Tag Archives: Church

Sighnaghi and Davit Gareja, Georgia

After our day trip to Mtskheta, we ventured a little further afield to the south eastern region of Kakheti which, as well as the following sites, is also famed for its wine. Enroute to our destination of Sighnaghi and straddling the border with Azerbaijan is the 6th century cave monastery of Davit Gareja. Using public transport to get out this way would have doubled the time we needed, so we took the easy option and hired a guide-taxi through our Tbilisi guesthouse.

Davit Gareja

Davit Gareja, Georgia

Looking down into Lavra monastery on the Georgian side of the Davit Gareja complex. The surrounding stripy red hills reminded us of the colourful landscape of Tsagaan Suvraga in Mongolia

After a long 2 hour drive through increasingly bleak and sparsely populated land we arrived at the remote monastery of Davit Gareja, a relative oasis compared to the dry and treeless surroundings. Our guide Giorgi explained that as well as carving out their single-cell shelters, the monks used diagonal channels in the rock faces to collect the little rainwater the area gets.

Davit's Cave, Davit Gareja

Davit’s cave, most likely dug by himself ~1,500 years ago

We were surprised to find much of this part of the complex is in use; the larger caves looked inhabited, some areas were cordoned off requesting visitors to kindly respect monk’s privacy, and there were about a half-dozen monks saying prayers in the small chapel which made it feel almost bustling.

From the upper courtyard we took an energetic trail up through the monastery, past a few more basic caves and a couple of armed Georgian border guards to the top of the ridge before dropping a little way down the other side. I wasn’t entirely sure why we’d left the monastery and were following a path that is essentially the border with Azerbaijan until we’d gone about 100 meters..

Davit Gareja, Georgia

Oh! That’s why! Obviously we knew it was a cave monastery but I had no idea how big it had been and that a lot of the caves had been covered in frescoes painted in the 10th to 13th centuries

Frescoes, frescoes everywhere!

Davit Gareja collage

Exploring the frescoes, including the dinner hall (top right) with a depiction of the last supper

We spent a good hour or so working our way along the remains of the frescoed caves, many of which were just open to the elements. It was amazing how well they’d held up to the weather given a lot of walls had fallen away, but it was bittersweet that some Soviet visitors had scratched their names into the plaster.

Davit Gareja, Georgia - Close up of the Soviet graffiti

Soviet era graffiti – it’s a shame but it’s also a reminder of that period in the monastery’s history

Bodbe Convent

Bodbe Convent, Georgia

The church (right) and bell tower of Bodbe Convent. The grave of St. Nino is inside

From Davit Gareja we drove another 2 hours to reach the outskirts of Sighnaghi. We’d planned to visit Bodbe Convent the following day, but as Giorgi and our fellow tourist Daniel were due to head back to Tbilisi the same day it made sense to include this small but important site in the itinerary. Set amongst tall cypress trees and lush, immaculately kept grounds, the peaceful Bodbe Convent is the final resting place of St. Nino, who converted the King and ultimately Georgia to Christianity.

New church, Bodbe Convent, Georgia

They’d nearly finished a new cathedral-sized church in the grounds of the convent. It looks almost complete from the outside with a lovely mix of texture and materials but it was still a building site inside

Sighnaghi

Sighnaghi, Georgia
Our base for a couple of nights was Signhaghi, a laid-back, quiet, picturesque hill-top town ringed by a turret studded wall. Given that we’d already done our day’s sightseeing activity before we’d arrived, we took a leisurely wander around the town’s walls which afford spectacular views of the wine growing Alazani valley and Caucasus mountains beyond (when there aren’t clouds in the way!).

Sighnaghi walls collage

One of the few staircases onto the walls around Sighnaghi that aren’t in the round turrets

Sighnaghi Museum, Georgia

Just off the main town square is the small but excellent Signhaghi Museum which finishes with a collection of works by the famous pauper painter Pirosmani who was born in Kakheti

After a lazy day of wandering around in the morning and catching up with photos and diary writing in the afternoon we spent the evening indulging in great food and very good, very local wine!

