A Travellerspoint blog

Armenia

Day thirty-three - last day in Yerevan

Saturday 28 September 2019

rain 22 °C

Shopping mission

My last full day in Armenia was going to be focused on shopping. I’d seen a craft fair advertised by the Cascades so headed there after breakfast. The stalls had lovely handmade goods made by the variety of different craftspeople. I priced things up so that I could withdraw enough cash, I didn’t want lots of drams on my hands just as I was about to leave.

The Fem library

Close to the Cascades is the Fem library where my niece volunteered. Having met two women on my travels who had strong connections with it, I really wanted to visit and say hello. To ensure it remains a safe space, the place is not signposted but I managed to find it and was shown around by one of the women who uses the space. As well as the library of feminist fiction and non-fiction, there is a meeting space, kitchen and chill out area where they’d just been running a yoga class. A very calm and safe space.

Downpours

It was threatening rain so I walked back to the hotel, and had a rest whilst sheltering from what became an incredibly heavy downpour. When it stopped, I had a late lunch at Eat:Fit. Totally delicious roasted quinoa salad which would not go amiss at a Bristol hipster cafe. Always good to have a respite from starchy carbs. I wandered back to the craft fair prepared to make my purchases and the whole thing had been disbanded. The gazebos probably couldn’t cope with such heavy rain.

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Vernissage

Vernissage, the street market close to Republic Square, has more stalls at the weekend. In amongst the usual touristy stuff there is some lovely handcrafted crafts and artwork. For a change I took a different route walking east past the Yerevan puppet theatre until the end of Sayat Nova, then through the circular park until I reached the market. As I got there people were starting to pack things away. Not sure where the day had gone but I had managed to achieve very little. My plans to do shopping were unravelling but I didn’t want to panic buy so decided to buy gifts elsewhere on my travels.

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Getting ready to leave

Back at the hotel, I packed up my bag before heading out to Byblos, a Lebanese restaurant around the corner from the hotel. Had a delicious eggplant in tahini cold dish, as recommended by the waiter, with tabouleh salad and mint tea. A very nice last meal.

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As I had to be up early at 2.30am, I had an early night in the hope that I could a few hours sleep before my very early morning flight to Istanbul.

Posted by Cath_Greig 05:42 Archived in Armenia Tagged markets cascades yerevan armenia Comments (0)

Day thirty-two - last day on the road....for now

Friday 27 September 2019

sunny 29 °C

The road to Yerevan

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The distance to Yerevan is about 144 km and dependent on traffic, should take about two hours. We had three short stops en route. I was definitely beginning to have tour overload as I was tempted to scotch the plan and head straight back to Yerevan. There are a lot of roadworks as the M1 is being improved. Eventually it will be a dual carriageway linking the Black Sea area of Georgia to Iran. It has been funded by a Chinese company. Roads in general have improved but I can’t help thinking it’s so that the big tour buses can access previously inaccessible sites. Karen is a careful driver but even then, the type of driving needed to cope with the road conditions, can be particularly hair raising. Where tarmac is missing, cars swerve to avoid them so that from afar it looks like some mad bumper car rally.

Amberd Fortress

The first stop was Amberd Fortress. I’d been 9 years previously when we were the only tourists with a rough pathway to the fortress. The only way to get to the top was via a steep scree slope which I didn’t do. Now there is a pathway with information signs and steps - albeit quite rough and steep - up to the fortress entrance. It’s an impressive place built atop a ridge made by the confluence of two rivers. On one side walls had weren’t needed because the steep gorge made it unassailable. As we made our way back down the twisty road, We passed a Soviet era observatory which is still in use - Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory. There is a guesthouse on site and guided tours can be arranged.

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The last two monasteries of the tour

Next stop was Saghmosavank, most notable personally as it was the first monastery I had ever visited in Armenia and where my sister and I were blessed by the priest. Poor man didn’t realise that his blessings were wasted on us. Like Amberd, last time there were no tourists about but that has changed. The building is perched on the edge of the Kasagh Gorge with stunning views towards Mount Aragat’s.

