Monday, May 11, 2015

Monasteries R Us - Armenia

OK, I’m not going to whinge about the weather, but it’s terrible.

Our last stop in Georgia before crossing the border was the incredible Vardzia, a troglodyte city/monastery – an extraordinary place. We stayed at a brilliant hostel (Valodia’s Cottage) and were fed delicious food. Fresh grilled rainbow trout the first night and homemade yoghurt for breakfast, plus lots of other fab food.
Troglodyte Monastery of Vardzia
Next day we crossed the border in Armenia. The road either side of the border was pretty bad. The crossing took about 2 hours as we needed visas, and temporary importation for Boris and a few other bits. Easily done, just tedious (and freezing). Just as we were about to leave the head Customs Officer came over signalling to us. “What now?” we moaned, but he wanted us to come and have a drink with them. “Vin, vin”, so we went downstairs for a glass of Armenian wine, never mind that we had to drive. We escaped after just one vino.

We found a beautiful spot to camp on the steppe at 2028 metres. We were sitting sipping a wonderful Georgian rosé and congratulating ourselves on our fabulous overnight spot, when there was a knock on the door. On opening we found a man with a shotgun. Not being ones to argue with a shotgun, Lawrence tried to communicate politely in Russian, but he was indicating for us to leave. We begged time to at least finish cooking our dinner. He made a few phone calls and left. (A man with a shotgun and a smart phone is not something you expect to find in the middle of nowhere, Armenia).

Back to the rosé.

20 minutes late, bang bang on the door. This time a policeman in an impressively large hat. Lawrence once more tried to communicate in Russian, but he phoned someone who spoke English and got it sorted ie; we weren’t planning on staying permanently. Just one night.

Back to the marvellous rosé – it truly was a stunner.

20 minutes later, bang bang again. Policeman wanting passports and details. The rosé is now finished, and we needed a second bottle. Finally we ate our curry.
Camping on the Steppe
Next morning is was minus 3 degrees – brrr.

We headed to Yerevan, the capital. We finally found a room in a very basic hostel. Apparently the Russians take their holidays in May and come to Georgia and Armenia, so all rooms were booked. This hostel was the kind of place you would have stayed on your first trip to Europe at 18 and no money.

The city is OK, very modern and not really to our liking, so we looked around and moved on.
Ruins of 10th century Zvartnots Cathedral with Mt Ararat in the background
Armenia is heaving with ancient monasteries and we visited quite a few of them, but won’t bore you with the details of each! They are all around 1000 years old, give or take a couple of hundred years and built in wonderful locations. Hard to imagine how they were built back in the day.
Haghpat Monastery
Sevan Monastery
Geghard Monastery

We tried to do some wine tasting, but the wine town of Ijevan hasn’t quite embraced tourism, and we couldn’t find the winery. Some kind man took us to his outdoor café and made us some Turkish coffee. It’s still horrible but we were freezing so it was welcome. He didn’t even charge us!

So now we are staying in a strange sort of hotel/hostel near the border and will head back into Georgia tomorrow.

Tips for would-be travellers.

It’s very hard to wild camp in Armenia – or at least the bits we visited. One reason being that it’s so mountainous – not much flat country around. We did manage one spot by Lake Sevan between the town of Sevan and Lchap. Quiet enough, but expect to be woken at 5am by fishermen.

Otherwise we stayed in hostels, most recommended by the lonely planet. A favourite was Daravand, on the outskirts of Dilijan. Lovely rooms, great hospitality and good food. They even have a decent wine selection.

The roads in Armenia are terrible, really poor condition, made worse by the road crews. They go along cutting out the potholes to make them square for filling, but the filling crew never seem to arrive. The driving is as bad as Georgia, just made more exciting by the roads. It’s like dodgem cars in 2 directions.

Valodia Cottage, Vardzia. Georgia
LPG conversion - soviet style

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