Southern Armenia: Vineyards, Temples and Nature
The first stop on the way south from Yerevan is Khor Virap Monastery. By Armenian standards, it is an uninteresting new construction: the current buildings are less than 400 years old. However, it offers the best view of Ararat – in good weather it seems that you can reach the mountain with your hand. Inside the monastery church, a local sacred place is shown – an underground prison, into which King Trdat III threw the preacher Grigor. Grigor was imprisoned for 14 years at the bottom of the pit, infested with snakes, until he healed the king from a terrible illness through prayer. Then Trdat converted to Christianity and baptized the whole kingdom. Thus in the fourth century Armenia became the first Christian state in the world. “Even before the Roman Empire,” the Armenians add importantly.
The story of Trdat III and Gregory the Illuminator will be told in Khor Virap by any local. The first thing Noah did when his ark landed on the summit of Mount Ararat was to plant vines. You can taste the way the Biblical heritage was disposed of by the inhabitants of this land in the villages of Areni or Getap, where the best wineries of the country are concentrated.
The road from Areni to Ararat is not long, but it has never stopped anyone from seriously believing in the origin of their vineyards from Noah’s vine. They don’t forget to add that about 10 years ago archaeologists discovered the traces of the oldest winery in the world in a neighboring cave – it is over 6000 years old (those who are curious may examine the excavations under the guidance of a guide). There are five modern wineries in Areni, equipped with the latest technology by Californian Armenians, but also enough private cellars with the indispensable crushing vat at the entrance or clay caras – in such jars were aged wine since ancient times. The tasting starts at the entrance to the cellar-maran, and then, as is customary in the Caucasus, from somewhere there appear lavash, cheese, herbs – in short, a brief friendly visit here is not enough.
To the temples.
A narrow canyon with sharp red rocks goes from Areni to Noravank monastery with the most graceful two-storey church of Holy Virgin, Surb Astvatsatsatsin. This is the tomb of the princes of the Orbelian family, under whose rule in the Middle Ages the inaccessible mountainous gorges of Syunik were the only part of Armenia free from foreign conquerors. Master Momik, the main architect and sculptor of medieval Armenia, found a job at the court of the Orbelians. The temple in Noravank was his last masterpiece. In the lower tier of the church the princes of the glorious dynasty are buried. By the narrow steps attached to the wall outside, those with strong legs and nerves can climb to the second floor, to the funeral chapel. Momik, who decorated the church with reliefs and the finest carvings, is buried here, too. His tombstone is the last stone he managed to chip away at.
On the way back, look carefully so as not to miss the canyon cave with carpets at the entrance. In the coolness of the cave travelers are fed and fed by Uncle Vardges. He doesn’t need a sign at the entrance. “Why? – he shrugs. – Everybody knows it’s my cafe. If you want something more substantial than scrambled eggs with tomatoes and basturma, you should call Vardges before leaving Areni and place an order – everyone in the village knows his phone number.
To the temples.
To the gorge
In any other part of the world, Tatev would be thronged with tourists year-round, with its thick monastery walls rising out of the clouds on the edge of a cliff, its thousand-year-old university temple, covered with legends about noble thieves. But not here, in the most remote corner of Armenia, in the mountains of faraway Zangezur.
Until several years ago, the last kilometers of the journey through the gorge pierced by the millennia-old Vorotan River could easily take an hour, and more than one cab driver would lament, “Just a little longer, my dear, and this road will be passable only on a donkey. But recently a cableway has been put through the gorge from the village of Alidzor, and now it takes 12 minutes to cover the 6 kilometers. All that remains is to realize how little time is allowed to enjoy the best view of Tatev from the sky.
To the gorge
Once they reach Tatev, the first thing they do is to tour the walls that tumble down into the abyss. In the evening, when the clouds roll down from the mountains into the gorge and fill it with milky fog so it is easy to believe the tale of the monastery builder who finished his work, asked God for wings and flew away from the edge of the precipice. So the temple was called Tatev, which in Armenian means “to give wings”.
The first monastery above this ravine appeared almost in IV century, and even the present cathedral – it is the later reconstruction – is more than thousand years old. In 904 there was erected an eight-meter column “Staff”, Gavazan in Armenian, which freely swung on a pedestal, warning the brethren of earthquakes. The legend says that if the author was so eloquent that even the “Staff” swayed in approval, the graduate was awarded the highest academic degree. The legend can no longer be verified, though Gavazan is still standing. “Soviet scientists dismantled it after the war,” the monks say. – They did not understand how it was set up, and put it back together, but the “Staff” no longer swings.
The best starting point for exploring Tatev is the town of Goris, where you will find some life, and two or three nice hotels with carpets and antiques collected from the surrounding villages. From here you can travel to the abandoned cave towns in the area – Chndzoresk and Old Goris. Other houses are carved in the steep rock, about 30 meters above the bottom of the gorge – their inhabitants climbed up and down on a rope every day. Strange as it may seem, a little over a hundred years ago, the same Khndzoresk was the largest village in this part of Armenia. The last old people left the cave apartments not long ago.
