During my three-month trip through Eastern Europe, I had never thought I'd end up in the Armenian capital Yerevan. I never even thought I'd get the opportunity to get there at all! It's quite far for a backpacking trip in Europe - a real corner of the geographical continent. It's not too easy to get there either - there are flights but these were at the point, in 2013, quite expensive for me. So, I took a ferry from Ukraine to Georgia and then traveled overland through the Caucasus region. It was fantastic - the people I met above all. They were the most hospitable I ever met. They showed me their countries and welcomed me in their homes. I was absolutely impressed and left the region with tears in my eyes. The Caucasus region is one where you could travel forever and you'd be able to write a volume of books about your encounters. Armenia, of course, requires its own chapter in my three-month journey.
I arrived by train from Tbilisi, Georgia. Yerevan was sunny and quiet and it was time for a good coffee, called a 'soorj'. Strong and aromatic, as mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook. Excellent guidebook, by the way. They make 'soorj' coffee in the most surprising of places. I actually had it at a car repair shop, where I saw people drinking a few cups. I asked where I could get a good cuppa and without any hesitation, I got one from the repair man. There I was, in Yerevan, drinking coffee with the repair men and the guys waiting for their car repairs to be checked. The men were all curious what brought me to Yerevan. There was a language barrier but I have rarely seen people more surprised and happy than when I said thank you: "Shnorhakalootyoon". I had studied some words and sentences on the ferry from Ukraine to Georgia and it proved to be very helpful.
Yerevan is a pleasant city, packed with early Soviet, Belle Epoque and Beaux Arts architecture. Architect Alexander Tamanyan's plan was to build a perfect city. When you look at a map, you can see that the city was truly built to be easy to get around. Plenty of green spaces, wide pavements, things that will always matter in urban planning. There are endless options for entertainment, go have some coffees and good meals. Stroll around the Victory Park next to the Mother Armenia statue. It wouldn't make sense for me to list all good restaurants and sights, you will find places no matter what. Follow your senses in the Caucasus countries! The Wikitravel article of Yerevan is absolutely fantastic and you should check it to see where to go.
Where to stay
Tired from the long train haul from Tbilisi, I took the first hotel I saw, the SD Hotel. It was just perfect for my needs. Fair prices, good breakfast and I could just extend my stay as I wished. It was October, after all. Also, as the hotel is right near the train station, there's good connections to other parts of the country. There's a metro station as well so you get to the center quickly. That being said, Yerevan is full of well-priced hotels in nice locations so it doesn't matter much where you are - it should be fine any way. I found all hotels in the Caucasus region to be of a good quality and comfort. I regularly chose for guesthouses as well, for the more 'personal' touch and obviously the lovely homemade meals. Guesthouses are all over the region, and there are certainly many more than when I visited in 2013.
Day trip to Garni and Geghard monastery
The capital Yerevan certainly has a lot to offer. It feels, obviously, very different than your average city. It's a crossroads of cultures and there's a history of many thousands of years old - besides the people are truly welcoming to visitors, which you will find all over the Caucasus region. If you want to get out of Yerevan, even for a day, you have some good opportunities. One trip I made was to the pagan Garni temple and the Geghard monastery. I was deeply impressed by both of these sites. I met a girl and her mother and another girl whom was with them. They were extraordinarily friendly. The two girls spoke English and told me about Armenia and what other places I should visit. They were also going to the Geghard monastery and said I could come with them. But, first we had to have a lunch at Restaurant Geghard nearby. I doubt they would have ordered this much if I weren't there - the table was full of food in a matter of minutes. It was overwhelming and way too much for the four of us. It was a sign of hospitality - the lady kept ordering drinks and made sure we left fulfilled. I asked the girl if I could pay my part but that suggestion was met with outrage, which I experienced several times in the Caucasus region. The people were so nice that I started feeling guilty - but I had studied the habits of the people and I just had to accept it. They truly saw it as an honor to receive a guest. The conversation was delightful. We then walked to Geghard monastery - just a few kilometres farther.
