Areni and Noravank

After our long first day, I think everyone was happy that Day 2 was only a part day outing. Our schedule included a bunch of things that I actually hadn’t been to yet, so that was exciting but also slightly nerve-wracking because I didn’t have a good idea of how long we would need at each thing, where exactly they were, how to get in, etc. I did as much research as I could, but the internet only tells you so much, and it tells you even less in Armenia.

If you can spot Ararat, you win!

Our first stop was Khor Virap, one of the monasteries that I visited for the first time with Sarah. You can get an awesome view of Ararat from there, assuming that the air is clear, but we unfortunately had a pretty hazy day. Instead of having the mountain jump out at you like it usually does, it was more like a phantom lurking in the background, and you could see it only if you focused extra hard.

If you want to read all about the legends associated with Khor Virap and St. Gregory’s imprisonment there, you can check out the post I wrote about my visit with Sarah (plus you’ll get some good, random bonus material).

On the way down into the pit

That’s the hole where St. Gregory’s bread loaves got dropped in

Here’s the hole from the outside. It’s really not accessible, so I don’t know if God also granted wings to the women who fed St. Gregory or what. Or maybe just a ladder.

Surp Astvatsatsin Church at Khor Virap

On the way up to the cave

After Khor Virap, the rest of the day was new experiences for me! We kept going south and headed to Areni, home of the cave where the oldest leather shoe and the oldest winery were found. Do you remember when we talked about Armenian inventions and I said that Armenians invented shoes AND wine? This cave is the reason for that claim to fame. I think there are a few different names for the cave, but we’ll call it by the official archaeological name, Areni-1. Creative, right?

Right inside the entrance. This is where the shoe was found.

Like I said, I had never been before, so I had no idea how it worked. Luckily, our driver, Arthur, knew where to go. After paying the 1000 dram admission fee ($2 whole dollars to see the birthplace of shoes. What a bargain!), we headed in. I was expecting, well, a cave, but it was actually quite nice. There were stairs up to the entrance, light fixtures throughout, and informative signs talking about what was found in each area and what you can still see.

Dad made friends with this stone carver who works outside the cave, and he let us try our hands at carving… needless to say, we’re all so naturally talented that we’re quitting our jobs to start a family khatchkar business.

My mom’s main question about the whole thing was: why the heck was someone digging around in the cave in the first place? It’s not like it was easily accessible before they put the stairs in. Did someone wake up one day and have a crazy epiphany that maybe they should dig in that random cave above that one random cliff and beneath that other random cliff in that random town in Armenia? However it happened, the whole thing is pretty impressive. The dig is very orderly, and it’s even cool just to see how they roped off the different areas and kept things organized.

In front of Areni Winery

We also did the classic Areni activity and visited Areni Winery. I mean, how can you not go to a winery that’s next to the birthplace of wine?? You would think that means it’s the best wine in the universe, but based on Mike’s and my dad’s reports, that’s maybe not quite true. Either way, good wine or not, it seems like the kind of thing that you have to do. We got a tour of the winery by the son of the founders, Tigran. He showed us around the different rooms and explained the wine-making process. I’m no wine expert (or even wine amateur), but I always think it’s fun to see how things are made. Though it smelled strongly of wine through the whole tour which was kind of gross, but I guess that’s an unavoidable side effect of making wine…

These are the fermentation vats where the wine starts out… it stays in these for 10 days before moving on to the next phase, 1 month in metal barrels.

After the metal barrels, the wine comes into these oak barrels for 1-5 years more. Finally, it’s bottled.
Check out all of those wine bottles! Mike wanted to ask how many bottles they can stack without the glass shattering. You’d think it would be a lot, right? Who knows. Well, someone I’m sure, but not me.

