I visited Armenia and Georgia in 2011, and I loved it – the modernist architecture, the nature, the food and the monasteries. I didn’t spend as much time in Armenia as I would have liked, so am back with hubby* in tow to do a longer easter tour, and we will pop by Tbilisi while we are here. Getting to Yerevan was a little convoluted with no direct flights from London (there are bizarrely few direct flights to Armenia given the size and wealth of the Armenian diaspora). We had booked with Air France but a month before departure they changed the flights by 24 hours in the wrong direction. So we ended up flying Austrian to Vienna, then Whiz to Yerevan, and home from Tbilisi via Istanbul
Urban Hiking around Yerevan
Yerevan airport was incredibly efficient, we landed, it was a 30m walk to immigration. Hubby and I were first in the building and by the time we got to the booths, all 12 booths were manned. Super fast (so unlike what we are used to at Heathrow!). We grabbed a sim card each (8 euros for 10 gig or 11 euros for unlimited for a month) and then got a cab to the Grand Hotel Yerevan – apparently the fanciest place in town. We were hungry as the food offerings en route had not been great, and Armenians are great at keeping restaurants open until midnight so we went for 9.30pm dinner (conveniently my actual preferred dinner time of 6.30pm on my body clock’s UK time zone). The Khinkali (fat meaty dumplings) with aubergines, cheese and cutlets were delicious. We tried to burn some of them off by heading up to the cascade and walking up all 500 steps. By that time it was 11.30pm local time and I had an excellent long sleep.
After a work out in the hotel’s gym (probably the only gym I am likely to see in Armenia) – hubby and I went looking for coffee. We ventured to Afrolab for apparently the best coffee in Yerevan – hmmmf, it was ok coffee in a lovely venue, with surprisingly smug and terrible service. As far as I can tell this is definitely hubby’s spiritual home – he is famous for his resting grumpy face, and pretty much every customer service person or waiter we met had a similar grumpy face. (I did make it a mission to try and get people to smile at me :-)). After an ok coffee embarked on the walking tour of Yerevan from the Bradt guide.
Modern art in Yerevan
First up a wee art foray into the modern art museum (which is confusingly located in the basement of a very squalid apartment block), and the Armenian art curators are clearly very Dali inspired. We also popped into the lovely building which houses the Eduard Isabekyan Gallery – which had some lovely pieces. Then the blue mosque – the last working mosque apparently in Armenia – built and funded by the Iranians.
Parks and more sculptures and empty fountains
We then wandered up Italy Street admiring the empty fountains and the sculptures. and then through Republic square and down to the green belt to see the amazing Russian cinema building and the Cathedral to Gregor the Illuminator. We couldnt quite figured out why every fountain and man-made lake was empty – perhaps a money saving gesture given the war and energy prices?. We wandered through the Vernissage admiring the tourist tat and then very much enjoyed the architecture at Revolution Square metro.
This was a very lovely building – a duo plex cinema with two big screens designed in the middle and the seats curving up…
Gregor the illuminator
An incredibly modern church – so nice, it even had seats in it, and you were banned from lighting candles
Revolution Metro station
Lunch and another cool metro stations
By then it was 1.30pm and I was ready to start eating for the day, so we had some Lemajun (turkish pizza), excellent manti (dumplings baked with garlic sauce), salad and tan (yogurt buttermilk drink).
Fortified we headed to see another excellent metro station at Yeritasardakan and then round the corner to see a wonderful modernist office building. We then returned to the Cascade for daylight views and a chilled out coffee.
Return to the cascade
We ended the day at the Armenian Genocide Memorial which remembers the 1.5million Armenians murdered by the Turks in 1915. And while we were there, we did visit the extraordinary sports complex with excellent curvy roofs and lovely lined stairs.
A wee nap we headed to Lavash – apparently one of the better restaurants in Yerevan and over indulged in salad, veal, pork, walnut paste, sorrel, strained yogurt, and buttermilk. delicious!
