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Armenia - The Best Places to Explore

Armenia - The Best Places to Explore

Old Mar 20, 17, 12:13 pm
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Armenia - The Best Places to Explore

We’ve all heard of Armenia or have Armenian friends, yet most of us know nothing about this Caucasus country. In case you too are clueless about it, Armenia is an Eurasian country located in the Caucasus region between Europe and Asia. It is bordered by Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east, and Iran to the south. As a result of its geographical location, the country has a compelling blend of European and Asian heritage, culture and food. It’s very cheap and relatively safe – read on for my full Armenia travel blog.
Armenia isn’t usually an instant hit with travelers. But strangely, I love Armenia, more so than neighbouring Georgia which is a big hit with backpackers, or its current arch enemy Azerbaijan. Perhaps because of my propensity for unconventional places or my interest for places with a tragic past. Regardless, Armenia won my heart despite the short amount of time we spent there.
Beyond the capital city, Armenia is defined by looming mountains and dramatic landscapes punctuated by medieval churches and Soviet bloc style buildings. Its extraordinary collection of medieval monasteries is impressive, but its canyons, lakes and ski slopes are what make this country so damn beautiful. Let’s not forget the surprising delight of Yerevan, so exuberant and vibrant it reminds me of Asia more so than Europe.
In comparison to its Caucasus neighbors, Armenia is truly unique in its culture and history. The country has got its own alphabets and language family, own ethnicity, and cultural identity. At times it feels like Asia and at times it’s very much European. The charming blend of East and West is very evident here, in this intriguing country.

Yerevan: A Vibrant Eurasian Capital
It comes as a surprise to many (including myself) that the Armenian capital city of Yerevan is actually very modern and vibrant. Few traces of the city’s ancient past remain, with much of the city constructed from scratch during the Soviet era. Fortunately, there’s a network of gardens and parks all over the city.
The heart of Yerevan is at Republic Square, which centres on a massive fountain, backdropped by the national museum. The tree-lined boulevards are packed with everything from chic wine bars to old-fashioned teahouses, kebab shops to pumping nightclubs and outdoor cafes. A great place to really get a feel of the city’s vibes and pick up some knick knacks is the Sunday Market just a few steps from the Republic Square.

For those of you who are curious about Armenia’s history, the Yerevan Genocide Memorial and Museum is an essential place to visit. Over 1.5 million Armenians were killed or displaced by the Ottoman empire in the early 1900s. This was dubbed the first genocide in history, though the Turkish government has yet to offer an official apology. The genocide also resulted in the Armenian diaspora, leaving more Armenians abroad than in Armenia, even to this day. The museum gives insights into this tragic chapter of Armenia’s history.

Debed Canyon — Home to the Famous Trio
To travel overland from Georgia to Armenia, most people catch the direct train from Tbilisi to Yerevan, but we wanted a unique journey that would let us see the countryside along the way. That’s why we signed up for the Enlinking Caucasus day trip with Envoy Tours that would take us from one capital city to another, while exploring northern Armenia.

As our guide Yerv said, “This northern region is said to be the most beautiful part of Armenia.” I couldn’t agree more. The canyon manages to pack in more history and culture than anywhere else in the country. Debed Canyon is dotted with old world villages, obscure Soviet-era buildings, and two World Heritage–listed monasteries, Haghpat and Sanahin, as well as stunning mountain landscapes. Here’s a look the trio of monasteries that we visited on this day trip and why they’re worth visiting:

Akhatala Monastery
The first monastery we explored right after crossing the Georgian border is the Akhtala Monastery, also known as Pghindzavank. This 10th-century fortified monastery is also an apostolic church, although it’s not functioning these days. The fortress played a major role in protecting the north-western regions of Armenia is among the most well preserved of all in modern Armenia. Unlike most Armenian churches, this one has a colourful interior, decorated with artistic frescoes.

Haghpat Monastery
Backdropped by a panoramic view of the Debed Canyon, this monastery has the most beautiful setting, and is undoubtedly my favorite of the three. Dating back to 976, the medieval monastery complex was founded by Queen Khosrovanuysh. The location of Haghpat Monastery was chosen so that it overlooks the Debed River. It was built, not on a peak, but halfway up a hillside chosen to protect and conceal from prying eyes.

Sanahin Monastery
Built around the same time is the Sanahin Monastery. Like Haghpat, this monastery also lies in plain view to the public on a dissected plateau formation, separated by a deep “crack” formed by a small river flowing into the Debed river. The monastery is home to numerous khachkars (stones with elaborate engravings representing a cross) and bishop grave sites scattered throughout it.