They make a bunch of different fruit wines which is interesting. There were options like apricot (the most Armenian of all wines) and pomegranate. They also have these massive barrels to hold the wine during part of the fermentation process, and they get the oak for those from Artsakh. I kind of wanted one to live in… some of them were definitely big enough for a tiny house. The other claim to fame of Areni wine is that some of their wines use Areni grapes which are ONLY grown there. I’m sure there’s some reason like the soil or something science-y to explain that, but I amused myself by pretending that it’s just because grapes grown in Areni are Areni grapes, so duh, you obviously couldn’t grow them somewhere else because then they’d be Yerevan grapes or Gyumri grapes.

View from the parking lot with the fortress walls.

Our last stop before heading back to Yerevan was Noravank Monastery. Noravank is a medieval monastery with construction starting in 1205. There are two things that people usually go to Noravank expecting – an amazing view and a fun picture on the steep steps of the main, 2-story Surb Astvatsatsin Church (apparently a very popular church name… that’s the same name as the church at Khor Virap. It means “Church of the Holy Mother”). It’s located in the Amaghu River gorge and is surrounded by cliffs. Definitely not an ugly spot! Surb Astvatsatsin was completed in 1339 and was the final work of the designer and sculptor Momik. The church is intricately carved and has a first-floor burial chamber and second-floor chapel. To get to the second floor, you have to climb stairs that cantilever out from the side of the building. Besides Surb Astvatsatsin, there’s another intact church (Surb Karapet), a chapel, fortress walls surrounding the complex, and some ruins.

Totally not posed or anything… Mike, and I just love each other so much that this is how we normally stand.

It looks a bit surreal.

I’m not sure why I look so nervous… I’m sure there aren’t any snakes in that hole or anything…

From the beginning, Mike and I were enthusiastic about climbing and exploring every nook and cranny of the complex. Mom was slightly more hesitant and insisted that she wasn’t going to climb up the stairs, but there was no chance I was going to let her leave there without doing it. There was a tour group there when we arrived, so we decided to do some exploring of the other buildings before checking out the main event.

By the time we made our way to Surb Astvatsatsin, there was no one else left in the complex. Perfect timing! We did have to loiter a bit, waiting for someone to come to take a full family picture, but we also had plenty of time to check out the church without hordes surrounding us. Mom climbed the stairs about halfway for a picture, and at that point, why not just go all the way up? It’s definitely worth the climb to see the inside of the church. There are more windows that most other churches, plus an open dome at the top, making it feel light and airy inside rather than dark and heavy.

We left Mike in the hole.

The classic Noravank picture

The doors to the upper level

Inside the top level of Surp Astvatsatsin

No people in my picture. Success!

Carvings around the upper door of Surp Astvatsatsin

That was our last stop of the day, so after we had our fill, we made our way back to Yerevan and took a trip up Cascade to visit Mother Armenia. Mom and I were normal humans and opted to take the escalators. Mike and Dad were overachievers and not only took the stairs but also counted them. They’re clearly a couple of engineers.

Posing with the eternal Cascade construction

Mother Armenia!

Khor Virap

Sarah looking awkward in the metro

Sarah and I are basically public transportation pros now. We’re all about economical travel which means things are never easy or straightforward and always weird and memorable. The goal of the day was to make it to Khor Virap, a monastery about 30km south of Yerevan. The trek started with a walk from our apartment to Republic Square (the central square in the city) to catch the metro.

The metro here was built when Armenia was part of the Soviet Union. Cities with at least 1 million residents were granted a subway, so even though a population of that size wasn’t in the original plan for Yerevan, the quota was reached, and a subway was built. There’s only one metro line and the route is kind of random, but if you’re starting and ending somewhere close to the line, it’s actually very nice. The stations are way cleaner than any other subway I’ve ever been in. A ride costs 100 drams (about 20 cents), and to pay your fare, you buy these little plastic tokens that look like someone cut them out of a sheet of plastic using safety scissors.

The ride back to Yerevan. Spot the Sarah.

Our metro ride was uneventful, and we made it to the bus station quickly and without any trouble. The next part of the trip was taking a marshrutka (that’s the Russian word for it… I’m sure there’s an Armenian word too, but this is the one that I’ve heard used) which is basically the exact same thing as tro tros in Ghana and combis in Peru. They’re minibuses that (generally) look like they’ve seen MANY better days, and everyone packs in like sardines. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone with a strong need for personal space.