Last stop was the 7th century Karmavor Church - the name means reddish hue. It was a tiny little church and the only one on this tour that I hadn’t seen before. A party of school children, who looked about 5 years old, were around the church careering about and generally causing havoc.

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Busy, busy Yerevan

Finally we arrived in Yerevan, hitting busy traffic as we entered the city. This time I was staying at the Diamond House Hotel on Aram Street, two doors up from the first restaurant that I ate at - Fit-Eat and close to the other favourite - Amar on the other side of the Kond pedestrian tunnel. The room at the hotel was pretty good although I didn’t have a balcony. I enquired about laundry but it would have cost me a small fortune to get a few items cleaned.

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After settling in I thought that I’d eat lunch at Amar as it’s better to walk through the tunnel during the day. I had the zucchini rissoles that had been recommended on my last visit there, together with a salad. After this, I walked around the Kond area, a very old part of the city that feels very different from the rest of Yerevan. It’s like finding a village in the middle of a city. The streets are narrow and winding with access mostly via steps and just a few roads in.

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Dancing Fountains

Once I got back I had an Apricot ale at Dargett Craft beers which was about four doors down from my hotel - this really is the street to be on. I decided that tonight was the night for visiting the Dancing/Singing fountains in Republic Square so needed to have a little siesta after the beer.

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The fountains don’t start until 9pm so I had plenty of time to have a rest. The fountains are quite an institution. They are accompanied by a light show and music nightly and there are always lots of families down there and tons of hawkers selling stuff for kids - exactly the sort of things sold at festivals etc. The fountains are in the background when when Armenia relay their votes for the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s pretty cheesy but I think that something that brings everyone out and together is great.

After an hour I decided to walk back and happened on Shrivan’s as recommended by my niece so popped in for a bit of food. The menu was pretty meat orientated so had fries and soup - a bit of a strange combo but pretty good all the same. My culinary choices haven’t necessarily fitted with my ‘avoid starchy carb’ regime on this holiday but I am sure I can reverse the anticipated weight gain once I get home.

Posted by Cath_Greig 22:16 Archived in Armenia Tagged monastery yerevan armenia saghmosavank amberd amar dargett Comments (0)

Day thirty-one - Gyumri or bust

Thursday 26 September 2019

overcast 16 °C

Gyumri

Basically, the day’s goal was about travelling non-stop to Gyumri. Although the guesthouse was cold and I didn’t have the best sleep, Zina produced the best breakfast I’ve had since travelling. She not only provided the usual offerings, but made cheese pastries similar to borek and a really crispy type of omelette. Karen doesn’t seem to be a big eater and I gamely tucked in but couldn’t really do the feast justice. Then it was time to be on our way. Zina poured all the cob nuts that hadn’t been eaten into my bag, which was lovely but without a nutcracker, they aren’t going to be eaten for a while.

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The Earthquake of 1988

The road to Gyumri took us through Vanadzor, a town of abandoned Soviet era industrial buildings. Vanadzor is the gateway to the Debed Canyon which is probably the most interesting part of the whole country. I’ve been twice before but would definitely revisit in a future. We also skirted Spitak a town that was completely destroyed by the earthquake of 1988 and was then built slightly further away from the original site. 4,000 of its inhabitants were killed and 25,000 died in total although some claim that this is an under-estimation. There is also a theory that it was not a natural event but a result of military operations, exploding munitions underground. Before arriving into Gyumri there is a huge cemetery on the hillside where many of the dead are buried. For survivors, they had no shelter in the coldest part of the year. Apparently, even to this day some people are living in makeshift metal shelters, waiting to be rehoused.

Gyumri - known as Leninakan in Soviet time, was also badly hit. Evidence of the devastation could still be seen on my last visit, but slowly the town is being rebuilt or restored. The disaster was about the first time that the soviet government asked for international agencies to help.

