Day Trips from Yerevan, Armenia: Garni, Geghard and Khor Virap

Day Trips from Yerevan, Armenia: Garni, Geghard and Khor Virap

As convenient as cities are for a home base, I’m always happy to escape and see another part of the country. I let Grig, the lawyer who works for Interpol, figure out where to go and I just had to hop in the car and enjoy! According to my guidebook, Garni and Geghard are must-dos or people won’t believe you’ve been to Armenia (conveniently, they’re close together so easy to see on the same day). Khor Virab Monastery is important historically (as the location responsible for turning Armenia Christian) and has some incredible views. All three places are less than an hour from the capital so they make perfect day trips from Yerevan and you’ll pass pretty scenery on the way! “When I look up from the canyon to the temple of Garni and see how the sun plays upon the stone and actually makes it glow, then I understand how perfect that world was” -Rafael Hakopian Garni Pagan Temple The first stop was the most ancient attraction of our day trip- Garni temple from the Hellenistic Period (1st century AD). This was the only pagan temple that survived the Christianization of the country three centuries later. They constructed it out of basalt, in a Greco-Roman style, and it used to have a bath next to it. Supposedly the king loved the bath and the views from the temple so much, he made an exception to his command to destroy it. Although the temple was impressive, the views made the structure especially imposing. Two rivers meet at the temple site, dropping over 300 feet with dramatic rock formations on either side- aptly named “symphony canyon” because it looks kind of like organ pipes. The temple had collapsed in 1679 but was restored about 30 years ago and now is the perfect well-formed place for tourists to climb all over. Geghard Monastery Just when visiting churches was beginning to get boring (the ones in Georgia and Armenia tend to be quite plain… at least their interiors), Grig took me to Geghard Monastery, a UNESCO site, which was unlike any church I’ve ever been in. This 12th century monastery was built around a sacred spring and named after the spear stuck into the side of the wounded Jesus Christ, which is supposedly stored here. Just down the road from Garni, this scenery surrounding this site similarly makes it spectacular. The church is cozily nestled between towering cliffs from the river gorge. Certain rocks have caves cut in them, where monks used to live, reminiscent of Cappadocia. To enter the monastery, you’ll walk past a parking lot of Soviet cars, a line of old ladies selling sweet bread and sheets of dried fruit. Before the main entrance, you can toss a pebble to see if it lands on a ledge, which will grant you a wish. You can up stairs to look down on the church, while having an opportunity to examine the elaborate crosses (khatchkar) carved in stone into the hillside. Just through the back door, by a river, we found three men butchering a sheep that they hung from a shed… it seems like a lot of trouble for a picnic! So although the church doesn’t look particularly unique from the outside, entering the church is an Indiana Jones-esque adventure! The door opens to the main room, which is completely dark except for candles and extraterrestrial-like spotlight shining from the ceiling. People line up to take photos in this sacred spot, where you supposedly receive the Holy Spirit (and simultaneously look like the victim of an alien abduction). This room opens up into several smaller side rooms, filled with stone carvings of animals and crosses, with another mini-Holy-Spirit photo opportunity. The sacred spring flows through one of the rooms, which people take home in bottles for its holy properties. Grig made sure we each bought three candles to light to ensure that our dreams would come true (because we weren’t too good at throwing pebbles). He also taught me how to exit a church properly, walking backwards so you don’t turn your back to the altar. Some of these practices and traditions are similar to what I saw with Orthodox Christianity in Greece and Georgia but Armenia actually has its own unique sect with its own bible and patriarch. Geghard was a mystical place to get acquainted with some of these practices in person. Khor Vhap Monastery To see where Armenian Christianity all began, Grig took me to Khor Virap Monastery 30 km on the other side of Yerevan. The scenery on the other side completely changed from craggy river canyons to flat, fertile farmland and...

