Armenia was the last and highly anticipated country of our 2011 Caucasus round trip. We entered the country in the Lori province where we stayed for two days before spending some relax time on Lake Sevan. Then we spend some days travelling South seeing many famous places including a trip to Nagorno-Karabakh. We ended our holiday in the Capital Yerevan, a great city with numerous cultural and historical highlights in a relax atmosphere.
"If I am asked where is the place on the earth that one can come across many miracles, I would name Armenia. Involuntarily you are surprised that in such a small place on the earth it is possible to meet such monuments and such people, who can be the ornaments and pride of the whole world."
Rockwell Kent - American painter and writer, International Lenin prize lourate for "Strengthening peace among nations"
Comtourist agree with this quote, Armenia is certainly one of the most beautiful places we have been. Armenia was the smallest Republic of the USSR and ranked twelve in population figures. We spend around a week in Armenia and had to leave out many great places from our travel plans. What stayed with us most was the feeling of authenticity we encountered in Armenia. Historic sides are not resorted like in Georgia and all have a hard to explain mysterious quality. The food we ate was mostly locally grown and produced tasting great. The Armenians are a proud and hospitable people despite have suffered occupation, earthquakes and even genocide trough the ages. We greatly enjoyed our stay in Armenia and rank it very high on the list of former Soviet counties we advice to visit.
Travelling from Georgia to Armenia is relatively simple, there are railway and airline connections between the capitals and a Taxi ride from Tbilisi to the Armenian border takes less then 2 hours. We entered Armenia from Georgia at the Sadakhlo-Bagratashen border crossing coming from Tbilisi by taxi. Entering Armenia from Azerbaijan or Turkey is not possible since the borders are closed. A Visa can be obtained on the border for a fee of $30, no invitation is required. We had arranged our Visa in advance via a Visa Bureau in the Netherlands, this saved us some time at the border but was not really necessary.
The Lori Province is the good place to start a Tour of Armenia when coming from Georgia like we did. It boasts some of Armenia’s most famous historic sights and is located close to Tbilisi. We had pre arranged a driver and guide who picked us up on the border. The first places we visited were the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Haghpat and Sanahin. The Monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin, located close to each other are mystical medieval complexes that left a deep impression on us. We have dedicated an article to the Mikoyan Brothers Museum, located very close by the Sanahin Monastery and a must see for aviation history enthusiast.
From Sanahin we descended to Alaverdi, the main industrial centre of the Lori Province. The Soviets developed a massive metallurgical industry turning Alaverdi from a small industrial settlement to a modern town within Soviet Armenia. The Alaverdi Copper Factory still dominates the landscape today with its large chimneys covering the valley in smoke. We had booked a home stay in Odsun Village, the agricultural centre of the area. The friendly hosts prepared a very tasty meal consisting of only self produced food including fresh home baked bread, ultra sweet fruits and cherry juice, goat cheese, sheep meat and an excellent home distilled Vodka. We ended our stay in Lori with a walk trough town meeting some interesting locals on the high street. The church of Odsun is another medieval masterpiece that even the Soviets seem to respect; the World War II monument in front of the church was erected in matching style.
We made a stop in the mountain village Dilijan on our way to lake Sevan. Dilijan is promoted as one of Armenia’s most picturesqueplaces famous for its gingerbread houses and Alpine atmosphere. The old part of Dilijan consists of one renovated street only and was a bid disappointing to us. The true attraction of Dilijan is the beautiful nature it surrounds; the town is a great base for hiking in the hills and mountains surrounding it. There is also enough Soviet heritage to be found in Dilijan including the Soviet buildings around the main Square, a stylish World War 2 monument and a monument for the 50th Anniversary of Soviet Armenia. The 12th century Goshavank Monastery is the most famous historic site in the area.
We included Lake Sevan in our travelling scheme for some relax time on a Lake resort. Lake Sevan is one of the largest high altitude lakes in the world, located 1.900m above sea level. Soviet irrigation programmes initiated by Stalin started in 1933 and resulted in a 55m reduction of the water level, an ecological disaster like the Aral Sea was avoided since the economic damage in the lake area was too big. The water level of the lake is still rising, roads around the lake regular flood and will soon need to be rebuild uphill. Our resort was close to the Sevanavank monastery founded in the year 874 on an island that now has turned in a peninsula. Also located on the Island is the House of Artists, a famous example of modern architecture in Soviet Armenia.
