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Artashat
Artashat

The City of Artashat was founded in 1945 by the Soviet Armenian Government, in roughly the same place and in honor of the ancient City of Artashat. Eight kilometers north of the current city, the 5th century Armenian historian Movses Khorenatsi regales, King Artashes I (founder of the Artashesian Dynasty) travelled to the confluence of the Yeraskh and Metsamor rivers, and under the shadow of Mt. Ararat established the capital of his empire in 176 BC, naming it after himself.

Excavations in the vicinity have uncovered a large settlement from the early Bronze Age, and more recently, the huge Urartian City that Artashat was built over. This ancient city – also known as “Vostan Hayots,” or Realm of the Armenians – was the location of the first ever theater in Armenia, around 60 BC.

After its re-founding, the new City of Artashat grew gradually during the Soviet period, as an industrial hub for food-processing and building materials. Combining sightseeing and historical tourism, together with a wide range of events, Artashat’s cultural life is constantly growing richer. This is evident in the establishment and presence of several institutions: The Artashat Art Center after Charles Aznavour, the Amo Kharazyan Drama Theater and the Ohan Chubaryan Public Library (opened in 1948). The theater has performed a number of classic and modern, Armenian and international works over the last fifteen years.

During events dedicated to the 1600th anniversary of the invention of the Armenian alphabet, sculptors from all over Armenia and the diaspora gathered in the center of Artashat to create many interesting cultural monuments.

Things to See in Artashat:

 Khor Virap (“Deep Pit”) Monastery is where Saint Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned and left to starve for thirteen years, before his liberation and conversion of Armenia to Christianity. The monastery includes two churches – the Church of Saint Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) with its belfry, and the Church of Saint Gevorg.

Ruins of the Ancient City of Artashat – The ancient City of Artashat was built on a group of twelve hills of varying size surrounding Khor Virap Monastery. Archaeological excavations have uncovered amazing things among them, including coins, seals, ruins of the Temple of Apollo (the God of Sun) and the citadel of the city, and the remnants of homes and a marketplaceā€¤ The city had an artificial drinking supply and even drainage channels along its streets.

Church of Saint John– This church has a solemn appearance, lacking any luxurious details and ornamentation; the architects have done their best to build a church where attendees’ attention won’t be distracted from prayer due to excessive decoration. The construction of the church was launched at the start of the year 2000 but, due to many interruptions and setbacks, lasted for a decade!

 

Ashtarak
Ashtarak

Ashtarak (tower in Armenian), the largest city of the Aragatsotn Province, is an old settlement along the Kasakh River gorge. Its historic churches show the evolution of Armenian architecture, with a range spanning from the 5th to the 19th centuries, and together with a 16th century bridge and the beautiful home of Perch Proshyan, there is much to admire.

Tsiranavor, the oldest church, is on the edge of the gorge, near Spitakavor Church (13th century) and Karmravor (7th century), and once contained detailed frescoes on its now-crumbling walls and ceilings. Karmravor Church is the most famous, for the amount of intricate décor on such a small church and its perfect current state, with almost all of its red tiles and tuff stone intact! These three churches are nicknamed the three sisters, after a legend where three siblings were spurned by a prince and threw themselves into the gorge.

On the outskirts of Ashtarak is the large restaurant and entertainment complex, Ashtaraki Dzor. 25 minutes from Yerevan, it is an ideal place to go for dinner one evening, with its small zoo, massive gold stage, live singing and dancing, and women making lavash bread in a traditional tonir oven, all whilst surrounded by the picturesque nature of the gorge. The river gorge itself is a natural jewel, seldom explored on its own right except by the hardiest of trekkers, but worth the effort for the unique flora, rock formations and fauna that inhabit the microclimate. 

Dilijan
Dilijan

Dilijan, the “Swiss mountain town of the Caucasus” is a charming retreat, with an authentic 18th century old town and dozens of wooden guesthouses and B&Bs overlooking the surrounding thick old growth forests.  The forests are filled with hiking trails, including several day hikes to the nearby forest monastery of Haghartsin; the reflective Parz Lich and Goshavank, as well as the ivy laden Jukhtakavank and Matosavank. Maintained by the vigilant rangers of the Dilijan National Park, these trails also lead to campsites, fortresses, mountaintops, deep gorges and breathtaking waterfalls.

Its cool clean air, bubbling mineral springs, mild climate and picturesque setting make it a welcome respite from the heat and bustle of Yerevan, and a nice contrast to the beautiful but stark alpine country around Sevan.  If Yerevan is for business and Sevan for beach-combing, Dilijan is for rejuvenating, for contemplating art, soaking in springs, walking through the forests that creep into the heart of the city, and listening to nature.

