Tag Archives: UNESCO

Kutaisi, Georgia

Kutaisi is the second largest city in Georgia though much smaller than the capital Tbilisi. It has a relaxed, friendly vibe and we really liked the central area with its bustling park, elaborate fountain and excellent market. There are plenty of interesting sites within day trip distance too, so in order to do them justice as well as reach a few other places in central Georgia we hired a car for our final week.

Colchis fountain, Kutaisi

The Colchis Fountain stands in front of the Drama Theatre in the centre of Kutaisi. The Bagrati Cathedral is on the hilltop in the background

The Colchis Fountain forms a roundabout in the city centre and is decorated with large scale replicas of 2000 year old gold jewellery excavated from a tomb in nearby Vani. The Colchis civilization which was responsible for the jewellery has been linked to the Ancient Greek legends of Jason and the Argonauts and their search for the Golden Fleece. (Note to Kutaisi City Council: please make a pedestrian crossing to the fountain so that tourists can get a closer look at the sculptures without getting run over…)

The market was just as friendly as the one we visited in Tbilisi with sellers eager to chat, offer samples and let us photograph their wares

The Georgian Parliament was moved from Tbilisi to Kutaisi by the government of Mikheil Saakashvili to decentralise power from the capital and boost economically deprived Kutaisi. The futuristic building was opened in 2012. Tours inside need to be booked in advance so we just parked up and had a look around outside.

The new Georgian Parliament building in Kutaisi

On a hill overlooking the city centre stands Bagrati Cathedral, one of two UNESCO listed sites close to Kutaisi. The pale stone walls and green roof have been pretty much completely rebuilt after lying in ruins since 1692 when it was destroyed by the Ottomans. The grounds around it and the view over the city to the Lesser Caucasus mountains are beautiful but we found it rather staid inside.

Bagrati Cathedral has been almost completely rebuilt from its ruined state

Under the same UNESCO World Heritage listing as the Bagrati Cathedral is Gelati Monastery, just a 20 minute drive into the hills to the north-east of Kutaisi. We found this much more interesting, from the old monk poking about in the engine of his equally aged car just inside the entrance to the stunning frescoed interior of the main church. The monastery was founded in 1106 by King David the Builder (guess what he was famous for!) as a centre of culture and learning and it retained that reputation until the communists arrived in the 1920s.

Gelati monastery (clockwise from top): restoration works were being carried out during our visit with rather natty green roof tiles being added to the buildings; Andrew and Jo taking photographs beside the grave of King David the Builder; the small Church of St Nicholas stands on an unusual arcaded base

King David the Builder wanted to be buried in one of the monastery gates so that visitors would have to step on him to enter the complex. The gate is now permanently closed for passing through and today’s visitors take care to not step on the gravestone!

Frescoes dating from the 12th to 18th centuries cover the whole interior of the Cathedral of the Virgin at Gelati monastery

Just down the hill from Gelati is the tiny Motsameta Monastery. Even by Georgian standards its location is spectacular. The church is home to the tomb of two brothers who were killed during an 8th century massacre by the Arabs and who were miraculously carried up to the monastery site by lions. The faithful believe that their tomb grants wishes.

Motsameta monastery has a stunning location on the edge of a gorge above the River Tskaltsitela

As a break from the churches and monasteries we headed out to see the natural beauty of the area north of Kutaisi. Our first destination was the walkway along Okatse Canyon. Unfortunately I can’t tell you much about it as our GPS directed us onto a rough unsurfaced road which was bad enough, but by the time we reached the bridge at the bottom of the valley that it expected us to cross we decided to give it up and head on to our next stop instead.

Rough road detour north of Kutaisi: (top) with hindsight we should have turned around here instead of driving for half an hour to the river where we were forced to retrace our steps rather than crossing this very rickety looking bridge (bottom)

The Prometheus Cave is 1.4km long and the concrete walkway passes through six large chambers full of impressive stalactites and stalagmites. Entry is by guided tour only and we ended up with a Russian group rather than waiting over an hour for an English-speaking one. In the end that was probably better as we didn’t feel obliged to keep up to hear what the guide was saying and just hung back taking photos! Our Lonely Planet describes the lighting in the cave as ‘discreet’, the word I would use is lurid, but I suppose it creates some interesting effects on the rock formations. I found the Vivaldi background music less offensive as it served to dampen the echoes from the large group.