One of the most famous historic sides near lake Sevan is the Noratus Cemetery. The cemetery was established in the 10th century and has the largest collection of Khachkars (medieval Christian cross-stones) in Armenia. The stones depict lively scenes including a wedding, folklore tales and historic battles. The road from Lake Sevan to Yerevan passes the Selim Pass high in the mountains not far from the Lake. A Caravanserai was build on the Selim Pass in 1332 to provide shelter for travellers and their animals. The wonderful medieval structure was shrouded in mist during our visit adding to its mystical appearance.
Armenians had advised us that the South is the most beautiful part of the country and that we should visit it during our trip. We already planned to go to Nagorno Karabakh by car so would need to travel South anyway passing trough the Syunik, Vayots Dzor and Ararat provinces . We planned to take our time driving to and back from Nagorno Karabakh while visiting some of the interesting places on route. We stayed in a hotel in Goris, one of the main towns of the Syunik province close to the border with Nagorno-Karabakh. The roads of the South alone make it worth while to visit this part of Armenia. Sheppard’s with their herds, Iranian gas trucks heading for the border and a lot of Soviet age vehicles all play their role in a dramatic decor of rugged mountains, lakes and winding roads.
The Monastery of Tatev, located on a plateau in the mountains was constructed in the 9th century and is probably the most famous landmark of the Syunik province. The monastery can be reached with a cable car service that is claimed to provide the longest cable car connection in the world. The views on the way are magnificent, coming closer and closer to the monastery. Another famous site in Syunik is the Zorats Karer Stone Circle near the town of Sissian. Zorats Karer is often called the Armenian Stonehenge and is believed to be a necropolis dating from the Middle Bronze Age to the Iron Age. The Khndzoresk cave village near Goris dates back to the 15th century and was inhabited until the 1950s.
Vayots Dzor province
The route back from Goris to Yerevan took us trough the Vayots Dzor and Ararat provinces. Vayots Dzor is the least populated province of Armenia, however it still offers some interesting places. We passed trough the towns of Yeghegnadzor and Vayk where not much seems to have changed since Soviet times. The 13th centrury Noravank Monastery is a beautiful church building located in a long marrow gorge. We also passed Areni where the most famous Armenian wine is produced. We visited a wine production facility where local farmers drive up and down delivering loads of grapes transported in their Lada.
The Ararat province borders the Yerevan area and is the least populated province of Armenia. The main attraction of Ararat is the view on Mount Ararat after which the province is named. Mount Ararat is actually located in the Agra province in Turkey that was populated by Armenians before the Turks massacred the Armenian population in 1915. The mythical Mount Ararat with its two peaks and supposed location of Noah’s Arc is the symbol of Armenia where it is still regarded as their holy mountain. The Turks protested against the inclusion of Mount Ararat in the Armenian SSR Coat of Arms arguing that Ararat is Turkish and not Armenian, the Kremlin responded with the question if that meant that the moon belongs to Turkey.
We got a first sight on Mount Ararat when we were still in the mountains that lead to the Yerevan plains. The two peaks covered in snow are a majestic sight on a bright day; we were not so lucky but at least were able to see Ararat. The most famous of all photographs shows the Khor Virap Monastery with Mount Ararat in the background. Ararat borders Yerevan and farmers sell their products to travellers on their way to the capital. The fruits, vegetables and wines sold on the road are unbelievable fresh, tasty and cheap.
Our Caucasus journey ended in Yerevan where we enjoyed the last days of our holiday relaxing and sightseeing. We had booked the Ani Plaza Hotel, the main tourist hotel during Soviet times appearing in many Soviet era postcards and travel guides. Yerevan is a very old town but almost entirely developed during Soviet times. Yerevan was the first Soviet city that was developed according a general development plan, called "General Plan of Yerevan" developed in 1924 by the academician Alexander Tamanian. The centre, built within a circular shape is relatively compact and most places can be reached by foot. It takes about three days to see most of the important places of Yerevan.
The Yerevan Cascade, a giant stairway connecting downtown with the Monument neighbourhood is probably the most famous landmark of Yerevan. Development of the Cascade started in the early 1970s to commemorate 50 years of Soviet Armenia but was halted several times and stopped after the collapse of the Soviet Union. An Armenian American business man bought the complex in 20000 and continued the construction. The cascade is now almost completed and includes an art museum and modern escalator. The cascade leads to the monument for 50 years of Soviet Armenia. There is a great view on Yerevan from the monument were the entrance to Victory Park is also located.