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Villa Kars

I hoped my hotel would be better than the last guesthouse in terms of comfort. Last time I stayed at Berlin Art Hotel which is pretty classy. Villa Kara is in the Centre of town, about three minutes walk from the main square. It’s very quaint with rooms off a pretty courtyard. My room was comfortable, and pleasant, with a kettle and even better, a radiator in the bathroom. Although warm in the day, the evenings are cool.

I had a walk around to get my bearings. The main square has a cathedral being restored after it was destroyed by the earthquake, City Hall and a large theatre. Squares tend to be used as car parks which is a shame as a green space would be so much nicer, although there are lots of parks in and around the town. There is one park which I think was open when I last came. It’s a soviet era children’s park on Sayat-Nova Street, now abandoned. There was something quite eerie about it.

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Healthy eating at Herbs and Honey

I googled recommended cafes and found that I was next to one of them - Herbs and honey. Another healthy eating cafe with a good menu especially as a respite from carb overload. I had a healthy stir fry followed by herb tea that was purported to ‘freshen’ me up. I sent photos to the family thinking I was the first Greig to visit only to discover that my brother and niece had already been there earlier in the year.

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At a loose end

I was starting to wonder why my itinerary included Gyumri. It’s quite attractive with houses built of dark stone and it has a busy market but there wasn’t much else to do there so I visited the Aslamazyan sisters’ museum. They were painters who were heavily influenced by their exotic travels and who also produced ceramics. I thought the plates were beautiful especially the vibrant choice of colours. The museum offers ceramics master-classes and as I came in I saw someone working on a potter’s wheel.

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Yet another meal

For my evening meal I decided to go for Syrian again. The restaurant Nor Aleppo was just off Ankakhutyan Square at the top of Sayat-Nova Nova. Although cooler it’s nice to have an evening stroll with an extra layer for warmth. The food was really good but I have no idea how they thought I could eat four Syrian breads. Portions are not cut down to size for solo diners. I had cheese borek, fattoush and mutabal (more like the baba ganoush I make at home). I also had a Gyumri beer but no room for dessert.

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The walk back was fine and as I passed the rather spooky abandoned soviet era park in the dark it struck me that it would make a great setting for a horror movie. Generally, the streets are busy in the evening and so I’ve never felt unsafe walking late at night because there are so many people around, particularly families.

When I got back to the hotel I realised I had no idea when and where breakfast was served. I’ve found that in general, hotels and guest houses don’t furnish you with any basic, useful information when you arrive. We were leaving earlier than usual the next day at 9am so needed to make sure I breakfasted in time whilst avoiding the large groups who tend to breakfast early.

Posted by Cath_Greig 07:35 Archived in Armenia Tagged museum syrian earthquake gyumri herbs_and_honey nor_aleppo Comments (0)

Day thirty - shivering in Dilijian

Wednesday 25 September 2019

semi-overcast 16 °C

Perfect breakfast - shame about the coffee

It was a lovely start to the day despite the chill in the air. We were still quite high up at around 1,900 m above sea level. Much higher than Snowdon in Wales. In the Caucasus, you might think you are at a low altitude because you are surrounded by high mountains but it’s all a matter of relativity! I find it hard to judge. The guest house produced a good breakfast with the usual Armenian offerings: bread, cheese, fruit, sour cream, preserves. The only downside - and this is across the board at nearly everywhere I’ve stayed - hot water with instant coffee and tea bags. I’m surprised the french put up with it. Anyway, I asked whether I could have an Armenian coffee and then everyone wanted one! However, it wasn’t quite as strong as I like it so planned to have another one later in the day. As the UK has become more interested in different types of coffee and brewing, places like Armenia and Georgia seem to have adopted instant which is the devil’s work in my opinion.