Prometheus Cave (clockwise from left): Andrew admiring some stalactites; the ‘discreet’ lighting on the rock formations; cross-section through a broken stalactite

Our final stop of the day was at the Sataplia Nature Reserve, an area of sub-tropical Colchic forest, home to birds, wildlife, and fossilised dinosaur footprints! Spring flowers were beginning to bloom on the forest floor and with the sun shining it was a very pleasant walk along the trail to the Sataplia Cave, which honestly was not particularly impressive after the Prometheus Cave.

Sataplia Nature Reserve: one minute you’re walking along a woodland path…the next, dinosaurs!

The word Sataplia means ‘place of honey’ and is so called because of the tradition of collecting honey from the bees found in this area. There are a couple of great viewpoints along the trail including a glass floored walkway which reminded us of the glass path that we walked on at Zhangjiajie in China. The one here was closed when we visited but we could get close enough to see the view.

Gorgeous view over Kutaisi and the Lesser Caucasus from Sataplia

The highlight of the Sataplia trail was the well-presented pavilion containing fossilised dinosaur footprints

70km east of Kutaisi is the small mining town of Chiatura. It’s very much off the standard tourist radar but we’d read that there are several still-functioning Soviet era cable cars linking the town centre with the mines and residential areas in the hills above so we stopped off for a brief visit to frighten ourselves with the rickety contraptions.

On the way to Chiatura we visited the Katskhi Pillar, a monastery atop a rocky outcrop. Apparently one monk still lives up there!

The first cable car we rode had a lady operator who was in charge of locking the door and stopping and starting the system. At the top we seemed to have reached a residential area though we didn’t venture far from the station. That car ran at 15 minute intervals and there was no charge or ticket. On the way down we were sharing with (among others) a chatty old lady who wasn’t going to let her lack of English or our lack of either Georgian or Russian stop her from finding out all about us!

Chiatura cable cars (clockwise from left): cable car arriving at the bottom station; inside the cable car, the lady in the leather jacket (centre left) is the operator; the stations must once have been grand but are now in the same level of disrepair as the cable cars

The second cable car we rode was on a particularly steep line. At the top we found a mine entrance and a spectacular view down to the town

Final mention should go to our rental apartment in Kutaisi. We didn’t quite believe the pictures on the booking website but it really was as grand as it looked!

Our rental apartment felt like a stately home!

Travelling in the Georgian Caucasus: Kazbegi and Svaneti

Georgia is a mountainous land.  There’s a low, flattish strip running from the Black Sea in the west to the Azerbaijan border in the south-east, but everywhere else is high ground with the mighty Caucasus mountains forming the country’s northern border with Russia.  Visiting at the end of March we weren’t sure whether the snow would have melted and how accessible the mountains would be but we wanted to try to get to them.

Snowy mountains

Into the mountains! There was still a lot of snow as we crossed the Jvari pass before dropping down a little into Kazbegi

From Sighnaghi we returned to Tbilisi and took another marshrutka along the Georgian Military Highway to Stepantsminda, also known as Kazbegi.  This small town is home to one of the most famous views in the country and if you look at any tourism material about Georgia you’ll almost certainly see a picture of the small monastery perched on a ridge with a towering mountain behind it.  We’d booked rooms in a guesthouse before arriving, saw that it was marked on our offline map and confidently struck out from the bus stop in the centre of town for what looked to be about a five minute walk.

Cloudy Kazbegi view

View from our guesthouse, Homestay Lela and Mari. We originally thought that Mt Kazbek was the snowy section to the right of the monastery, and then we saw the peak poking out from the clouds above!

