Adapted with permission from The Stone Garden Guide: Armenia and Karabakh, by Matthew Karanian and Robert Kurkjian, ? 2008 Stone Garden Productions, www.StoneGardenProductions.com
Yerevan is a modern city that traces its lineage to 782 BC. Although Yerevan is today the capital of Armenia and home to more than one million people, it was just a sleepy frontier village with a population of about 14,000 in 1897. The Soviet occupation of the twentieth century brought growth and heavy industrialization. The population swelled. Yerevan became Armenia’s largest urban center.
The city has undergone another dramatic transformation during the past several years. Scores of modern apartment buildings have been erected, scores of older buildings have been razed, and construction cran’s punctuate the skyline with the promise of many more to come.
More than 500 outdoor cafes have commandeered the sidewalks and have gobbled up much of the city’s public parkland. There’s more traffic and more nightlife, more shops and more consumers, than ever before in Yerevan’s history. There’s an ongoing debate whether all of this progress has made Yerevan a better city for its permanent residents or merely a busier one. Debates aside, Yerevan is an exciting place for tourists, and a great base from which to see the rest of the country.
Lake Sevan forms the centerpiece of Sevan National Park, which is one of Armenia’s greatest natural resources. The lake is probably the country’s greatest recreational resource, too. Every summer Lake Sevan lures thousands of visitors away from the heat of Yerevan and into its cold, fresh, water.
The park contains a treasure trove of birds and plants, making the region as popular with bird-watchers and botanists as it is with swimmers and sunbathers. The region of the park that includes the wetlands of the Lake Gilli area is rich with bird-watching opportunities.
There are also several ancient historic sites of great significance here, the most-visited of which is Sevanavank, on the Sevan Peninsula.
Sevan is an easy day-trip from Yerevan. But this is really a great spot for an excursion of two or more days, especially for travelers who want to combine outdoor recreational activities with traditional sightseeing.
The most lushly vegetated and verdant part of Armenia is in the northeast, in the regions of Tavush and Lori. This is the section of the country that extends north from Sevan National Park all the way to the Georgian border. Unlike elsewhere in Armenia, trees are a significant natural resource here. You’re much more likely to see homes here that have been built from wood than anywhere else in the country.
The northeast is home to Dilijan, and Armenia’s call the forested resort their Little Switzerland. The moist and cool climate makes this a great retreat from the summer heat of Yerevan, and the region is as popular with local vacationers as it is with those who have traveled here from afar.
The forested Dilijan area, which is located in the region of Tavush, is famous not only for its forests of Oak and Beech, but also for its mineral water, which is bottled and sold as a health tonic. The bottling plant is located about three kilometers outside town on the road that leads to Vanadzor.
Hiking and mountain biking are also popular in Dilijan, especially at the Dilijan National Park. Rentals are not available, so you’ll need to bring your own bicycle. Outside the town, the greatest regional tourist attractions are the monasteries of Haghardzin, Goshavank, and Jukhtakvank, which were all built in the Middle Ages.
The historic Dilijan town center is located roughly one half kilometer from the major traffic rotary on the main highway. This rotary is also the location of the regional bus station. The town center features an ethnographic museum, the Regional Museum of Dilijan.
Elsewhere in the town center in an old stone building facing the pedestrian walkway on Sharambeyan Street, an old wood carver named Revik still plies his trade from his small shop, and sells gift items to tourists. Visit his shop and he’ll carve something to your specifications, or sell you a wooden jug or spoon or other knick-knack that he has already made. The Dilijan Folk Art Museum is also nearby.
An old Soviet-era sanatorium is perched on the ridge overlooking the town, in a beautiful wooded setting. This spa, and the entire area, was one of the leading summer resort areas before 1990.
When driving south from Yerevan, the first significant town you reach in the Zangezur panhandle is Areni (population 1,794), which gives its name to the famous Armenian wine. Grapes are grown throughout this region, and if you visit in October, you may be able to see the winemaking process here or in the nearby towns of Getap and Arpi. Some of the wineries–including the major winery in Getap–will allow you to watch their operations and taste some of their wines.
