Travelling around the Caucasus countries is very much conditioned by your communication and language skills. Pretty much everyone speaks Russian, while a few speak English. Another problem may occur if you decide to visit Armenia and Azerbaijan since both countries for some reason want to involve everybody in their conflict. Luckily for us we were well informed and planned our trip accordingly. First we visited Azerbaijan which does not allow inside its territory tourists who were previously in Armenia (apparently things have changed). Going to Debed Canyon in Armenia afterwards was a challenge too. Several soviet style dressed border policemen were checking our passports thoroughly, and judging us like what we did was a crime. I don’t really care about the reason of their conflict, but that’s not the way to treat somebody who just wants to get to know your country.
Entering Armenia left us speechless. A breathtaking landscape hides some of the most fascinating architectural gems we have ever seen. Alaverdi, 20 km from the Georgian border, is an authentic small mining town on the Debed River gorge. Numerous copper mines lay abandoned next to the river with beautiful green mountains on the back. The city itself is full of grey buildings, industrial plants and smoke rising from numerous chimneys. Inside the town there is not much to see, but what lays just a few kilometers away compensates for the shocking introduction to this mystical country. Take note that Alaverdi is also the name of a very important monastery in Georgia.
Debed River is the main river in Armenia’s north of the Lori Province. It begins at the River Pambak, flows east and north towards the Georgian border, and finally joins the River Mtkvari in Northwestern Azerbaijan. The area around the river varies from low valleys to deep gorges like Debed Canyon. Bird species such as eagles, vultures, sparrow-hawks, and falcons live in these gorges. Most settlements along the Debed River have an ancient church or a chapel. Some of them even have ancient fortresses. Additionally, Armenian memorial stele cross-stones known as khachkars, dot the region.
Eight medieval monasteries from different historical periods still stand there today as witnesses of Armenia’s glorious history. A few of them are in very good shape, and some even preserve their original frescoes. The farthest of them all, Akhtala Monastery from the 10th century still preserves parts of the original fortress, and some fascinating frescoes covering the whole interior. Closer to Alaverdi, Haghpat Monastery was founded by Queen Khosrovanuysh in the 10th century and was a major center of learning. It is located on a hill overlooking the Debed Canyon. The closest to the city, Sanahin monastery is from the same period and includes a large collection of stones shaped as crosses.
Unesco Site: Monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin
According to UNESCO, Haghpat and Sanahin are World Heritage Sites because the two represent the highest achievements of Armenian religious architecture from the 10th to the 13th Centuries. We couldn’t agree more! The monasteries blend marvelously Byzantine architecture with the vernacular architecture of the Caucasus. Since both monasteries are similar and close to each other, there was some kind of rivalry between them. Their modern names represent that: Haghpat means large wall and Sanahin means older than the other. They were important learning centers for centuries, specializing in science, humanities, and medicine. The two monasteries influenced heavily medieval church architecture in Armenia.
Haghpat Monastery – Architecture
Queen Khosrovanush, the wife of Armenia’s King Ashot III, founded Haghpat in 976. The monastery consists of one narthex, two sepulchers, a refectory, a scriptorium, a chapel, a belfry, and several tombs and cross-stones. In the 13th Century, a fortress was erected across the monastery to guard its entrance. The Kayaberd Fortress still exists, albeit terribly deteriorated. The oldest building in the monastery is the St Nshan Church. It is a rectangular domed structure, with a cross-shaped plan. Original frescoes line its walls, including one of an enthroned Jesus. Next to the main church, the Hamazasp’s Chapel is a square building with a vaulted roof. A burial vaulted space connects it to the church.
Sanahin Monastery – Architecture
Unlike Haghpat, it is unclear who built the Sanahin Monastery. It was the burial place of Kiurikian Bagratid Kings and the Episcopal residence for the diocese. It contains three churches: the Astvatsatsin Church (Holy Mother of God), the Amenaprkich Church (Holy Savior), and the St Grigor Church. Additionally, there is a narthex, a scriptorium, an academy, and a belfry. The St Amenaprkich Church from 957 – 966 is the monastery’s main church. Once again, Queen Khosrovanush had it built. To enter the church, you have to go through a narthex supported by four columns. Inside the church, two sacristies surround the main apse. You will find several medieval churches and more than 50 cross-stones next to the monastery.