Pheasant's Tears, Sighnaghi, Georgia

We opted for the wine tasting menu to accompany the food at the renowned Pheasant’s Tears which consisted of 6 wines from vineyards across Georgia

Pheasant's Tears, Sighnaghi, Georgia

The food we had in Sighnaghi deserves a mention too – we unconsciously ordered fish and chips with our wine tasting – how does the saying go? you can take the British out of Britain..

The Kakheti region makes up about 60% of Georgia’s vineyards and has been a wine producing area for over 8,000 years. To this day the Georgians take enormous pride in their traditional method of natural fermentation in large clay pots called qvevri sunken into the ground. They also use the whole grape – skin and pips – which turns their white wines a rich sunset amber colour, though they’re still light and refreshing. Delicious!

Mtskheta, Georgia

On our final day in Tbilisi we took the short marshrutka (minibus) trip north to Mtskheta, spiritual home of Georgian Christianity and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  First stop was the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral which dominates the small town’s centre.

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta. We noticed that a lot of Georgian churches have little model churches on their roof ridges and this one is no exception

Svetitskhoveli means ‘Life-Giving Column’, a reference to the legend surrounding the building of the first cathedral on this site in the 4th century. Long before, the robe from Christ’s crucifixion was brought to Mtskheta by a local Jew and ended up buried nearby although the site had been forgotten by the time King Mirian, Georgia’s first Christian king, had been converted and decided to build a cathedral here.  When they tried to raise the cathedral’s central pillar it could not be lifted from the ground, but after much praying by St Nino (more about her presently) the pillar moved of its own accord to stand over the spot where Christ’s robe was buried.

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral Interior

There are some beautiful frescoes inside the cathedral

We loved the cathedral’s decoration, with the Christ fresco in the apse reminding us of churches we’d seen in Sicily, notably Cefalù and Monreale, and the icons with hanging lamps in front. The gravestones in the floor give hints as to the history of the area and the different rulers who have had influence here at various times, we spotted several Cyrillic (Russian) and Arabic, as well as ancient and modern Georgian scripts. In one of the side aisles there’s a copy of the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem erected to mark Svetitskhoveli as the second most holy place in the world (after the original chapel) and today visited by many Georgians who are not able to travel to Jerusalem.

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (clockwise from top left): Jo and I had to don headscarves and apron-like ‘skirts’ before we could enter (Andrew just had to take off his hat); the original ‘Life-Giving Column’ was on the site of this monument; as you might expect St George is a common subject for icons all around Georgia

After visiting the cathedral we were starting to get hungry. The Lonely Planet told us that lobio, casseroled kidney beans with herbs and spices, are a specialty in Mtskheta so that was what we sought out. They’re served in individual clay pots and were even tastier than we expected. With some bread and salad they made for a nutritious and cheap lunch!

Lobio

Lobio for lunch in a Mtskheta cafe

After lunch we made our way to the Jvari Church, sitting on a ridge over the town.  As the crow flies it’s not far, but to get there by road it’s 11km each way and, as it’s not served by public transport, most visitors take a taxi.  But that’s not our style, it was a glorious day and a bit of exercise would do us good, so we checked with the helpful lady in the Tourist Information Office who informed us that it was possible to walk there in about an hour.  The only hitch was crossing the dual carriageway that separates the town from the hill where the church is.  Fortunately the road wasn’t too busy, the visibility was good and there was a nice high central reservation to wait on in the middle, still it wasn’t the nicest road crossing we’ve ever done – though less stressful than navigating the hundreds of teeming scooters in Vietnam!

View of Mtskheta from Jvari church

From the Jvari church there’s a spectacular view of Mtskheta and the confluence of the Aragvi (blue) and Mtkvari (grey) rivers

The Jvari Church itself is small and simply constructed but very holy for Georgians as it stands on the site where King Mirian erected a wooden cross soon after his conversion by St Nino in around 327AD. St Nino was a missionary from a Greek-speaking Roman family. Reputedly related to St George, she travelled to Georgia from Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) and became one of the most important saints in the Georgian Orthodox church. Her grapevine cross is a symbol of Georgian Christianity, and Nino is a very popular girls name too – it sometimes seemed like every other local woman we met was called Nino!

