Wednesday 7 November 2012

Northern Armenia

A thousand-year-old monastery perched on a hilltop overlooking an immense, glistening blue lake. Two equally antique monasteries facing each other across a dramatic canyon. These kind of iconic images adorn any materials promoting tourism in Armenia; such scenes are portrayed on every postcard sold in the country. Armenia’s wealth of monasteries is without a doubt the main draw to visitors. They serve as perfect focal points for exploring the country, combining the nation’s proud history and culture with the outstanding natural beauty of the land. 

Sevanavank monastery


Most of these fantastically-situated monasteries are concentrated in the north of the country, particularly in the Lori region. Unsurprisingly, it was here that we headed first. We decided to base ourselves in Vanadzor, a town of 170,000 people, which despite being Lori’s capital appears to receive very few tourists. We didn’t see any other foreigners at all here, and the locals showed a great deal of interest in us (from people staring at us in the streets, to a group of students insisting that we join them for a drink, to shopkeepers routinely asking us where we’re from). In truth Vanadzor has little of specific interest to tourists, except for one especially beautiful old church on the outskirts of town, but I found the whole experience of being there really interesting as an insight into life in a provincial post-industrial Armenian city. Plus we had a great homestay at a lovely villa in a suburb that felt in many ways like a village.

Church in Vanadzor
However, just a short drive from Vanadzor is the Debed Canyon, which is home to several of Armenia’s most famous monasteries. Due to limitations of the public transport system, it seems that the only way to visit all of the Canyon’s monasteries in one day is with a taxi tour. But not seeing the appeal of a day spent in a car, punctuated by 10-minute photo-taking stints, we ignored the constant offers from taxi drivers at Vanadzor bus station and got on a marshrutka. The area around Vanadzor is dry, rocky and relatively barren, but as we reached the Debed Canyon we were surrounded by greenery on all sides. We alighted in Alaverdi, a mining town in the middle of the Canyon. I found this small town really charming, with a river flowing through it, and a lively street market. The huge, run-down but functioning copper mine next to the town felt a little out of place in such an attractive, natural setting, but was very impressive in its own way. Besides, I’m not going to complain about signs of industry in a country with as fragile an economy as Armenia.


View from top of cable car
From Alaverdi we took a cable car up out of the Canyon to the village of Sarahart, home to the Sanahin monastery. Surprisingly, the cable car is not a tourist attraction but a genuine means of transport for local people. Walking up through Sarahart’s dusty streets, with old women selling fruit, vegetables and clothes at the roadside, and children walking home from school, it was clear that we were in a real community. The most striking thing was that, although Sarahart is only a small village, its centre is full of big, ugly Soviet-era apartment blocks. The villagers were happy to give us directions to the monastery, and seemed intrigued by our presence, which was odd considering that Sanahin is one of Lori’s most visited tourist sights. As we reached the monastery it became apparent why: visitors all seem to come directly to the monastery in taxis or tour coaches, look around and then get driven away, without actually walking through the nearby settlement. When we decided to take the bus back to Alaverdi, the women sitting at the bus stop were really friendly, insisting we help ourselves to their huge sack of figs; an elderly gentleman walked up to us, saluted, and introduced himself as “Vladimir Dmitrovich”, and proceeded to ask us all about ourselves; he also told us with pride that his father had seen “the whole world except Australia” and gave us some interesting information about the local area, such as that the copper mine had once been owned by Charles de Gaule’s father.

Sarahart (with monastery on top of hill in background)
Women making and selling souvenirs outside Sanahin monastery
Back in Alaverdi our plans to visit monasteries by public transport fell apart, as we were told that we’d just missed the last marshrutka to Haghpat monastery. With no other option we took a taxi there, which was perhaps even more beautiful and atmospheric than Sanahin. But as you can probably tell from my photos, my eyes (and my camera) were directed more towards the incredible surroundings than to the buildings themselves. It's really as if the builders of mediæval Armenia had tourists in mind when they chose the locations of their religious buildings: they went out and found the most stunning spots in the land, so today visitors needn't spend years searching the mountains for fantastic views, but can just head straight to the monasteries to soak up the country's finest areas of natural beauty.

Haghpat monastery

Old woman taking in the view from Haghpat

"Old Dilijan"
Small shop in suburbs Dilijan; decidedly more
 authentically local than the souvenir stores in Old Dilijan
Just east of Vanadzor, in the neighbouring region of Tavush, is Dilijan. Dilijan is a town of 17,000 that’s supposed to be one of Armenia’s main tourist destinations. The focal point for tourists is meant to be “Old Dilijan”, a small pedestrianized street lined with reconstructions of mediaeval buildings. Unfortunately “Old Dilijan”, home only to a restaurant, a café and a few souvenir shops; it feels nothing like a historic district and entirely like part of a theme park. The rest of the town’s small centre is quite bleak, with little of interest to see. While walking through the town, however, a mysterious footpath leading up a steep bank into a wooded area caught my eye. After walking up a tiny track through the trees, and then past a small power station, I reached an intriguing, eerily quiet, half-built suburb of Dilijan. Huge walled mansions stood beside crumbling old cottages.; the rusting shells of cars and buses lay unwanted in fields; dogs and livestock wandered about aimlessly; houses that looked as though they’d be expensive when finished stood incomplete and uninhabited, with no sign that construction was ongoing. This district’s potential to be developed was obvious, as it was surrounded by stunning views of the nearby hills and mountains, but for some reason development had clearly come to a standstill, resulting in a bizarre ghost town vibe. It turned out that exploring this area was easily the most rewarding thing I did in Dilijan.

Half-finished homes dotted around the fantastic landscape just outside Dilijan

After an hour or so driving south from Dilijan, through lush, green, forested mountains, the road comes to a long tunnel. Upon emerging from the tunnel the landscape is completely transformed: ahead the land is dry, rocky and – by Caucasian standards – flat. A sign proclaims that you have now left Tavush and entered Gegharkunik, Armenia’s largest province. The reason for this huge expanse of flatness soon becomes apparent: Lake Sevan. As Armenia is a landlocked state, this enormous lake (~940 km2) is especially important for the nation, historically having served as a source of drinking water and of hydroelectric power, and now providing the country with its only domestic beach resorts. But more enticing to me than the beach bars and deck chairs was Sevanavank, yet another of Armenia’s celebrated monasteries, this one situated atop a hill on a peninsula protruding into the fantastic lake.

Musician near Sevanavank