Dilijan is also a city of artists.  For 200 years, artists and musicians from all over the Russian Empire and Soviet Union gathered in mountain retreats, drawing inspiration from its idyllic setting.  New artists still spend vacations in the area and occasional exhibitions and sales are held in the town. It is now also home to a major international boarding school, with students from all around the world. Walk along the river in the center of town for a view of the park, lake and architecture, before reaching the UWC school to admire how its use of green roofs and walls allows it to seamlessly blend in with the natural setting.

Echmiadzin
Echmiadzin

Vagharshapat, generally called Echmiadzin, after the religious compound in the center, is the spiritual capital of all Armenians. The Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin, the headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and where the Catholicos resides, houses a number of churches, museums, gardens, seminaries and the oldest cathedral in the world. Dating back over 1,700 years, the original cathedral was built over an even older, pagan fire-worshipping pit that is still preserved in a room underneath the altar. The precise location for the church, is said to be the spot where Jesus struck the ground with a gold hammer, and is where Echmiadzin gets its name – the descent (ech) of the only (mi) begotten (dzin) son of God.

It has undergone significant reconstruction throughout its existence, as can be admired by the varying stones and styles of its distinct portions, and is still busy with weddings, baptisms and church services. If you’re lucky, look out for a bride and groom saying their vows, to enjoy a true Armenian wedding experience! Other impressive rituals are Armenian Christmas on Jesus’ birth day, January 6th, Easter, and when the Catholicos blesses the grape harvest on the second Sunday of August.

Surb Gayane and Surb Hripsime are other important churches in Echmiadzin, named after two of forty Christian virgins that fled to Armenia, and were killed by King Trdat for refusing to marry him. Once he adopted Christianity as his and his country’s religion, he had their remains found and they are currently preserved under the altars of the churches. 

Walking between the Echmiadzin compound and the churches, especially in Armavir’s dry heat, can tire anyone out – so when you get hungry, just ask around for what is colloquially known as Kufte Street, and try out Echmiadzin’s delicious kufte! Made from pounded and ground beef, mixed with spices and onion, this kufte goes down great with some vodka or cognac, and is the perfect meal to keep you going.

Gavar
Gavar

Gavar is lost atop the high mountains of the Gegham Range southwest of Lake Sevan, at an average height of 1,982 meters above sea level! Despite the challenge, people have populated the area since the 2nd millennium BC, leaving traces of the Bronze and Iron Ages, the Urartian period and the Middle Ages, in the form of tombstones and an Iron Age Berdi Glukh fort atop a hill in what is now the center of the town. There are many other medieval monuments and monasteries, khachkars (carved cross-stones) and gravestones across and around the town. The modern town was founded in its current location around 1830, by Armenian migrants from Bayazit (historically known as Daroynk or Arshakavan) in Western Armenia. Although the town inherited the name of its founders’ home, Nor Bayazet (or New Bayazet), by which it was officially known until 1959, it has colloquially been known as Gavar, or Kyavar, since the mid-19th century.

The town suffers the extremes of Lake Sevan: dry, hot summers, and freezing winters. It serves as a starting point for many tours into the Gegham Mountains, especially when they’re blanketed in snow and the brave people venturing out upon them have back-country skis strapped to their feet. Gavar’s cuisine has apparent ties to oriental dishes, in the form of spices, and the combination of vegetables, fish and fruit. Kyavari Kyufta (or Kofta from Gavar) is the town’s signature dish, made from beaten and minced beef, spiced with onions, rolled into balls and boiled. It is usually served in slices, with Gavartsis’ next second favorite food, bread. Eaten with almost every meal, the people of Gavar love their lavash and typical Armenian matnakash breads. For dessert, try a Kyavar Baklava; a multi-layered pastry filled with nuts, sugar and doused in hot honey. Each tissue-thin sheet of phyllo dough crunches and then melts away in your mouth!

Gyumri
Gyumri

Visiting Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city is a true immersion into Armenia’s Belle Époque of the 19th century. The old capital of Armenia at the time of the Russian Empire, Gyumri, or as it was then known, Alexandropol, was renowned for its art and culture, and its unique architecture. Although it suffered greatly from the 1988 Spitak Earthquake, much of the city’s historic district remained intact, its characteristic black tuff walls lining either side of wide promenades between plazas and parks.

With a growing economy and cultural life, efforts are now focusing on rebuilding and preserving the history of this beautiful city. St. Saviour’s Church, one of Armenia’s tallest religious buildings in the midst of the historic district, was badly damaged during the earthquake and is still undergoing reconstruction, but is a prime example of the region’s style – its contrasting black and orange tuff intricately sculpted into a towering masterpiece of religious architecture.

