our first taste of the wonderful Armenian hospitality that made it difficult to leave. We finally tore ourselves away from this magnificent country of beautiful mountains, ancient monasteries, and of course cheap food, but not before filling five days with action packed adventures.
We began our journey to Yerevan at the Ortachala bus station in Tbilisi, which we took a taxi to from our hostel for 5 lari. We tried to take a Marshutka (a public minibus), but were instead offered a private “taxi” for the same price. I say taxi very liberally, as we caught our ride with a very friendly Armenian police officer bringing back beer for his birthday party (that day). The 5-hour drive was beautiful; we wove through mountain ranges, forests, and as our driver pointed out through less than broken English, we even got a glimpse at nearby Azerbaijan.
The driver was so nice as to stop along the way for us to see a thousand-year-old tree, now hollowed out and turned into a shrine, which we learned from his daughter who he called multiple times to explain things to us. The driver’s hospitality extended to offering us coffee, coaching us through the very tame border crossing, and dropping us off right in the center of Yerevan at the end of the right, not before he gave us his phone number, of course. We paid 45 lari, though this was because we gave him a bit extra (it was his birthday after all).
From where our driver dropped us off, we easily walked to Yerevan Hostel where we stayed throughout our time in Yerevan. After checking in, we meandered around the city and visited a souvenir market beside the main square. While searching for the places our hostel had recommended for dinner we stumbled upon The Green Bean, my new favorite restaurant, and Yerevan’s hidden gem. Being from Seattle, The Green Bean was just a little taste of home with its organic food, fantastic mac and cheese, and fresh salads. The only thing unfamiliar to me was paying $6 between the two of us for a meal!
We headed out bright and early the next day (fine, 10:15…but that’s early in the Caucuses) to do a tour organized by our hostel. The tour cost us each 7,000 Dirham, or about $14, which was much less than any of the tours we had seen advertised in Tbilisi. In our minibus we first headed to Tsaghkadzor, a small town nestled in the mountains that houses a popular ski resort in the winter. We took the ski lift up into the snowy peaks (we each had to pay 2,000 dirhams extra, or $4). While the ski lift was not particularly exciting, the view was very pretty from the top. Afterwards we asked our driver to make a special stop at the Kecharis Monastery, built between the 11th and 13th centuries. The small complex actually consists of three separate churches, and long ago it used to be an important religious site and a place of higher education.
Following this stop, we made our way to Lake Sevan, and then to the Sevananak monastery. As we approached the lake and caught our first glimpse of the monastery, I was blown away. The small church sits on a peninsula jutting out into the clear blue lake, with mountains surrounding the water on all sides. The pictures really did not do this site justice (you will just have to visit it yourself!). We explored the monastery area, and walked around the peninsula for a while, and then headed off to our next destination, Dilijan.
Dilijan is supposed to be “the Switzerland of Armenia” though I cannot say because I actually have not been to Switzerland. The buildings were beautiful, and the part we saw was quite nice, though we only stopped very briefly. The highlight of the excursion was by far Lake Sevan and the Sevananak monastery, a must see place in Armenia.
After returning to Yerevan in the evening, we enjoyed another dinner at The Green Bean, and then went to Malakash jazz club, as recommended by our hostel (you must a reserve a place in advance if you wish to go). Food and drinks there were quite overpriced, though all pale in comparison to the fruit plate, which costs a whopping $30!
We woke up feeling ambitious, and attempted to see the entire city of Yerevan in one day. Arriving to the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum slightly before it opened, we walked around the memorial first, and from there saw the beautiful view of the city sprawled out below us. The genocide museum was extremely powerful, and another must do when visiting Armenia. The museum itself is modern, has everything written in English, and very informative. It is also free. After spending two hours reading absolutely everything before me, I came out truly moved by the experience. The genocide, which occurred now one hundred years ago, has influenced so much of the history of this little country, and this people, and yet it is something many of us know very little about. The resemblances to the Nazi’s methods of extermination also struck me, and made me think deeply about how we must remember these tragic events, learn from them, and teach others further.
