Armenia: First Christian Nation and the “Country of Stones.”

I grew up in former USSR which consisted of fifteen republics with Russia being by far the largest. By the time Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, I have traveled to all of these republics – presently independent states – except for one: Armenia. It is late August of 2021 and it is time to finally discover Armenia. Granted, not everyone knows where the Republic of Armenia (official name) is situated. Here it is:

Armenia is a small (smaller than Belgium, but bigger than Israel) landlocked country situated in the mountainous  Caucasus region.  As a nation, Armenia has an ancient heritage. The first Armenian state (Urartu) was established in 860 BC and the Kingdom of Armenia reached its height in the 1st century BC. Armenians are proud to be the first state in the world which adopted Christianity as official national religion in 301 AC (ten years before Christianity was granted “toleration” status in the Roman Empire). The country is bordered by Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran and Georgia.

Except, for the latter, Armenia had historically difficult relations with its neighbors. Between 16th and 19th centuries, the Armenian homelands were under interchangeable rules of the Ottoman (think “Turkey”) and Persian (think “Iran”) empires. Both were Islamic nations and this did not make easy the fate of the deeply Christian Armenian people. During World War I, more than one million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were systematically massacred in what has become known as Armenian genocide. In the late 1980s, a bloody conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan (then still being part of the same country, the USSR) began over  Nagorno-Karabakh (also known as “Artsakh”). It is an autonomous district which was recognized as part of Azerbaijan in ex-USSR, but populated mostly by ethnic Armenians. Armenia was able to secure its control over Nagorno-Karabakh until September 2020, when Turkey-trained Azerbaijanian troops retook most of Nagorno-Karabakh resulting in mass-exodus of Armenians living there. Here is a good short documentary about the roots of the war and human tragedy surrounding the fight over Nagorno-Karabakh.

If you would ask someone who grew up in ex-USSR (like me), “What Armenia is known for?”, besides many archeological sites and historical monuments associated with country’s Christian heritage, different people would tell you quite different things. Some would praise traditional Armenian hospitality which no visitor can “escape.” Some would describe Armenians as very intelligent and talented people: indeed, the country produced plenty of well-known musicians, mathematicians and chess-players. Yet, some would think first of all about famous Armenian Cognac (exported abroad as “Armenian Brandy,” but sold internally as “Armenian Cognac”). And anyone who actually visited Armenia would be captivated by the rugged beauty (hence, nick-name the “country of stones”) of this semiarid and mountainous country (average elevation is 5,900 feet/1,800 meters) with lake Sevan being its most precious natural pearl. Here are couple of Armenian landscapes painted by Martiros Saryan

And so, in late August 2021, I flew together with my Russian friends Vladimir and Elena from Moscow to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia (the flight is less than three hours). By the way, neither Americans nor Russians need a visa to travel to Armenia. And both nations have a very positive public image, and during our entire journey we felt truly welcomed. Partially, this is because of a huge Armenian diaspora in both Russia and the USA – i.e. ethnic Armenians living in these two countries. Overall, roughly 8 millions Armenians live outside Armenia – a number greatly exceeding less than 3 million population of country itself.

Upon arrival, we did not stay in Yerevan, but picked up the car and drove to our first destination, a scenic village called Oshakan. The main “official” site there is St. Mesrop Mashtots Church with the grave of St. Mesrop. Mesrop Mashtots was an early medieval Armenian linguist, composer, and theologian who is venerated as a saint in both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. He is best known for inventing the Armenian alphabet in c. 405 AD. I need confess, however, that our first destination in Oshakan was different: we went to visit Voskevaz winery or more precisely Chateau Voskevaz

Indeed, Vosevaz winery does look as a chateau, but…sort of a Disneyland-style

Besides fun architecture and high ratings of their wines on Google maps, I was curious to see an interesting technology used at Voskevaz for wine production – the old “karases” that were made in the 19th century. Karas, a traditional vessel for wine fermentation and aging, was used in Armenia from ancient times. 

These 19th century karases are used at Voskevaz winery for fermentation and aging.