Jvari church

The small and symmetrical Jvari church

It was extremely windy on the ridge outside the church though the view was worth being blown about for. The inside is a big contrast to the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, with bare stone walls rather than frescoes, the small circular space is dominated by a large wooden cross, and there’s a rather sombre atmosphere with a black-clad old lady shushing anyone who speaks too loudly.

Jvari church

Jvari church (clockwise from top): the church stands on a ridge across the river from Mtskheta town; a representation of the cross of St Nino; inside the church is dominated by a large wooden cross

Tbilisi, Georgia

Compared to Yerevan, Tbilisi feels more affluent and cosmopolitan, by that I mean there are more coffee shops, more restaurants (and chain restaurants), and a few more tourists, though that might have been because spring was on its way and it was getting warmer! Our great friend and travelling companion Jo flew in on the same day we crossed the border from Armenia to explore the capital and the country with us :o)

Rustaveli Avenue

The Georgian National Academy of Sciences, Tbilisi, Georgia

This wonderfully imposing building is home to the Georgian National Academy of Sciences, and sits at the top of Rustaveli Avenue

The wide, grandness of Rustaveli Avenue (named after Shota Rustaveli, a 12th-13th century Georgian poet) is the main thoroughfare through Tbilisi. In a straight line it links Liberty or Freedom Square at the edge of the Old Town to Rustaveli Square and is lined with elegant and imposing buildings. It was of little surprise to us that it was laid out by the Soviets in the 19th century as it reminded us a lot of of Nevsky Prospect in St Petersburg.
Georgian National Opera Theatre, Tbilisi, Georgia

At the other end of Rustaveli Avenue is the Georgian National Opera Theatre, a striking stand alone building in the Moorish Revival style


Rustaveli Avenue collage, Tbilisi, Georgia

As well as the former parliament building, Rustaveli is lined with art such as these adorable little bonze figures made by different artists in the image of internationally famous people, can you guess any of them?

Old Town

Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia

A district of dilapidation awaits the ambler in Tbilisi’s Old Town

There are plenty of accommodation options in Tbilisi but not wanting to stay in a hotel and fancying a change from the old Soviet-style apartment blocks we found plenty of choice in the city’s Old Town – a maze of 2 storey buildings in conditions that range from neglected shells to rebuilt splendour. The very well renowned Skadaveli Guest House is somewhere in the middle of that scale, its entrance staircase looks like it was built on afterwards, has since had a disagreement and is slowly distancing itself!

Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia collage

Encompassing the south-eastern part of the city, we loved just semi-aimlessly wandering through the organic street layout, admiring the picturesque dilapidation and stumbling on pretty little secluded public squares like this one with a romantic water fountain

Mtatsminda-Narikala Tourist Path – Funicular, Mother Georgia and Narikala Fortress

Funicular collage, Tbilisi, Georgia

The Tbilisi Funicular railway started our half-day hike – we couldn’t stop ourselves taking panoramic photos of the city!

One of our favourite days in Tbilisi was joining the funicular from Old Town up to Mount Mtatsminda with a hike to the giant statue of Mother Georgia and on to the Narikala Fortress. The Mtatsminda-Narikala Tourist Path afforded some fantastic panoramas of the city which we just couldn’t stop ourselves from photographing, especially as it was the first clear day we’d had!
Mtatsminda-Narikala Tourist Path collage, Tbilisi, Georgia

The Mtatsminda-Narikala Tourist Path. What a lovely day!


Mother Georgia, Tbilisi, Georgia

The giant Mother Georgia as vigilant and poised for defence as Armenia’s


Tbilisi, Georgia

Oh look.. another panoramic view of the city!


