Views from Southern Armenia

We left Yerevan under bright blue skies heading south. Our first stop of the day was to the Khor Virap Monastery about 40 minutes outside Yerevan. As we drove, Mt. Ararat came into full view. And while I had some nice views of Mt. Ararat yesterday, it was nothing like today. The mighty mountain was out in full view today with only a few whisper clouds dotting the sky nearby.

Mt. Ararat ad Khor Virap Monastery

And as we approached the monastery, the views became even better with the mountain framing the monastery. We stopped for a few pictures before continuing on to the monastery a few minutes away. Now Khor Virap is important because St. Gregory (Gregory the Illuminator) was imprisoned here in a pit about 20 meters below ground for 13 years before his prayers allegedly cured the King of an illness wrought on him by God. The King subsequently released St. Gregory, converted to Christianity and he and St. Gregory led the proselytizing throughout Armenia resulting in Armenia being declared, in 301, the first Christian nation.

The site contained two churches. The first, known as the St. Gregory Church, was built around the pit in 642 A.D. and has been subsequently rebuilt and renovated over the years. The second, larger church known as the St. Astvatsatsin Church was built in the 17th century.

Inside St. Gregory Church

Once we reached the site, we had to walk up a series of staircases and then follow a path even further up to reach the ancient walls of the monastery. We walked through the gate and first visited the tiny St. Gregory Church, including taking a look at the hole in the ground that leads to the pit. Now while we could have climbed down a ladder to take a closer look, my claustrophobia clearly told me no way so the pit was out.

St. Astvatsatsin Church
Inside St. Astvatsatsin Church

We wandered over to the larger church and had a look inside. This church had a beautiful dome and lovely Armenian icons on the walls, which were vastly different than the icons you see in Georgia or Russia as these are simple paintings without the massive use of gold paint.

After the visit, we got back in the car and headed to the Areni Winery for a little wine tasting. (Yep that seems right … churches followed by wine.). Anyway, the Areni Winery is one of the oldest wineries in Armenia. Because Armenia does not have an abundance of fertile soil like its neighbor Georgia, Armenia does not have the abundance of grapes or wineries like Georgia. However, Armenia does have the areni grape and is apparently pretty good at growing this grape.

Inside Areni Winery

We reached the winery after passing through some mountainous regions and an area known for raising fish. In fact, when I opened the window to let in some fresh air I could actually smell fish. Anyway, about an hour after we left the monastery we were pulling into the parking lot. Now I was not expecting much, but as usual, my expectations were greatly exceeded.

The wines

The wine tasting consisted of eight wines, but I opted out of three because they were semi-sweet. Not my cup of tea. The wines I did taste dated from 2017 (did not like), 2014 (fantastic), 2002 (a little too oaky), 2001 (fabulous), 1998 (should have been drunk about 5 years earlier, far too sweet) and 1996 (same as 1998). I ended up buying a bottle of the 2014 for the equivalent of $2.50 (I can assure you this did not taste like Two Buck Chuck) and figured I would drink it during my last two nights in Yerevan.

After the winery, we drove about ten minutes down the road to the Noravank Monastery, which was my favourite site of the day. The monastery was founded in 1105 and was located in a beautiful gorge with massive red-brick cliffs surrounding the monastery. The monastery consisted of the 13th century St. John the Baptist Church, which was next to the ruins of the original church, as well as an adjacent chapel built in honour of St. Gregor. In addition, there was a main church from the 14th-century, the Surb Astvatsatsin Church, which had a narrow stone staircase on either side of the entry that provides access to the second floor of the church.

Backside of Surb Astvatsatsin Church

Once we reached the site following a narrow winding road to the parking lot, Diane and I opted to visit the St. John the Baptist Church first. The façade of the Church included a number of khachkars (Armenian crosses) as well as the face of God on the entry to the Church. Once inside, Diane pointed out to me unusual markings in the entry hall that appeared to be the face of Christ and the face of the Devil.

St. John the Baptist Church
Inside Surb Astvatsatsin Church
On the second floor of Surb Astvatsatsin Church
Second floor of Surb Astvatsatsin Church

We passed through the entry hall into the main chapel and encountered the pastor, in a traditional Armenian robe, blessing the faithful. As usual, the room was filled with smoke from the canister burning incense. We stayed for a bit to hear what the pastor had to say before taking our leave.

We then walked back to the Surb Astvatsatsin Church, where Diane took a seat while I climbed the narrow (and I really mean narrow) stairs to the top and took a look inside the upstairs chapel. There was no one inside and quite frankly it was beautiful with a massive pillared dome. In addition, the views from the top were spectacular with the red cliffs framing the St. John the Baptist Church across the courtyard.

After I managed to climb back down the narrow little stairs, Diane and I went back to the car for the short drive to our lunch spot, which turned out to be a lovely little outdoor portal reserved for us on a man-made lake. There were fish in the lake and ducks floating by. Lunch was, as usual, massive with the standard 3 salads, bread, cheese, barbecued chicken and a dish made of beef soaked in butter and served on a bed of noodles. While the beef dish was OK, it was certainly not my favourite dish to date in Armenia.