Heading south on a monastery tour to Goris
After a good nights sleep, it was Easter Sunday and we were headed south. We picked up a rental car which we are returning in Georgia. Amusingly we thought this meant that we would drop off at the Sixt in Tblisi. Um, nope. Armenian entrepreneurialism means they don’t want us to drop the car off to the Georgian franchise (and pay them the fee), instead they are sending someone to come get the car from us in Tbilisi at our hotel – very convenient.
Khor Viraps Monastery
Our first stop was Khor Viraps, very busy on this Easter Sunday and with stunning views over Mt Ararat – the spiritual mountain for Armenians, but it is sadly within the borders of Turkey.
We stopped for lunch in Arenia. We found a restaurant on google, which we had to persuade ourselves was an actual restaurant as it was deserted. Turns out it was pretty delicious – pork shashlik, salad, lavash and cheese :-). However, like most restaurants in Armenia, you know everything is very very fresh. Every time we order, we wait for 30-60 minutes for the food to arrive, but it is good when it arrives.
We then headed up to the equally busy Norovanks Monastery which had stunning views of the red cliffs behind. We were amused to see someone dressed as a Picachu…., and couldn’t figure out the logic.
Further south is Armenia’s answer to stonehenge. It took us a while to find it (just off the main route near Sisian in the Syunik province), and it was a little underwhelming when we got there – but the sky was lovely. Noone knows why the stones are actually there, but some of them have holes in them, which has led to speculation that they were for observing the stars. It was a nice diversion from the pot holed road on the route south.
Goris – the concrete town
We arrived in Goris late in the day. We are very close to the contested border with Artksakh/Nagorno Karabakh (and sadly 7 people were killed in a shout out between the Armenian and Azeri armies the day we departed the region). Our hotel had a contingent of EU observers and the town had quite a few Russian soldiers (who are theoretically managing the border. Goris was a very odd town, with strange concrete and stone buildings laid out in an orderly grid. We wandered around and it felt quite deserted apart from a few bonkers men hooning up and down the main street in their battered Ladas. (note to potential drivers in Armenia – everyone here drives like a loon and overtakes on blind corners). We had dinner in the ‘luxury’ boutique hotel we were staying in (the Mirhav), and waited an extra long 60 minutes for anything to arrive (including the sliced cold cheese appetizer we ordered).
Tatev Monastery, Satan’s bridge and the Grand Hermitage
I hadn’t overplanned for this trip and hadn’t realised that the world famous (guiness record holder for longest) cable car to Tatev was closed on Monday, and yup it was Monday. As it turns out that was a blessing, as it was an easy drive up to the famous Tatev Monastery and we had the entire place to ourselves. We strolled around and took lots of photos, and then we went and had an excellent Armenian coffee at the local coffee.
After that we went down to Satan’s bridge (a natural rock bridge over a gorge) which was a little underwhelming. Better was the very easy 1km hike to the ‘Grand Hermitage’ Tatev which was originally home to 500 monks and is now home to a bearded hermit. It was an amusing stroll, enlivened by watching a couple of nutty people zipline high above our heads. We then had a typical Armenian lunch in Halzidor, where we were the only guests (this is quite normal). We had to wait for an hour but it was delicious – staple fare of sheeps cheese, salad, grilled aubergine, and pork shashlik.
Khndzoresk Cave Village
The rain started up while we were at lunch but we decided to drive to the famous cave village and risk getting wet. It was interesting but not overwhelming. We headed back to Goris, hubby had a nap and I went for a soggy run up to the top of Goris hill, much to the amusement of all the school kids I jogged by. Dinner on our second night in Goris was better – we went to Takarik – still slow, but decent grilled pork chops and spinach.
Khachkars at Noratus
It was time to depart Goris and head back North. After breakfast, we backtracked to Vayk and then headed over the Selim pass (visiting an old freezing caravanserai en route). We were hungry around noon and couldn’t find a good restaurant, so we stopped at the supermarket and had an excellent lamajun (thin armenian pizza with beef and spices) and buttermilk. We then visited the lovely Noratus near lake Sevan. The cemetery is famous as it has over 900 Khachkars (distinctive gravestones all facing in the same direction)…. and they were stunning in the afternoon light. The babuskhas in the cemetery were enthusiastically offering us socks and guiding services but fortunately we moved faster than them.
