We were in Tbilisi Georgia and wanted to get to Yerevan Armenia. Envoy Tours offered a one-way day trip that fit our needs that was much more than just transportation.
The full day adventure began with an hour drive through southern Georgia to the northern border of Armenia border. After stops at both Georgian and Armenian immigration, we proceeded to the first of three northern Armenian historic sites (including two UNESCO World Heritage Sites) before arriving in Yerevan.
Akhtala Monastery Fortress
The town of Akhtala had been settled before the 8th century BC. It has been an important copper mining and smelting center since the 11th century, expanding in the 18th century when Greek miners came and especially during the Soviet occupation.
Akhtala is also the site of one of the region’s most important fortresses. The 10th-century fortress was constructed on Iron and Bronze Age foundations. It was instrumental in protecting what is now the Northern Armenian region and the town’s copper reserves.
Two 12th-century churches are inside the fortress. A large pointed dome tops the larger church. Its interior walls are lined with remarkably well preserved 13th century frescos.
Outside are several graves and two large pits that were used for baths.
We then entered the dramatic, 109 mile Debed Canyon which is dotted with historic towns and churches. Although it was bathed in fog during most of our trip, with still offered occasionally dramatic views.
The Canyon contains two monasteries that have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites for their unique blending of architectural styles and the sophistication of their Armenian religious architecture.
The majestic Haghpat Monastery is located at the edge of the steep, dramatic gorge. Built in 976 AD, it was the canyon’s second monastery. Its architecturally stunning buildings include the monastery, the church, and particularly the belfry. The interiors of the church and the monastery in contrast, are relatively sparse and unadorned except for some faded frescos and a few sophisticated cross carvings. There are also elaborate carved stone khachkars throughout the grounds and in buildings including the refractory and the gavit (a place where people could seek shelter, such as to escape the weather). The floors of both are covered with graves of those who donated or provided particular services to the monastery. Particularly noteworthy is a sculpture on the back of the church: a bas relief of the sons of the queen who contributed most of the funding holding a model of the church.
The oldest Armenia’s surviving monasteries was built in 928 AD. Although it is small when compared with Haghpat, it housed not only a monastery and the Holy Mother of God church (also built on a much older foundation), but also a seminary led by a renowned scholar that taught mathematics, astronomy, and theology. It was also home to the region’s largest library which held, among other works, the first bible translated into the Armenian language. The floors of the gavit, monastery, and seminary are lined wall-to-wall with nicely carved gravestones of wealthy patrons. The less wealthy are buried in the graveyard behind the monastery. The middle of the gavit’s floor has a hole which housed an underground oven whose smoke would bellow up to the dome and though its oculus.
South of the Debed Valley
As majestic is the valley and its cliffs, the area south of Debed is almost as dramatic. The steep green mountainsides that, due to its 6,600-foot altitude , is virtually void of trees. Just beyond, a snow-capped mountain range was topped by the 13,418-foot Mt. Aragats, Armenia’s tallest mountain and the spot at which Noah’s Arc was supposed to have eventually reached land.
Lunch and Other Treats
As with our other trips with Envoy Tours, we had lunch in a private home. This time we had a traditional Armenian barbeque of the type that is often held on holidays. The centerpiece was barbequed pork. Accompanying this were several types of local breads and cheese, marinated vegetable salads, tomatoes and cucumbers, local greens and a sweet, slightly carbonated pear juice. Another wonderful meal.
Later in the trip, we stopped at Gntunik, an amazing bakery in the town of Aparan. The 15 year-old bakery continually expands and remodels its bakery/store. People line up for its bread which is baked in the front of the store in in-ground brick ovens. The baking process is fascinating, cutting a slab of dough, shaping it on a cloth-covered pad and then leaning precariously into the oven to slap the dough onto the walls of the oven where it is baked and removed with a pair of long rods and delivered hot to customers. and sometimes the “baker” has to lean right into the oven to position the bread. It makes a wide range of breads and cookies and a wide range of enticing pastries, of which we each had one.