How to Get to Alaverdi
While searching for the best places to visit in the Caucasus, we stumbled upon the Debed Canyon and the Monasteries. Conveniently located along the main road that connects Tbilisi and Yerevan, you can easily reach them by public transport. The most common way of getting there is a by a bus or a minibus, colloquially known as marshrutka. You can take any of several daily marshrutkas at Tbilisi Stations Square, Avlabari Metro Station or Ortachala Bus Station. As a general rule they leave once full, so you might have to wait for a little.
The entire journey from Tbilisi to Yerevan takes 5 to 6 hours. Alaverdi is somewhere in the middle, so you should be there in 2 to 3 hours. Take note you’ll have to pay for the whole journey, even if you exit at Alaverdi. The best way to go from Armenia is to take any of the frequent minibuses that depart from Vanadzor (the regional capital of Lori Province). There are buses to Vanadzor from the entire country, including Yerevan (2 hours away) and Gyumri (1 hour away). Those of you into train travel can hop on one that goes from Tbilisi to Alaverdi each day in about 3.5 hours. The train from Yerevan loops around, so it takes 5.5 hours to get to Alaverdi.
How to Visit the Monasteries
In Alaverdi the public transport to the abovementioned monasteries is infrequent, so the best option is to hire a taxi. I was lucky enough to learn Russian at school so I had the possibility to negotiate a proper price. Our driver was an ex police officer, a fact that gave him the privilege of avoiding buckling his seat belt and driving as fast as possible. I am not sure if we liked that or it just got us worried. Anyhow we managed to convince him not to smoke, unlike in many other occasions in the region, and had a wonderful chat about life in Armenia. Thanks to him we found out that one of the inventors of the famous MiG plane was born here.
Public Transport to Haghpat and Sanahin
You can walk from upper Alaverdi to Sanahin. It’s a lovely 15-minute walk from the main square. Unfortunately, you can’t walk from lower Alaverdi to upper Alaverdi or to Sanahin. Hence, you can take a rusty cable car or public bus No. 3. Be sure to ask your hotel for the bus schedule. To go to Haghpat from Alaverdi, take any of the marshrutkas that leave lower Alaverdi’s Bus Station from 8 AM to 530 PM. If you are staying in Haghpat, there is no need to take anything since you can walk directly to the monastery.
Where to Stay: Alaverdi and Beyond
Finding a good place to stay in and around Alaverdi can be challenging. In winter it can get rather cold outside, so check with your hotel if they have proper heating. We stayed at the Sanahin Bridge Hotel directly on the main square of upper Alaverdi. It has a brilliant location, and we were warm. If you don’t have much time, stay in lower Alaverdi at the Guesthouse in Alaverdi. You’ll be close to the local bus and train stations. In Haghpat village your best bet is Gayane Hotel. It’s a real hotel at the edge of the village. Additionally, you can stay in front of the monastery in Vakaler Hotel or Haghpat Hotel. If luxury is your thing, the only option in the area is the Tufenkian Avan Dzoraget Hotel. This outstanding hotel offers a spa and great views, but it’s a half an hour ride from Alaverdi.
Food and Coffee
Unlike Georgia, where you can find delicious restaurants even in the most remote villages, food in Armenia can be tricky. When we visited, there was literally one restaurant in town. The Flora Restaurant in the lower town serves decent enough Armenian food. Nowadays there is a restaurant in the upper town, next to the main square, Mkrtchyan’s Café. Another restaurant serving traditional food is Atorick, by the main road, close to Haghpat. Though there are no proper restaurants in the village of Haghpat, most hotels serve food.
There is something strange about Armenia. Extraordinary landscapes scattered all around the country hide some truly incredible sacral heritage. Hundreds of impressive monasteries are practically everywhere. But the feeling you get among these ancient beauties lies somewhere in between admiration and fear. You can see a certain feel of darkness in the architecture of its cities and towns and in the faces of the locals. It’s like they are living their country’s tragic history all over again. In Armenia it seems time has stopped. That gives an additional appeal to its magical medieval architecture. Perhaps that’s what makes it unique.
Or maybe it’s just our impression since we visited during cold and rainy days?