Insider’s Insight on Yerevan, Armenia: A Quirky Place Under its Intimidating Exterior

Insider’s Insight on Yerevan, Armenia: A Quirky Place Under its Intimidating Exterior

“There is no other land in the world so full of wonders as the land of Armenians” –Lord Bryon My decision to go to Armenia wasn’t because of its wonders… mostly because its close and I was curious but I’m glad I got to explore this country, get past its intimidating appearance and get to know its softer, more hospitable side. Immediately after crossing the border, Georgia’s flat fertile fields of sunflowers turned into rocky outcroppings and piles of rusting construction equipment. The houses became more dilapidated, the vehicles became increasingly Soviet and the road became bumpy (very bumpy- I think I spent most of my time on Armenian roads levitating off my seat). Yerevan: First Impressions As we entered the capital, things changed pretty drastically. It’s nick-name “the Pink City” might suggest a certain femininity but besides the pink tuff stones throughout the city, Yerevan is exactly the opposite. Even Mother Armenia has a masculine frame, built on Stalin’s old pedestal, mightily holding a massive sword and stomping on a shield. The city has a whole exuded a sense of sturdy strength: fortified buildings, soldiers walking around in uniform and an impersonal feel of modern efficiency. The people don’t tend to exude an overwhelmingly friendly feel either. While in Tbilisi, my hosts picked out Armenians by their big noses (which many of its citizens have recently tried to tone down with nose jobs… apparently, Yerevan a destination for medical tourism and plastic surgery in general) and dark features. The women walk around Yerevan dressed to impress, in teetering high heels (that look like they might break on cobblestone sections of sidewalk) and so much make-up that makes you wonder what lies beneath. Although Armenia made an impersonal first impression, this immediately changed once I met its occupants. When trying to find my hostel, I asked a guy who didn’t speak English but asked around he found me a translator. Before long, I had an exponentially growing clump of middle-aged men, studying my map, scrutinizing my reservation, calling the hostel and even parading me safely across the street to the other side. The hostel owner greeted me with such enthusiasm and adoration, you would think that she’d been waiting her whole life for my arrival. The couch surfers I contacted from Armenia provided me with encyclopedias of advice and invitations for outings. The ones that I actually meet up with were so generous that I had to fight them to contribute to the dinner bill or cab fare. Here’s how the journey unfolded: A Night On the Town with David David was the perfect transitional couchsurfer (after swapping cities from Tbilisi to Yerevan) because lived in both (+Moscow), was Georgian by birth and was currently in residency for cardiology in Yerevan. As the sunset, the city awakened and people flocked outside, something that never really happened in Tbilisi. World Cup watchers filled the cafes, couples strolled the sidewalks and around the Opera, parents ate ice cream as they dodged children zooming around in electric kid-sized cars. David and I snaked through parks, past gangs of old men playing chess, got misted by fountains, and plopped down on a bench near the to-scale mini-model of Sevan Lake (the main lake of the country). We walked to Republic Square, which has a light, sound and water fountain show for a continuous three hours from 9-midnight. It seemed the whole city gathered (including a new bride in her wedding dress) to watch the water dance to a wide variety of Armenian, popular and classic tunes. My host pointed out a group of Iranian guys in the corner, talking to a prostitute. He complained that Iranian guys come here, see the modern city and scandalous clothing and think it’s “no rules Las Vegas” but often get in trouble with the locals who still uphold a relatively conservative culture. We walked to the Cascades, which is an impressive 572 stair-monument covered in statues that overlooks the city (whose absolute height is higher than the Eiffel Tower. One of the things I love most about Yerevan is its random collection of statues and the Cascade features many collected from all over the world. To get to the stairs, you walk past a flower garden with a fat lady lounging naked (this one supposedly caused a stir from the conservative residents of the city, a duplicate of which can be found in Colombia), a 12-ft tall bright blue penguin and a cat sticking out its tongue. On the Cascades itself, there’s a silver missile that looks ready to be launched into space, a giant lion made out of recycled tires and...