Narikala Fortress, Tbilisi, Georgia

Not much remains of the Narikala Fortress but some of the outer walls have been restored and are good to climb up for yet more panoramic views of the city. We were surprised just how big the fortress is

Deserters’ Bazaar

Tbilisi Market, Georgia

Giant barrels of pickled vegetables, Julie’s favourite!

Desertirebis Bazari or Deserters’ Bazaar gets its name from deserting soldiers who sold their weapons here in the early 1920’s. Today the main building is mainly a fruit market and sadly it has nothing to do with puddings (that’d be “desserters’ bazaar” – Julie). This is a huge market that sprawls out through streets in all directions from the railway station and even includes an old platform!

Tbilisi Market Stallholders collage, Georgia

As we found in Armenia, the people are keen to know where we’re from and invite us to try their produce or take their photo

Tbilisi Market, Georgia

As well as stand after stand of fresh fruit and vegetables, and herbs and spices, we spotted laminated Christian icons and the odd sweet stall. Most of the locals sell their own “chacha” a homemade grappa-like spirit which we were encouraged to chase with pickled tomato

Chronicle of Georgia

Chronicle of Georgia, Tbilisi, Georgia

The Chronicle of Georgia. A bit different to a church I suppose

This one makes it onto our list for the sheer why?-ness of it.. a pagan-esque arrangement of columns faced with cast metal panels depicting scenes from the bible, the history of Georgia’s conversion to Christianity and is so very nearly complete.

Chronicle of Georgia, Tbilisi, Georgia

Julie, Jo and I exploring the wackiness!

Sitting on the top of a hill near the city’s reservoir at the northern end of the metro line, it looks a lot like Stonehenge from a distance. We’d read that it’s by Georgian-Russian artist and sculptor Zurab Tsereteli whose works are often controversial, and that we’d seen one of his first public works – the giant Peter the Great Statue in the Moskva river in Moscow near the start of our adventures!

Open-Air Ethnographic Museum

Open-Air Museum of Ethnography, Vake, Tbilisi, Georgia

Another lovely day to be outside exploring

A short bus ride north to the outskirts of the city followed by a short uphill walk through Vake Park brought us to the excellent Open-Air Ethnographic Museum, a collection of relocated period dwellings from every region of Georgia. Our favourites were the the traditional farmhouses with their separate kitchen buildings out the back, the bakery which was lovely and warm, and the winery.

Open-Air Ethnographic Museum, Tbilisi, Georgia

The museum has a lovely mix of dwellings and tradesmans buildings spread out over a wooded hillside

Open-Air Ethnographic Museum, Tbilisi, Georgia

Clockwise from left: a fireplace in a single room dwelling; a guide gives us an explanation of the grape press and the various cleaning and ladling tools; a distinctive tower house from the northern Svaneti region; and an example of the traditional “Georgian Pampers” for girls!

One invention I have to mention is a smoking pipe like wooden apparatus sticking up in the middle of a baby’s cot. The attendant dressed in period costume explained that the parents would hang a hollowed out gourd underneath the cot and “arrange” the child in such a way that they wouldn’t have to put them in nappies, they’d just strap them into the cot so they couldn’t move. With a slightly different design for boys and girls she finished her description by calling them “Georgian Pampers!”

Tsminda Sameba Cathedral

Tsminda Sameba Cathedral, Tbilisi, Georgia

The gold-topped Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi in the golden evening light

It was our last night in the capital, and as we’d seen the Catherldral from afar we weren’t that keen to pay it a visit but we mustered up the enthusiasm and we’re so glad we did – not only was our timing perfect for the evening sunlight, but we caught an impromptu a cappella from an unlikely looking group of men who could have just parked their works van outside after a day’s graft on a building site! Beautiful! Inside it’s as airy and spacious as the grounds it sits in. A fitting farewell to our time in Tbilisi.

Southern Armenia – Goris and around

The southern-most destination of our Armenian road trip was the once prosperous industrial town of Goris, still quite bustling but very much past its heyday. The long main streets with their two-storey houses with large wooden balconies stretching out over the pavement contrast with the functional concrete Soviet-era municipal buildings and residential apartment blocks. Everything has a partially abandoned shabbiness to it that’s quite endearing.