After a few moments of thought, and short walk to the main road from where we caught a taxi back into the main part of Yerevan (about one thousand dirhams, or $2), we visited the Blue Mosque. The mosque is a vestige of Iranian control of the country, built in the 18th century by Shia Muslims. During the Soviet era the mosque housed the Yerevan history museum, and today is used mostly by visiting Iranians. At the mosque we enquired about going inside the dome (which was closed) and were told we needed a guide. An old woman claimed to be a guide working for the mosque and said she would charge us 2,000 dirhams ($4) for a tour. Gullible as we were, we took her “tour” which lasted for about two minutes. This was the only time we were scammed during the course of the entire trip, and were completely shocked after the kindness and hospitality we had experienced until that point. While I would tell travelers to be careful of this particular scam, it is safe to say that in this region you can mostly be trusting, and do not really have to worry about people taking advantage of you (unlike during my trip to India!).
After a hearty lunch at The Green Bean, we visited the National Gallery of Yerevan. The museum portrays the history of the country from ancient times until the present, and is quite interesting. The only issue with this museum is that the areas devoted to the most recent history have not yet been translated into English, so we were really only able to look around and try to imagine our own descriptions for the artifacts presented to us in that part. I found the exhibit about the Ngoro Karrabach region most interesting, especially after my recent visit to Azerbaijan. This region, though currently an independent republic part of Armenia, is heavily disputed. In 1988 the republic voted to be part of Armenia (after having been given to Azerbaijan by Soviet powers), and there is still armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over this area to this day. I am still unsure of what to believe, having heard such a thoroughly different narrative in Azerbaijan, and would be very interested if anyone has a perspective to share on this!
That evening we did a free walking tour through Yerevan, which met outside the steps of the National Gallery. I love doing these tours in the cities I visit, and feel that it gives me good grounding on where I am, what I should see while there, and the history of the place. We learned about the history of Yerevan during Ottoman rule, throughout the Russian Empire, and then during Soviet times. The only downside of this tour was that it began to rain, but we persevered and walked throughout the city.
Again we rose “early” for a tour through our hostel, and began our day visiting the Kor Virap monastery. The monastery, which was once a town dating back to 180 BCE, overlooks the nearby Mt. Ararat in Turkey. The view of the monastery with the snowy peak in the background is spectacular, though would have been more so had it not been gray and foggy the day we visited. Kor Virap is supposedly the site where Gregory the Illuminator, who spread Christianity throughout the country, was imprisoned, and from this gets its fame. We were able to climb down to the dungeon (very exciting!), and I can confirm this was probably not the most pleasant of prisons.
Later in the day we visited Garni temple, a 1st century temple dedicated to the sun god Mihr. After Armenia converted to Christianity it was turned into a royal summer house. The temple sits in a gorgeous green valley, which is a stark contrast to the pale temple pillars.
We also visited the nearby Gehgard monastery, built in the 4th century by Gregory the Illuminator. This was not just another ordinary monastery, this one was carved into the side of a cave! It’s still unbelievable to me how people in that time were able to create such a beautiful church hollowed out of a cave wall without the modern tools we have today. I should also mention that outside the monastery we bought “Armenian bread” from a little old lady, and it was just about the most delicious thing I have ever tried. The bread was large and round, about the size of a small pizza, and filled with sweet crushed nut filling (a bit like marzipan). What I would give for a piece of Armenian sweet bread as I write this!
That morning we took a taxi to the central bus station of Yerevan to try catch a Marshutka to Echmiacin (known as the “Vatican of Armenia”. We spent about 250 dirhams each ($.50) to take a crowded minibus to the center of the city. The city houses many important cathedrals and churches. We walked through the main complex and saw many different types of churches, some old and grand, some minimalist and modern. While it was very interesting seeing the complex bustling with people (it was the eve of Easter), the trip itself was not particularly exciting, and I would not recommend it if you only have a short time in the country.
After returning to Yerevan (on a very crowded half an hour marshutka ride) we explored some more of the city. We walked through an eerie pedestrian tunnel to a children’s park, which had been recommended to us (though we are still not sure why!). We then trekked over to the Cascade, an incredible art complex that has a view of the whole city. Outside there is a sculpture park, and inside you can take the escalators for free up to the top of the museum (or you can walk the outside steps). There are many interesting art pieces to be seen from the escalator, and I’m sure more from the actual museum as well. Once at the top we stood outside and caught the most magnificent view of the city, and then walked down outside. Though I’m not sure if the museum is worthwhile (I’m not a real art lover) the view is very nice!
That night we also watched the sound and light show that I believe takes place every evening at the fountain in Yerevan’s main square. Not a must do, of course, but a pleasant five minutes and lovely way to wrap up our visit to this incredible city.
Very early the next morning (and this time I really mean it!) we took a taxi to the bus station to catch our marshutka back to Georgia (it cost 5,000 dirhams each, or $10). Armenia, we miss you already!