Suffice to say, the guesthouse wasn’t where the map said, and after knocking on the door of a random lady, walking up and down the street for 20 minutes, bothering several other passersby and three phone calls to the guesthouse who spoke limited English, we were a little nervous about all the trouble we’d caused when our host Gela pulled up next to us in his car. No need to worry! He brushed off our apologies, drove 30 seconds to the house (just round the corner from where the map said it was), presented us with plates full of biscuits and sweets and offered us coffee or tea.  We gratefully accepted a coffee and he confidently added ‘chacha?’  Not wishing to be rude we tentatively accepted a glass of the local firewater, distilled from the second pressing of the grapes, which with Gela’s hospitality swiftly became three and then five shots so that when we later set out to explore the town we were all a little giggly!

Kazbegi

Kazbegi (clockwise from top): the River Terek runs through the town; Soviet era mural adorning the end of a building in the centre; parts of the town are looking a bit run down including this now defunct cable car station

The following morning I woke quite early, peeped around the curtain to see what the weather was like and my jaw dropped.  Mt Kazbek had emerged from the clouds and the pink light of the sunrise was making its way down the peak towards the Gergeti monastery.  We oohed and aahed, taking lots of (almost identical) photos until Gela bundled us all into the car and we sped off up the hill.  We weren’t entirely clear on where we were going but shortly arrived at a small monastery above the town opposite Mt Kazbek. As we got out of the car we saw a young monk hurrying across the snow covered grounds to ring the bell and a few minutes later we were standing at the back of the tiny colourfully frescoed church listening to the monks’ morning prayer chants. Gela gave us each a candle to light and place in front of one of the icons and I said a small thank you to the world for such a magical start to the day.

On our second morning in Kazbegi, Andrew got his camera set up to take a time-lapse of the sunrise.

After breakfast we set off to hike up to the Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) monastery which we’d been admiring from below since the previous afternoon. We refused the many offers of ‘taxi?’ as we walked through the town, crossed the river and passed through the opposite village of Gergeti. The hike was steep but not difficult and with a few pauses to catch our breath admire the spectacular view we made it up to the monastery in about an hour from the valley floor.

Cows beside the path

Cows beside the path as we pass through Gergeti village on the way to the monastery

Having seen no other tourists on the walk up it was a bit of a shock to find several groups armed with selfie sticks spilling out of cars at the monastery. The church itself is small and architecturally nothing special, it’s really the location that counts here. Even historically, when enemies threatened, the Georgians brought their sacred treasures from Mtskheta and put them in the monastery for safe keeping.

Gergeti Tsminda Sameba church

Andrew, Jo and I in front of the postcard perfect view of Gergeti Tsminda Sameba church

Gergeti Tsminda Sameba monastery

The Gergeti Tsminda Sameba monastery really does have a stunning location

Thermal pool near Kazbegi

On our second day in Kazbegi we walked along the valley to the village of Pansheti. On the way we passed this swimming pool fed from a mineral spring

Overnight train to Zugdidi at Tbilisi station

We took the afternoon marshrutka back to Tbilisi in time to catch the overnight train to Zugdidi. We love sleeping in the rocking motion of a slow train but this one would have been a bit more comfortable if they’d turned the heating down a few notches

We arrived in Zugdidi in north-western Georgia at 6am after an uncomfortably hot overnight train journey.  From there it was a three hour marshrutka ride up increasingly twisty roads with increasingly stunning views to Mestia, the main town of the Svaneti region.  The Svaneti region of the Caucasus has its own distinct culture, food, traditions and even language, and the Svan people are very proud that they’ve never been ruled by outsiders.  The most obvious and distinctive part of their culture are the defensive towers.

Mestia

Mestia and its distinctive defensive towers

We’d seen an example of a Svan tower at the Ethnographic Museum in Tbilisi but here we were able to go inside and climb up to the top even sticking our head through the roof hatch in one case! Some levels had stone floors and others wood but each was small and had bare stone walls.  The tradition of the towers dates back to the Middle Ages and each family had its own attached to the main living hall to be used for protection of the owners and their animals in case of attack from invaders or raiders.  Some of the towers were also used for signalling with fires being lit in a chain down the valley to warn of an impending attack. The excellent museum in Mestia had an exhibit of photographs taken by Italian Vittorio Sella in the 1890s and the town’s architecture is still recognisable 125 years later.