Haravank, Sevan Monastery and the writers retreat
Further up the lake we visited the Haravank monastery and the Sevan monastery, as well as the very excellent Writers retreat which is cantilevered out of the hill just under the Sevan monastery. Windy and freezing but quite lovely.
After a long days driving on pot holes and dodging mad overtakers, we made it to Dilijan. I had booked us the best hotel in Dilijan – the Best Western Plus, and was excited to use the gym. Hmmm. Both treadmills were out of order. Both cycles had broken pedals. And none of the three elliptical machines worked (and I also couldn’t figure out the chinese characters on them). Oh well, weights perhaps – nope that didn’t work either as the heaviest weight was a 10kg dumbell. I figure the universe is telling me to have the day off. The day, however, was redeemed by a visit to Kchuch restaurant for a good claypot dinner and lots of veg.
Hagartsin, Goshavank and Lake Parz in Dilijan National Park
We were up at a reasonable hour, hubby had breakfast, I had three coffees and we headed out for some more monasteries and hiking. Hagartsin Monastery was deserted apart from a very devout priest who appeared to be doing a service for himself (quite long prayers and a lot of gesticulating). It was moody and delightful
We then headed up to Gosh to see the Goshavank Monastery, which was also quite nice. We then headed out to hike up to Gosh lake but the trail was muddy and slippery and we were not really appropriately attired so we turned back.
we also headed to Parz lake expecting some solitude and it turned out to be a very small lake with a huge number of tourists.
Oh well, a less active day than anticipated, we went to Kchuch again for lunch (a restaurant in Armenia that has food on the table in 20 minutes is not to be sneezed at), and then had a lazy afternoon watching movies before going back to Kchuch for dinner. It was like a normal persons day on holiday – quite relaxing
Haghpat, Sanahin and the Copper town of Alaveira
After two nights in Dilijan we headed slightly north to the Debed Gorge – definitely the nicest piece of nature we saw in Armenia. As it was on the main highway to Georgia, the roads were also mostly good and without the customary potholes (we have observed about 10% of the cars in Armenia seem to be without their front or rear bumpers – clearly unnecessary).
We headed up to Sanahin Monastery through a the village and it was a lovely moody sight. Sanahin (and Haghpat) were the first two Unesco sites in Armenia. We couldn’t find a restaurant for lunch, so we grabbed a lamajun from the hot dog place (it is the perfect lunch – £2.50 for two people for two lamajun’s each (beef flat bread) and a buttermilk) and admired the Soviet architecture
Then we headed up to Haghpat which was equally lovely though in a more remote setting.
We have seen a LOT of monasteries on this holiday, so it is probably no surprise that the highlight of our day was actually the partly abandoned buildings and copper factory at the very soviet looking town of Alaveira. We could have wandered around longer except the rain came in.
We headed to the lovely Tufenkian hotel for the night and definitely over-ordered at dinner – the veal pie was extraordinary. Another excellent night’s sleep, a huge breakfast I couldn’t face, though hubby had a go, and then we were off north to Georgia – but thats a topic for another blog.
Overall, we found our holiday quite bleak. Life in rural Armenia is pretty challenging and it’s a subsistence existence. Lots of buildings were abandoned and/or half finished. There were abandoned cars and buses in fields and amusingly old cars sometimes used as part of a fence. We never saw a colourful house – the houses were uniformly grey and the apartment blocks grey or made from pink stone. However, the vegetable gardens were all immaculately maintained and everyone had lots of fruit trees. The weather probably didn’t help as it was much colder and greyer than we had expected. Most people here are not natural smilers. However, we had a lovely reception in small village hotels and restaurants where they were happy to see us, and whenever we stopped anywhere people would say hello back if we greeted them and start chatting – so the people are definitely warmer than the environment. Would definitely suggest visiting later in the Spring
Stayed at Grand Hotel Yerevan, Mirhav Hotel, Best Western Plus Dilijan, and Tufenkian Avan Dzoraget. Rented a car from Sixt in Yerevan.
The Bradt guide to Armenia was very useful, if a little out of date.
*For those new to the blog – hubby never gets referred to by name. He likes his anonymity. But I am allowed to post photos 😉