Hollow roads and ancient temples – visiting Armenia
January 1, 1970
by Rūta Andriušytė
I was traveling around Georgia for a few weeks as I came up with the idea to take a short visit to its neighbour Armenia. This small Caucasus country has overcome many hardships throughout its history, including many wars and a genocide, which made masses of Armenians start a life outside their homeland – nowadays only less than a third of the world’s Armenian population lives in their home country. Not all the troubles tormenting Armenia are in the past – the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan has not been resolved yet, leaving Armenia with closed borders. It also faces some significant human rights problems and is still quite a poor country. Nevertheless, this land was gifted with an incredibly beautiful nature, not to mention it is considered to be one of the cradles of civilization.
The roadtrip from Tbilisi to Yerevan was really memorable itself as we managed to hitchhike a huge truck. Sitting so high made it easy to admire the passing views and it was the first time me and my friends rode in a truck’s cabin so we were really happy about the new experience. The driver wasn’t very talkative and one who has been to Armenia already can easily understand why – the roads in some places are insane. The narrow serpentines are full of pits and the weather was rainy so we rode through pools and swamps. Another memorable moment was riding through a completely dark and quite narrow tunnel under the mountain, the water was dripping from the ceiling and once again the road was hollow. We were almost praying not to crash into another vechile and were surprised how the truck didn’t hit the ceiling. Later on the trip, one French guy told me how he was riding through that same tunnel in his van and the car’s electricity system broke down. He rode in a complete darkness and I’m sure it’s an adventure he wouldn’t want to repeat. It is convenient Armenians are really good electricians, though, you can get your car fixed in no time.
So, after six or so eventful hours in the truck we stepped our feet on Yerevan’s soil. The first thing you’ll probably do after coming to Armenia – exchange the currency. There are plenty of small exchange offices around the capital city, most of them located in the shopping malls but be aware that exchange rates vary considerably in different offices. The Armenian currency is dram (subdivided into 100 luma) and the inflation rate is high so be prepared to pay a couple of thousand for your lunch.
Yerevan itself is a great example of Soviet architecture. It’s a nice but pretty monotonous city, the city center is worth attention, though. Do not miss climbing up the Cascade stairs and even further to the Victory park and the Statue of Mother Armenia, you’ll get great panoramic views. Visit to the Cafesjian Center for the Arts, which is another part of the Cascade complex, will also present you with some nice impressions. If you haven’t got much knowledge about Armenia’s history, a trip to the Armenian Genocide Museum would be a shocking and memorable experience. And keep a visit to the Republic square for the evening – it is not as spectacular in a daylight. Evening lighs create a magnificent atmosphere and the colorful dancing fountains add some sparkle to the experience.
Wandering the streets you will find many cosy restaurants and cute little cafes as well as well-known international restaurant chains. After climbing so many stairs at the Cascade you will surely feel the need to try some national food. Any Armenian would recommend you tried some grape leaf dolma, a kabob and Armenian lavash, which is great, by the way. And you must try some apricots while you are there– it is Armenia’s national fruit, after all, and you cannot find better ones anywhere else. Armenia is also a country which produces great brandy and I can assure you that the pride they take in it is fair (just don’t call it brandy in front of Armenians – they say it is cognac. Just let it be). A bottle of Ararat will be a great gift from Armenia to your friends or to yourself, as you can reminisce about the trip while sipping it.
Garni and Geghard
Even though we didn’t plan to stay in this country for a longer time, it would have been very wrong not to travel outside Yerevan and miss such amazing places as the Garni temple or Khor Virap. And using public transport in Armenia is an adventure itself as it hasn’t changed much from the Soviet times.
If you only have time for one trip, I’d recommend you chose the pagan Garni temple. It is an important cultural heritage site as it was built in the first century AD. The temple is a classical Hellenistic building which survived the universal destruction of pagan heritage and you can definitely feel a specific vibe visiting the place. That is even more astonishing keeping in mind that Armenia is the first country in the world, which became Christian. Armenian Apostolic Church was founded in the 1st century AD, and after two hundred years it became an official state religion.
Another great thing about this day trip is an opportunity to hike from Garni to the medieval Geghard monastery. You will be surrounded by outstanding nature sceneries and get plenty of material to fill your travel photo journal with. We weren’t lucky to do much hiking as a storm started by the time we were leaving Garni site and we were completely unprepared for it. I still regret missing the experience, though, so if you have a chance to hike, don’t be lazy.
If you decide to visit the Geghard monastery, bring an empty bottle as there is a sacred spring inside and you can drink some ice cold refreshing water. Taking into account that the summer heat in Armenia is pretty stiff (well, at least to me, as temperature doesn’t get much higher than 30° C in Lithuania), it tastes heavenly. The monastery itself is of course beautiful (it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site) but for me the surroundings are even more stunning – the monastery is surrounded by cliffs.
Khor Virap is a monastery all Armenians we met recommended to visit as it is quite beautiful and also has a religious significance. It is not that far from the mountain Ararat, which is perfectly visible from the area and is pretty impressive. Strong heat made it a little bit difficult for us to enjoy climbing up to the monastery but once we were there the atmosphere was wery calming and soothing. I’m not sure how it works, but the aura is pretty strong in that place.
First official head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Gregory the Illuminator, who converted Armenia from paganism to Christianity, was imprisoned here for 14 years. Tourists can visit the imprisonment chamber, which is a 6 meters deep and 4,4 meters wide pit. To get to the dungeon, one have to climb down a long ladder (well, people should be wearing comfortable shoes while traveling), which is very steep and quite narrow. I noticed that only men were going down to the pit, I guess not many women are used to climbing in such conditions. Anyway, visiting the chamber is one of the main reasons why people are coming to Khor Virap monastery.
Even though our trip to Armenia wasn’t long, it was full of new experiences and impressions. Every trip we take enriches us in many ways and this one wasn’t an exception. Maybe not all the adventures we had were positive but I wouldn’t change a thing and would definitely visit this small and amazing country again!