To the gorge
To the spring
The Armenians discovered the medicinal characteristics of Jermuk springs accidentally: as they say, they went hunting, they shot a deer, which ran away from the pursuit and jumped into the river unharmed. Since then, the deer not only decorates the labels of the local mineral water, but also looks from the top of the hill at the old-fashioned thermal spa, nestled near the waterfall. It is now the most logical place to stop on the way back from Tatev, but it would be worthwhile to turn here from the main highway, even if there were enough good hotels between Tatev and Yerevan.
You could spend several days in Jermuk just for the mountain air with its thick pine scent. Walks to the waterfall and the nice-looking spa life centered around the openwork Mineral Water Gallery, just like in Marienbad.
To the spring
On the way back from Jermuk to the highway to Yerevan, it is worth stopping at the abandoned Gndevank Monastery, built in the 10th century by the wife of a local prince. Its buildings have long been deserted, but the 1008-year-old waterworks are still used by the inhabitants of the neighboring village. The walnut and mulberry trees in the cloister bend under the weight of their fruits, and the Arpa River canyon, which you have to wade through to reach this abundance, could have been the setting for a Sergio Leone western.
To the spring
To the lake.
Sacred Lake Sevan remains the most popular and obvious destination for a trip. But it is much more interesting to approach it from the rear, turning from the main highway in Getap to the new road leading to the lake through the mountains. At the same time to look at the pass at the gloomy Selim caravanserai, which survived to this day, approximately as it was built 700 years ago on one of the branches of the Great Silk Road.
The serpentine road goes down from the pass to Sevan. You should go left along the coast to the village of Noratus. On its outskirts the villagers graze goats in the middle of medieval carved tombstones – cross-stones. Such cross-stones (khachkars) stand by the church walls: there were two, and five. But here, on the steep bank above the Sevan plain, there are more than nine hundred of these stones, covered with red lichen, and no two are the same.
“What to say about the Sevan climate? The golden currency of cognac in the secret cupboard of the mountain sun,” Osip Mandelstam praised the local beauty. In the summer of 1930 the poet spent a happy month here.
The tourist center of attraction on the “Armenian sea” is the Sevanavank Monastery of the IX century, crowning the high and steep peninsula. At one time, the Soviet authorities experimented with Sevan not too successfully and the water level in the lake dropped noticeably; before, Sevanavank stood on an island and looked even more luxurious.
But people go to Sevan not only to admire the antiquities or natural beauties. Fish restaurants, which occupy the shore along the Yerevan highway, are the main thing here for the townspeople. The lake trout (ishkhan, as the locals call it), which has been abundant in these waters since the times of Mandelstam, is the main delicacy of Sevan. Nowadays, this fish is rare and expensive, it is not found in the wild; one can probably find grilled whitefish or crayfish in the menu of seaside establishments. Both of them were brought here from Russia, but in a hundred years they have occupied the whole lake and the Armenians got used to considering them as their specialty.
The real non-tourist gastronomy begins a little further along the shore towards Dilijan. But Dilijan is not the south of Armenia any more.
The nature of Armenia is very diverse, incredibly picturesque and full of rugged and proud wonders, which have remained in their original form since the times of the Urartu state. This mountainous country with its marvelous landscapes, clear rivers and lakes is the homeland of 230 natural monuments, which have their special, unique look.
The climatic peculiarities of Armenia are determined by the geographic location of the country and the great altitude differences. Generally, it has hot, dry, sunny summers and frosty, snowy winters. In addition to the southern and northeastern regions, which are located in the latitude of the subtropics, the rest of the country falls under the influence of continental and temperate climate.
In total, there are six climatic regions – from dry, continental (Yerevan), to moderately cold (at altitudes of 1800 m). The average annual temperature is +5.5 °С, maximum (+44 °С), was registered in Meghri city, on the border with Iran, minimum (-42 °С) in Shirak region, in Ashotsk village. The lowest height of snow cover is recorded in the Sevan Lake basin, in Meghri and Ararat Valley.
Mountains and terrain in Armenia
About 90% of Armenia’s territory is occupied by mountains higher than 1000 m above sea level. In general, the relief is characterized by deep gorges and valleys surrounded by rock formations, which were formed due to the work of wind and water, as well as volcanic activity.
The highest point of the country is Aragats (translated from Armenian as “throne of God”), an extinct volcano (about 4,100 m) in the province of Aragatsotn. It is a four-peaked massif surrounded by the Akhuryan and Kasakh rivers, the Ararat and Shirak plains.