Tsaghkadzor: A Charming Ski Town
If you’re looking to get a feel for an Armenian small village near Yerevan, I’d recommend checking out Tsaghkadzor, a quaint ski town that’s also rich in history. We passed by Tsaghkadzor and wandered around for a quick visit on our day trip to Lake Sevan with Ararat Tour, but wished we had more time to stay here and explore more.
Translated to mean ‘valley of flowers’, Tsaghkadzor (don’t ask me how to pronounce it!) is quite a popular destination for Armenians in winter thanks for its ski centre on the slopes of Mount Tegenis. The village itself is small and quaint, easily navigable on foot. The main attraction in town is the Kecharis Monastery, a restored historical complex comprising of a 10th century church, and a13th-century cathedral.

From town, you can easily drive up to the ski base where the ropeway leads you up to the mountain peak. We took a ride on the ropeway (which is opened all year round) and drank in a beautiful panorama of the valley from above. At this time of the year (October), the grassy patches made for great hiking and horseriding. In winter the whole area is blanketed in snow and transformed into a busy ski piste.

Lake Sevan — Armenia’s Most Beautiful Sight
Situated at 1,900m above sea level, this is the largest high-altitude lake in Armenia and the Caucasus region. It covers almost 5,000 square kilometres in area — an area so massive that makes it look more like a sea than lake.
Sadly, Lake Sevan was heavily exploited for irrigation of the Ararat plain and hydroelectric power generation during the Soviet period. Consequently, its water level decreased by around 20 m and its volume reduced by more than 40%. Luckily, underground tunnels were later built to divert water from highland rivers, which halted its decline.
Today the lake’s ecosystem is protected for it environmental, economical, and spiritual value and it is regarded as a national treasure of the country. The lake still supplies almost 90% of the country’s fish supply, and you’ll find some of the freshest seafood in Armenia right here on its shore.

Sevanavank: A Medieval Monastery Built on an Island
Because of the drop in water level, the lake’s only island has sadly become a peninsula now, easily accessible by cars on the southern shore. The peninsula is topped by one of the most famous attractions in Armenia: the Sevanavank, a monastic complex founded in 874.
Sevanavank has a picturesque setting, surrounded by water. It sprawls across a large hilltop area, with two main churches surrounded by monks’ living quarters and remains of khachkars (engraved stones). It’s worth spending some time hiking around the area and exploring the trails surrounding the monastery.

Getting into Armenia from Georgia
Most people traveling the Caucasus will fly into Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia first. It’s easy to find cheap flights to Tbilisi from many major cities in Europe. My flight from Madrid to Tbilisi on Pegasus Airline was only 150 euros return. I met an Austrian guy who paid only 70 euros for his return flights on Wizz Air.
Border can also be crossed by the car. If you are using your own car you most likely will have no problems. But if you are renting the car be sure to have permission from your company or you will have problems on border. You can find many companies in Armenia offering border crossing service but not in Georgia. Only few companies do offer such things in Georgia (this one for example). So be careful with that. By the way you won’t be able do the same for Azerbaijan because of some issues with local laws so keep that in mind.
To cross from Georgia into Armenia, your best bet is to use the Sadakhlo-Bagratashen border crossing, which is just an hour’s drive from Tbilisi. I traveled on a day trip, so unfortunately I can’t advise on how to cross the border independently. But based on research, it’s relatively easy to get a mini-bus from Tbilisi to Ortachala Bus Station and then taxi to the border.
The border crossing is very modern, clean and organized. It took our group of around 15 people to cross from one country to another in less than an hour.
However, if you have an Azerbaijan passport stamp, you’ll be asked a few more questions than usual. Read below to know why.

Getting in Armenia from Azerbaijan

Armenia and Azerbaijan are still currently at war and it is impossible to go from one country to the other. The two countries have been fighting for political authority of the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh for years. Nagorno Karabakh is inhabited by mostly ethnic Armenians but it was given to Azerbaijan by the Russians during the Soviet era. Since the ceasefire in 1994, it is considered a de facto independent state.
Today, travel is not allowed between Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan. If you have the passport stamp for Nagorno Karabakh, you will not be allowed entry into Azerbaijan.
To go from Armenia to Azerbaijan or the other way round, you’ll need to go back to Georgia. Some people say that it’s better to go to Azerbaijan before Armenia (rather than after), as custom officers at the Azerbaijan borders can refuse you entry if they see an Armenian passport stamp. I didn’t have a problem going to Azerbaijan after Armenia despite having a stamp, and there were no questions asked at all. That said, keep in mind that I flew into Baku (sometimes airport arrivals can be easier than overland border crossings).
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