Although Yerevan is generally the point of arrival and where people spend most of their time, a trip to Armenia without visiting Gyumri would be missing a lot! Spend a day or two there, exploring the old town, breathing the fresh air, absorbing some real history, the lively humor, warm hospitality and delicious food. A great base for a few days, Gumri’s surroundings also offer countless things to see and do, from observing the ancient city of Ani, to visiting the beautiful monasteries of Marmashen, Harichavank, and Yereruik (a World Heritage Site nominee).

Hrazdan
Hrazdan

Hrazdan, capital of the Kotayk Marz, is a popular resort and spa city. You can find everything here to spend a wonderful holiday, including numerous hotels, spa centers and resorts, natural wonders and historic sites. Just 45km from Yerevan, Hrazdan gets its name from the Hrazdan River, which passes through the city on its way to Yerevan from Lake Sevan.

Hrazdan, the 5th largest city of Armenia, was until 1959 a small village called Akhta. Once part of Ancient Armenia’s Ayrarat Province, the original inhabitants came from across historic Armenia, from Kars, Sasun and Mush in Western Armenia, to Khoy, Salmas and Maku in Persia. After 1959, several rural communities surrounding the town of Akhta – Makravan, Jrarat, Kaqavadzor and some small hamlets – merged into what is now Hrazdan.

At an altitude of 1,800 meters above sea level, the city opens the doors to the wilderness of the Pambak, Tsaghkunyats and Gegham Mountain Ranges, to the Hrazdan River and its tributaries, and all the forests, waterfalls and mineral springs of the region. Nearly half of the city’s 22 square kilometers (8 square miles, or 2,060 ha) is covered in thick forests. The mountain conditions of Hrazdan shelter the city from extreme colds in winter (the average temperature in January is -9°C), and the extreme summer heat (in August, temperatures rarely rise above 20°C).

According to the official census of 2011, the population of Hrazdan is around 42,000 people. The majority of Hrazdan’s population is made up of ethnic Armenians, who arrived through the repatriation process during the Soviet period.

 

Jermuk
Jermuk

The popular mineral springs at Jermuk draw thousands to their revitalizing baths and spas.  Health or beauty regimens feature hot mineral water baths, mud baths, water massages, and a variety of other treatments. Several high-end spas have upgraded their services to international standards, and even the highest of spas charge a faction of what you would pay in the Europe.

Set in a gorge formed where a large number of mineral springs converge with the Arpa River, Jermuk is a welcome retreat into the peace and tranquility of the mountains. As part of a longer tour, it is the ideal place to reset and come to your senses, surrounded by idyllic forested mountains, the sound of gurgling streams and birdcall, and the gratifyingly complete Armenian hospitality. Hiking trails of all difficulties crisscross around the gorges, happening upon waterfalls and naturally heated pools, and there are plenty of alpine meadows secluded amongst the pockets between trees in which to set up camp for the night.

The only road in to Jermuk follows the Arpa River through a tight gorge, past the 10th century Gndevank Monastery, built by Princess Sephia of Syunik to be the jewel of the Vayots Dzor province. With a number of surviving frescoes, detailed sculptures, and ornate khachkars with engravings of falcons, mountain goats and boars, a visit to Jermuk without stopping here would most likely be incomplete!

Besides Tsakhkadzor, Jermuk is the prime ski destination of Armenia, with its newly refurbished lifts and slopes, and its wide expanses of skiable backcountry off sharp cliff edges and through sparse woods. There are often competitions held here, both for skiing and for more bizarre activities, such as mountain biking down the snow-blanketed slopes!

 

Meghri
Meghri

Meghri is an oasis in the desert; an enchanting land of blood red boulders and emerald green fields of grain, of vineyards, of the succulent pomegranate groves it’s justly famous for.  There is nothing like Meghri in all of Armenia, with all its natural beauty graphically drawn using a palette of vivid colors. The old town is a network of winding alleys and old stone homes with wooden balconies, and pockets of green orchards growing large fig trees that will later be distilled into a distinct, spicy alcohol.

Whether you come via the longer winding forested road through Shikahogh State Preserve, or the high elevation pass above Kajaran, the views offered from the top of the ridge as you begin your descent are stunning!  Craggy, dry peaks shooting up on either side of the wide, smooth-flowing Arax River, interspersed with the darkest, richest green, on any tiny bit of land lucky enough to be irrigated.  The town prides itself on its ability to grow “nails with a little rain”, a hardened mentality stemming from centuries of surviving nature and invading armies in this picturesque valley.