Victory Park and the Mother Armenia Monument
Many former Soviet cities have a Victory Park commemorating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany ending the Great Patriotic War. Construction of Yerevan Victory Park started in 1950 with a giant Stalin Statue as main feature. The Stalin statue was replaced by Mother Armenia in 1967 after the dictator’s death. The Yerevan Military Museum is located inside the 50 metre tall pedestal featuring a World War II exposition and more recent exposition about the Nagorno-Karabakh War. A couple of Soviet era military vehicles, aircraft and artillery pieces are displayed around the statue. The fair ground of Victory Park is a mix of familiar Soviet era and modern rides.
The former Lenin Square, now renamed to Republic Square is the main square of Yerevan and home to many important governmental buildings. Lenin used to stand on the square but was replaced by a large TV screen when Armenia got its independence. Lenin Square like most of Yerevan was planned and built by the Armenian architect Alexander Tamanian between 1924-1929. The main buildings on Republic Square are the Government House with a characteristic clock made in Moscow in 1941, Hotel Armenia the top hotel during the Soviet period, the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National History Museum and the Central Post Office.
Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum
One cannot visit Armenia and ignore the tragic history of the Armenian genocide were between 1 and 1.5 million Armenians were systematically killed by the Turks between 1915 and 1923. Soviet authorities managed to suppress Armenian calls for recognition of the genocide for a long time until the 50th anniversary in 1965 when mass protests broke out in Yerevan demanding recognition of the Genocide. The Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Memorial was constructed in 1966 to satisfy the demands of the crowd.
The Armenian Genocide Museum that opened its doors in 1995 is located on the site of the memorial. The museum is build under ground in a round shape and displays a large collection of documents and photos that prove that the killing of the Armenians was actually a planned genocide and not unfortunate consequence of war as the Turks claim. A visit of the museum is a shocking experience, the dark atmosphere and the horrific images leave a deep impression on most visitors. People visiting Yerevan should visit the museum since this part of European history should not be forgotten and still is very relevant today.
Eating, drinking and shopping in Yerevan
Yerevan was the final station of our journey and we had planned a couple of days relaxing here. The Armenian capital is a vibrant city where people are take looking good and having a good time very serious. The best area to go for a drink and a bite is Freedom Park near the Opera Building and the Pond called Swan Lake. Outdoor restaurants serve local beers and different kind of foods. We found that Yerevan also offers plenty good places for shopping.
The Central Market Bazaar (that was actually destroyed after our visit) offers a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, bread and meat. The Yerevan Brandy Company and the Yerevan Wine and Vodka factory offer tours in this excellent distilleries and sell the famous drinks like Ararat Brandy. The best place for shopping in Yerevan is the Street Market behind the Government Building on Republic Square. The best day to go is Saturday morning when a wide variety of Soviet period books, artworks and memorabilia are on sale.
Our journey had come to an end and it was time to head back home, however, one of the major highlights of our trip was still to come, the magnificent Zvartnots Airport, a stunning example of daring Soviet architecture. Construction of the new terminal is almost finished so we were lucky to still arrive in the old dish shaped terminal that will probably be demolished soon. The airport was constructed in 1961 and expanded in 1980 to cope with growing domestic traffic demands within the Soviet Union.
A brand new terminal is constructed for the current renovation so the interior of the old disc shaped terminal has been untouched since the 1980s and has kept all off its Soviet style. The gates are located in the new terminal but here is plenty to do and see as well. Comfortable sunbed chairs face the tarmac with plenty of Soviet era aircraft against the backdrop of the majestic Mount Ararat. The tax free store sells many varieties of the famous Ararat Cognac for a sharp price. Many Russian board their plain with dozens of Ararat bottles, a very popular drink in Russia and the Soviet Union. We got our final view on the majestic Caucasus Mountains, including Mount Elbrus during the flight back to Moscow, a fitting end to a great journey!
Where we didn’t go
Our choice to visit Nagorno-Karabakh meant that we had to scrap some famous tourist sites in Armenia, mostly located around Yerevan. Most notable places that we did not visit were the Garni Pagan Temple and the Geghard Monastery usually combined in a daytrip. The Garni Pagan Temple is a beautiful pantheon like structure that resembles famous Greek temples like the Acropolis in Athens. Geghart Monastery is one of the most famous religious sights in Armenia carved out of the rocks.