Svan towers (clockwise from left): the tower entrance is part way up the side to aid with defence; Jo climbing up one of the ladders, stone slabs would be used to close these holes in case of attack; only the top floor of the tower has windows

Although Mestia is at roughly the same altitude as Kazbegi, around 1500m, the sunny spring weather that we’d experienced in the eastern mountains didn’t quite seem to have arrived here yet.  There was still snow on the ground and on our second day we were more or less snowed in as the fluffy flakes fell continuously from early morning to late evening.  We ventured out for a walk to the cathedral (locked) and for lunch at a local cafe but mostly we just holed up in our guesthouse around the cosy wood burning stove.

Holed up in the guesthouse on a snowy day in Mestia

Fortunately by the following morning the sun had appeared and was starting to lift the clouds from the mountains.  We’d arranged a trip to Ushguli, a UNESCO listed village further into the mountains with Vakho, our guesthouse owner’s brother.  Also joining us were a Korean woman and a Japanese man who we’d met in town.  It’s a rough road passable only by 4WD vehicles even in the summer and the 47km (29 miles) takes over 2 hours to drive.  We reached a point where no other vehicles had driven and were cruising along downhill when suddenly a Russian made jeep flew around the corner ahead of us. CRUNCH! There was nowhere for us to go and the front corner and headlight unit of our Mitsubishi was caved in by the impact.

Crash on the snowy road to Ushguli

Luckily no-one was hurt and the engine wasn’t damaged so after a short while we were back on our way though Vakho was understandably upset at the damage which would likely cost him significantly more to fix than the 200GEL that we were paying him for the day’s excursion. There’s no car insurance here and the other vehicle’s owner didn’t seem to be overly concerned about helping out though technically it was his fault as he was driving uphill.

The previous day’s snow made the view from the road to Ushguli even prettier

The community of Ushguli stands at the foot of Mt Shkhara, Georgia’s highest peak, and is made up of five villages, one of which was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996 as an “exceptional example of mountain scenery with medieval-type villages and tower-houses”. At an altitude of between 2060 and 2200m it also lays claim to being the highest permanently (i.e. year round) inhabited settlement in Europe. It must be a difficult place to live, bitterly cold in the winter (it was bad enough in late March), two hours on a bad road to the nearest small town, and five or more to anything bigger, the people must be hardy and self-sufficient in ways that are difficult for us to imagine.

The villages of Ushguli, in the foreground UNESCO listed Chazhashi, with Chvibiani behind

One Svan culinary specialty is the kubdari, similar to the cheese-filled khachapuri found in the rest of Georgia, but stuffed with seasoned meat.  In Ushguli we got an impromptu cooking lesson from a cafe owner as we watched her make pies for our lunch. I suspect that getting the filling to stay neatly inside the dough is not nearly as easy as she made it look. Once made, the kubdari were cooked on top of and then inside the traditional wood-fired stove which is the heart of every Svan home and kitchen.

Making kubdari in Ushguli

Cafe owner making kubdari, Svan meat pie, in Ushguli

After lunch, Vakho and the cafe owner scrambled the security guard and museum keeper to open the small ethnographic museum up for us. Located in a fat tower in Chazhashi, it houses treasures from Ushguli’s seven churches including gold and silver chalices, icons and crosses as well as jewellery and drinking horns.

Ushguli ethnographic museum

Emerging from the museum we trudged through the snow a little further along the street when we heard loud barking and saw an enormous Caucasian shepherd dog bearing down on us. A woman shouted at him but we beat a hasty retreat all the same. The dogs in the streets of both Ushguli and Mestia are quite intimidating. Not so bad if it’s a cute waddling sausage dog, but others are descended from the mountain dogs bred to protect the sheep from wolves and bears and could do quite a bit of damage if they felt so inclined. Locals told us that they are generally safe as the dogs have learnt that tourists will give them food but I didn’t enjoy having a pack follow us around especially as we had no intention of feeding them.

Our tour group in Ushguli (left to right): Julie, Andrew, Jo, Masato, Hyunja

Feral dogs aside, the mountains were a highlight of the trip for all of us and we vowed to return in the summer for some hiking!

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

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!