Goris, Armenia

Goris’ central town square is quite grand. It’d be nice in the summer with all the fountains working

The main highway from Yerevan skirts the top of the town on its way to the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and Iran further south (two more places to visit that we’ve added to our ever-expanding list!), but our reason for stopping in Goris was the nearby sights of Tatev Monastery and the cave settlement of Khndzoresk.

Tatev Monastery

Tatev Monastery, Armenia

Another monastery? We weren’t kidding when we said we thought every other site might be a monastery or church!

The journey to Tatev is a little more exciting than most as it involves a cable car. Somewhat ostentatiously called ‘The Wings of Tatev Aerial Tramway’, it’s in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest non-stop double-track cable car – which makes it sound a lot more impressive that it actually is! However, all is forgiven for the views over the small village of Halidzor, the remains of a warning bell tower and the spectacular view of the monastery itself, perched on the edge of the plateau.

Church of St Paul and St Peter, Tatev, Armenia

The church of St Paul and St Peter looks impressive and commands an enviable view down the valley

Although there was a small church on the site from the 4th century, Tatev grew into a thriving academic monastery after the main Surp Poghos-Petros (St Paul and St Peter) church was built in the 9th century to house important relics, and at its peak was home to some 1,000 clergy and students.

Former monk cells, Tatev, Armenia

I enjoyed exploring the old monk cells more than Julie did!

When we visited in March 2017 the restoration works were well underway and we read that the intention is to restore Tatev to a working monastic university which will include an interactive museum. I hope it’ll still be possible to visit some of the monk’s cells in the outer walls that look down the valley as we enjoyed exploring the rabbit-warren of interconnected rooms.

View from the monk cells, Tatev, Armenia

The view from the monk cells down the valley. Apparently there’s a tunnel carved into the hillside to the valley below!

The other highlight of Tatev for us was the huge communal oil press sited just outside the monastery so the nearby villagers could use it without disturbing the monks. At first glance we thought the giant screw end did the pressing but a video showed us that we had it the wrong way round – the sacks of seeds sit under the other end of the long wooden beams, and the screw end is used to control the compression.

Oil pressing house, Tatev, Armenia

Oil presses were common in monasteries all around Armenia, but Tatev’s has been reconstructed to show how they worked

Having taken the cable car to Tatev we decided to hike the 9 miles (15km) back which meant we could visit Tatevi Mets Anapat (Tatev Hermitage) and the Devil’s Bridge both located in the valley below. After a spot of lunch on the outskirts of Tatev village, we were adopted by our requisite tour guide dog whom we named Grigor and set off on the well trodden trail down the hillside.

Andrew and Grigor, Tatev, Armenia

Have pooch, will hike. It’s worth mentioning that the offline maps.me app was very helpful hiking down from Tatev Monastery as there are a few forks in the track and very few markers

Tatevi Mets Anapat

Tatevi Mets Anapat, Tatev, Armenia

The Tatev Hermitage viewed from the cable car

Concerned that we were running a little short of time to make it back to the car park before it closed at 6pm, we gave ourselves 20 minutes to poke around the ruined hermitage of Tatev and that was plenty of time, though I still couldn’t find the tunnel that apparently links it with the monastery we’d hiked from!

Tatevi Mets Anapat, Tatev, Armenia

Inside the Tatev Hermitage, complete with a hermit! We offered him a biscuit but he politely declined

Devil’s Bridge

Devil's Bridge, Tatev, Armenia

The Devil’s Bridge, also known as Satan’s Bridge, is a naturally created, 50m wide bridge spanning the river at the bottom of the valley

Filling up our water bottles from the natural spring at the Devil’s Bridge gave us two surprises: firstly, the tepid sulphuric taste was a bit of a shock to our hiker’s thirst and we were re-united with Grigor! He’d gone walkabout as we’d left him outside while we were in the hermitage and he was delighted as only dogs can be when they see you again!