Right before the monastery, traditional bread ('gata') was sold by a few lovely ladies. The breads were decorated and looked very good. As if we hadn't had enough, the mother bought a bread and took off a large piece for me. We walked around the monastery - truly stunning and you feel the ancient atmosphere. Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as the national religion, in 301 AD. Monasteries are all over the country. Eventually, we missed the last bus and had to take a taxi. These are, in general, not too expensive for western standards. Even though I insisted to pay, the mother would have nothing of it. It can be taken as a slight offence if a guest offers to pay anything so I offered gently but learned that it's better not to at all, even though it goes completely against my nature. The lovely lady was brought home and we continued by taxi to the center. We had one more drink, discussing similarities in our life but also some radical differences, such as in going out and even marriage. The girls left home after some drinks and I was left full of impressions.
Vagharshapat (formerly Echmiadzin) is another day trip I made - a city 18 kilometres west of Yerevan. There's the the beautiful Etchmiadzin Cathedral, considered the oldest cathedral in the world, and, on the way from Yerevan, the remains of Zvartnots Cathedral.
Khor Virap monastery and the surroundings of Yeghegnadzor
This place is on the border with Turkey, which is visible by the tall fence that separates the countries. I could see the mountain Ararat from the monastery. An impressive peak of over five thousand metres. The monastery can also be reached by bus. I had no trouble getting around Armenia by public transport, even though I couldn't read anything. It was all because of the people - they directed me to the right places if I only just mentioned where I wanted to go. It actually made Armenia one of the easier countries to get around - bus transport is frequent and without, as far as I was aware, any timetable. Then there are the (shared) taxis that you can take for long distances and more comfort. I had no trouble at all - it was custom to discuss a price beforehand and haggle a bit. Then I had some nice trips with the drivers and treated them some Armenian coffee along the road. And so, after Khor Virap monastery, I continued southeast. I chose Yeghegnadzor for a base. It's in the Vayots Dzor province, not a part of the world you get to on your average trip.
I decided to take it slowly as I had about a month left for my trip. I read up on the region and it's quite historical. Besides, its location allows you to go west, north and east. Right south is Azerbaijan, the exclave Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. I found Gohar's Guesthouse and it was delightful. Friendly hosts, homemade meals, good comfort and several other nice travelers on their ways to different places. So, people do venture out into this region. It's also on the way to Iran, where many people were heading to. I decided to take my time for the region and I'm glad I did.
I visited the wine town Areni and the Surp Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) Church above town. I also hitchhiked to Smbataberd monastery and another day to the Herher reservoir. All of them very pretty places. Slow travel is truly rewarding. I wouldn't have wanted to miss out on these places and the people I met along the way. I hitchhiked back to Yeghegnadzor from the Herher reservoir. A large, black Volga stopped and the man, smoking a cigar and having large, golden rings on his hands, said "Hop in!" - in Armenian. I think. Either way, I was offered a cigar and kindly refused. The man thought it to be an occasion special enough to take his Celine Dion CD and play his favourite songs while singing along. With Celine blaring through the open windows we drove towards the sunset. I would have stayed in the comfortable car forever and even though this driver and I had no common language, I will never forget the moment.
After a week or so, I decided to pack my bag and take a taxi to Sevan, on the Sevan Lake. It's the largest body of water in the Caucasus region, situated at 1900 metres high. It has a large economic value for the country, about 90% of fish consumed in the country were caught in Lake Sevan. Sevanavank monastery is on the way coming from Yeghegnadzor, right on the shore. It was built in 874. The town Sevan itself, on the western side of the lake, has a well developed tourist infrastructure as well as transport connections to the whole country.
Hitchhiking from Sevan to Dilijan
I skipped Sevan and hitchhiked to Dilijan. It's northwest at about 35 kilometres. It's actually custom to pay a little for your hitchhike, just as a compensation for the fuel. When I used to ask how much I owed the driver, they'd normally reply "nothing at all" or "how much you think it's worth". This is both said politely, and when I'd offer a second time, the money was normally accepted. So, there seemed to be a difference between being invited as a guest, when nothing must be paid at all, and catching a ride. Either way, I had perfectly fine experiences hitchhiking in Armenia, all over Eastern Europe for that matter.
