When we visited Armenia this past April, we were originally planning to travel around the country.
All that changed when we got to Yerevan. We loved the city (and our Airbnb) so much that within just a few hours, we had decided to extend our stay and spend some quality time in Yerevan instead. We’d just come off the back of a challenging overland trip through Azerbaijan, and we both felt like we needed a break. I had read about a few possible day trips from Yerevan so we figured we’d just do that and save the rest of the country for another time.
Tatev Monastery is one of a few places I had bookmarked before we arrived in the Caucasus. I really wanted to go. But when I looked at the map and saw it was at the opposite end of Armenia – basically on the Iranian border – I forgot about it. From other travellers’ reports, I figured it would take three days to do Tatev properly. And we just weren’t prepared to leave Yerevan and spend two entire days in a bus to see one monastery, no matter how special it is.
I was researching day trips from Yerevan when I came across this blog post by Kami, a veteran Caucasus traveller. She wrote about an organised excursion she had done to Tatev with Hyur Service, a tour agency based in Yerevan. We’re not usually group tour people (we’ve probably done about five in all our years of travel together), but we were willing to give it a go if it meant being able to visit Tatev in a day.
From the moment we walked into the Hyur office to enquire about booking, I knew we had made the right decision. Hyur staff were supremely organised and thorough, which as an anxious traveller, I really appreciate. At the end of this post I’ve included more about our experience with Hyur Service and the logistics of our day trip (including what it cost us). For now, here are the highlights of our epic 13-hour road trip from Yerevan to Tatev via central Armenia.
ON THE ROAD IN ARMENIA
On the day of our tour, we left Yerevan at 9am sharp in the company of six other tourists, two Armenian girls who were back home from working in Belgium, and our guide, who spoke in both English and Armenian.
This wasn’t a case of just sitting back and driving from A to B. Our guide spoke almost the entire way – about the history and geography of her country, about the sites we were visiting, about her own life. She was fantastic.
When she wasn’t chatting or answering our questions, the minibus driver would pump up the volume on his radio and sing along to pop songs with the Armenian girls. Sometimes he’d fishtail the bus in rhythm with the music. It was hilarious. The good spiritedness of our guide and driver and fellow passengers definitely made the long drive easier and the whole day more enjoyable.
As soon as we reached Yerevan’s city limits, immaculate views of Mount Ararat appeared out the bus window. Passengers started nagging the driver to stop for a photo. He promised us he knew a good spot, so we patiently waited. Eventually we pulled up on the side of a quiet road and piled out of the bus for a close-up look at mighty Ararat. By mid-morning, the mountain is usually covered with thick cloud, so we were very lucky to be out early enough to catch a clear view. Skirted by fields green and winding dirt roads, Ararat looks close enough to reach out and touch…
After a few more hours on the road we entered Vayots Dzor province. Our first official stop, Noravank Monastery, is a charming little monastery complex that dates back to the 13th century. One of the main buildings was rebuilt by a generous benefactor after the original was destroyed in an earthquake.
At one point, the whole Noravank complex came under threat. Our guide told us that when Mongols conquered Armenia and destroyed many of the places of worship in the area, they spared Noravank because of the stone engravings on the facade which depict God with almond-shaped eyes. Apparently this familiar Asiatic facial feature was enough to save the monastery.
The Khachkar cross-stones at Noravank are some of the loveliest I’ve seen. In the old days the engravings were done by hand, so the more intricate the patterns, the newer the stones are. Noravank has a very peaceful, reverent feel and we had a good hour to wander around the grounds here.
WINGS OF TATEV
By the time we rolled into Syunik province in southernmost Armenia, the increased frequency of cargo trucks with Iranian number plates and road signs pointing the way to Tehran were a reminder of just how close we had come to the border. I’m sure everyone on the bus thought about travelling just a little bit further into the Islamic Republic. Maybe another time.
After sitting down to a home-cooked lunch, it was time to ride the Wings of Tatev, the world’s longest double-gauge ropeway. The 5km aerial car was set up by a benefactor to make Tatev Monastery – which sits on the opposite side of an expansive gorge – easier to reach from the main road. A journey that took more than an hour along winding mountain tracks has been cut down to 12 minutes. Locals ride for a discounted rate and use the cable car as public transport to travel across the valley to Sunday mass, which is still held at the monastery. We rode with other tourists and a guide who obligingly gestured at points of interest on the way over.