I arranged the visit to Voskevaz in advance and we were met and given grand-tour by the chief winemaker: Ray Chevond Petrosyan.

Myself and Ray Petrosyan, the winemaker at Voskevaz winery

As it turned out, Ray studied enology in Germany. We switched to German language (I studied and worked there) and talked about our favorite wine areas in Germany. This has made us “instant friends” and, sure enough, the formal wine-tasting evolved into “let’s open this and that bottle.” Honestly, I was impressed both with the variety of choices and overall quality of Voskevaz wines. My absolute favorite was very aromatic dry white wine called Urzana which was made out of Muscat grapes.

Dry Muscat produced by Voskevaz

It was late, when we returned to our B&B, but the evening was warm: we sat at the table under the tree and enjoyed one (or two) more glasses of wine with my friend Vladimir.

Vladimir (left) and myself at Hatsekats B&B

The place where we stayed this night was called Bed and Breakfast Hatsekats and it was an excellent choice. For about $50, we had a big, nicely restored and decorated traditional house (with all modern amenities) which was surrounded by a fruit garden. Our hosts encouraged us to “help yourself” with the fruits: the peaches, oranges and pomegranates were in season and abundant.

The patio and garden of Hatsekats offered nice view of the surrounding village.

Garden at B&B Hatsekats

Our hosts, Armen and Svetlana, prepared generous – truly gargantuan – breakfast and “tempted” us to stay longer by offering possible guide services and excursions to the nearby sights. But, unfortunately, we need to leave and head to the next destination. It was time to say “Good bye, Hatsekats!”

Our host, Svetlana, in the middle: between me and Vladimir

The next destination was a place which is a “must visit” for anyone traveling in Armenia: the ancient Geghard Monastery. It is situated at the end of a narrow Azat River gorge and is partially carved out of the rocky mountainside. Geghard Monastery is on a UNESCO World Heritage list and there are many reasons for this. The monastery was founded at the beginning of 4th century by St. Gregory Illuminator, the patron saint of Armenia, the founder of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church, and, most importantly, the person who converted the country to Christianity in 301 AD. The impressive monastic complex (several chapels, tombs, walls, towers, gardens) has been continously built between the 4th and 13th centuries. It is widely regarded as finest example of Armenian medieval architecture. The monastery is surrounded by spectacular towering cliffs. Some of its churches are entirely dug out of the rocks, others are inside of the caves, while others are elaborate stand-alone structures.

Geghard Monastery
Geghard Monastery
Geghard Monastery

According to the legend, St. Gregory founded the monastery  at the site of a sacred spring in a cave. And, indeed, this spring is still intact and can be seen inside one of the monastery’s churches.

Holy Spring around which Geghard Monastery was being built

Geghard is also famous because of the many sacred relics that it housed. The most celebrated of these is the spear which had wounded Christ on the Cross and was allegedly brought to the monastery by the Apostle Thaddeus. This gave the monastery its full name, Geghardavank which means “the Monastery of the Spear.” We arrived at the monastery on Sunday morning and it was perfect timing to join the traditional, most important Orthodox worship service, called Liturgy, which was accompanied by a beautiful choral singing.

After few hours at Geghard, we were hungry. Miraculously, as we drove back through the winding canyon, a make-shift roadside bakery emerged. In the huge clay-oven, two women baked “lavash” – the paper-thin traditional Armenian bread. Needless to say that we stopped, bought and enjoyed this pipingly-hot delicacy.

Roadside bakery

Most people coming to Geghard combine this trip with a visit to the nearby town of Garni. Why? Because of the Temple of Garni – the only remaining Greco-Roman monument and as such the symbol of pre-Christian Armenia. The Temple of Garni was built in the first century AD and was dedicated to the God of the Sun, Mihr.

Pre-Christian temple of Garni

It is not clear, how Garni survived Christian epoch when all pagan structures were destroyed. The most common theory is that the temple was converted into a royal summer house of the sister of King Tiridates III. I personally would support this theory, because the location of the temple is spectacular: it sits at the edge of a triangular cliff which overlooks the ravine of the Azat River and the Gegham mountains.