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Lake Sevan

Our final destination of the day was Dilijian, stopping at Noraduz cemetery and Sevanank Monastery en route. The road skirts Lake Sevan so that water is in sight for most of the way. The changes in colour depends on the light and weather. Today it was almost a jade colour with azure ripples. The lake is one of the largest high altitude freshwater lakes in the world. It covers 940 sq km and is 80 km long. It used to be 20 m higher level than it is now and would be a lot smaller if Stalin had managed to get his way.

The lake has a healthy freshwater fish population. As you drive along, people stand with their arms outstretched indicating that they have massive fish for sale, whilst in reality they are just average dimensions.

Khachkars at Noraduz

Noraduz cemetery is full of hundreds of carved memorial stones. Some are upright carved with crosses whilst others are at a low level depicting more day to day life and objects. The latter are my favourite ones but as many are very old dating back to medieval times, they aren’t very distinct and quite hard to photograph. The old ladies who had tried to sell socks to us on previous visits seem to have retired now to sit gossiping among the stones whilst a younger generation of women ply their trade.

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Sevanank Monastery

Further along the lake is Sevanank Monastery which used to be completely surrounded by water when the lake was at it’s original higher level. Like everywhere else, the site is far more touristy. The growth in travel companies ferrying bus loads of people to the different places has changed the character of each place. It’s great that Armenia is attracting international tourists but I think there are downsides to it as it can be quite overwhelming.

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As I hadn’t had my recommended daily dose of coffee yet, I stopped at the Ashot Yerkat restaurant for coffee and baklava.

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From one terrain to another

This was the first time that I’d travelled to Dilijian from Sevan, each time I’ve done it the other way round. There’s a tunnel that acts almost like a portal. On the Sevan side there are no trees but on the other side of the tunnel it’s a lush, forested area. I think the difference is more dramatic going from Dilijian to Sevan. Once through the tunnel the road winds down many hair pin bends with people selling corn on the cob at nearly every bend. Apparently, unlike other foodstuffs sold at the roadside, corn isn’t grown locally.

Old Dilijian

We stopped so that I could get lunch in Old Dilijian. They have restored several of the old buildings which now house artists and small shops. There was a group of English people on a tour wandering about so I had a chat with them, having not heard anyone speak English for weeks. One of the guys was having a right old moan. The women I was chatting to told me that he was a total misery guts. I suppose there’s always going to be one on every tour. They were jealous that I was a solo traveller.

I went to the restaurant of the nearby Tufenkian Hotel and had a very simple lentil kofta which was a welcome change from carb overload. All the other tables were full of tour groups. One particular group was very loud - but it wasn’t the tourists, it was the guides. It’s almost as if they’ve forgotten that they aren’t the only people in the restaurant.

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A chilly night

Each time I’ve stayed before it’s been at Daravand guest house overseen by the larger than life, Rasmik. However, I was booked into another guesthouse at the complete opposite end of Dilijian and quite far from the centre. As there wasn’t really anywhere to go I was happy to have a night in. Although the host, Zina, was lovely, plying me with food and drink, it wasn’t a particularly comfortable place and it got very cold in the night. There was no heating and my room was ar ground level with doors opening onto the garden. It almost felt like camping. A far cry from Rasmik’s place which is both warm and comfortable.

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Posted by Cath_Greig 03:09 Archived in Armenia Tagged lakes breakfast sevan dilijian noraduz Comments (0)

Day twenty-nine - back into Armenia

Tuesday 24 September 2019

sunny 23 °C

Monastery overload

Our itinerary for the day included visits to two monasteries - Dadivank and Gandzasar but before first we stopped at the statues that have become the symbols of the region Papik Tatik - named ‘We are our mountains’. Reading the information it seems to be a celebration of elders and particularly centenarians of which there are a high proportion in Artsakh, apparently

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Gandzasar was our first stop - it’s near a really eccentric village called Vank. Apparently, Levon, who was born in the village, but is now based in Russia (and obviously very rich) has been a patron of the town and has managed to create a very bizarre place. He is obsessed by lions - I think that’s what Levon means - from the statues as you enter the town, the yellow and green colours of the school and sports ground to the roaring giant lion’s head, built into the rock. There are also very kitsch hotels - one is shaped like a boat - personally, I love it and if I ever come back, I want to stay there to appreciate the full experience.

