(Me at the caravanserei)
An aside: While we were in Yerevan the weather had been extremely hot and dry – which, while good for being a tourist, was tiring, and it was so hot at night that we slept with the door open until the last night when it was raining really hard. We stayed in Yerevan for 4 nights which was a luxury, and so nice not to have to pack up all the time. By the time we checked out of our hotel in Tibilisi (in Georgia), we had both decided that as we were on a large bus, that we would live out of our flight carry-on bags and make do, and only dig into the suitcases when necessary. And that worked really well.
The 6th century Khor Virap Monastery:
[History: The name of the monastery means “deep well”, because it was on this spot that the king imprisoned St Gregory the Illuminator in a deep, completely dark, well for some say, 12 years until 297AD. (The legend says 12 years, but it could have been any time from 1-12.) The well is now under the floor of the chapel in the monastery. Burying people alive like this, without food or water, was the most common form of punishment in Armenia for both criminals and political dissidents, as execution was not used. Most only lasted a week or so, but St Gregory was fed secretly by local Christian women. Upon his release he cured the king of madness and went on to be the patron saint and founder of the Armenian Church.]
When we arrived there was a man holding a pair of doves – a local wedding custom but when there are no weddings, tourists do just as well – the idea is to pay the man to let the doves go and they fly up to the top of the church, taking your prayers etc with them. Of course, the doves are then collected, and the process repeated. I didn’t pay the money to let them go (quite a lot), but I did pay for a photo of the man holding them. Mount Ararat, behind the monastery, usually makes a great photo, but unfortunately it was raining and far too misty for it to be seen at all. However, we had seen it from our hotel in Yerevan. It is the legendary resting place of Noah’s Ark, and an important symbol for the Armenian people, although the mountain is now in Turkish territory.
Storks: Not on the itinerary – a village on the road we were driving on, caters for storks – the villagers encourage them to come to their village by putting up platforms for them to use – the storks take advantage of this, and also of the firewood and straw that is lying around at the side of the houses. They return to the same nest each year. We were able to see them but as they were so far away it was difficult to get a good photo – they had chicks.
On the way to Noravank Monestery we stopped at a winery in a small village – a woman had a small stall on the main street selling wine in reused plastic bottles! The ultimate in recycling! Some of the group tried the wine, and a couple even bought some!
Noravank Monastery: it is situated on the side of a twisted gorge with spectacular red cliffs lining both sides of the gorge, and is an architectural delight.
It was pouring with rain when we arrived, but we were able to eat our picnic lunch in the cafe restaurant, and by the time we had finished the sun was shining. We were lucky enough to get up to see the church before the crowds arrived.
The beautiful yellow colour of the stone of both churches, and the lovely hilltop setting, provided some wonderful photos.
Founded in 1105, both the main church and the smaller chapel contain the burial sites and tombstones of many local princes and noblemen, and their families.
Caravanserai: The road continued over the beautiful and very scenic alpine-like Selim Pass – a thoroughfare since the medieval ages when the Silk Road was operating. We stopped at a well-preserved 14th century caravanserai, a long low stone building built into the hill to protect it from earthquake damage. We were dropped off at the roadside so we could get some distance photos – but the weather was overcast and so the photos aren’t great.
It is the only caravanserei remaining on Armenian land – most of the rest have been destroyed by earthquakes. It is built on a high pass, and was a night stop for the Silk Road merchants. Being able to stay overnight there meant they and their animals were protected from bandits and wolves.
Khachkars at Noratus Village: Khachkars are the very special cross gravestones that Armenians have used for centuries. Google Khachkars for more information about them. The group at Noratus are special as it is the only large group left – there were two in Armenia but during one war with someone, the second group ended up close to the fighting line and they were destroyed. The Noratus cemetery also has groups of family stones – these date from 5th– 16th C – they can be dated as the carving on the stones changes as the centuries go by. Lara’s phenomenal knowledge showed up here as she told us the stories behind quite a few of the stones – other guides were working from notes.
One sad stone is called the wedding stone – during a wedding feast the mongols (or similar) raided the village and the newlyweds were killed so the village carved this story into the stone. And another stone told the story of two sisters who died at the same time, and what they did for a living (a weaver I think one was) was shown on the stone.
All the other cemeteries with khachkars are now in other countries’ hands – Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan – which of course, doesn’t make the Armenians happy.
There is always a opportuity to sell something!
Lake Sevan: supposed to be a highlight but it wasn’t, as the lake, which is usually turquoise blue, was a dull depressing grey. It is located 1900 m above sea level and is famous for its ever changing water colour and its fresh fish. It used to be popular resort for the soviet elite pre 1991. Yerevan-ites visit in the summer, but it was an ugly place with lots of unattractive houses, and not somewhere any of us would want to vacation at. Our hotel on the lake shore was used by Soviet Party Members, and although renovated since then, it still remained a soul-less place, just a rest stop for the night. Our final Armenian dinner in a local restaurant was included – lots of salads and fried trout which although tasted nice, had a lot of fine bones and was difficult to eat. I didn’t take any photos that were any good as it was so overcast and dull and the building was so awful.
Day 6 – last day in Armenia
We were up early and after the first (and only) set menu breakfast on the tour, we drove up through the mountains, past beautiful mountain scenery interspersed with ugly industrial complexes, such as a huge cement factory, and unattractive villages with Soviet-style concrete apartment blocks blighting the landscape, to the Armenia/Georgian border at Sadakhlo.
On the way, we visited Dilijan, where we walked through a museum street, which still has a few preserved houses in it dating back to the 18th century. It was cold and raining and the only good thing about stopping there was the toilet! Note the miserable group of travellers!
Monastery of Haghpat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site: Again, not really a highlight, as it was still raining, and the buildings are a depressing grey stone, made worse because of the weather. Even though they are set in a spectacular setting in the mountains, the monastery churches appeared cold and depressing, especially after the lovely yellow stone of previous churches.
However, according to the guidebook, they are actually “examples of the highest flowering of Armenian religious architecture. Founded in the 10th century, the monastery complex was an important centre of medieval learning.” I can’t imagine how the monks who lived there managed in the depths of winter. The holes in the floor in the photo below were, as far as I know, for storing wine or food – when we looked in, there were pottery jars.
On the way to the border we passed a sign for the Silk Road route.
Crossing the border in the afternoon, we farewelled Lara our Armenian tour leader, and our bus, and then had to walk between the two border control posts for quite a distance over a bridge in the rain, to arrive in Georgia. The Georgian border control was in a building (with toilets!)
Our Georgian tour leader, Nick, was waiting to meet us. Thankfully the new bus was as big as the other one as we had all got used to being able to spread our things out.
We drove over an hour to the capital, Tbilisi. And what surprise we all got – it is a vibrant European-style city – situated on a river, with some very modern buildings and some equally amazing 18th–19th C buildings that wouldn’t look out of place in Budapest or Riga or even parts of Moscow. And the amazing thing is, it has existed here for centuries unknown to all of us!
End of the Armenian section of the tour. Georgia continued in next posts.