A scenic overload of mountains and monasteries, accompanied by herby salads and lavash bread. here are my two trip:
A five night extended weekend trip. It was the last time the company ran this tour - there was no demand for Armenia, they said. A shame. It's a pretty and tranquil country. The mountains are beautiful and you can always use them as a fallback, when the monasteries begin to pall. There are a lot of monasteries. The weather was gorgeous and the architecture perfectly framed.
Yerevan, the capital. It is one of the world’s oldest inhabited cities, constructed 29 years before Rome. No prizes for guessing why they call it the "Pink City". Many of the buildings are constructed of rosy hued tufa stone. Highlights are: the genocide museum, Liberty and Republic Squares and the Cascades open air staircase area, (still being constructed with two cranes at the top). Cognac distilleries proliferate. its famously good here - they're even allowed to call it cognac. And, although this is a predominantly Christian country there is still a significant Moslem population, attending mosques.
As usual, I'm drawn to the indoor market. A riot of colour, spice hillocks and sticky dried fruits.
Armenia is realtively small and most of our exploration is done in day trips out. The must see is Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church, in the city known as both Etchmiadzin and Vagharshapat. The original church dates to the early fourth century- between 301 and 303, according to tradition, built by Armenia's patron saint, Gregory the Illuminator, following the adoption of Christianity as a state religion by King Tiridates III. It was built over a pagan temple, symbolizing the conversion from paganism to Christianity. Etchmiadzin is said to be the oldest cathedral in the world. Gregory built it where he dreamed that fiery hammer descended from the sky.
The music was sublime and the Patriarch himself was there, celebrating mass. He had a very kind face.
The Graeco-Roman Temple of Garni. This imposing and beautifully situated (on the edge of a cliff overlooking a ravine) Ionic style building, is the surviving only pagan temple in Armenia. It was probably built by King Tiridates I, in the first century AD, as a temple to the sun god Mihr. After Armenia's conversion to Christianity, it was converted into a royal summer house for Khosrovidukht, the sister of Tiridates III. According to some scholars, it wasn't actually a temple, but a tomb and that's why it survived the destruction of pagan structures. It had to be restored after it collapsed in a 1679 earthquake.
Close by there's adventure to be had. A scramble down the Garni Gorge to some basalt pillars. Not quite as exciting as The Giant's Causeway but enough to warrant its title, "Symphony of the Stones."
Serene Lake Sevan (Black Van to distinguish it from Lake Van in Turkey) is known as 'The Jewel of Armenia, for its sweet water and two scenic churches and a fortress. This is the largest lake in the Caucasus and comprises one sixth of the area of Armenia. It's fed by 28 rivers and provides 90% of Armenia's fish. It's even got beaches, overcrowded in summer.
The most famous cultural site is the picturesque Sevanavank monastery on the peninsula, once an island. There's also Hayravank, on the western shore is, and further south, Noratus Cemetery, has the biggest open air collection of ancient Armenian Khachqars (cross stones) and tombstones
On the outskirts of Yerevan, near the closed border with Turkey, are the ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral. It was built in the seventh century and is noted for its unique circular structure. Mount Ararat looms in the distance. It makes for a perfect picture postcard photo. It's in Turkey now, though the Armenians point out that it used to belong to them and still should do.
Now we're out on the road. Medieval Geghard Monastery is in the Kotayk province of Armenia; it's one of the most visited monasteries, partially carved out of the adjacent mountain, surrounded by cliffs and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The curving path up, through the welcomearch, is lined with stalls. Women selling decorated roundels of Armenian Lavash bread.
Another gloriously scenic sight, more tantalising (for the Armenians) views of Ararat, which is almost in touching distance here. Khor Virap Monastery is a pilgrimage site, on the Ararat plain. The ruined monastery was host to a theological seminary and was the residence of the Armenian Catholicos. Khor Virap is most notable as the prison of Gregory the Illuminator by King Tiridates III of Armenia, before he was converted. Saint Gregory subsequently became the king's religious mentor, and they led the proselytizing activity in the country. Armenia was the first country in the world to be declared a Christian nation in AD 301. The first chapel was built here in 642.
Now we're well into the mountains, stunning views and chill alpine air. Noravank, another impossibly picturesque twelfth-century Armenian monastery in a narrow gorge made by the Amaghu River, near the town of Yeghegnadzor. It's a winding and dramatic approach. The complex includes the church of S. Karapet, the S. Grigor Chapel, and the Church of S. Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God). The latter is diminutive and extraordinarily appealing.
Ninth century Tatev Monastery, the most scenically placed of them all, in south eastern Armenia. The 'ensemble' stands on the edge of a deep gorge of the Vorotan River. Like Machu Picchu the view is best from above
You can read about my second trip to Armenia on the Golden Eagle Luxury train here.
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