Grigor reunited! Tatev, Armenia

Reunited! Grigor finds us at Devil’s Bridge

By now it was getting on for 4pm and we were both getting a little anxious about making it back in time to retrieve the hire car. We had 2 hours to hike 6 miles (9km) up the switchback valley road which was doable, but it would be close! After about 3 quarters of an hour we spotted some cars going our way and we were able to flag one of them down. As we set off with the 2 reserved Armenians in the front of their luxurious 4×4 we realised how far 6 miles is and were very thankful they had stopped for us!

Old Khndzoresk cave settlement

Khndzoresk, Armenia

The old cave settlement of Khndzoresk, all of those black dots are dwellings or storehouses

Old Khndzoresk is a large abandoned village of cave dwellings cut into the steep valley walls. The information board at the entrance said that at its peak in the early 20th century it comprised 9 districts, 1800 homes, 7 schools, shops, and workshops. We reckoned that meant the population would have been over 7,000!

Khndzoresk suspension bridge, Khndzoresk, Armenia

The caves are reached by a 160 metre suspension bridge that was hand-made by the locals to encourage tourism. They’re very proud that no heavy machinery was used!

Khndzoresk cave, Armenia

A lot of the caves were simple one-room dug outs, but some had corridors and doorways to larger rooms deeper into the rock we assumed would have been for storage

Church, Khndzoresk, Armenia

There are a few churches dotted throughout the settlement and they’re a more typical building construction which makes for a nice contrast against the caves

Khndzoresk cave, Armenia

While the higher caves were used for storage and reached by rope ladders, the lower caves were often extended with porches that doubled as yards or gardens for the caves directly above them

Us in Khndzoresk, Armenia

We took a little picnic with us and really enjoyed spending the day exploring the caves.

UNESCO Churches and Monasteries of Armenia

In 301 AD Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion, and today 3 sites covering 5 places of worship are recognised by UNESCO’s World Heritage List. While planning our trip we felt like almost every other thing we read was church this or monastery that – we were worried that we might quickly tire of them, that they’d all start blurring into each other and we would fail to appreciate their differences and significance.

I’m glad to say that wasn’t the case!

Geghard Monastery

Geghard Monastery, Armenia

Geghard Monastery in early spring

So the story goes, Geghard Monastery was founded by Gregory the Illuminator in the 4th century at the site of a cave with a natural spring. Geghard is a common and easy day trip from the capital Yerevan, and as well as being an impressive sight in a spectacular location, it’s important because Gregory is credited with the country’s Christianisation.

Geghard Monastery collage

Clockwise from top-left: Julie photographing the chandelier in the main chapel; Zhamatun, the second of the cave chapels, viewed from a hole in the floor of the Upper Jhamatun; Julie tasting the spring water – very clean in taste (no sulphur or mineral aftertaste) but very cold!; Carved relief of a ram’s head, two lions and an eagle clutching a lamb which is believed to be the coat of arms of the family that had the cave monastery extended in the 13th century

At the beginning of March we pretty much had the place to ourselves, but out of the sunshine exploring the chapels and caves was pretty cold. Completely worth it though, as the carvings throughout the monastery are so detailed, particularly the most recent ones. We especially liked the boldness of the older carvings in the caves and the finer work in the corridor to the upper gavit.

The Temple of Garni

The Temple of Garni, Armenia

The Temple of Garni, the only remaining structure of pre-Christian Armenia

A visit to The Temple of Garni is usually combined with Geghard Monastery as it’s pretty much on the way. Our day trip also included a stop at the modern Charents’ Arch but unfortunately the morning’s haze hadn’t quite cleared enough for us to see it framing Mt Ararat.

The Temple of Garni isn’t on the UNESCO Heritage list, but it is believed to have been built in the 1st century AD so it’s nearly 2,000 years old! We loved the detail of the stone carvings around the roofline, and the very big steps at the front to get to the altar inside.

Temple of Garni collage

Clockwise from top left: The remains of the mosaic floor in the Roman bath house; Detail of the temple roofline carvings; the remains of the St Sion Church with a view down the Garni valley

The remains of St Sion Church sit adjacent to the temple but we could only just see them peeking out from the snow, however we were able to see through the door of a building nearby which houses the mosaic flooring remains of a Roman bath house – nowhere near as well preserved or extensive as those at the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily – but fascinating to see such a breadth of history in one place.

