Anyone who grew up on Bible stories will find it interesting to know that Noah's Arc apparently landed on Mount Ararat after the Great Deluge. Armenians are said to be Noah's direct descendants and as it transpired in history, Armenia is also the first country in the world to embrace Christianity in the 4th Century.
With its kind and hospitable people, fresh produce and hearty cuisine, first-class brandy and wines, and rich culture and history, it is a great idea to explore and experience "The Land of Noah".
Tavush Region, Armenia
When I arrived in Zvartnots International Airport in Yerevan, my tour guide and I drove for 1.5 hours to my first destination, Dilijan. It is a town in Northern Armenia also known as Little Switzerland for its beautiful landscapes, mountains, and valleys. The old town is surrounded by the Dilijan National Park and lies on the banks of Aghstev River. It provides an all-year-round scenic route on top of its famous tourist destinations: Motasavank Monastery in the east, Lake Parz, and Goshavank and Haghartsin Monasteries in the north.
The October weather was cool when I arrived; with a light breeze providing the pleasant drive with falling leaves and a blanket of varying degrees of Autumnal colors. The mountain inn I stayed at didn't seem promising at first look, but it had a lovely garden, and it was cozy inside with a warm fire place and homemade fruit preserves, soup and stew to warm the soul.
Since I only had a couple of hours left on my first day, I asked for a local driver, Martin, to drive me to see the old town and at least (two) nearby attractions in Dilijan. After visiting the old town, we drove for about 15-20 minutes uphill to this 10th to 13th Century monastery. The ride was a little bumpy but the view at the top was worth it.
Haghartsin, which means "soaring eagle", is one of the most famous monasteries in Armenia. The color of the surrounding trees was only beginning to turn when I visited, however, I can already see how beautiful the contrast will be at the height of Autumn with the 3-church monastery complex's ivory facade against the oranges and warm colors of Fall.
Parz Lich literally means "clear or pure lake". It is situated only 9 km away from Dilijan, however, it takes a while to get here as you need to drive a narrow winding road on the side of a mountain. Legend has it that a newly-married couple was drowned in this lake that to this day, married couples who just recently said "'til death do us part" to each other visit the lake to honor the dead couple.
The lake is beautiful all-year round so it doesn't matter when you go. Today, the small lake also offers a restaurant where you can order fresh fish, experience park activities like zip lines, kayak and boat rides, and enjoy proper picnic areas. It's a great idea to wear hiking shoes so you can comfortably walk in the woods. Also, bring some grains like corn so you can feed the ducks. The park sells bread, however, it's not suitable for any bird.
I got to see a bit of Lake Sevan on the way to Dilijan on my first day. You just cannot miss it. Sitting at 1,900 m above sea level, Lake Sevan or Sevana Lich is the biggest body of water in Armenia and the Caucasus Region. One of the main highlights of Lake Sevan is the Sevanavank Monastery Complex in the northwestern part of the rocky peninsula. Sevanavank that has two (2) churches, the Surp Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) Church and the Surp Arakelots (Holy Apostles) Church, used to sit on a hill of a completely-separate island. The lake water level eventually dropped making the island part of the rest of the peninsula and everyone's visit an easy scenic drive up the monastery.
Today, there are restaurants and a bakery at the foot of Sevanavank's hill, and locals sell souvenirs as well so it's a great choice for a pit stop. The lake, which covers 1,240 sq km today, also provides all kinds of water sports and activities, and a great source of trout, crayfish and white fish for all.
The mountain ski resort and spa town was still quiet when I visited. But it's beginning to pick up crowd volume as the winter months are just around the corner. The cable car was already open when I went so I hopped on the 15-minute ride up and another 15-min down, but I didn't stay too long at the top because I was already freezing. There was a constant breeze and I didn't prepare well for wind-chill factor with no gloves or scarves. Soon, snow will cover the entire place providing all visitors snowboarding and ski holidays for the winter months that sometimes even extend up to March and April.
There are over 4,000 monasteries in Armenia but this one is a must see. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is unique as it is partially carved out of a mountain. Geghard, which means "spear", is a reference to the lance that pierced Christ's side at the crucifixion. Although the church was only built in 1215, the original structure traces back to before the 4th Century.
It was a race against time to see Geghard Monastery as the sun began to set. Still the locals protecting the historic site and those who were selling their wares at the foot of the monastery had big smiles on their faces after a long day so I couldn't help but smile, too.