Our lunch spot

Once lunch was over, we continued south to what was planned to be the last stop of the day, Karahunj, which is Armenia’s version of Stonehenge. The site dates to almost 8,000 B.C. making the site approximately 3,500 years older than Stonehenge. The site consists of two hundred and twenty upright basalt stones with some punctured with holes that are aligned with stars.

Yep … more sheep

The drive took us up and over a mountain pass, through rocky hillsides, past villages and along raggedy looking farms. And of course, what trip through farm land would be complete without sheep being herded down the middle of the road, cows wandering across the road in front of cars, donkeys mingling with cows and wild horses wandering back and forth across the road preventing us from driving by.

Anyway, after about 2 hours we arrived at the entrance to Karahunj and walked about ten minutes over gravel road and up a hill to reach the site. Now the weather had changed drastically from the lovely summer like temperatures and blue skies I had experienced since I arrived in Armenia. There was some dark clouds on the horizon and the wind had picked up considerably. It was not cold, but certainly was not warm.

The observatory at Karahundj
The observatory at Karahundj

Once we reached the site, we wandered past the line of stones to the circular temple made of stones with an entry and two rooms. In addition to the temple, we saw the stones punctured with holes, which many believe was designed as a primitive observatory. As we wandered around, I wanted to know (i) how did they move the rocks here (the rocks are not native to the area); and (ii) what the heck was this all about? Unfortunately, no one yet has answers.

Once we finished the walk around the site, we walked rather quickly back to the car. By now the temperature had dropped a bit and it was actually cold. Once in the warm car, we began the drive to Goris where we would spend the night. As we drove, the fog set in and Nour and Diane began to worry that it was going to rain. Now I really did not care, but they were concerned that if it rained or was foggy, it would prevent me from taking the tram to see the Tatev Monastery tomorrow. Diane called to find out the present weather conditions at the monastery and learned that while it was cloudy and cold, it was not foggy or rainy so we made the executive decision to detour to the Wings of Tatev where we would take the world’s longest non-stop double tram car at approximately 3.5 miles long to the Tatev Monastery. The tram was completed in 2010 and connects the village of Halidzor with the Tatev Monastery.

The tram
A windy road
The deserted monastery below
The waterfall

We reached the tram by 3:45 and by now it was 8 celsius. Fortunately, I had made down jacket liner and heavy jacket, but Diane only put on couple sweaters. I was really hoping she brought some warmer clothing, but thought I better not say anything.

Anyway, we were able to join the 4:15 tram across the valley and gorge to the monastery. The views from the front of the tram (where we managed to stand) were absolutely magnificent. We passed passed a long abandoned town made of stone, an ancient abandoned monastery, long windy roads, a waterfall on the hillside and some small villages. The tram was so smooth at times it did not feel like we were moving, but watching the scenery below did not leave any doubt. It was quite the ride.

Once on the other side, Diane and I walked the short block to the Tatev Monastery. The monastery is in the process of being restored, however, the site remains are superb. The monastery dates to the 9th century and consists of a number of buildings including three churches (St. Mary, Sts. Paul and Peter and St. Gregory the Illuminator), a lookout tower, a bishop’s quarters, bread making facilities, a kitchen, a dining hall, and a library. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the monastery hosted a university providing important study of philosophy, science and art. The monastery also had a sophisticated water system that allowed the monks to store water in large underground ceramic pots with pipes running from the pots to various buildings.

St. Mary’s Church
St. Gregory the Illuminator Church
Sts. Peter and Paul Church
Inside Sts. Peter and Paul Church

We began our tour with a climb up some stairs to the St. Mary’s Church, which was in the process of being renovated. The church was tiny, but lovely and the views were wonderful. We then walked to the side of the Sts. Peter and Paul Church and took a look at the exterior of the very small St. Gregory the Iluminator Church before moving on to the “out” buildings consisting of the ruins of the kitchen and dining hall, two bread making areas and the view point.

Our last stop was the Sts. Peter and Paul Church. When we walked inside the very large church, there were a number of children inside dressed in white. We quickly found out they were about to be baptized and the pastor, once again dressed in traditional Armenian religious robes (with a strange pointy hood), was preparing for the ceremony. We watched for a bit before heading back out the exit to the tram. We arrived in time to catch the 5:15 p.m. tram back to Halidzor.

Once back at Hlidzor, we walked back to the car for the short drive to Goris. I was staying at the Aragak B&B and the reception I received from the owner Marrietta was fit for a Queen. I was hugged and then hugged some more, offered tea and cake, shown my room and then served a magnificent dinner of bread, home grown tomatoes and cucumbers, stuffed pepper, tomatoes and eggplant, homemade cheese, homemade bread, vegetable soup, homemade juice, homemade wine and homemade vodka. Seriously. It was one amazing meal. I could hardly wait for breakfast tomorrow!

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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