28 June 2009

Highlights of our trip to northern Armenia

On Monday, June 22, our friend Maria and her cousin Arsen picked us up from our apartment to escort us to their hometown in northern Armenia, Vanadzor, where we would stay for the next three days as we explored some of the important historic sites in the surrounding regions.

It would take more time than I have right now to describe in full detail all the amazing places we visited during our trip, so I'll try to summarize. (If you're interested in reading detailed information about any of the sites mentioned below, click the links provided.)

We drove north out of Yerevan on Ashtarak Highway, passing through Aragatsotn Marz (there are 10 marzer, or provinces, in Armenia, plus the special administrative division of Yerevan).

A snack for the road!

Crossing over some mountains, we found ourselves in the lush, verdant hills of Lori Marz. We made our first stop at Dendropark, where Nathan got to ride a horse before we all took a relaxing stroll through the cool woods and shady gardens of the arboretum.

Next, we drove into Stepanavan and paid a visit to the remains of Lori Berd, a medieval fortress situated in a wild meadow. The vistas atop the sheer cliffs of the encircling gorges were awesome, but little Nathan had some difficulty trudging through the tall grass, and insisted there were "too many flowers."

Finally, we arrived in Vanadzor, where we settled into Maria's apartment and dined on Armenian-style summer salad, buckwheat, and vegetable soup.

We had read about a 12th Century monastery on a mountainside just north of the town of Tumanian. We parked next to some railroad tracks, I wrapped Nathan onto my back, and we began hiking up the muddy trail, passing through the tiny village of Kober. After an intense 15-minute leg and back workout, we reached Kobayr. We were surprised to see a family there having a barbecue. Apparently, they lived nearby and were celebrating the arrival of some friends from Russia. We shared a meal and a couple of dances before saying farewell and trekking back down the mountain to our car.

Our next stop was Sanahin, founded in AD 966. It is in much better condition than many of the other places we have seen, probably because it is protected as a United Nations World Heritage site.

Time for an emergency diaper change behind some tombstones.

Here's a short video clip of the interior of the main church of Sanahin.

We stopped for a picnic on the way to our next stop, but it was cut short by an intruding family of pigs. We managed to save some cookies and hard-boiled eggs, but the pigs stole our salad, bananas, and a plate of cheese.

After that we went toHaghpat, also built in the late 10th Century. It too is on the World Heritage list, so, as at Sanahin, all the structures were incredibly well-preserved. I really loved the view of the mountain village in the distance.

A beautiful willow stands beside the bell tower

Our final stop for the day was the 6th Century church of Odzun. The doors were locked, so we couldn't see inside, but the beauty of the church's exterior... its perfect situation on a grassy plateau, the ancient tombs surrounding the church so overgrown with flowers and weeds that they disappeared under our feet, the setting sun over the canyon ...all made it well worth the trip.

The last day of our journey. We were off to a bit of a late start because Maria had to take care of some things at the passport office, but Jarred, Nathan, and I had fun wandering around town on our own for a while.

Playing with a fountain in Vanadzor

Passing through Dilijan

On this day we drove east out of Vanadzor into Tavush Marz, winding our way up narrow, thickly forested mountain roads until we came to our first destination, 13th Century Haghartsin, which turned out to be Jarred's favorite site of all the places we visited. The monastery's setting is truly idyllic.

We were glad to see that the place was undergoing repairs, but all the hammering and drilling spoiled the tranquility of this otherwise breathtaking site. At the souvenir stand (yes, there are such things even in rural Armenia), they were selling small stones with pictures of the monastery painted on them, so I purchased one to keep as a reminder for myself to return someday when the work is finished.

Continuing onward, we came to my personal favorite,
Goshavank, founded in 1188 by Mkhitar Gosh (that's a long o, as in hope). Thunderclouds loomed and boomed in the distance, but at the site the weather was sunny with cool breezes. It was like something out of a dream.
Notice the large, unfinished stones used as the foundation for this building. According to our guidebook, as well as a tour guide we met there, it is left over from an Iron Age fortress that was on the site 2000 years before the monastery was built.

The tomb church of Goshavank's founder stands on a nearby hillside.

I could have stayed there forever...but eventually, we had to leave and start making our way back to Yerevan.

Stopping on the side of the road to buy some freshly-picked forest mushrooms.

The very last stop of our journey was at Sevanavank, built during the 9th Century on the shores of Lake Sevan in Gegharkunik Marz. Compared to most of the other places we had just seen, this particular monastery was not especially beautiful. But it was still interesting to stand on the Sevan Peninsula (which used to be an island until Soviet engineers - during Stalin's regime - decided to drain the lake) and admire the excellent view. We didn't stay for long, however, as the place was swarming with mosquitoes!

After another hour of driving, we were home. Nathan really enjoyed riding in the "big red jeep." Even now, a week later, he tells me he wants to go back to Vanadzor. One day, we will do just that!
To see all the photos from our memorable trip, please visit our June Photobucket album.

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