Zvartnots Cathedral

Zvartnots Cathedral Ruins, Armenia

The ruins of the 7th century Zvartnots Cathedral

The ruins of Zvartnots Cathderal and the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin are the second UNESCO site that we visited in Armenia on another day trip from Yerevan. According to the small museum on site, Zvartnots Cathedral was briefly the centre of Christianity in Armenia, and its unique design was inspirational for the restoration of the much larger dome of Haghia Sophia in Constantinople, now Istanbul.

The remnants of Zvartnots Cathedral, clockwise from top-left: a pair of carved eagle capitals; a model of what Zvartnots may have looked like; and the many pieces of it which lay around in the surrounding fields like a massive jigsaw puzzle

According to the information pages on the excellent Armenia Heritage website, the surrounding buildings were a palace used by the Catholicos of All Armenia (i.e. the head of the Armenian Church) and included a throne room, a Roman bath house and a large winery. Palatial indeed! We really enjoyed exploring the ruins and trying to imagine how impressive the cathedral and its surrounding buildings would have been.

Echmiadzin Cathedral

Echmiadzin Cathedral

Echmiadzin Cathedral. There’s always something being repaired when we visit the sights of a country!

Echmiadzin (officially Vagharshapat) is the 4th largest city in Armenia having once been the capital, but the reason for our visit was the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin – the centre of Christianity in the country – and specifically the Mother Cathedral of Holy Echmiadzin, the oldest cathedral in the world.

The colourfully carved entranceway and the frescoes of the main cathedral’s dome

Inside it felt open and airy despite its relatively small size, and easily accommodated the many worshippers and handful of tourists. We liked the restrained frescoes and the 3 rooms of the treasury museum behind the main altar that includes among its relics the right-hand of St John the Baptist and the Holy Lance, said to have pierced the side of Christ.

Clockwise from top-left: Reliquary of St John the Baptist; The Holy Lance and its reliquary; Julie in the first room of the Cathedral Museum

As well as the cathedral, the Mother See, like the Vatican, comprises a number of other buildings including a seminary, and there are some very modern additions like the Gate of St Gregory and my favourite, the circular Church of the Holy Archangels.

Church of the Holy Archangels, Armenia

As well as the cathedral and its treasury museum, we liked the new Gate of St Gregory and the funky tall circular Church of the Holy Archangels.

Sanahin Monastery

Sanahin Monastery, Armenia

Sanahin Monastery, tucked away on the fringes of the village

Near the end of our fortnight in Armenia we stayed in the small northern mining town of Alaverdi, an excellent base from which to visit Armenia’s final UNESCO site – the monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin.

While it is possible to visit both in a day, or even half a day by taxi, we split them up so we’d have plenty of time to explore. Sanahin is the closer of the two to Alaverdi, though they’re both a short but very steep 1st gear marshrutka ride from the bottom of the Debed Canyon to their respective villages and they’re very different.

Sanahin Monastery collage

Details of Sanahin Monastery: the carved pillars and walls of the main gavit which we saw at all of the churches and monasteries in Armenia; One of the carved gravestones depicting the profession of the deceased, we think he was a musician

Sanahin looks compact, squeezed into a forest clearing between the edge of the village and the foot of the hills but it feels big, especially in the main covered entranceway or gavit, the floor covered in the gravestones of royalty and those once important in society, often depicting the interred’s profession. However, our favourites were the huge square bell tower with red brick crosses incorporated into its walls, and the fine examples of two khachkars (literally “cross-stones”) standing to attention that flank the main entrance.