Pre-Christian temple of Garni

In previous travel stories (blogs about Yukatan in Mexico and Eastern Sierras in California), I wrote about my love for the natural hot springs. Armenia is actually a good destination for various healing mineral waters with mountain resort town of Jermuk being the most known and popular destination. But we wanted to explore something more out of the beaten bath and opted for Hankavan Thermal Baths situated about 80 km / 65 miles North of Armenian capital Yerevan. It is an area with several hot springs – all around Hankavan village. Our choice was Nairi Spa Resort – a modern hotel surrounded by forest and featuring nicely kept grounds and some interesting sculptures.

We did not stay overnight, but took a long walk on hotel’s trails and then booked for couple hours a private room with a huge mineral bath. The water was hot and relaxing, and – after leaving Nairi Spa Resort – we felt that it was time to head for our booked overnight accommodations.

Private room with mineral bath in Nairi Spa Resort

As it turned out, however, the day was not finished yet. Driving near the town of Meghradzor, we noticed a sign for a trail to Tezharuyk Monastery. After hiking about one mile up the slope we came to the place which we instantly liked: the remnants of gorgeous basilica were surrounded by the nature and some scattered sculptures. The sense of serenity was overwhelming and it was clear that very people ever come here.

Tezharuyk Monastery
Tezharuyk Monastery

We descended back to the road by the time of sunset, and stayed here a bit longer enjoying the quietness and some good views with the town of Meghradzor in the distance.

The town of Meghradzor

Tsaghkadzor – the place where we spent this night – is actually a very popular holiday destination in Armenia. Its name literally means valley of flowers or flower canyon in Armenian and this is for a good reason: situated on the southeastern slope of Mount Teghenis, at a height of 1,841 meters / 5,500 feet above above sea level, the town is surrounded by Alpine meadows. There are a few nearby attractions, but by far most important is Tsaghkadzor ski resort which is located just above the town. It was fully modernized about ten years ago, when all Soviet-era structures were replaced by new equipment. Today, three lifts take skiers from the foot of the mountain at a height of 1,969 meters / 6,000 feet to the top of the mountain at 2,819 meters / 8,500 feet.

Tsaghkadzor

Tsaghkadzor has plenty of tourist accommodations for all tastes and budgets and – although we did not plan to stay long – it was a logical choice to spend the night. Our family-run B&B was called Guest House Arsan. It does not have a website or even a Face Book page, but you can find it on Google maps or booking.com. In fact, I do not think that they need any additional advertisement, because most people who once stayed there keep returning year after year. Arsan belongs to the family of Oganes Mkrtchjan, who used to be a deputy mayor of Tsaghkadzor. Needless to say, that he knows everyone in the town and everything about the area. The rooms were big and comfortable, the price ridiculously low (something like $40 including breakfast), but the biggest highlight of this Guest House were the hosts themselves: the cheerful story-teller Oganes and his super-welcoming wife, Svetlana. We asked in advance Oganes and Svetlana to prepare “something traditional” for the dinner and this was table awaiting us.

Our home-made dinner at Guest House Arsan

We stayed at dinner much longer and drank much more excellent Armenian wine than planned, but we were in no hurry and enjoyed the company of Oganes and Svetlana. Next morning, Oganes walked us around and shared his plans for expansion of his already quite flourishing business. But, eventually, it was time to leave: thank you, Oganes and Svetlana!

From left to right: Svetlana and Oganes Mkrtchjan, the owners of Arsan Guest House, myself and Vladimir.

The plan for this day was to explore the Western coast of lake Sevan which is the largest lake in Armenia and one of the largest high-altitude alpine lakes in Eurasia: it is situated at 1,900 meters / 6,235 feet above sea level. The total surface area of its basin is about 5,000 km2 (1,900 square miles), which makes up 16 of Armenia’s territory. But numbers and data aside, Sevan is, first of all, an iconic and almost sacred place for every Armenian – the “jewel” of Armenia.

