Planning to travel to Armenia and not sure what to do and see, or how to get around the country? Here are some of the highlights from the two weeks we spent traveling around Armenia.
For most of our visit we based ourselves in Yerevan, the country's comfortable capital city, and took many of day trips to visit the country's historical sites, monasteries, cathedrals, lakes, mountains and more. The country is small enough that it's easy to get around and experience a diversity of landscapes, historical sites, culture and villages in a short period.
Armenian Diaspora Power
Armenia is land-locked and not terribly rich in natural resources. So, where does all this money come from? Most people we spoke to pointed to a combination of diaspora and mafia money, with the edge going to the diaspora.
Take multi-billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, perhaps the most famous member of Armenia's diaspora. Like Hungary's George Soros, Kerkorian has given billions to his homeland, helping to rebuild Armenia's roads and sustain its charities. The story goes that Armenian passports normally declare “This person is protected by the Republic of Armenia.” whereas Kerkorian's Armenian passport now reads “The Republic of Armenia is protected by this person.”
Armenia's diaspora not only send money back. They send family, too. Returned diaspora are an active, visible presence on Yerevan's streets. Groups of young Armenians, obviously raised in the west, wear knit shirts declaring “Armenia is my home.” The magnet back to the motherland is strong; it draws family back in droves.
Yerevan – A Symbol of a Newer, Shinier Armenia
The years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union were dramatic and bleak for Yerevan – blackouts, food shortages and a feeling of hopelessness defined a candle-lit existence of scarcity.
Today, Yerevan appears up and coming. Moments of widespread scarcity are a distant memory, at least in downtown Yerevan where new buildings, cafes, restaurants, and sophisticated store fronts line the city streets. Large SUVs compete with BMWs and Mercedes as kings of the road, while those with Soviet-era Ladas and Volgas keep their cars sparkling clean in order to earn their place on the streets. The black clothing we had grown accustomed to seeing in Tbilisi is replaced by colorful and fashionable attire worn with confidence and a hip strut to match. Image in Yerevan is king. During our first evening stroll, our mouths remained agape in continual surprise. We wondered how we had accidentally ended up on the streets of Los Angeles.
Our hostess Zina, an Armenian woman in her early 60s, offered a contrast to Yerevan's new money. She converted one of the rooms in her flat into a separate bedroom for tourists and she runs a homestay (a sort of makeshift bed and breakfast). The income she earns from her guests supplements that of her accounting job and helps her to pay for bills related to the care of her live-in diabetic sister.
An engineer by trade, Zina employed her know-how to construct an elaborate water collection system to ensure that her apartment always had water, even when the municipal water was turned off between 11 PM and 8 AM. She represents the generation that has been left behind in the boom, but she knows how to accomplish a lot with very little.
“Good morning, my dears!” Zina would welcome us energetically to the breakfast table each morning. She'd light up her cigarette over a small cup of strong “oriental” coffee and launch into how she was certain Marlyn Monroe was really part Armenian. “It's all in her low-hung bottom.” Or how she had her refrigerator (still functioning) delivered from Minsk, Belarus in the mid-1980s. “It took six months for it to arrive. Delivery was delayed because the trains were used to supply the war in Afghanistan.”
Our days ended pleasantly with her as we shared our discoveries and she shared lessons on Armenian history and details of her life as a computer engineer traveling across the Soviet Union. We were always sent to bed with a hug and “Good night, my dears.”
People like Zina represent the heart and soul behind Yerevan's shiny, new exterior. Here's to hoping that Yerevan doesn't lose sight of its human heritage and its past as it boldly seeks to build its modern future.
What to do in Yerevan:
We highly recommend the Sergey Parajanov Museum. Parajanov's collage and mixed media installations are visually striking and humorous. The Matenadaran houses Armenia's manuscripts dating back to the 6th century; it's worth splurging a few extra dollars for the guide. Walk around the city, visit the weekend Vernissage (art and flea market) and experience one of Yerevan's many street-side cafes when you need a break. Various day trips are plentiful and easy to arrange from Yerevan.
Yerevan Travel Tips: Transport, Accommodation and Restaurants
- How to get there: Buses from Tbilisi's Ortajala bus station take between 6-9 hours (15 Lari). Flights are available from Europe and Turkey.
- Where to stay: Hotels in Yerevan are expensive, so for budget travelers the best option is to stay in someone's apartment ($10-$15/person including breakfast). The well-equipped Yerevan Tourist Office maintains a list of home stays, including many families centrally located on Sayat Nova Street. Or, you can contact us for the details of our outstanding home stay (our hostess asked us not to post her information on the web).
