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Trip Report Armenia: A Wild Thyme

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Golden apricots dripping juice down my chin. Fields of wildflowers rich in bees and butterflies. Ancient monasteries at breathtaking locations. A holiday festival that involves everyone getting soaking wet. Dancing in the bus aisles. The most insanely perfect salad I've ever had. Lacy stone cross carvings, some even carved into the mountain walls. One of the most beautiful public squares I've ever seen, especially at night when its fountain dances in colors and music. A gorgeous inland sea, albeit fresh water. History soaked in every stone, from the very ancient stone observatory to the almost-just-yesterday conflict in the southeast.

I spent twelve days in Armenia, and it really wasn't long enough.

I'll start with some of the factual parts:

Dates: July 4th-16th, via Aeroflot from Dulles Airport (total 12 hours of flying time)

Locations: Yereven, staying at Villa Delenda http://villaayghedzor.com/lodging_delenda_en.asp Definitely recommended; beautiful building, great location, great breakfast, and the loveliest housekeeper ever.

Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh: Hotel Heghnar http://www.heghnarhotel.com/ Perfectly fine, not particularly memorable

Near Vanadzor, Lori region: Tezh-ler resort http://www.tezhler-resort.am/ Recommended, with a few caveats: It's great for relaxing, but you might prefer to have a car as it's tough to get anywhere, and my room was a bit damp. I'd love to see more info available to guests here, too. But it's a gorgeous setting and quite comfortable, with the higher altitude providing a good climate break

Tour service: Hyur Services, very professional and organized. Highly recommended. http://www.hyurservice.com/eng/ (Thanks, thursdaysd, for the recommendation!) I used a tour service here as it's definitely a bit simpler. I'll talk individual tours as I go on, but overall Hyur was excellent and reasonably priced.

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    jobin - you may think Armenia isn't in Europe, but Fodors does, that's how come Amy was able to TAG THIS THREAD.

    Amy - so nice to see someone else making it to Armenia. So glad you had a good trip. Maybe Georgia next time?

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    Also seems odd to have this in Asia as Turkey, Russia etc are in the Europe forum.

    Anyway, glad you had a good time! My sister-in-law is Armenian, so she, my brother-in-law and my niece have been there for the past few weeks visiting SiL's parents and friends and sending us great photos.

    A Tufenkian rug is always a nice way to commemorate a trip to Armenia ;-) More seriously, the company also has a foundation supporting Armenian-Syrian refugees from the war in Syria. http://www.tufenkianfoundation.org/

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    Armenia is considered Eastern Europe on Lonely Planet, the Middle East on Virtual Tourist, and Asia on Trip Advisor...and Fodor's, obviously, as this is the (only) forum in which it's listed. I found that interesting as I was doing my preliminary research, and indeed it is a "crossroads" of history and culture. To me, it had more of a south/eastern European "feel", but it's definitely its own strong country, whatever you choose to call it.

    Day 1 Settling in to Yerevan
    At Zvartnots Airport in Yerevan I was met by the Hyur driver who also collected my payment (in dollars: $1,000 covered airport transfers, 12 nights lodging with breakfast and four dinners, one public and one private day tour, and the three day tour of Nagorno Karabakh...which included all meals. Not bad.)
    Villa Delenda is a lovely old home facing a park, and the basement reception area also houses a ceramics shop that is part of a foundation. My upstairs room was spacious and air-conditioned, helpful in the 97F or so heat. Fortunately it's a dry heat, as that helped immensely in drying my clothes for two nights: my luggage didn't arrive until Sunday night.
    For that reason, the first place I visited was a supermarket, just past the lovely Republic Square. I love the pink tuff stone color and the semi-circular architecture of the buildings there. It's pretty active! Dinner that night was some bread, cheese, and tomatoes from the supermarket. Oh, those tomatoes! I'm a huge fan of tomatoes anyway, but these were extraordinary, as they're not bred to have to travel 5,000 miles or be perfectly symmetrical. By the way, it was really easy to find my way around in Yerevan, as in I never got lost once, which means that it must be a pretty simple city to navigate: I can get lost in my hometown, and I've lived here 48 years.

    Day 2 A Slight Case of Monastery Fatigue
    I found my way to the Hyur headquarters the next morning for my group tour of the northern monasteries. It was a fairly large group, maybe 30 or so, but our guide was efficient and informative, speaking in both English and Armenian. The first stop was Kecharis monastery in Tsaghkadzor, a ski resort town in winter. Most of the monasteries were similar in design, with a cupola top and relatively small dimensions. This one was noteworthy for the gorgeous bed of snapdragons outside.

    Driving on we came to a portion of Lake Sevan, which was gloriously blue under the summer sky--and, at 1900 meters, a bit chilly as well! Sevanavank monastery is on one of its peninsulas, and we stopped there. Dilijan, the next stop, is the "Switzerland of Armenia" but this was just a brief stop at a spring (wonderful spring water in Armenia, with lots of bubbler fountains) that has a statue grouping from the Soviet movie "Minimo", set in the town.

    Goshavank was the third monastery before lunch, as always beautifully situated. At each monastery are khachkars, lacy carved stone crosses, which are very beautiful and all a bit different. The artwork and altars inside are of interest, too; a curtain at the altar area means that the church section is in use. Armenia is considered the first officially Christian country, with an adoption date of 301, and the Armenian Apostolic Church is by far the strongest in the country.

    Lunch at a spot that was pretty much devoted to tour buses followed; it got the job done. Haghartsin monastery finished up the day: a bit of a hike uphill to the entrance, and then a larger grouping than most of the others, with a refectory and other buildings. There are also the remains of an ancient "lucky" tree, that unfortunately had the bad luck of someone recently sticking a lighted candle in it. Ouch.

    It was quite a lot to take in for one day!

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    Day 3 Echmiadzin, Zvartnots, Garni, and Geghard (private tour)

    Sunday was Vardavar, one of those pagan holidays that was adopted and adapted by the Christians. I'll quote my email home on this one:

    Vardavar, celebrated in Armenia yesterday (Sunday 7 July) is, in fact, a great way to celebrate in Armenia in July: it involves dumping water on everybody and anybody, and is celebrated with a great deal of enthusiasm. (Yay me, waterproof camera!) Today is a bit slow in the city, as everyone is recovering, I think. It's in the 90's and quite dry, so I'd take a Vardavar repeat, myself. But today I explore the city of Yerevan, which is really quite walkable. I haven't found myself lost yet, and that's a record. (I'm sure I'll be lost sometime today, though.)

    Armenia, as you may or may not know, is one incredibly resilient country, as well as being quite a cultural crossroads of Europe and Asia. Saturday's journeys reminded me of a mashup of India and Switzerland--which is quite a mashup. Gorgeous mountains, small stone structures, picturesque houses, wildflowers? Check, Switz. Random cattle in streets, raucous pop music, dust, gorgeous little monasteries (albeit Christian rather than Buddhist ones) perched in the middle of precipices? Check, India. (Not to mention the beautiful dark-eyed children; I think I'm a bit conspicuous here, as most visitors are from the Armenian diaspora, those 10 million or so of Armenian descent whose ancestors fled from the years of persecution and the Ottoman genocide of Armenians in the early 20th century.)

