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. Going to 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 I 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.
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.
In Alaverdi there is no public transport to the abovementioned monasteries, 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.
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.
Happy Frog recommends staying at Sanahin Bridge