It was easy enough finding the right one to take. I let Sarah think that my Armenian reading skills were really good, but actually the sign also said “Khor Virap” in Latin letters too. Shh, don’t give away my secrets. Actually though, I can read at least well enough to make sure we’re going the right way. I didn’t realize how big of a help that was going to be.

The bus left exactly on schedule which impressed me. Is “Armenian time” just an excuse that people use in the States to justify being late, but it’s actually not a thing in Armenia? Or maybe the public transportation is just on point here. I’ll have to get back to you on this.

Khor Virap from afar

We made it to Khor Virap in maybe 40 minutes, and the driver took us all the way to the parking lot even though the route is supposed to leave you off about 1.5 km away. That was fine with me! He saved us 20 minutes of walking each way, and we used that time for extra adventures. The first stop though, obviously, was the monastery. There are two reasons why this monastery is extra cool. Reason #1: you get an awesome view of Mount Ararat. Reason #2: legend has it that St. Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned by the king for 13 years in a “dungeon” (aka a creepy underground room or a “khor virap” – a “deep well”) in the monastery. He was left there to die and was even forgotten by the king, but he was fed and kept alive by a woman from a neighboring village (I’ve heard this a couple ways though… one is that it was one woman under the influence of a strange dream that compelled her to bring him food. The other is that it was a few Christian women who secretly fed him. The length of the imprisonment also seems to be up for a bit of debate with some sources saying it was only 13 months, not years, but we’ll go with years because that’s a better story).

Sarah looking excited about coming down the ladder into some random hole. Why does one monastery need so many holes?

The random hole, purpose unknown (by me, that is. I’m sure someone knows).

The ladder out of the imprisonment hole. It smelled nice and musty down there, as I’m sure you can imagine.

Surp Astvatsatsin Church in Khor Virap

Eventually St. Gregory was freed when the king went mad, and his sister had a dream that St. Gregory could cure him. And that is how this story goes from being just about St. Gregory to being the story of how Armenia became the first country to declare Christianity the state religion in 301 A.D. If you know any Armenians, then you know how proud everyone is of that fact, which by association makes Khor Virap kind of a big deal. Wow. Sorry, that story ended up being much longer than planned (and I cut out a LOT of details, trust me). Anyway, the takeaway from this is that Armenian legends are great, and who knows what’s true and what’s not quite. I’m going to count them all as completely factual because that’s way more fun.

Check out that view! Hi, Mount Ararat!

Us with Gervorg

After exploring all of the nooks and crannies of Khor Virap, we still had some time before our return bus. We headed out on a pilgrimage to a statue of Gevorg Chaush, a guy who I think would be best described as a freedom fighter (correct me if I’m wrong). We thought it was funny that there’s a statue of him basically in the middle of nowhere, so we made the trek out to give him a little company.

Thankfully, we made it back just in time to catch the bus which was, once again, EXACTLY on time. Incredible. We got back to Yerevan and spent some time at the Armenian History Museum. Here’s the quick summary: The Armenians have been around for practically forever (they say that there’s been a geographical region called Armenia for 2600 years). There’s a LOT of history to go through. You can see the oldest shoe in the world that’s dated back to about 3500 BC (that’s even older than the pyramids, Stonehenge, and the ice man). If you go, you should do the tour because there’s so much to look at, and if you try to understand it all on your own, your head will explode. Even with the tour, your head might explode. Sarah and I are filled with a whole lot of Armenian history knowledge now.

The Armenian History Museum. Apparently it was used as an orphanage at one point.

We also visited Vernissage, a big souvenir market, and went back to Republic Square at night to see the fountain music/light show. I won’t say too much about that except that it’s awesome. And then we came home and passed out.

Vernissage from across the street

Roaming Vernissage

Fountain music/light show!

So cool!