Tuesday, 1 July 2014

MONASTERIES, MULBERRY VODKA AND MEANDERING IN THE HILLS-Three weeks in Armenia



Although we were sad to leave lovely Iran, it is always exciting to visit a new country, and for us Armenia was a total unknown. We cleared immigration slowly on the Iranian side, due to the friendly officers all wanting to talk with us and Richard being further delayed by having to have his fingerprints taken (yet again!) by a smiley and apologetic man. A short walk later saw us on the Armenian side, where Sal had to join the Iranian people to gain a 21 day visa (Rich was exempt, having a British passport). After we helped several of the Iranians with their forms, and Sal was pushed to the start of the line for visas, we eventually got to the Armenian immigration window, where a very scary looking young woman with a Soviet style uniform with a short skirt (shock!) and a severe bob hairstyle (no scarf!) scowled at us, took our passports away for a long time, scrutinized them, and reluctantly stamped us into her country! We couldn’t stop looking at her legs! After three months without seeing any flesh, this was going to be quite strange! Sal was more than happy after clearing immigration to whip off her scarf, and change into a short sleeve top.


Freedom across the border



Our border crossing from Iran to Armenia coincided with a three day Iranian holiday to mourn the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini.  We were joined by dozens of (mostly) young Iranian men keen to commemorate this anniversary by taking a holiday to Yerevan (Armenia’s capital), where they could drink, wear what they like, ogle women, dance in discos, and generally have fun and be free.


In one way, though, it was bad timing for us, as on the Armenian side of the border, the taxi “mafia” had decided to up their prices for the occasion. We had an idea of what we should pay, and were shocked when they asked for more than double what we were expecting. Unfortunately, the tiny border crossing was not a town or village, so there was no option of public transport to the next destination, so we didn’t have a lot of choice. We eventually teamed up with two groups of Iranians going to Yerevan in a very comfortable minibus and negotiated a price to be dropped at Goris, a town about half way.


It’s hard to explain the odd feeling of entering Armenia, and seeing women dressed in shorts and T-shirts, beer and vodka advertisements everywhere, signs in Russian and Armenian (very cool writing!) and  funny little old Russian cars- it was a mini culture shock for us. The landscape was gorgeous, with misty, forested rolling hills, but the towns were not overly attractive- some had Soviet era apartment blocks complete with stereotypical washing hanging on lines in between.



Funny old Russian cars, Armenia



We were dropped on the main road in Goris, and followed the sign for a B and B. We were pleasantly surprised to arrive at a charming family run place, where Nadia, the hostess was welcoming and spoke English, and gave us a lovely homey room, one of three at the B and B, with clean white sheets, fluffy duvets, and a shared bathroom with hot water and a western toilet. We immediately felt at home here, and loved the terrace area where we could partake in free tea and coffee and chat with the many other travellers coming to this popular place. Of course the price, at around $30 for bed and breakfast, was very high for us compared with other countries we had travelled in, but we were expecting this, and were psychologically prepared!!



Our B and B, Goris

Funny Armenian toilet paper- no roll!



Nadia and her family have run the B and B for about 12 years, and we were impressed with the self sufficient style she has, growing her own food, making all the jams, conserves and wines, and stuffing her mattresses with sheep wool and pillows with feathers. Actually, this is very common is this region (and the whole country?), as people have been through a fairly recent four year war with Azerbaijan, and supplies were limited during this time. Almost all the houses in Goris had big gardens full to the brim with food crops, mainly beans, potatoes, onions, garlic and fruit trees such as apricots, cherries, grapes, walnut and mulberries. We also loved the street trees of weeping willows and oaks. We found the Goris people mostly serious and solemn, and hard to get a smile out of, but this is understandable considering their sad recent history.



Goris resident

Friendly young girl, Goris

One of many home gardens, Goris



Goris is apparently one of the prettiest towns in Armenia, and we certainly found it an enchanting place. The entire town was surrounding by strange pinnacle rocks formations, which were eerie and dramatic.