    Saturday was spent visiting (on a group tour) some of those monasteries, generally small stone structures with beautiful carved kachkars, the lacy relief-carved stone crosses that are a symbol of Armenia. Beautiful Lake Sevan, the only "sea" in this landlocked country, was very blue as the sky was so clear on that day. (Sunshine: it's what's up for vacations. I'm already a rather unattractive shade of crimson.) The churches are mostly still in use, as this first of all officially Christian countries is still very devout (Armenian Apostolic, almost exclusively.) Driving through the Caucasus mountains of course satisfied the geography geek, although some of the hairpin turns were a mite tricky, but the views and the trees were awesome. The flowers growing wild and in gardens are amazing, too, as are, in passing, the fruits and vegetables. In fact, that might deserve its own paragraph:

    Come to Armenia. Eat salad. (Oh, and the sun-warm apricot that was given out at Garni temple was an epiphany.) I had a salad for dinner last night
    Note: Pizza di Roma on Republic Square that was pure perfection: tomatoes, cucumbers, greens, a feta-like cheese, creamy cheese center, and lemon slices on top. That might not sound like much, but you have to understand that all of the ingredients were the very best of their kind I've tasted, the product of hot, dry summers and varieties that are grown to be eaten here, not shipped 5,000 miles away.

    Okay, enough on the produce, already, but really, I would be happy living on those tomatoes. On Sunday I had a private guide, 22 years old; her main language (after Armenian) was Spanish, but her English was impeccable--and I learned a lot about Armenia! (She was an indefatigable speaker.) We first went to the Echmidzian complex, the main church, and then on to Zvartnots, evocative ruins of an early 36-sided church. From there, Garni: a small temple of Greco/Roman architecture backed by green mountains and a gorge, a most beautiful little structure against its background...and in front of it, Vardavar in all its splashy glory! There was a ceremony there, blessing the bread, apricots, roses, wine, and, of course, water, plus some folk dancing and a lot of water throwing. It was a great place to be on that day!

    The final stop was Geghard, a church built into a mountain, with some marvelous acoustics and kachkars carved into the cave walls. Speaking of acoustics, I've been privileged to hear a fair amount of singing already, as the small be-cupola'd churches lend themselves to that.

    Oh, and my luggage arrived. Last night. Good thing it's a dry climate here: wash-n-wear was absolutely the order of the day. :)

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    "I think I'm a bit conspicuous here, as most visitors are from the Armenian diaspora"

    I found the same thing. I was the only person on my tour to Nagorno-Karabakh who was not from the diaspora.

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    It was pretty funny on Vardavar, thursdaysd: I was kinda looked at sideways but not splashed at Garni, although my guide got soaked. But later that night at Republic Square there were a few who didn't mind soaking Ms. Green-eyes!

    Speaking of the Diaspora: I have never encountered such fierce devotion to a motherland (except perhaps Israel) as I saw here. One young man, at the age of 13, had been there eleven times already, and goes to an Armenian school. A gentleman born in Lebanon (of Armenian ancestry) knew every detail of how many kms of land are "missing" from the current Armenian republic. There was folk dancing in the bus aisles on each public trip and singing in the churches. I really felt privileged, in a way, to be a part of it, but also on occasion like I was a bit in the way.

    Back to the trip!
    Day 4
    Monday was the "holiday after the holiday", so even more was closed than usual on a Monday. I was sorry to miss a few of the museums, but Monday was the only full free day that I had in Yerevan and of course museums are closed on Monday. I particularly wanted to see the State History Museum with the world's oldest shoe, the Matendaran with its collection of manuscripts, and the Genocide Museum. I did visit the Memorial (Tsitsernakaberd), stark and somber and surrounded by parkland. There is a split stele and twelve inward leaning boulders protecting an eternal flame; they represent the twelve provinces now a part of Turkey. I took a taxi there, but walked most of the rest of the day. Bit warmish, I have to say; about 37C (98F).

    Another point that I visited was the Cascade, a huge set of steps that has a public sculpture garden at its base and art along the various levels. It affords a good view, and there are fortunately benches along the way for recovering.

    There are a number of monuments and statues around the city, and I saw quite a few in my walking. It really is a very walkable city, and even crossing the streets isn't too bad. Most of the cars will actually stop when you step into the pedestrian crossing.

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    This is an uttterly fascinating report, from a place a know so very little about. Thanks for the excellent photos too.

    What made you want to go to Armenia, and did you go on your own?

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    Thanks for the kind words, taconictraveler. I've been asked a lot about "why Armenia" (including the customs guy in Washington) and I guess really there are a number of reasons: the history (and that's one of the subjects that I teach, so probably one of my primary reasons for going anywhere); it felt like time to go to Europe (see, I think of it as Europe, too) again, but it needed to be economical; because I hadn't been there but it combined nicely with Russia, where I had been and had been wanting to return. (I only took four days there, to 20th July, in Moscow, but it was marvelous.) I did travel on my own, although the Nagorno-Karabakh portion was with 30 other people! I was ready for some serious alone time after that, not that I didn't meet some lovely people. :)

    Days 5-7 Nagorno-Karabakh

    Nagorno-Karabakh, or Artsakh as it's also known, is an interesting exercise in "what's in a name". It considers itself an independent country, it's officially part of Azerbaijan, and you can only access it via Armenia. The Azeri claim is based on a decision by the USSR, and there was a war in the early 90's.

    It's beautiful in its scenery; geographically, it's different from Western Armenia. Riding on a full bus is probably not the most comfortable way to take the many hair-pin turns, but the views are worth it. This was a three day, two night tour from Hyur, and in addition to our bus of 31 there was a mini-bus that followed in our footsteps (tire treads?) from Hyur as well, so it's evidently pretty popular. It was definitely chock-full, leaving at 9AM the first day and not getting back until about 10PM the final night. (Fortunately, the lovely housekeeper at Villa Delenda was waiting for me, as reception there closes at 8PM.)

    Again I'll quote my email here, as it has an immediacy that two weeks later can't:
    This really is an amazingly resilient country, and the memorial and my three days' journey to Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) emphasized that. The genocide, of course, was the Ottoman Turks, mostly from 1915-23. The diaspora of the Armenians (they have settlements in 120 countries) was, of course, greatly added to by these conditions, and then the Soviet Union took over in 1921 to 1991. They do have some good to say of the Soviets, though, but none at all of the Turks or Azeris, obviously. (The Azeris were the ones whom the ethnic Armenians fought in 1992-4 for control of Nagorno-Karabakh; technically it still belongs to Azerbaijan due to a Stalin edict, but it's declared itself a republic and you can only get there from Armenia.) (Confused yet? Try hearing all this whilst going hurtling through hairpin turns on multiple mountains.)

    Anyway, I joined a tour group of mostly Armenian diaspora (lots of California) folks and a few assorted random others (Swedes, Dane,German) for three days in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. We did an obligatory monastery stop but the biggest thrill in riding through Southern Armenia was the fields and fields of colorful wildflowers. I was enthralled, of course. The landscape changed in N-K; it means "black gardens", and the huge mountains are so covered with forest that it does indeed look almost black. There are such incredible landscapes here, and a lot of variety for such a small country. We visited museums and churches and took a very new cable car to a very old and very interestingly placed (precipice) monastery, Tatev, and...went to the fruit market, where I got six amazing apricots for 100 dram. Oh, yeah, that's about a quarter.


    To add more detail, the first day had a stop at Khor Virap, where St. Grigory the Illuminator (you hear a LOT about him) was in a dungeon and where Mt. Ararat, the national symbol currently part of Turkey, is visible...on some days. Not this one, or just barely. Khor Virap is another monastery complex, as is Novarank, the other stop for this day. Most of the day consisted of riding, though.

    The next morning included a visit to Shoushi, including time in an art museum and the rather large church, St. Ghazanchetsots. We also visited a history museum, I believe in Stepanakert itself, where our impassioned guide gave us the history of the region and its many conflicts. Finally, there was Gandaszar monastery, the ruins of Askeran fortress, and the famous "Grandmother and Grandfather" statue where the woman has the characteristic veil across her mouth. Supposedly, Artsakh women historically communicated to their husbands only via the children. (Not that that doesn't still happen elsewhere on occasion...)