The history of winemaking here may be longer than we have previously appreciated. A scientist from the University of Pennsylvania has traced the prehistory of winemaking to this part of the world. The claim is made in the 2003 book “Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture.” The report says that the domestication of the Eurasian grapevine–which spurred the foundation of the world’s first wine industry–occurred in the south Caucasus, eastern Anatolia or northwest Iran. Areni is located at roughly the geographic center of these three areas.
Areni is also the site of the St. Astvatsatsin church, which was built in 1321 and restored in 1997. There are several unusual tombstones and khatchkars in the churchyard.
Shushi is the first major town in Karabakh that you drive past when you travel to Karabakh from Armenia. The topography is stunning, and the sheer cliffs that limit the potential sprawl of the town have also served to insulate and protect it from outsiders. This small town is just 15 kilometers outside of Stepanakert, and it deserves to be on every visitor’s itinerary. You’ll get a good view of Stepanakert from Shushi’s high perch. It was from this same perch that Azerbaijan bombed Stepanakert during the war.
Shushi’s history has been tragic. There were 12 churches here at one time, but today only two are left standing. As many as 35,000 Armenia’s had lived in Shushi until 1920, when they were either killed or expelled by invading forces from Turkey and Azerbaijan. Seven thousand Armenian homes were destroyed. Shushi’s status as one of the region’s leading cultural centers was also snuffed out.
The Armenia’s recovered Shushi in 1992, a feat that is credited with saving Karabakh since the Shushi highlands controlled access to Armenia and the rest of the world. The capture of Shushi broke the siege of Stepanakert. One of the large tanks involved in that battle now forms part of a monument located on the roadside between Shushi and Stepanakert.
The war that saved Karabakh also destroyed Shushi, and today the town is still mostly in ruins from the war, although there’s been some small progress during the past couple of years. There’s a diasporan-owned tourist-class hotel in the center of town, and another is scheduled to open soon. The streets were re-engineered and paved in 2005. And there’s been a steady trickle of private investment. But Shushi has been largely overlooked by big investors.
There are many private, single-family homes in Shushi, and the homes in the old part of town frequently have windows that are low and close to the floor. This design indicates a Persian influence. Persians typically sat on cushions on the floor, and windows that reached down to the floor allowed one to see outdoors while sitting.
The facades of many homes and buildings also have Persian elemen’s. There’s a magnificent Persian fortress which was built in 1724, and two Armenian churches where services are held each Sunday. There are a couple of mosques, too. The mosques are damaged from the war and they are no longer operating, but they are otherwise unharmed and their four minarets are still standing.
The Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in central Shushi is a massive structure with a fa?ade of white stone that dominates its surroundings. It’s also known as the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The freestanding belfry that stands near the front entrance was built in 1858, a decade before construction was begun on the main church.
Stepanakert is a small-town capital, with narrow, tree-lined streets, modest buildings, and hospitable people. There’s a human scale to this town that invites visitors and makes them feel right at home. In the current vernacular, you might say that Stepanakert is a liveable city. Beneath the pleasant facade, however, is the reality that there are few jobs and that residents confront the daily challenge of surviving in a still recovering economy.
If this wasn’t Karabakh’s capital, it might not be a tourist destination. There simply aren’t many historic attractions here. The city saw most of its development during the Soviet era, and there wasn’t a single church here until just recently. If you didn’t visit, that would be a pity, because of the recent historical significance of Stepanakert as a city that survived under siege. This is also one of the few places in Armenia and Karabakh where travelers can stroll down the street as if they were in an old east European neighborhood, instead of in a centrally planned city.
If you enjoy walking, then the best way to see this town is by foot. Start your tour from Republic Square. Walk east, past the Karabakh Parliament building, and down a flight of steps to Stepan Shahumian Park. There are children’s amusement rides and caf?s in this park.
There’s also a Ferris wheel that offers superb views of the area, including a view of the famous monument of Tatik and Papik. The monument was erected in 1967, and an inscription on the back reveals its official name “We Are Our Mountains.” The sculpture shows an elderly couple–a grandmother and grandfather–which symbolizes their union with the mountains. In the passing years, the monument has become a cherished national landmark.