Soaring over the gully, the red-roofed villages and the tiny waterfalls was really stunning. We got a bird’s eye view of some old ruins on the valley floor and later learned that an underground passageway connects the building all the way up to the monastery. It was used as an escape path during invasions.
Even backpackers will fork out 5,000 AMD for a ticket on the aerial car. Lucky for us day trippers, we could leave our luggage at home.
As we drew closer and closer to the monastery, my excitement started to build. I vied with the other aerial car passengers for a spot at the window and drew my camera close to the cloudy glass in anticipation.
We sailed down the final stretch of cable and the monastery complex finally came into view. I must admit that I was a little disappointed with what I saw. It could have been the winter weather that had turned all the surrounding foliage to a brown crisp, or it might have been the fact that a large part of the monastery was cloaked in a white sheet for restoration work. Or maybe my expectations were just too high. The grand entrance into Tatev that I had imagined never materialised.
Despite this, I still enjoyed our time exploring the monastery and learning about its history. I especially love the story of the rogue state that has its origins inside the monastery. The Republic of Mountainous Armenia was a self-declared, unrecognised state established in 1920. This all happened inside the monastery, during a congress led by Garegin Nzhdeh, a military commander and local politician. The state didn’t last long: In July 1921, Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic was declared and Mountainous Armenia was no more.
We found a lot of interesting details around the monastery complex. Our guide led us into a few rooms including the refectory, and we saw the hatch door that leads to the tunnel I mentioned earlier.
I don’t have any beautiful photos of the monastery, sorry (you’ll have to check out Lost With Purpose for that). I could lie and say I don’t want to spoil it for you – but truth is, we just didn’t get a chance to find a good vantage point. This is my only criticism of the tour: we were a bit rushed at Tatev Monastery. It would have been nice to have more free time to climb the hills around the monastery.
On the way out, we bought some snacks from the friendly vendors at Tatev and picked up a jar of honey for our Airbnb hosts back in Tbilisi (which we then proceeded to carry around with us for the next five weeks). We travelled back to bus on the Wings.
Our final destination for the day was Zorats Karer (or Karahunj), otherwise known as ‘Armenia’s Stonehenge’. Located in Syunik province, about 50km north of Tatev, this impressive archeological site is made up of no less than 223 weathered and mossy boulders set in an open field against a backdrop of rugged mountains. There is some controversy surrounding the true age and origins of the formation – Bronze Age tomb stones or part of an ancient observatory? (look out for the peep holes cut in some of the stones).
When we arrived, it was blowing a gale and absolutely freezing. We braced ourselves for a quick walk around the site and a few photos of the breathtaking landscape. After Zorats Karer, we made one final rest stop at a tea house on the road back to Yerevan.
DAY TRIPPING WITH HYUR SERVICE – GOOD TO KNOW
At the time of our visit (April 2017), Hyur Service was offering a scheduled day trip to Tatev Monastery two days a week, both with a slightly different itinerary. (Note that departure is guaranteed and there’s no minimum number of passengers or supplement for single travellers.) We opted for the Tuesday trip, which departed the Hyur office in Yerevan at 9am and returned to the city around 10pm. Since it was late when we returned, the driver was happy to drop passengers off closer to their hotels. I strongly suggest you bring a jacket with you because it’s likely to get cold in the evening.
At 18,000 AMD (37 USD) per person, the tour to Tatev wasn’t cheap. When you account for everything included in the price, I think it’s fantastic value – and a lot cheaper than similar tours might cost elsewhere in the world. The ticket covers all transport on the mini bus, bottled water, a few snacks, a ticket on the Wings of Tatev (which costs 5,000 AMD), plus a very attentive and knowledgeable guide for the entire day. The only extra is lunch, which costs 3–5,000 AMD depending on your choice of meat (vegetarian options also available). Peace of mind is priceless, and we’d be willing to pay much more for the knowledge that everything was taken care of.
Hyur Service offers other day and overnight trips around Armenia and into Georgia – including a three-day excursion to Nagorno-Karabakh. They can also help with things like car hire and long-term apartment rental. Tickets for day trips should be purchased at least a few days in advance from the office in Yerevan, or through tour agencies around the city (look out for Hyur’s blue, red and yellow banners).
We loved our day trip with Hyur to Tatev and we will definitely use this service again next time we’re in Armenia!