Sanahin Bell Tower, Armenia

Detail of the wonderful carved red-brick inlay of the bell tower at the Sanahin Monastery

Mikoyan Musuem, Sanahin, Armenia

Just down the hill from Sanahin Monastery is the museum of the Mikoyan brothers. One worked for 60 years in the Soviet Politburo and the other designed the USSR’s first jet fighter, the MiG

Haghpat Monastery

Haghpat Monastery, Armenia

Haghpat Monastery with its commanding view over the village and the canyon

In contrast to Sanahin, Haghpat Monastery sits on a lofty perch overlooking the village and the canyon. When we arrived we thought it was closed as all of the gates were shut, but after wandering around the perimeter of the old walls a local farmer gestured through so we crept in and started exploring.

Sanahin Monastery collage

Clockwise from top left: detail of the carving of the monastery’s founder’s sons Smbat (who later became a king) and Gurgen holding a model of the church; the Amenaprkitch (All Savior) Khachkar of 1273 is the only one we saw in Armenia with a painting on it; and the view of the valley canyon with Sanahin just visible on the left ridge

As we worked our way around a youngish guy with a big bunch of keys started opening up the buildings and encouraging us to enter. A Polish couple arrived and he seemed more comfortable talking to them in Russian – we followed them all to the bell tower but unfortunately there was only time for the other couple to climb the tower as the caretaker had to lock up. Still, we’re glad we got to see inside the locked churches!

Hamazasp Gavit, Haghpat, Armenia

The cavernous Hamazasp Gavit is the largest gavit in Armenia at 330m2

As well as the separate bell tower (very different to the one at Sanahin), we liked the vastness of the ancillary buildings – one, the Hamazasp Gavit used as a monks assembly room is the largest gavit in Armenia, and we especially liked the depiction of the two brothers holding a model of the church.

Akhtala Church

Akhtala Church, Armenia

Akhtala hill-top church. Stunning location and not much to look at from the outside, but inside..

After our visit to Haghpat we decided not to wait 1½ hours for the next marshrutka and opted to set off on foot hoping to hitchhike a little further away from Alaverdi to the small village of Akhtala. A transit van, an old Vauxhall Cavalier with a cheery pair of Georgians (one of whom looked like George Clooney!) and a lovely couple in old Lada making a bread delivery later and we were there, the non-UNESCO St. Astvatsatsin church in the Akhtala complex.

We stood at the gates for a minute or so taking in the views (and taking photos, obviously!) when an old gentleman rattling some keys walked past us and gestured to the church. Feeling a bit like we were being frog-marched, we followed and were led inside – Wow.

The colourful main nave frescos of Akhtala, Armenia

It’s an assault of vivid colour! Beautiful, detailed frescoes line the walls though some are in desperate need of a little restoration..

We spent as long as we dared gazing in awe at the colourful, detailed murals while the caretaker quietly stood out of the way occasionally checking his mobile phone. We could easily have spent an hour inside walking around and slowly checking out each of the walls. It looks like repairs have started on the roof so we made a donation and asked if it was OK to look around the grounds.

Akhtala, Armenia

This prompted a short tour.. our caretaker was keen to point out the grave of the last monk to live here who died at the age of 100 in 1972, the old monastery cells in the walls, some kilns near the entrance and a modern sculpture that he was quite keen for us to step through which superstitiously helps your relationship but we both thought framed the monastery quite nicely..

Akhtala, Armenia

Modern sculpture at Akhtala – if only I could recall the Armenian for “Excuse me, sorry, would you mind taking a step backwards please?”

Feeling confident in our hitchhiking abilities, we set off from Akhtala towards the main road and after about 40 minutes and a few attempts we eventually managed to wave down a telecoms engineering van heading our way that had 4 guys in it and 2 spare seats. One of the young guys, Mikahl, graduated with a degree in English and we had a long and interesting conversation with him and his work mates. He also tagged us on Facebook as “English autostoppers” :o)

Mikahl - English Autostoppers

Mikahl tags us on Facebook on our way back to Alaverdi! Thanks again for the lift and the conversation :o)

The thing we’ll remember most that distinguishes Armenian churches and monasteries from any other places of worship we’ve seen so far are the carvings on the outside walls. They are covered in crosses of different sizes and styles, almost like graffiti, and we think they look really good!