Gorgeous Goris scenery

Old gravestones on the hillside, Goris

Rock pinnacles, Goris

View of Goris town

More beautiful scenery, Goris

What a poser!

Cows enjoying the green-ness, Goris

Unusual rock formations, Goris

Looking up the hill, Goris
A Goris hillside

Homes under the rocks, Goris

Walking in the hills, Goris



Nadia’s husband was a quite famous artist locally, and when we arrived took us and a Polish couple staying at the B and B on a free tour of the town, taking in the cute little local museum, church and art gallery, and finishing at his cave where his studio was. It was a real cave, one of many in the rocky area of town, and he had fixed a door to his, added a little fence, and placed some antiques inside. As it was pouring with rain, we decided it was better to wait inside the cosy cave for a break in the weather, and the artist produced a bottle of vodka from a cupboard in the cave to pass the time! That night, there was more vodka at dinner, with the Polish couple having brought some special Polish vodka with them, and the artists producing a bottle of cherry vodka from his stock! Add to this the homemade grape wine we had with dinner, and you can assume we slept well that night!



The artist's work

Whiling away the time in the artist's cave, Goris

Artist's cave, Goris
The artist in his cave studio, Goris



We immediately loved the town and outskirts of Goris, and decided to stay a while and get to know the place a bit. Our favourite thing to do was clamber around the rocks and up the hills to see gorgeous views of the surrounding areas, and walking up random roads to see where they ended. The whole area was full of old ruins, graveyards, churches, chapels, goatherds with their flocks and wildflowers. The weather fined up after the first day, and we were lucky to enjoy beautiful sunny weather during the day, with some rain late in the afternoons (Goris is the wettest area in Armenia) and cool nights. We both (but Richard particularly) seemed to have a new energy, and felt active and happy everyday walking around the hills. We felt free to be alone and do whatever we liked, whenever we liked, and it was also nice to feel like we may have been shifting some of our Iran bulk from around our tummies!



Ye olde gate, Goris

Woman in old style head gear, gravestone, Goris

Old buildings, Goris town

View of Goris

A hillside of gravestones, Goris

Rich mucking around, Goris

Gravestone carving, Goris

Old church ruins, Goris

Rich resting in  Goris cave

Gravestones scattered all over, Goris

Sal having a "Sound Of Music" moment

Getting fit in Goris!


The food at the guesthouse was awesome and completely different from what we had been used to in Iran, and although dinner was pricier than buying food from the supermarket, we appreciated the care that went into our many home cooked, Armenian style dinners at Goris B and B. Nadia tried to give us something different every night, and we loved the wine, juice, bread, cheese and pickles that always accompanied the soup and main meal. Unusual items were wild mushrooms, pickled salty beets and whole unripe walnuts soaked in syrup. The best part was the friendly and social atmosphere, with travellers chatting over the meal and exchanging stories and tips. Being complete newbies, we gained a lot of knowledge about places to see in Armenia. Most people only stayed a night or two, keen to see everything in the country, and most were very keen “hikers”, as Armenia is well-known as a beautiful place to walk.



First course at Goris B and B dinner- note smoked cheese, pickles, olives, fresh herbs and homemade wine


Other Goris highlights included watching the artist making homemade vodka in his friend’s backyard; attending a Sunday service at the local church, where the priest looked like a cross between Dracula and Elvis with his high collared cape; and a BBQ for a family birthday, which consisted of succulent chicken and pork chunks on skewers, mulberry vodka and several tables full of salads and other Armenian delights.