Lake Sevan

For several reasons, its Western coast is much more developed and “dotted” with restaurants and hotels (some very attractive, some fairly ugly), whereas Sevan’s Eastern part remains relatively untouched. We planned to see both, but today focused on more touristy area. The most important cultural monument and popular destination here is the Sevanavank monastery. It is located on the peninsula, which was until the mid-20th century an island. Yes, this is right: initially the monastery was built at the southern shore of a small island, but after heavy usage of Sevan for irrigation, the water level fell about 20 meters, and the island evolved into a peninsula. Founded in 9th century, besides very scenic location, Sevanavank monastery was known for its strict rules as it was mainly intended for those monks who – allegedly – had somehow sinned.

Sevanavank Monastery

Granted, it is a beautiful and nicely restored monastic complex, but it is also full of tourists which makes it more difficult to relax and enjoy. However, you could walk just a few hundred meters to the end of the peninsula and get the feeling that the place belongs to you only.

Lake Sevan and Sevanavank Monastery

Later in the day, we visited Hayravank monastery which is also located on the coast of Sevan, about 30 km / 20 miles to the South of Sevanavank. Hayravank sits on the rocky cliff and has truly commanding view.

Approaching Hayravank Monastery

I personally liked Hayravank much more than Sevanavank: it felt serene and pristine.

Hayravank Monastery

Hayravank is also a good destination for people who want to explore the so-called khachkars. Known also as Armenian cross-stones, khachkars are carved, memorial stellas bearing a cross combined with some additional motifs such as rosettes, interlaces, flowers. Hayravank is surrounded by numerous khachkars and gravestones that are part of a small cemetery.

Khachkars surround Hayravank monastery

My fellow travelers, Vladimir and Elena, lingered somewhat longer inside the monastery’s church, and I began playing with Google maps exploring the nearby area. Suddenly, something interesting popped up: the sign on Google maps said “Mikayelyan Farm Factory.” The associated picture displayed a cellar full of heads of cheeses. All of us are cheese-lowers, and we drove to the village of Gavar where the farm was located. Long story short, a big extended family from the capital Yerevan moved here in 2012, bought properties, and began production of fine cheeses. Most of them (made of cow and goat milk) are well aged (at least, 4 months) and some are fermented with added brandy, grape leaves, cinnamon, or wine. The selection is impressive (about 10 kinds) and the entire set-up for wine-and-cheese tasting is enjoyable.

We stayed at Mikayelyan’s for a while, sampled their entire selection, and ended up buying plenty of cheeses. And then we were back on the the road heading for the resort town of Dilijan in Northern Armenia where we planned to stay the following two nights. There are many reasons to visit Dilijan. Surrounded by forest and being within the Dilijan National Park, this area is often nicknamed the Armenian Switzerland or Little Switzerland. The narrow streets of the Old town feature well restored traditional Armenian architecture. Because of the quality of mountain air, natural beauty and slow pace of life, numerous Armenian artists, composers, and filmmakers moved here from busy Yerevan. Plus, several interesting ancient monasteries are also located within short distance from Dilijan. In short, in Dilijan, you can combine hiking in the nature, exploring traditional Armenian, and visits to many historical sites. We stayed in B&B right in the middle of Old town on Myasnikyan Street.

Myasnikyan Street in the heart of Old Dilijan

There is a story about the origins of the name, “Dilijan.” According to legend, the town is named after a shepherd called Dili. He was in love with his master’s daughter, but the father was against this union and ordered to kill the shepherd. For many days, the sorrowful mother of Dili was mourning and looking for her only son. And she was desperately crying, “Dili jan, Dili jan .. ” (“Jan” is an Armenian term added to the name of a friend or family member). Hence, the area has become known under this name. Our B&B was appropriately called “Old Dili” and it looked like this:

B&B “Old Dili”

My room was as huge as soccer field and had plenty of sunlight.

Yet, while being home, I preferred to sit outside, on a terrace and in a spacious stone gazebo.

Gazebo with a view at B&B Old Dili

The thing was that this gazebo offered a truly commanding view of the modern (lower) part of the town.

