MUST SEE IN ARMENIA

YEREVAN

Leave your preconceptions at home, because Yerevan (ԵՐԵՎԱՆ) will almost certainly confound them. This is a city full of contradictions – top-of-the-range Mercedes sedans share the roads with Ladas so old they should be in museum collections; old-fashioned teahouses sit next to chic European-style wine bars; and street fashions range from hipster to babushka with many weird and wonderful variations in between.

Life here isn't necessarily easy (costs are high, transport is crowded and air pollution is a constant problem), but it's most certainly fun. In summer, locals take to the streets every night, claiming tables at the city's many outdoor cafes, sauntering along its tree-filled boulevards and congregating around the much-loved musical fountain in Republic Sq. In winter, freezing temperatures encourage people off the streets and into the many pandoks (taverns) around town, where khoravats (barbecue meats), oghee (fruit vodka) and traditional music are enjoyed with gusto.


GEGHARD MONASTERY

Named after the holy lance that pierced Christ’s side at the crucifixion, this World Heritage–listed monastery is carved out of the rock face of the Azat River Gorge. Legend has it as founded in the 4th century and its oldest surviving chapel dates back to the 12th century. The hugely atmospheric Surp Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God Church) dates from 1215 and features wonderful carvings; its adjoining gavit (vestibule) with its nine arches was built between 1215 and 1225.  Outside Surp Astvatsatsin, above the south door, is a coat of arms of the family of the Zakarian prince who built it. The theme is a common Near Eastern one, with the lion symbolising royal might. On the left-hand side of the gavit are two entrances to chapels hewn from the rock in the 13th century.

One contains a basin with spring water, khachkars and stalactite decoration. The second includes the four-column burial chamber of Prince Papaq Proshian and his wife, Hruzakan. The family’s coat of arms, carved in the rock above, features two lions chained together and an eagle.

HOVHANNAVANK MONASTERY

Perched on the edge of the Kasagh Gorge, this monastery in the village of Ohanavan was once an important educational and theological center where manuscripts were written and illuminated. It has two adjoining churches: a basilica dating from the 5th century and the 13th-century Church of St John. The church has an altar decorated with frescoes, as well as unusual cantilevered staircases on its north and south sides. The entrance to both buildings is via a splendid 13th-century gavit.

DEBED CANYON

This canyon manages to pack in more history and culture than anywhere else in the country. Nearly every village along the Debed River has a church, a chapel, an old fort and a sprinkling of khachkars somewhere nearby. Two World Heritage–listed monasteries, Haghpat and Sanahin, are the main attractions, but there's much more to see.

Derelict Soviet-era infrastructure is sadly noticeable along the riverbank, but the scenery is quite idyllic elsewhere. The road through the canyon is busy, as this is the main artery linking Armenia with Georgia. Tourist facilities include the excellent Tufenkian hotel and restaurant in Dzoraget and a scattering of B&Bs in the villages. Ramshackle roadside khoravats stands are almost the only eating options outside the B&Bs, but in summer fresh fruits, including delectable berries, are sold by the side of the main road. The canyon is best explored by car. Those using public transport should be able to travel between Alaverdi and most of the villages by marshrutka, but services vary in frequency and rarely operate on Sundays. Sanahin is easily reached by cable car from Alaverdi, and there are regular marshrutky to Haghpat and Odzun. There is one marshrutka per day to Akhtala, and one or two buses travel between Dsegh and Vanadzor most days. Hitchhikers should have no problem sourcing lifts on the main highway, but lifts on village roads are few and far between.

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