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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 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)

Day twenty-six - on the road

Saturday 21 September 2019

sunny 20 °C

Leaving Yerevan

Although I’d packed the previous evening, I still got up early to have a slow start before the arrival of the apartment’s owner and the driver who would be taking me around the regions. Armed with my Armenian translation - մարմնի լոսյոն - at 9am I walked around the block in a last ditch attempt to get body lotion. There was a pharmacy open close by and the first thing I saw was a range of body butter, and in English, too. Sorted.

The owner of the apartment turned up just before 10am and the driver, a few minutes after that. After a double-check of the apartment, we were on our way. The driver, Karen, speaks good English. Our first stop was Khor Virap, an Armenian monastery close to the Turkish border with great views of Mount Ararat. The road through the Ararat plain to the site is quite new and a dual carriageway, making it a much quicker journey than I remember.

Khor Virap

Khor Virap was heaving, with lots of local, as well as international tourists. Probably because it was Independence Day. Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned in a ‘pit’ under one of the buildings for 14 years. You can walk down steps to the pit but it was so busy and I’d already done that on a previous visit.

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Although It was a bit hazy, there was still a pretty good view of Ararat. If you walk up the small hill behind the monastery there are good views of the valley and the border posts between Turkey and Armenia.

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Noravank

The next stop was Noravank, another Armenian monastery, accessed via a stunningly beautiful and narrow gorge made by the Amaghu River. The nearest town to the monastery is Yeghegnadzor. The red cliffs by the monastery seem to change colour depending on the time of day. We were there in the midday heat and like Khor Virap is was very busy. There is a cave cafe in the gorge that I’ve visited in the past for a coffee and gata - cake. Noravank has narrow steep steps to access the top level of the main church. I haven’t felt brave enough to do it on any of my visits. Plenty of people do though, old and young.

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We stopped for a quick lunch at Vayk at a cafeteria type cafe in a food court. This is something new for Armenia, not sure if it’s a particularly good move although the food was Armenian not European fast food. I had a pie and salad which was ok. On previous visits our driver Saro took us to some amazing roadside cafes for brilliant lunches. Karen is first and foremost a driver and not a guide so this is not something we will be doing while we are on the road.

Day’s end at Jermuk

Last stop of the day was Jermuk. My hotel - Grand Resort Jermuk - is the most luxurious in the town. It’s rare that I ever stay in such places. Jermuk is a spa town which was very popular in soviet times. It’s a bit of a one horse town. Once I’d checked in, I had a stroll around and was back in the hotel in a very short space of time. I took advantage of the facilities using the jacuzzi, sauna and pool. They also offer a range of spa treatments. It looked as if the only option for eating was the hotel. It was fine but not that exciting. I don’t think this tour is going to match the culinary experience of my previous visits. After eating, I retired to my room as it had the comfiest sofa ever for relaxing and excellent WiFi. Looking out from my balcony, I was aware how much colder it is in the evenings now that I’m in the mountains. Will need to break out the jacket as the next week will be spent in the mountains.

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The clientele of the hotel seems quite mixed. Couples mostly but there was a large group of women, probably in their 50s who I saw at dinner and breakfast. Not sure where they are from as I couldn’t place the language. Apparently, people come and stay for a whole week of spa treatments. Unless there is hiking in the area, I think it would become quite boring. Without tourist information, it’s hard to find out what else is on offer.

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Posted by Cath_Greig 06:22 Archived in Armenia Tagged monastery norovank jermuk khor_virap Comments (0)

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