Lower, modern part of Dilijan

Dilijan has a vibrant restaurant scene. On the first night we went to the place called Kchuch which is known for its dishes prepared in a wood-fired brick oven. “Kchuch” means in Armenain “clay pot,” and many dishes in this restaurant are cooked in clay pots. I had for dinner a pizza with locally harvested wild mushrooms, while my friend Vladimir opted for lamb slowly prepared in a honey sauce and served in a “kchuch.”

The next day, I decided to combine hiking in the nature with visits to some historical sites. And this can be done easily in Dilijan. Two medieval monasteries, Matosavank and Jukhtakvank, are located in scenic forest settings and yet close to Dilijan. The trailheads to both begin from the same parking area and it takes only about 10 min. by car from Dilijan to come here. I first walked about one hour through the forest to Matosavank, a small 13th century monastery. Nobody was there, when I arrived and it was good time to stretch under the son on the monastery’s roof covered with soft moss.

Matosavank Monastery near Dilijan

Although the monastery looks from the outside really like “ruins,” its interior is amazingly well preserved.

Matosvank Monastery
Matosvank Monastery

And then I heard some voices from the outside: a group of pilgrims led by a village priest came to the monastery.

Pilgrims at Matosvank Monastery

As it turned out, they were planning not simply visit, but also have a worship service in the church. The ladies began cleaning and preparing. By the time I left, the makeshift altar was assembled and ready.

I returned to the parking area and hiked (just about 30 min.) to the second monastery: Jukhtakvank. What is left of this monastery are two churches. The bigger one is called St. Grigor.

St. Grigor Church at Jukhtakvank Monastery

The name of the smaller church is St. Astvatsatsin.

St. Astvatsatsin.Church at Jukhtakvank Monastery

I lit the candle and said my prayers inside of St. Astvatsatin Church.

In afternoon, I joined my fellow travelers, Vladimir and Elena, and we all felt like having some fun. Well, there is a good place for doing this near Dilijan: lake Parz. It is a small lake in the mountains which offers cafes, boat rentals, etc. There is also a hiking trail connecting Dilijan with lake Parz, but we simply drove there.

Lake Parz

But most importantly, lake Parz has a loooooong zip line and it is definitely worth of $20 to take the ride.

Taking ride on zipline at Lake Parz

The main official attraction near Dilijan is a huge monastic complex called Haghartsin, and by the end of day we drove there. Its name translates as “soaring eagle.” The legend says that by the time of monastery’s dedication, an eagle was soaring over the dome: “Hagh” means playing/soaring and “arts” refers to an eagle. Hagartsin was continuously built between 10th and 13th centuries. It has three churches: St. Astvatsatsin, St. Gregory, and St. Stepanos. Besides churches, Khachkars (Armenian cross-stones) are dispersed trough the monastery’s lands. Regardless of monastery’s historical and architectural importance, for me, the major attraction was its location: a gorgeous combination of the ivory color of buildings which are in perfect contrast with the surrounding green woods.

Haghartsin Monastery
Haghartsin Monastery

Hagartsin is nicely restored, easily accessible by a good road, and offers a variety of services for visitors: bakery, restaurant, art shops, etc. Predictably, it attracts many tourists, and it is unlikely that you will have this place for yourself only. And, yet, I did not feel that the monastery has lost its unique sacred aura. Especially, when I saw two boys lightening candles and taking this very seriously.

The next day we planned to explore Eastern, less visited, part of Lake Sevan. But first we drove to Ijevan, the town about 50 km / 30 miles North-East of Dilijan. The goal was to visit Ijevan Wine-Brandy Factory and buy some famous Armenian Brandy. Indeed, brandy of highest quality has been produced in Armenia since the end of the 19th century with brand of “Ararat” being best known. There is a story that at the end of WWII, during the Yalta Conference, Joseph Stalin gave British Prime-Minister Winston Churchill a bottle of Armenian brandy “Dvin.” Churchill was so impressed that he asked for several cases of it. Reportedly 400 bottles of “Dvin” were shipped to Churchill annually. Following Stalin’s example, during a 2013 meeting at his villa, Russian president Vladimir Putin presented British Prime Minister David Cameron with a bottle of the same Armenian brandy (“Dvin”).