    We stayed in Hotel Heghnar, a nice but not particularly note-worthy place, and were able to walk into "town" for the evening promenade. There were quite a lot of people out and about, and some musical play in the park. I didn't stay long, as I was pretty fried by that point. (Age. It happens.)

    We left the next day with three stops to make on our way back: Tatev Monastery, with possibly the best location I've seen, way above a gorge and right on the edge; Kharahunj, an observatory that pre-dates (and is ascribed connection to) Stonehenge; and the Areni winery--not a huge success in my book, but I guess good for those who wanted to taste apricot wine. There's a cable car to Tatev, which costs an additional 4000AMD ($10), Hyur will drive you there if you don't want to take the cable car, but it's quite lengthy in comparison with the 13 minute cable car ride.

    Kharahunj is very atmospheric but seems deserted; the scientist who had been working there died some time ago, and evidently not much has happened since. Nobody has quite been able to put the whole thing together yet, but the huge stones, some with holes bored through them, and interesting configurations, set in wildflower fields, make for interesting walking and contemplation.

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    Days 8-11 Tezh-Ler Mountain Resort, Lori Region (near Vanadzar)

    I stayed the night in Yerevan, and, next morning, rode two hours or so to Tezh-ler. It was quite a bit cooler up there, and the solitude was nice after the group tour. Both breakfast and dinner are included; fine but not outstanding, but again, the price was minuscule (and it would have been difficult to get anywhere else for dinner.)

    There is a beautiful pool at Tezh-ler. I only went swimming once, but it was lovely to be there and watch a hawk circling overhead. The hotel has lots of relaxing spots, like hammocks strung under huge evergreen trees, but I did some walking as well. (So, okay, here I did get a trifle lost, but found my way back without too much trouble.) Most of the time I spent in just meandering and relaxing; I think I may even possibly have caught up on my sleep deficit. I was meant to be writing post cards, but--there weren't any! I had gotten the stamps in Republic Square's lovely post office with its stained glass window, but there weren't any postcards in Vanadzor.

    My first trip into Vanadzor was actually with the manager's brother, as it seemed difficult to do the taxi thing on that day. I visited the Russian church and the train station area along with the main shopping street and did some walking. Vanadzor is, I believe, the second largest city, but more than one person has told me that Yerevan gets all the funding, and I well believe it. The potholes were big enough to swallow a marshrutka.

    I visited again on Monday, 15th July--mostly for Internet check for my next day's trip to Moscow. Unfortunately the Internet died for a couple of hours, so I went off into the unknown without my emails. :) The taxi driver that day, called by the hotel, was able to take me through Lermontov(o) as well, the Russian Molokan village. Tezh-ler gets much of their produce from there, as it's organic. They were compared to the Amish--no TV, no mod cons, religious community--and it really did seem a bit of a journey back in time; the settlement has been there for about 300 years. It was also a bit of a shock to see blondes and redheads; I'd gotten used to being the only blonde around.

    There were mostly family groups at Tezh-ler, and they do have a playground for children. Most people came in their own vehicles, which is probably a good plan: it took my taxi an hour to get there to pick me up, and the (piggy/hands-on) driver on the way back way over-charged me. Still, it's a lovely place to stay. I probably would have spent one more night in Yerevan and one less here, had I known then what I do now, but altogether it was a nice relaxing choice for the interval between the tours and my time in Moscow.

    Tuesday, 16 July I was picked up by Hyur's driver and taken to the airport for my flight to Moscow...But Moscow is a tale for another time, another forum.

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    Not yet, Dayenu, but I was told that it's really a must-see!

    Thursdaysd, the Cascade does appear to be done, except that a bit at the top where it connects to the neighborhood is still being worked on, and it's a rather interesting space...Interesting, to me, in the sense that it's a bit random.

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