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The highlight of our time in Armenia was a visit to the village of Tatev. It is a famous place because of the historic monastery there, and as Nadia knew a B and B there, we decided to skip the day trip most people do, and stay a few nights to explore more. The bus from Goris to Tatev was a battered old, character-filled Soviet number, but strong enough to get us up and down the hills and around the hairpins turns on the trip to Tatev. It was filled with friendly old ladies who gave us the best seats at the front and we loved the drive on the rough roads. Our contact in Tatev was a lovely woman, whose family had fallen on hard times when their father had died, and made some extra money by renting out a gorgeous little house with two rooms as a B and B. The place looked like it hadn’t been used in months, but we immediately fell in love with the overgrown garden, most comfortable beds ever, tiny verandah and sunny meals room overlooking the grounds. As we were alone in staying there, it felt like our own little house!


Funny old bus to Tatev



Our B and B, Tatev



Our first task in Tatev was to sit and have a relaxing beer on the terrace of the cafe overlooking the historic sight (where our hostess also worked), followed by a look around the beautiful ninth century monastery when the crowds had thinned. We were impressed with our first Armenian monastery (first of many!), and soaked up the atmosphere, trying to imagine when 600 monks had lived there, and looking out at the stunning view from the bishop’s quarters down the valley. Being such a special spot, the village is quiet popular with day trippers, all the more now that a huge cable car has been built to ferry people across the valley, avoiding a long drive. Although we initially thought it was an ugly blight on the landscape, we discovered that the project had brought a lot of work to the area and the locals were happy to have it.



Enjoying a beer after our long dry spell in Iran, Tatev
Door carvings of sweet scene, Tatev monastery

Sal having a moment, Tatev monastery
A contemplative Rich, Tatev monastery


View of Tatev monastery

The stunning Tatev monastery


Carvings on the wall, Tatev monastery

Tatev monastery

Dreaming out the window, Tatev monastery

Monks dining room, Tatev monastery

We were even more spoilt in Tatev with our hostesses’ amazing cooking, and generous meals- we certainly would not be going hungry in this country! Breakfast was fresh bread with butter, sour cream, curds, eggs, various jams, local honey, muffins and biscuits, accompanied by delicious mint tea. Dinner was an equally scrumptious Armenian feast.



Anticipating breakfast, Tatev


The village of Tatev was quaint and pretty with stone houses with little gardens and old men and women sitting out the front waving and saying ”Barev” (hello). We loved the country side around Tatev, and walked for hours without seeing another person. The twittering birds, gentle breezes, sounds of the river, grassy paths over the hills, and the hot sun made walking a delight.



Garden gate, Tatev

Local transport, Tatev

Laneway, Tatev

Old house, Tatev

Enjoying the view, Tatev

Bee keeping, Tatev

Gorgeous views around Tatev
Farm buildings, Tatev village

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We decided it was time to leave the countryside, and get ourselves into the big city, Yerevan, about a five hour drive by share taxi. We arrived with not much idea about where to stay, and after traipsing around to some downright dodgy dwellings, we ended up in a fantastic hostel which was quiet, run by a gregarious young Armenian woman, with only a few other very nice travellers staying, and scored a sweet little room of our own which we immediately loved. In fact we loved the place so much, we decided to stay in Yerevan for the remainder of our time in Armenia. Much of Armenia’s history is centred around Yerevan, so there is heaps to see in and close by to the city.



Gigantic mushrooms at roadside, road to Yerevan
Our cute little room, Yerevan

We were delighted to find Yerevan to be a very European feeling city (with a Soviet twist), with outdoor cafes, artists selling pictures in the park, unbelievably fashionable people (we were still coming to terms with the amount of skin on display!), big city squares with monuments and statues, and parks and trees lining the streets. It was particularly lovely being there in summer, when the days stayed light from 5am until 8pm, and we were free to hold hands in public! One of our first stops was the giant Opera House, where we were hoping to partake in some cheap tickets to a classical show, but found them sold out. We enjoyed exploring the old part of the city, watching old men play backgammon in the park, and searching out the little churches and even one mosque in the backstreets. A particularly interesting morning was had at the Verissage Flea Market, a remarkable place where interesting goods were sold such as homemade crafts, paintings, Persian rugs, Armenian lace and embroidery, touristy kitsch, second hand electrical and clothes, antiques, religious paraphernalia (including a portrait of Jesus in sequins!), old Russian cameras, second hand surgical equipment (!), and Soviet era memorabilia and uniforms.