Dilijan is a spa town and often called the Switzerland of Armenia. As if the country weren't pretty enough just being Armenia. There is some truth in it however, because it is rather green compared to some of the drier areas in the country. There are surprisingly many good hotels and guesthouses in town. I stayed in the guesthouse Dili Villa. It met my needs as a single traveler just fine. I was invited to spend time with the family. They were great and so were the homemade meals! Djilan is a historical town, with many items found that date back to the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages. During the centuries, the town grew and many tourists visited for the clean mountain air and curative mineral waters. Nowadays, many Armenian and foreign artists stay in Dilijan. Activities in the area include hiking and mountain biking. The forests around Dilijan are about 34.000 square kilometres and include over 40 types of trees. Many animals, including brown bear, wolf, marten, otter, lynx, sylvan cat, Persian squirrel, sylvan dormouse, hedgehog, chamois, European red deer, wild hog, pheasant, quail, partridge, Caspian turkey, culver, bald eagle, lammergeyer, pygmy eagles, golden eagle and hawk. Also, there are about 800 species of beetles.
Interesting to visit in town are the Dilijan museum and the Hermitage Museum, there are many items found during excavations. There are several good bus connections to cities such as Yerevan and Vanadzor, where I went next. You have lots to do right around Dilijan. This Wikitravel article is the best place to read more.
Vanadzor, Debed River Canyon, Haghpat & Sanahin monasteries
My next stop was Vanadzor, easy to reach by bus from Dilijan. Vanadzor has train connections to Gyumri, even farther west. Vanadzor is Armenia's third city with about 75.000 people. It's the capital of the Lori Marz region. I found the city not to be too impressive but it had a nice atmosphere. There's a lot of Soviet architecture, with the train station as one of the best examples. As I like this architecture, I found Vanadzor to be interesting. There's also plenty of nice coffee shops but only a few guesthouses and hotels. I stayed at B&B Maghay, with a lovely lady whose name I forgot. Her husband's name is Mashot and he was continuously studying English and trying his best to speak to me. He gave me a tour of the Debed River Canyon north of town, which included the World Heritage monasteries Haghpat and Sanahin - and Ashot sharing many stories about the Caucasus. The monasteries were intriguing. Haghpat meaning 'huge wall', this monastery has fortified walls. It was built starting from 966. Then Sanahin, just as beautiful with its dark rooms and candlelit chapels. The gloomy weather and quiet surroundings made it a visit I will never forget. The first structure dates back to about 934. I spent several nights with the family in Vanadzor, meeting their daugher, whom lived in Moscow, as well. Many Armenians live abroad, Armenia is known for its large diaspora. All families have fascinating stories about their country, and many people will tell about their adventures abroad as well. Even though it's not always fun to be far from family, they said, the bonds remain extremely tight.
My last stop in Armenia would be Gyumri, the country's second city. It has good transport connections, by railway and bus. There's connections to Yerevan as well as to Tbilisi in Georgia. The 1988 Spitak earthquake, which killed between 25.000 and 50.000 people, brought bad damage to Gyumri. Renovations are ongoing and there are some interesting places to see. Such as the Holy Saviour's Church right in the center. It survived the 1926 earthquake but was devastated in 1988. It's reconstructed in its original style now. Interestingly, in 1850, there were two churches being built. An Armenian Catholic church and a Greek Orthodox church. Feeling insulted, the Armenian Apostolic Church members then had the larger and more imposing church built right in inbetween them. If you're into architecture, make sure to visit the Kumayri district right next to the center. It's one of the world's only places that have old, urban Armenian architecture. You can't see it in many other places. I found it fascinating, these buildings survived several earthquakes and they truly carry their marks of history. Actually, the architecture is 1800's Russian, from when the area was a remote corner of the Russian czar empire. Yet, the buildings have many Armenian architectural details. I spent the night in the Araks Hotel, which is right in this old part of town. It's a bit hard to see all the sights in town, as several are outside the center. The Black Fortress and several churches, which you shouldn't miss, can be reached by taxi. By marshrutka, a small, local minibus, it might be a bit harder unless you take the time to figure it out. It will surely be an adventure. The Black Fortress (Sev Berd) is at 8 kilometres from the border with Turkey. The fortress is abandoned. It was built in 1828 to protect Russia from the Ottomans. There is still an active Russian base next to the fortress. One church that's interesting to visit is the Yot Verq (Seven Wounds) Church. It was named after the Virgin Mary’s Seven sorrows. Read more about the churches and the city in general on Visit Gyumri.
And so, my time had come to leave back to Georgia. I left Gyumri by train in the early morning. Well, the adventure didn't stop. Anyway, I will never forget Armenia and its lovely, warm-hearted people. I'll be back someday!