Rural Armenia: The 6 Best Day Trips From Yerevan
Driving through the winding mountain roads overlooking Yerevan, and watching the sun set tint the imposing figure of Mount Ararat, truly makes you realise why the mountain itself is such an important symbol for the people of Armenia. It cuts a powerful stance in the low orange light, the city below cosseted in her shadow. Tour the mountains and lakes spotted with ancient churches and experience life in rural Armenia.
Sliding backwards down the icy path to the Sevanavank Monastery, we caught our first glimpse of life outside of Yerevan. In October it was cold, desolate, expansive. Snow-drowned mountains framed flat blue waters. An older man leant against the door frame leading into his small store, with a small dog tied to a chain. It was only after debating why the dog was so quiet and nervous that the man barked ‘wolf’, indicating that what we thought was some kind of husky was actually a baby wolf that he was raising as his own. Pretty characteristic of the wild, rugged lifestyle outside of the metropolitan capital.
Hours away we fell back into Autumn. From frosted paths to golden leaves and golden light, the rapid seasonal change was disorientating, and welcome. Street hawkers play traditional instruments and attempted to force a monkey onto your shoulder in a bid to charge you the world for a photo, following the winding cobbled path up to the monastery. Blood stained the stones round the back of Geghard, relics of recent sacrifices, gave evidence to pagan traditions and rituals in this most Christian of Christian countries. Armenians, despite being the first race to officially adopt Christianity as their country’s religion, practice a very specific and unique brand of Christianity. The influence of the specific beliefs of the Armenian Apostolic church, most closely resembling Eastern Orthodoxy, can be seen throughout the churches in the country, with Apostolic imagery being far more prominent than in the churches of other denominations. Interestingly, the churches I visited in Armenia were drastically different to the Armenian churches in Iran or Jerusalem. Despite having large Armenian populations, the churches in these communities were far more decadent and elaborately decorated than the simple stone churches of rural Armenia.
Some of the best examples of these can be found here:
1. Lake Sivan
By November, when we visited, snow had settled around Lake Sivan. The Sevanavank Monastery has overlooked the scene since the 9th century, and though not as large or as lavishly decorated as the cathedrals of Europe, Armenian churches hold their own rustic charm. Walk (or slip) around the hill the monastery sits upon, and enjoy the views of the largest lake in Armenia. Locals also flock to the spot in the summer to swim and enjoy the heat, Lake Sevan being a popular family spot.
2. Khor Virap
The ultimate stereotypes of Armenian tourism- colossal mountain views, ancient spots of remote religious significance, awe inspiring landscapes- are best summarised by the views from Khor Virap. There are worse stereotypes to have. The site of the successful conversion of Armenia to Christianity, this marks the spot of the first nation to adopt the religion in the world. Religion in the region is actually a very interesting topic if you're as nerdy as I am about religious history, Armenia having their own unique, ancient denomination of Christianity, represented in the symbolism etched into the scattered sites mentioned in this post.
3. Geghard Monastry
I can understand if you're growing weary of churches, but hear me out. Armenia's many religious sites aren't only of interest to those of us that geek out about history. This monastry, for example, was surrounded by a forest of autumn leaves, overlooking a gorge, with traditional street performers lining the cobbled path to the monastry entrance. Even if history and religion aren't really your thing, you would struggle not to enjoy the atmosphere. For my fellow nerds, it's a 13th century build with a fascinating history, and I'd strongly recommend taking a tour with a guide, which can be booked in Yerevan.
4. Garni Temple
You can see Garni in the same day as Gegherd, they're very close to each other and form a neat route back to Yerevan. We arrived late in the day, as the sun was setting and the golden hour struck. The sky shone bright pink over the mountains in it's last glimpses of light. Having been in Sicily a month before, I found the Ancient Greek-style temple a tad worn out, but the structure itself is fairly impressive. Dating back to 76 AD, the site is also home to a Roman bathhouse and to ancient inscriptions, again another winner for the history nerds.
5. Noravank Monastry
In the reddish hue of it's surrounding mountains, the monastry is nestled into the rock face unassumingly. The tranquil spot has been home to monks and priests and even princes since the early 13th century, surviving the eclipsing empire that arrived with the Mongol hoards. For more information, there is a small history museum on site.
6. Tatev Monastry
As you near Armenia's Iranian border, you'll reach Tatev. Built on a cliff overlooking a gorge, this site reaffirms that former statements about the landscapes outshining the sites. You take a cable car over the gorge to reach the site, giving you some pretty spectacular views before you even get there. You can also travel down to the 'Devil's Bridge', a river of petrified lava nestled in the belly of the gorge. Cross the bridge, swim in the pools, explore secluded grottos.
If you're visiting this site en route to Iran from Armenia, be sure to check out my guides to travel in Iran.
As aforementioned, we booked tours in Yerevan via Envoy Hostels tours. We also did the same in Tbilisi. The tours were comprehensive and our guide in Armenia (Grigori) was very well informed.
For more tips about travel in Armenia, check out my Yerevan city guide.