- Where to eat: Caucasus Tavern (82 Hanrapetutyan Street) has a wide selection of Armenian and Georgian food. Mimino (7 Alek Manukian Street) offers some exceptionally good Georgian and Armenian fare as well. For a change of pace, the Indian Restaurant, New Delhi, at 29 Tumanyan Street is more expensive, but top notch. Nury on Teryan St. #62 has Lebanese specialties with traditional (pre-Soviet) Armenian and Middle Eastern dishes on offer. The owner is a friendly Syrian-Armenian who knows his food. Kebabs rolled up in flat lavash bread are a good, cheap ($0.50) and ubiquitous street food option.
Note:Yerevan's Tourist Office on Nalbandyan Street (behind Republic Square) is the best Tourist Office in the Caucasus. In addition to offering glossy brochures, the center's employees are well-informed and equipped to answer any question, from public transport options to available tours. Many of the Armenia's more popular sites can be enjoyed as day trips from Yerevan, allowing you to get your dose of history and culture during the day while returning for a taste of the cosmopolitan at night.
Day Trip to Lake Sevan
At 1900 meters, Lake Sevan's waters are icy cold…a toe dip and you'll lose feeling immediately.
We visited Sevanavank peninsula, and visited Arakelots (Apostles) and Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) Churches. Don't wander too far onto the tip of the peninsula – Armenian military guards are likely to shoo you back in the direction of the churches.
How to get to Lake Sevan, Armenia:
Marshtrutkas leave Yerevan every 45 minutes (or when full) from the corner of Teryan and Isahakyan Streets. Travel time is about one hour. In order to get to Sevanavank peninsula, take a local bus for another 15 minutes (waiting right next to the bus stop in Sevan town) or take a taxi (about $2).
Day Trip to Echmiadzin
Echmiadzin is to the Armenian Apostolic Church what The Vatican is to the Catholic Church. It is believed that St. Gregory the illuminator first envisioned and built Mayr Tachar (Mother Church of Armenia) there in the 3rd-4th century. The monastery remains active with somber looking men in black robes gliding around its grounds.
Although the church's interior has its share of colorful paintings, the church's real gems are tucked in the Treasury behind a gate in the rear. We were shown the supposed remains of several apostles, the weapon used to pierce the side of Christ, and remnants of Noah's Ark. We seriously doubt that carbon dating of any of these relics would ever be allowed.
Most interesting perhaps is Echmiadzin's giant vessel of holy oil (myrrh). Legend states that the Apostle Thaddeus brought some oil consecrated by Christ to Armenia in the first century and hid it in a monastery while three centuries later, St. Gregory the Illuminator found it. Since that time, holy myrrh has been kept, remixed and consecrated at Echmiadzin and distributed to Armenian churches all over the world. An Armenian-American seminary student at Echmiadzin explained to us that all members of the Armenian Church share a bond because they are baptized with oil derived in part from Echmiadzin's original myrrh.
How to get to Echmiadzin:
Catch a marshrutka (minibus) from the corner of Mashtots and Saryan Streets in Yerevan. It takes about 20 minutes and costs around $1.
Day Trip to Khor Virap Monastery
Every advertisement for Armenia includes an image of Khor Virap Monastery's silhouette against snow-capped Mt. Ararat.
Khor Virap Monastery can be considered the site of origin of Christianity as Armenia's state religion. At the end of the 3rd century, the pagan King Trdat III imprisoned Gregory the Illuminator for 12 years in the pit of a well. The story goes that the king was so moved by Gregory's survival and his ability to cure the king's madness that he converted to Christianity and deemed it the state religion in 301 A.D. Armenians will take every opportunity to remind you that their country was the first Christian nation.
Christian history aside, our visit was highlighted by the blessing of a chicken about to be sacrificed. Children carried their live chicken upside-down and circled around the church several times while the priest prepared for its blessing. Meanwhile, the baking sun took its toll and grandmothers began to dance and sing, throwing their arms about in a heat-induced jig. They even invited us to take part in their celebratory feast. Unfortunately, we had to politely decline in favor of a packed return marshrutka (minibus).
At the foot of the hill leading up to the monastery, a black sheep bucked in frantic protest, for it was his turn to get blessed. He must have known what was in store.
How to get to Khor Virap:
Catch a marshrutka at 11 AM from behind Yerevan's main train station. Flag down the return marshrutka on the main road at Khor Virap several hours later (confirm the return time with the marshrutka driver when he drops you off).
