Driving the vertiginous and bumpy Armenian roads south from Yerevan to Tatev Monastery at the end of May, I felt as if one of those old Microsoft Office screensavers had come to life.
Roads looped through fields full of wildflowers, which in turn gave way to hills colored an almost-too-vibrant-to-be-natural green, set against perfect snowcapped mountains and empty sky.
It says something about a road trip that when you return, your sole regret was not bringing a picnic blanket and provisions to take advantage of dramatic setting after dramatic setting. (About an hour into our drive, we realized that the reason so many cars pulled over to the side of the road in random spots was because the Russian and Armenian tourists had the right idea: They just parked, walked a few hundred yards into the fragrant fields, and plopped down for a meal.)
The drive from the center of Yerevan to Tatev Monastery (in the direction of the border with Iran) is about four hours. While the country is roughly the size of Maryland, the roads wind through a dense thicket of mountains on the aforementioned bumpy roads, and one is often sharing the road with old Soviet cars, trucks, cows, horses, and sheep.
Shortly after we got out out of Yerevan (no easy task), the journey’s first highlight loomed into view.
There are many mountains taller than Ararat, which clocks in at just shy of 12,000 feet. But if there’s such a thing as being the looming-est, this mountain, long believed to have been the spot where Noah’s Ark first touched land, merits such a designation. On a clear day its legendary peak towers over its eponymous plain to the point that even though it is in fact in Turkey, its presence is so, well, present, that Armenia keeping it as their national symbol is understandable.
In the shadows of Ararat, just past a graveyard where I’m introduced to the Armenian tradition of gravestones with full portraits carved into them, is our first stop—Khor Virap. While it is today a monastery, the complex was originally used as a prison. Its most famous occupant was Gregory the Illuminator, who is considered to be the person who turned Armenia Christian in 301 CE, thus giving it the claim of being the oldest nation to adopt Christianity. It was here that he was imprisoned in a hole for 13 years before he was able to convert King Tiridates III of Armenia.
The monasteries of Armenia, some of the most important religious sites in the world, are located in spectacular settings. Due to their locations, the three visited on this trip—Khor Virap, Tatev, and Noravank—can compete for beauty with any cathedral in the west.
But, just like those cathedrals, these are the main tourist attractions in this small country. And so one is well served by getting up early, as otherwise by midday, the monasteries are full of families and schoolchildren from this incredibly devout country. Just the day before, I had gone to a monastery just outside of Yerevan called Geghard, which was a monastery founded by Gregory that is carved into the cliffs of the Azat River gorge. Decorated in a Christian tradition that looked remarkably Eastern with large cats and birds of prey, the dark chambers of black stone were the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like Indiana Jones. Especially since we got there around nine in the morning, and thus had its eery caves all to ourselves.
Leaving the groups of Armenian schoolchildren behind, we continued our drive south from Khor Virap to Tatev. As soon as the developed multi-lane highway disappeared into a two-lane road, the landscape transformed.
The only experience I can compare to driving in southern Armenia in late May is cruising Provence in June. At first, you come across a field of flowers, and you pull the car over because you simply must have a photo of that. Same for the field of a different kind of wildflowers a dozen miles down the road. And the next. Eventually, it sinks in that this is what the whole drive will be like.
It was as if I had been transported into the vibrant landscape of Teletubbyland.
Eventually those rolling hills ended, and suddenly on one side of the car, the landscape fell away entirely. We had entered one of the deep canyons of the Vorotan River, which meant we were close to Tatev Monastery.
In the canyon we encountered yet another magnificent-—and completely different—landscape. In place of the romantic countryside, we were now in the middle of a hulking gorge of stone with lush vegetation draped throughout. Weirdly, even with the turn in weather to a light drizzle, the gorge was the spitting image of the Cañón del Sumidero in Chiapas, Mexico.
The monastery complex is on a plateau jutting out into the gorge, giving yet another monastery in Armenia yet another jaw-dropping siting. Once the home of one of the region’s most important universities, the 9th century monastery complex was (like all historic sites in Armenia) severely damaged by an earthquake (in Tatev’s case, 1931). Its rebuilt main church, set against the gorge, is perhaps the most charming of the monastic complexes I visited in Armenia. Tufts of grass poke out of cracks between stones. Elaborate but subtle carvings can be found throughout—a reward for the patient and roving eye. Perhaps it is also due to the monastery’s compact size in the face of its overwhelming surroundings.
Those surroundings also play a part in this destination’s other attraction—the Wings of Tatev. Beginning in 2010, this section of the gorge became home to the world’s longest one-stop double-track cable car. Essentially, it means a exhilarating (terrifying?) ride in a cabin over a river gorge, during which at some points you are suspended more than 1,000 feet above the ground.
After a night spent in the nearby town of Goris (where I learned that there are speed cameras in pretty much every town I’d zoomed through that day) it was back to Yerevan, this time with the drive broken up by our final monastery of the roadtrip—Noravank.
Situated in a hidden valley off the main highway, Noravank is popular not only for the devout, but also for hikers as it has a number of trails. (Our hike was cut short when we stumbled across a dog with a messed up paw that needed help).
Built in the 13th century, Noravank is essentially a bell tower missing a nave—a tower church that juts out of a plateau on one side of the valley. Its entrance is famous for being on the second story, which requires climbing its ziggurat-like staircase running along one facade. In the case of Noravank, modernity seems to have won, as the solemnity one usually associates with such a site has been thrown out the window in the face of the fact that those stairs are the perfect spot for a class, family, or couple’s photo.
Despite a well-intentioned but misguided stop at a roadside tasting room to sample local wines, in particular pomegranate (conclusion after three weeks in the region: if Georgia is the California of the region, Armenia is the Virginia), the drive back to Yerevan was even more blissful than the drive south. Now, instead of needing to stop and get the right picture, we could cruise along (at the speed limit) knowing this or that field would not be the only one we’d get to take in.
And so, a few hours after leaving Goris, despite being in dust-choked traffic in Yerevan, with Google Maps failing right and left, and trying to maneuver the car rental I was desperate not to scratch, I was not even remotely stressed. All I could think about was how lucky I was that in the small span of time that is 48 hours, I’d made one of the most memorable and remarkable pilgrimages of my life.