Armenia travel

Axial Armenia

In a hurry? See the essential sites in a three-day tour that visits some of the highlights within and close to Yerevan, including the Ararat Valley, the stunning Garni and Geghard Complexes, Lake Sevan, the slopes of Mt. Aragats, the Kasagh River Gorge, and the small old town of Ashtarak.

Day 1: Yerevan

Start the morning with a walk and a coffee in the Old Abovyan Quarter. Be sure to stop at some of the museums along the way: the State History Museum, with the largest collection of prehistoric artefacts in the Near East; the National Gallery, with its superb collection of frescoes, Russian and Armenian classical art; the fun Parajanov Museum, with collages and art that everyone can appreciate; or the delightful Folk Art Museum.

After lunch, visit the Matenadaran, a world treasure with over 24,000 miniatures, manuscripts and documents dating back to the pre-Christian era! Take a walk up the hill to Tsitsernakaberd, the Genocide Memorial and Museum, or to the Erebuni Fortress, the 782 BC founding site of the city, for great views over Yerevan’s skyline. As the afternoon rolls on, be sure to visit one of Yerevan’s many Historic House Museums for a look at the traditional lifestyle of the local people. As dusk settles, visit the amazing Singing Fountains of Republic Square and take a short stroll up Northern Avenue to Opera and Cascade to watch the sun set. Take a taxi down for a superb dinner in the Hrazdan Gorge, and enjoy a late night coffee or drink in the Ring Park that wraps around the center.

Overnight in Yerevan.

Day 2: Yerevan – Garni/Geghard – Lake Sevan – Bjni – Yerevan

Visit the 1st century Temple of Garni, one of the finest examples of Greco-Roman temples in the Near East, and the only one remaining in the post-Soviet region! The temple overlooks the dramatic Garni Gorge, a natural wonder with spectacular rock formations; and the Khosrov Nature Preserve, the largest protected forest in Armenia, home to a wide variety of endangered plants and animals. Next, the Monastery of Geghard is part of a breathtaking landscape of mountain forests and jutting gorges, its 4th-12th century churches carved out of the solid rock of the cliffs. Home to a powerful

ascetic community, the monastery once held the Geghard (Holy Lance) believed to have pierced Christ’s flesh. Geghard Monastery was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.

Take a scenic drive up to Lake Sevan, one of the largest high altitude lakes in the world; its sky-blue, emerald-green or jet-black appearance changing hues several times a day. The lake has over two-hundred private beaches with beach cottages, resorts, a water park, and a number of seafood restaurants. Swimming, sailing, windsurfing, jet skiing and motorboat paragliding complement the bohemian atmosphere of the forested shores. Try one of the local fish dishes for dinner before heading back to Yerevan.

Overnight in Yerevan.

Day 3: Yerevan – Echmiadzin/Metsamor – Oshakan – Agarak – Byurakan – Amberd – Hovhanavank – Saghmosavank – Ashtarak – Yerevan

Etchmiadzin is the seat of the Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church and one of Armenia’s most revered religious sites. The main church was built in 301-303, and is one of the world’s oldest cathedrals. Take a tour of the church treasury to view the priceless reliquaries of the Armenian Church, including a piece of the True Cross, a fragment of Noah’s Ark and the Holy Lance that pierced Christ’s side on the Cross. Nearby are the 7th century St. Gayane and St. Hripsime Churches, both of which house relics of the 4th century martyrs that played a crucial part in the conversion of Armenia to Christianity; Zvartnots Cathedral, the tallest church on earth when it was built [I don’t know if this is true. I read it was the tallest religious building, but then I found a Japanese shrine that was older and taller. Maybe it’s the oldest stone religious building?]; and the burial shrine of Mesrop Mashtots, the author of the Armenian Alphabet.

Just fifteen kilometers away is the birthplace of bronze, the recently discovered 7,000-year-old Bronze Foundry of Metsamor. Part of a powerful civilization based on the forging and trade of metal, the people of Metsamor left behind thousands of petroglyphs carved on the rocks that litter the plains, that some say are the prototype to later Armenian scripts. There are also remains of an ancient map they drew of the Ararat Valley, and a 2,800 BC stone observatory that still points out phenomena in the night sky.

Continue to the base of Mt. Aragats and the Agarak Complex, a 5,000-year-old temple that stretches two kilometers along the Amberd River. Here you can view the largest Bronze Age sculpture in the Caucasus; the zodiac sign Aries. Uphill is the modern Astrophysics Observatory of Byurakan, with the second-largest optical telescope in Eurasia! The mountain road twists and turns upwards through the canyons and gullies of Mt. Aragats, until the ancient castle of Amberd, founded in the Bronze Age as a summer retreat for Armenian kings. Visit the “Sister Monasteries” of Hovhanavank and Saghmosavank, both built in the early 13th century by members of the same royal family, richly decorated with family crests and ornate sculptural details. Continue to Ashtarak, one of the oldest towns in Armenia, with an old center of winding cobblestone alleys and wooden balconies, and churches dating to the 4th century. Enjoy a sumptuous dinner in Ashtarak, in an outdoor restaurant in the cool recesses of the river-canyon forest before driving back to Yerevan.