When I grew up in ex-USSR, domestically Armenian Brandy was sold under the name “Armenian Cognac,” but for the export it was marketed as “Armenian Brandy” in order to not violate the rule that only precious beverage produced in French province of Cognac can be labeled “Cognac.” Compared to internationally renown “Ararat” (the factory existed since 1887), “Ijevan” is less recognizable name. In fact, “Ijevan” began its own production only in 1996: prior to that, it shipped unfinished brandies to “Ararat.” But – trust me – today, the quality of “Ijevan” brandies is as good as that of “Ararat.” Plus, you will pay a much lower price for the former. The pride of the factory is brandy “King Abgar” which is aged 40 years, acquiring an incredibly deep flavor. But I was quite happy purchasing a bottle of seven-years-old “Vanuhi” and five-years-old apricot-based brandy. Both – under $10.

After Ijevan, we drove along the Eastern coast of lake Sevan. There is a reason why this part of the lake is much less developed than its Western coast. In former Soviet Union, most villages around Eastern Sevan were populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis. Although at that time it was one country (Soviet Union), the local Armenian authorities treated culturally and religiously different Azerbaijanis with suspicion and they kept the entire infrastructure in this part of Armenia underdeveloped. The same happened to ethnically Armenian settlements on the territory of Azerbaijan. Fast forward, in 1980s, an exchange of population was organized: Armenians from Azerbaijan moved into formerly Azerbaijanian villages in Armenia and vice versa. It was not an easy process, but relatively peaceful and mutually satisfactory. Brand new roads were built around Eastern part of the lake, but then Soviet Union collapsed and little was invested into creating tourist infrastructure along Sevan’s Eastern coast. Hence, today, there is a perfect road and a few villages, but overall the lake feels natural and untouched.

The road along Eastern coast of Lake Sevan

The day was sunny and warm. Naturally, our goal was to find some good beach: to sunbath and take a swim in the crystal clear waters. Unfortunately, truth to be told, there are not many good beaches around Sevan, but we found a real hidden gem. The beach shows as “Gold Beach” on Google maps: it has fine sand and is surrounded by the pine forest. We could not wish anything better and stayed here a few hours.

Gold Beach near Hwy M14, Eastern shore of Lake Sevan

The final destination for this day was the village Tsapatagh, also on Eastern coast of Sevan. Via AirBnB, I found there accommodations which were described as “cozy house with the view of Lake Sevan.” And it was indeed very cozy and traditional village house.

Our home in Tsapatagh village

The house had all modern comforts (hot shower, strong WiFi), but its main “selling point” was this peaceful view from the furnished deck: vineyards with the lake in the distance.

The view from our deck: vineyards and Lake Sevan

There is not much “to do” in Tsapatagh, but it is a good place to take a long walk around. We haven’t seen many people or cars, and this lonely railroad track made me think about old pop-song from the 1970s: “One way ticket.”

And finally, after long day of driving, swimming, and walking, Tsapatagh rewarded us with gorgeous sunset over Sevan.

Sunset over Lake Sevan

Next morning, a scrumptious breakfast was prepared by our hosts. Needless to say that the meal was accompanied again by the view on Sevan.

Armenian “village breakfast”

We stayed only one night in Tsapatagh and, honestly, I somewhat regretted that we need to leave. Being there felt like an immersion in the realities of the authentic and unhurried village life. Clearly and largely this happened thanks to our AirBnB hosts: the local Englsih school teacher, Alina, and her cheerful mother, Asmik. They received us as if we were part of their family or old friends. The life of people in Tsapatagh is not easy: it is difficult to make decent living there, the winters can be harsh, and the urban centers are far away. But Alina and her mother are real patriots of their village and Armenia as a country, and they tell us many stories about living in Tsapatagh.

Our hosts in Tsapatagh village: Alina and her mother, Asmik.