The monastery is interesting but as I’d seen it before, I just had a quick walk around before going to the Matenadaran - the repository of manuscripts and books from the region. I had a guide to show me around. Some of the earliest manuscripts were the most beautiful and especially colourful. It really highlighted how the introduction of printing made everything much duller aesthetically but more practical, for obvious reasons.

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Next stop was Dadivank - this used to be a tricky place to get to as the road was unmetalled and best reached using a 4x4 but it’s been improved greatly like many of the other roads going to religious and historical sites. It’s yet another beautiful building in a beautiful setting but having been to all of them before, I was beginning to tire of monasteries! They were cooking Jengylov hats by the church so bought one for lunch. Apparently Karen has never eaten one, which amazes me. The french group were also at the site and were also having them for their lunch. Their guide couldn’t persuade Karen to try them either.

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Terrifying tunnel

From there we were meant to go to the hot springs. We went over a dodgy bridge that looked like it might collapse any minute and then an even more terrifying tunnel with no lights and no room to pass an oncoming car. The road was unmetalled and as there was a distance of about ten miles to go, which we would have to do at a snail’s pace, I decided that this could be better left for another visit and with a 4 x 4. The gorge we travelled through on our way to the border was pretty amazing though. Towering mountains of rock. So imposing it made me feel very small in comparison.

We then started to head back to Armenia via the check point which is on the road to Vardenis on the other side of the border. Going through the border was quick. All they needed was a document that Karen had to carry while we were in

On the road we encountered what I can only describe as Armenia’s dirty secret - huge piles of mining spoil. I have to say it was quite horrific as it just sits there like something from an alien landscape.

Soon after going through Vardenis we started to skirt Lake Sevan, the largest lake in the Caucasus and at 1900m above sea level, one of the largest high altitude, freshwater lakes in the world. When I’ve been before, we’ve approached it from Dilijan. This time, I was going to do it the other way round. I was starting to feel very tired. It’s amazing how travel - even when you are a passenger, is very tiring. Couldn’t wait to get to the guesthouse, Gites au moulin in Nerkin Getashen to have a snooze.

Eco guest house

When we arrived it took a while to get through the gate as no-one seemed to be around. The sons of the owners had been out but when they strolled back they let us in and showed us to our rooms. The guesthouse is simply but tastefully decorated with natural products as far as possible. I had a balcony overlooking their cottage garden with a flour mill and mill stream. I thought that instead of sleeping, I’d have wander and the younger son joined me. Although he can’t speak English, we communicated in the international language of gestures. He showed me the mill and around the garden, picking tomatoes for me to taste. From what I can see, they grow potatoes, peppers, tomatoes and cabbages.

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A field of Khachkars

We then walked up to the church behind the house accessed by a steep and narrow path. Beyond the church there is a large field of Khachkars (stone crosses) - not as big as the cemetery in Noratus by Lake Sevan but impressive all the same. Some had holes like the standing stones at Karahunj.

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We then made our way back through the village and back to the guesthouse. I don’t know many teenage boys in the UK who would take the initiative and act as a guide to a total stranger. However, it was clear that this was a family business and everyone had their part to play.

The meal in the evening was just how I remembered previous stays at guest houses with delicious home cooking using fresh ingredients, mostly from the garden. I had huge amounts of food put on the table which I couldn’t possibly eat. The french group seemed to have the same amount between five of them. I joined them for a mulberry vodka. They were going to go for an evening walk to the cemetery and do some Armenian dancing. I declined - by now exhaustion had hit and I was in bed by 9pm. It was very soothing to hear the mill stream outside - I like the sound of a river or sea when I’m going to sleep.

Posted by Cath_Greig 21:01 Archived in Armenia Tagged monastery armenia khachkars nagorno-karabagh Comments (0)

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