Another peak is Ajdaak (3597 m), located in the Geghargunik region. It is also an extinct volcano, and its crater contains Lake Akna, which is formed by melting snow. The Khustup, the third highest mountain in Armenia (3206 m), is located in Syunik province; on one side it is covered with alpine meadows, on the other – with forests. On its slope is buried the national Armenian hero Garegin Nzhdeh.
Rivers, Waterfalls and Lakes
Armenia is not particularly rich in water resources, despite its branching network of rivers (there are about 300 rivers more than 10 km long). Almost all of them are mountainous, small and rough, cutting through the rock canyons and deep gorges. Most of the rivers are tributaries of the Araks (1072 km on the territory of Armenia), among which are Akhuryan (186 km), Hrazdan (141 km), Vorotan (179 km), or Kura: these are Aghstev (99 km) and Debed (152 km).
The largest lake in Armenia is Lake Sevan (with a surface area of 1200 sq km). It is located 1900 m above sea level in the east of the country and is fed from precipitation and from the 28 rivers that flow into it. Other large lakes include Arpi (22 sq km), Akna (0.5 sq km) and Sev (2 sq km).
There are many waterfalls, the largest of which are located on the territory of the country:
Peculiarities of wildlife in Armenia
The specific peculiarities of the wildlife of this country are determined by the complexity of its relief, climatic conditions, unique soils, and are as follows:
- flora and fauna of Armenia were formed in the Miocene epoch and practically haven’t changed since then;
- since the country is located in the center of Eurasia, its flora and fauna are represented by both Asian and European species;
- each region of Armenia is unique in terms of the qualitative composition of its bioresources;
- birds have the greatest species diversity, represented by 18 orders;
- the diversity of vegetation is due to seismic activity which causes mutagenesis that causes endemics to appear.
Vegetation in Armenia
Local flora is extremely diverse and rich in all kinds of forms, with over 3,500 species. Armenia is the leader in the world in quantity of plants per square km with over 100 species.
The total number of endemics is 108, including:
- Armenian lily, headwort and cotoneaster;
- wild wheat: “Urartu” and “Ararat”;
- Tigranes cornelis;
- Zangezur hawthorn, bellflower, pear, symphiandra;
- aiastan rowan;
- Tavush cornflower.
In the forests, widespread are yew berry, beech, oak; in the steppe – feather grass, wheatgrass, tonkhorn, tipcheg; in the mountains – almonds, acantholimon, derjidea, Pallas’s broom, sage, celandine, and thyme.
The fauna of Armenia is represented by:
- 349 bird species (1 endemic species), including black vulture, pink flamingo, hoopoe;
- 83 species of mammals (6 endemics), e.g. Iranian Silver Bear, Bezoar Goat, Reed Cat, Bobcat, and Deer;
- 53 species of reptiles (endemic – 6), including terrestrial and aquatic turtles, skinks, boa constrictors, lizards, grass snakes, vipers;
- 6 species of amphibians (1 endemic), including tree frogs, salamanders, toads;
- 30 fish species (9 endemics), including Armenian trout, khramulya, mustach, herring, goose, roach, whitefish;
- 17 thousand invertebrates (316 endemics), including Armenian skipjack, ants, striped platypus, phytodrimadusa, Caucasian cone-tail.
Nature of Armenia – the most beautiful places
Armenia’s top 5 natural wonders include:
- “Turtle” (Shirak region). It is a basalt sculpture, 3 m high, a monument of geomorphological type, which appeared due to wind erosion.
- Armagan (Gegharkunik region). This is a young volcano (about 10 thousand years old) with a small, but very picturesque saucer lake in the crater.
- Platan in Skhtorashen (Artsakh). The oldest sycamore in the world (age – 2 thousand years), the perimeter of the base of its trunk is 17 m.
- “Symphony of Stones” (Kotay region). Giant basalt hexagonal boulders of different colors grouped in the shape of organ pipes.
- Nurnus (Kotai area). The oldest deposit of perfectly preserved fossil vertebrates (the age of the “cemetery of prehistoric animals” is 5 million years).
It is impossible to visit Armenia without tasting its wonderful wines, and to do that you have to visit its wonderful vineyards. There are vineyards with 100 year old vines in different parts of the country, small family wineries and large wineries and everywhere you can find true Armenian hospitality and cordiality.
Lake Sevan is famous for its long shoreline that offers tourists comfort and a great vacation. But there are other beaches in Armenia, which are less comfortable but have a natural beauty and wildness.
The picturesque Armenia is also beautiful under the ground: its many caves have long been attracting the lovers of everything unusual. There are rock temples, and the houses where the ancient people lived, and healing geothermal dungeons, and hard-to-reach hollows, which are still being explored by scientists.
Armenia is a mountainous country and there are many mountain rivers and streams. Tourists come here for exciting fishing, extreme rafting, or simply to wander on their banks and admire the splendid picturesque nature of the country.