We left Tsapatagh and drove as fast as possible to Yerevan: it was the only day which was reserved for exploring Armenian capital. Situated along the Hrazdan River, Yerevan has been country’s capital since 1918, the fourteenth in the history of Armenia. The origins of Yerevan date back to the founding of the fortress of Erebuni in 782 BC by King Argishti I. Erebuni was designed as a great religious center and royal capital, but later in the history other cities were established, and Yerevan declined in importance. After World War I, thousands of survivors of the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire arrived in this area. Consequently, Yerevan became the capital of the First Republic of Armenia which existed as an independent state between 1918 and 1922, when Armenia was incorporated into Soviet Union. The city expanded rapidly during the 20th century into a world-class cultural center. In 2012, UNESCO named Yerevan as a World Book Capital. With about 1,100,000 inhabitants, Yerevan has more than one-third of Armenia’s total population.

Yerevan, with looming Mt. Ararat as background

Having little time in Yerevan (which I also regretted), we did not go into city’s many great museums, art collections, or artistic performances. Instead, we simply walked around and explored the streets and monuments of Armenian capital. I liked Yerevan a lot: its monumental architecture (some call it “Soviet style”), wide avenues, green alleys and parks, many fountains and interesting sculptures. The city is centered around Republic Square which is home to the office of Armenian Government and National History Museum.

Republic Square in Yerevan

And yet many believe that the most iconic place in Yerevan is the so-called Cascade Complex. The Cascade is a giant stairway made of limestone which links the downtown Kentron area with the neighborhoods of upper city. Inside the Cascade, underneath the exterior steps, are exhibit halls which together compose the Cafesjian Museum of Art. The exterior of Cascade is adorned with fountains and modernist sculptures. The base of the Cascade is designed as a garden with many statues by contemporary international sculptors such as Botero, Lynn Chadwick, and Barry Flanagan. Combined with many open air cafes, restaurants and street performances, Cascade Complex is genuine cultural heart of Yerevan.

The Cascade in Yerevan
My sister-in-law Olga, climbing Cascade’s stairs

Even if you don’t go to Cascade, Yerevan is full of appealing artistic work. I mentioned at the beginning of this story that Armenia produced many talented composers and musicians. One of them was Arno Babajanian. Here is a great statue dedicated to his memory.

Another good place to visit in Yerevan is Lovers’ Park: a big public garden with lush vegetation, man-made waterfalls, sculptures, and cafes.

The statue of Armenian poet and essayist Gevorg Emin in Lovers’ Park

You can also have some fun with public transportation in Yerevan. The taxis are cheap and services similar to Uber are abundant, but Yerevan has also very efficient subway system (“metro”). It is quite deep and the stations are nicely decorated.

Yerevan’s subway
Yerevan’s subway

And it is definitely the only subway (at least, in my experiences), where the cars are decorated with carpets.

Yerevan was the last point of this trip for my friends, Vladimir and Elena: next day, they flew back to Moscow. But I planned to continue the journey together with my sister-in-law, Olga, and visit the Republic of Georgia, another part of former Soviet Union. There is a modern and comfortable train which connects the capitals of Armenia (Yerevan) and Georgia (Tbilisi). It leaves at around 1 pm from Yerevan and arrives at around midnight to Tbilisi. I headed to the train station and boarded this train.

Train Yerevan – Tbilisi.

But the story about adventures in Georgia and Northern Turkey will be in another post. However, the trip to Armenia “caught up with me” in an unexpected way upon return to California. About a month later, I received by mail seven speeding tickets. Granted, I was driving there fast, but not too fast and the roads were modern and wide. Regrettably, I did not bother to inquire about the actual speed limit which – as it turned out – is quite low, less than 60 miles per hour even on major highways. It has also taken a while to figure out information on these speeding tickets, because everything was in Armenian.

Do NOT speed in Armenia!

Good news was that – all tickets combined – it was not terribly expensive: about $200 all together. I paid the fine obediently and…I hope to visit Armenia again: the country with interesting history and culture and amazingly welcoming people.

One thought on “Armenia: First Christian Nation and the “Country of Stones.”

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