Its medieval fortress towers over 4th – 17th century churches, adorned with unique frescoes using Persian motifs due to the proximity and cultural exchange with the Persian peoples. Besides the history in the town, the surrounding area is also peppered with historic churches in the small lost cities of the Malyev River Valley.

Tsaghkadzor
Tsaghkadzor

Tsakhkadzor is aptly named Canyon of Flowers in Armenian, due to the lush forest and meadows on the slopes that surround it. This small town of 1,645 people, located in what was once the hunting grounds of the rulers of Armenia, is now a major four-season destination due to the fragrant flora of the warmer months, and the abundant snow on its ski slopes in the winter.

Resting on the slopes of the Teghenis Mountains, at an altitude of 1,750, Tsakhkadzor is well known for its resorts. The cool summer breeze offer a much-needed respite to Yerevan’s heat and tourists often spread their summer days between Lake Sevan and Tsakhkadzor – swimming in the lake in the mornings, and then rising up to the resort for its active nightlife. In the winter, the population explodes, with local and international tourists taking advantage of the cheap prices, well-groomed slopes and modern conveniences to get some exhilarating ski runs down the mountain.

The mountains and forests surrounding the town are also an ideal place to hike and camp, the dry ski slopes lend to leisurely strolls through the wildflowers, and the clean air helps reset the body. From the grand, beautifully restored, 10th century Kecharis Monastery there is a rewarding hike through the forest to the smaller Makravank monastery, over the crest of the mountain.

This mountain range is also home to a number of other similar towns and villages, with a variety of hikes, climbs and even waterfalls to enjoy! On the other side of the mountain, Meghradzor hides a series of waterfalls, rapids and pools that provide a unique reprieve from the usual swim at Sevan.

Vanadzor
Vanadzor

The third largest city of Armenia, Vanadzor, is hidden in a valley between the Pambak and Bazum Mountain Chains, on the banks of the Tandzut and Pambak Rivers. Often called by its Soviet name, Kirovakan, it is the ideal base to explore the forests of Lori; home to some of the most spectacular monastic complexes of the country. The once bustling industrial town is evolving into a prime tourism and trade center, its abandoned factories steadily being reclaimed by nature in contrast with the emerging buildings and services.

Once surrounded by forests, Vanadzor is now in the throes of one of the largest reforestation efforts in the country, after big areas were cut down to heat homes during the energy crisis of the early nineties. The forests of the wider region contain some of the most beautiful hiking trails and campsites, along riverbeds and towering cliffs that are in turn ideal for climbing and rappelling. Dotted throughout the landscape of the Debed Gorge are monasteries such as Odzun, and the World Heritage Sites of Sanahin and Haghpat.

During the Soviet era, Vanadzor was a famed spa town, with tourists flocking from all over the Soviet Union to recharge in the healing mineral waters sprouting from a myriad of springs. One of these spas remains, the Gugark Spa, offering its classic baths and massage treatments along with room and full board. If you’re tired from the hiking between monasteries, relax and reinvigorate there for a competitive 10,000 AMD a day!

Yerevan
Yerevan

The heart of Armenia is the centrally located capital, Yerevan. This comfortable city of one million, houses one third of the country within its vibrant and active streets. Its compact, circular town center is easy to navigate on foot, with virtually everything a person needs only a twenty minute walk away. With many parks, museums, concert halls, theaters, markets, hotels, restaurants and cafés, you’ll never want for something to do when you’re in town.

Yerevan is one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities in the world, dating back to the founding of the fortress of Erebuni in the 8th century BC, but it wasn’t until post World War I, when Armenia briefly became an independent republic before joining the Soviet Union, that Yerevan really began to thrive. To accommodate this growth during the Soviet period, the architect Alexander Tamanyan superimposed his idea of a modern city center on the existing town, and developed the circular streets lined with wide sidewalks and parks visible today. After a great deal of reconstruction, a new city rose with its characteristic pink hue reflected off all of the tuff facades in the center.

The pace of the city has sped up in recent years, but Yerevantsis (the Armenian term for people from Yerevan) still enjoy their spare time – going on strolls and sitting back on the terraces of wine bars and tearooms – and these welcoming green public spaces were the ideal place for this nation of coffee lovers to develop their own take on café culture. Do not be surprised if all the shops aren’t open first thing in the morning!

There are many interesting museums in Yerevan, and there is always a wealth of cultural performances and events to choose from. Tickets to the opera, philharmonic, theatre or even a puppet show are remarkably affordable, and the talent is world class. Just don’t get so caught up in the big city that you run out of time to explore the beautiful countryside!