Day Trip to Garni and Geghard
Garni, a reconstructed Hellenic temple (originally from the 1st century) located at the Avan Gorge. Nearby Geghard is an early Christian rock monastery from the 4th century, augmented by the Zakarians in the 13th century. Catch someone singing in the upper chapel (as we did) – the acoustics are terrific.
How to get to Garni and Gerhard:
As public transportation makes it a bit tricky to visit both sites in one day, we took a tour with Sati (21 Mashtots Avenue) for around $8 per person.
Tatev, Worth the Journey
Interested in seeing more of the “real” Armenia outside the reaches of Yerevan, we decided to head south to Tatev in the direction of Armenia's border with Iran. The journey there comes in two parts: a marshrutka (minibus) from Yerevan to Goris (4-5 hours) and a dilapidated 1950s school bus from Goris to Tatev (1.5 hours). Though the trip to Goris was relatively uneventful, we were amazed that the bus to Tatev actually winds and finds its way up hills, across meadows and in and out of a switchback-framed gorge – each and every day in one piece, rain or shine.
Tatev's main draw, the Tatev Monastery (9th-14th centuries), has stood mocking nature on a cliff's edge over a deep gorge for almost 1000 years. We had free reign to wander, climb walls and staircases and make the place our own. Free to explore, we felt like kids again. Tatev Monastery's simple beauty won us over – it proved our favorite site in Armenia.
Tatev: Donkey Days and Crazy Kids
Continuing to explore the village, we encountered Ruzanna collecting evening greens for her donkey. Sensing our interest in her photogenic beast of burden, she invited us on our first donkey ride. Dan's feet dragged. Not quite to scale, the donkey hardly offered a prodigious view. While the rest of us were amused, the donkey wasn't. He eventually halted in protest and began to poo.
After touring the town on our beast of burden, we stumbled on the village church and were surrounded by a group of curious kids in summer evening small-town boredom. At first, they were a bit suspicious, not sure what to make of us. A few waves and “barev” (hello in Armenian) from us prompted endless shouts of “Hello! Hello!” This was as much excitement as this side of town had seen in years.
In their excitement, the kids literally ran circles around us. After a photo and video session, they insisted we go inside the church. No one could find the light switch – it was pitch black inside. Undeterred, they led us each around by hand, showing us different altars and paintings in the dark, explaining everything in Armenian. The fact that we didn't understand (or see) a thing didn't seem to matter. We all had fun.
File Under “Small World”
After rolling every last bit of food out of the cupboard for us in a late afternoon snack (feast, really), our hostesses in Tatev asked us where we were from. To avoid complexity, we said San Francisco, the last place we lived in the U.S. Turns out that the woman's daughter now lives near San Francisco. Photo albums chronicling her visits to the Bay Area seemed to outline our past – San Francisco, Monterey, Carmel, and Berkeley. We were surprised to find a keyhole to our past in a tiny mountain village in Armenia. It's another sign that the world is not flat, just compressed.
Unable to secure a seat on the return bus the next morning, we balanced ourselves on metal milk containers and bounced our way around tight curves and steep cliffs to arrive in Goris.
Although the ride to Tatev can be a bit uncomfortable and long, it offers an unusual experience and beautiful scenery. It is well worth the effort (and sore bottom) to seek out this peaceful and pleasant little village tucked away in Armenia's southern hills.
Tatev Transport, Accommodation and What to Do
- How to get there: Catch a marshrutka to Goris at the station behind Gum/Rassiya on Tigran Mets Street in Yerevan (5,000 Drams). From Goris, take the 3:00 daily bus to Tatev (500 Drams). Arrive early to get a seat. The bus returns to Goris every day at 9 AM.
- Where to stay: We stayed at B&B Lena and John. Comfortable, good food, and nice hosts. 3500 AMD/person includes heaping amounts of food – snacks on arrival, dinner and breakfast. Give them a call and they will meet you at the bus stop – +374 (284) 97392
- What to do: Visit the monastery, hang out with the local children, and hike in the hills.
Peaceful Haghartsin Monastery is nestled in the forest about 15 minutes outside of the northern Armenian town of Dilijan. The complex includes a series of churches dating from the 10th to 14th centuries. Take some food along and enjoy a picnic with a view of the churches on one side and the forested hills on the other.
How to get to Haghartsin Monastery:
Take a marshrutka to Dilijan from the corner of Teryan and Isahakyan Streets in Yerevan (around the corner from where you catch the Sevan marshrutka). The ride to Dilijan takes abound three hours. Taxis can take you the rest of the way to the monastery for 3,000-4,000 AMD.