Travel Tip: To smile even broader, make sure to try the sweet "sujukh", sweet lavash and gata. Often, these baked goods even have the word Geghard written in Armenian on it. Extra sweet!
There was a beautiful sunset across the sky while we were driving for 15 minutes from Geghard to Garni. Along the way, there were herds of cows that were going home from grazing in the pastures. Armenians in these quaint neighborhoods and in many others have a herd or two of farm animals and grow their own cherry, apricot, pomegranate and apple trees.
Travel Tip: These fruits are the best snacks you can find in the country and they're sold everywhere. They are sweet, juicy and incredibly affordable so make sure to ask your local driver to stop so you buy and snack on a few.
The Temple of Garni is the only pagan temple in the country and it stands mighty and proud by the Garni Fortress and at the edge of a hill with a great backdrop of the adjacent mountain side. Building began in the 3rd AD and it was completed in the 1st AD. However, as you look closer, you can see both old and new stones support the temple after it was rebuilt from a strong earthquake in 1679. The Greco-Roman inspirations were highlighted by the blue sky and its glowing warm orange light from within. I found that quite poetic as it was built by the first Armenian King to pay tribute to the ancient Armenian sun god, Mihr.
One of the first places I visited in the capital is Vernissage. The large open-air market, which was given a French name meaning varnishing, is a clear proof of Armenian artistry, craftsmanship and creativity. There are big sections for books, paintings, iron work, wood carvings, obsidian-stone products, embroidery, jewelry and accessories, souvenirs, and home ware to name a few.
Whether you buy a lot or a few or nothing at all, Vernissage is a must see!
The Kaskad or Cascade Complex in Yerevan is a giant staircase made out of limestone and is one of the main tourist attractions in the entire country. Although its construction began in 1971 and was completed a decade later, the idea was first conceived by the famous Armenian architect, Alexander Tamanyan, in the early 20th century. As you walk in the garden towards the staircase, the first structure you see is a statue of Tamanyan himself. You also get to enjoy flowers and huge art pieces from the collection of the Cafesjian Museum of Contemporary Art.
If you have neither strength nor stamina to walk up the entire staircase, do not fret, you can always take the escalators or elevators inside the complex.
Travel Tip: There are coffee shops, food trucks and restaurants (local and international cuisine) in this area so it's a great place to grab a bite to eat as walking up and down the staircase will certainly work up your appetite.
"Genocide" is a term that's still up for debate to this day more than a century after the tragic "Armenian Holocaust" where at least 1.5 million Armenians suffered and died from 1915 to 1917 under the Ottoman Empire.
“Rape and beating were commonplace.
Those who were not killed at once were driven through mountains and deserts without food, drink or shelter.
Hundreds of thousands of Armenians eventually succumbed or were killed."
- an excerpt from “A Peace to End All Peace” by David Fromkin
To honor the genocide victims, there are several monuments built around the world including those in Argentina, Brazil, The Netherlands, Ireland, France, Germany, Cyprus, India, Lebanon, Iran, Syria and the US. However, the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex or Tsitsernakaberd in Yerevan, which was built in 1967, is perhaps the most significant. On the 24th of April each year, thousands of Armenians gather on this hill along the Hrazdan River to remember and honor those who perished.
The Victory Park of uptown Yerevan is a great choice for families. The park is a big open space with a small amusement park for children and benches for adults to relax and enjoy the view from uphill. It's quite meaningful that Mother Armenia is just nearby standing fierce and strong with a shield at her foot and a sword in her hand as if to say she is ready, willing and able to protect her children.
Travel Tip: If you're not staying for too long, you can ask a local taxi driver to wait for you like I did when I went around Yerevan. Taxi rides are cheap in the capital.
I went to Armenia for my birthday, the 19th of October, and by coincidence, it was also the capital’s 2,801st anniversary. What a surprise!
I only found out on my actual birthday when I asked my local guide why the city seemed extra busy. The fireworks capped an incredible day. Happy birthday to us, Yerevan! We old gals need to stick together! LOL
All in all, Armenia was a wonderful experience. And parallel to the story of Noah and his family overcoming the Great Deluge, the Armenian people have also survived a tragedy of great magnitude yet they remain kind and proud as they should. And I got to experience that first hand and I am grateful for it.