A man and his rugs, Verissage Flea Market, Yerevan

Clunky old cameras, Verissage Flea Market, Yerevan

Second hand surgical equipment, Verissage Flea Market, Yerevan

Street art, Yerevan

Enjoying the arty vibe, Yerevan

Yerevan policemen

Soviet era apartment blocks, Yerevan

We're not in Iran any more!!


Although our budget couldn’t stretch to eating in any of the many restaurants or bars around town, we were happy to find the supermarkets extremely well stocked with many goodies that we tried. Smoked cheese (called “beer cheese” here, and very strange with a meat like texture) was a particular favourite, with various hams, salamis and breads being our other staples. The wines from $2 a bottle and famous Armenian cognac at about $5 a bottle were a real treat too!


Armenian congnac and smoked "beer" cheese


Armenia has been a Christian country since 300 AD, and many of the sights involve churches, monasteries, cathedrals and convents. This was so different for us, and we thoroughly enjoyed the change from mosques!

Geghard Monastery was a must see for us, although we unfortunately visited on a Sunday when the hordes of day trippers were also present. This detracted somewhat from the beauty of the place, but it was also lucky in a way as a beautiful service was going on in a little side chapel, complete with an angelic singing choir, bearded priests waving around frankincense, candles and blessings by the priests. The churches in Armenia seemed very casual to us, with people coming and going during the services, some wearing scarves, others not, and people entering in inappropriate clothing. Geghard Monastery was very old, perhaps as ancient as the 4th century, and the carvings, grottos, light and structure were simply gorgeous. One room upstairs particularly gripped us, especially when a man came in and sang a beautiful religious song and left again.


Angelic choir in Geghard monastery

Worshiper, Geghard monastery

Rich at Geghard monastery

Sunday faithful, Geghard monastery

Exterior, Geghard monastery

Carvings, Geghard monastery

From the heavans?!

Sunday service, Armenian style, Geghard monastery


We notice a path nearby, which we later read was the beginning of a hike to a hill top monastery, and we returned another day to heave ourselves up the very strenuous, but scenic climb to the top.



Organ pipe rock formations, near Garni


Strange rocks around Garni
Unusual checkerboard design on church, near Garni
Pretty gate on church

Inside the church ruins, near Garni

Unusual church entrance

A long way up!


Made it to the top, our walk near Garni


The highlight of the scenery around Yerevan is Mount Ararat (the one Noah crash landed on with his ark), sacred to the Christian Armenians, and devastatingly for them, now in Turkish territory. The famous monastery, Khor Virap is perfectly placed in front of the mountain, and attracts day trippers who want to ogle at its beauty. We were a little disappointed with the interior after the two other fantastic monasteries we had visited, but the setting could not have been better.


Khor Virap monastery with Mt Ararat in the background

Beautiful vineyard scenery around Khor Virap monastery


A visit to the simply grand train station in Yerevan (via the old and clunky, but efficient Soviet era metro), saw us easily buy a ticket to Tbilisi (the capital of Georgia), and a few days later, we left perfectly on time on our way to another new country!


Soviet era Yerevan train station




1 comment:

  1. I wonder if bringing my folding bike to India (later this year) will aid in avoiding the 'taxi mafia' and with the help of the GPS garmin tracker it's easy to back track (i tend to get lost and after a day of wondering around). Really breath taking views of your inspiring trip to amazing Armenia. A very interesting account, where you contrast the this experience with your previous insights of Iran. Also, its worth contemplating those images of monastery life. You both appear to glow/dance as if the song of the land inspired a poetic expression of itself through a travelers' dream. Such is the good life. Thanks for your insights.

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