After a long first day in Yerevan, we turned in at around midnight and woke up 8 hours later to catch an early breakfast and get picked up by our local driver Aram, with whom we had coordinated a few days earlier to take us around the outskirts of the city.
Our first stop was an hour’s drive out to Geghard, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and monastery complex founded in the 4th century by Gregory the Illuminator initially known as “the Monastery of the Cave”.
Nestled among the towering cliffs of the Azat River gorge, it is one of the most visited sights in Armenia. And we could see why.
For us it was free to enter. And beginning our day with this at 9:30am in the morning, we were the first to arrive.
Wander around at your own leisure; the atmosphere here is spectacularly surreal.
Up the stairs above the ground level monastery complex lies a hidden separate chamber called the Upper Jhamatun. Built to produce stunning acoustics, a tourist with us decided to sing an operetta here as he would have every reason to.
We headed past the complex out towards the cave and nearby cliffs, and saw a trail leading up to the top of a cliff.
The hike up takes a breezy 10 minutes and it’s worth it for the views of Geghard below:
We spent about 45 minutes here before driving back out to nearby Garni Temple, a replica of a Ionic temple built by Tiridates I in the first century AD as a temple to the sun god Mihr.
The views of the gorge from here are worth the 1500 dram entry fee:
After 20 minutes at Garni Temple, we drove for about 30 minutes back towards the north of Yerevan to the town of Arinj where upon the advice of Atlas Obscura, stopped by Levon’s Diving Underground.
Here the widow of Lyova (Levon) Arakelyan, Tosya, still resides here, keeping watch over her husband’s testament to his love to her.
32 years ago, she had asked him for a simple potato cellar to store her vegetables and what followed was 23 years of tireless devotion to his eventual life’s work: a stunning series of caves beneath their home using nothing but hand tools, instinct, and a tireless work ethic until his death in 2008.
It costs 1500 drams to visit and she’ll hand you a few candles to guide your way underneath if the lights go out.
Levon had worked up to 18 hours a day with only his small hand tools to carve out the rock, eschewing more efficient and technologically advanced methods. He would eventually build an extensive series of stairs, halls, twists, multiple rooms, small shrines and artistic carvings all throughout the cave system going as deep as 70 feet beneath the house.
Tosya herself looks after an equally impressive garden in the back.
Tosya, you are the real MVP.
Toasting to Tosya, we enjoyed some of Aram’s local Armenian wine in the backseat of his car.
By now it was noon and so we drove west of Yerevan to Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church, located in the city of Vagharshapat.
The first church built in Armenia, Etchmiadzin is considered to be the oldest cathedral in the world.
About a 4-5 minute drive away are the nearby ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral, which was built in the 7th century and then destroyed for an unknown reason (some say it was an earthquake?) sometime in the 10th century.
The entry fee at the time of posting was 1300 drams.
After Zvartnots, Aram dropped us off at a local mall for lunch after which we had to say goodbye so he could take care of some family matters. So we had a quick lunch, took a cab to the Armenian Genocide Museum, watched a sunset by Victory Park, and then met up with a charming local Armenian named Aznhelika for dinner at a local Syrian restaurant. We got her contact through Susanna, her sister, whom we will be staying with when we travel to Artsakh in 2 days.
Our dinner soon transitioned from small talk to the Armenian genocide, the politics of Azerbaijan and Armenia, and other hefty topics that made it one of the most poignant (and that’s saying a lot at this point) conversations so far on this trip.
After a 2 hour dinner leaving with much food for thought, we finally ended our night at Hookah Boss for drinks before turning in back at our hostel down the block.
Of course, I still have to blog.
– At time of posting in Geghard, Armenia, it was 42.8 °F – Humidity: 74% | Wind Speed: 3km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy