Noravank, Areni, and Khor Virap
Once we left Tatev, the southernmost point of our road trip through Armenia, the road took us to the country’s southwest. Soon, the land of apricots and pomegranates turned into beautiful hilly vineyards. Along the way, medieval sights completed the landscape.
Noravank, the monastery in a red gorge
The 13th-century monastery is an excellent example of symbiosis between a man-made structure and surrounding nature. The religious complex complements the deep canyon with bright, brick-red cliffs enclosing it.
Momik, Armenian famous sculptor and miniaturist designed the main two-story Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God) church. Visitors and pilgrims can climb the narrow unsecured staircase to the first floor.
The façade of the second church, Surb Karapet, includes a beautiful depiction of the Holy Virgin with a Child. Besides, the complex houses several ancient khachkars.
The best time to visit the church is during the “golden hour” when the churches, as well as surrounding cliffs, absorb the soft light. For a postcard-like view of the complex, climb a small hill behind its walls.
A drive on the narrow road that leads to the monastery is an experience itself. High red cliffs provide a perfect photo opportunity around every bend.
Good to know: There’s a restaurant directly adjacent to the monastery. However, when we visited, the whole place was booked out by tour buses. On the crossing from the main road to Noravank monastery road, an outdoor restaurant offers decent barbecue dishes.
Areni, the Armenian wine capital
The picturesque village is located only a few kilometers away from Noravank. Wine production had defined the region for millennia. In 2007, archeologists discovered the world’s oldest (6100 years old) winery in a cave at the shore of Arpa river in Areni.
Thus, wine tasting is the number one activity in the area. We had a lovely impromptu tasting in a family-run Areni Winery. After that, we decided to call it a night at Areni Lodge, a very welcoming guest house and B&B with patio and hammocks in the backyard.
Khor Virap, the ‘dwarf’ of the Ararat plain
Once we left Areni, it didn’t take long, and Mount Ararat reappeared to our left. The vast volcanic plain replaced hilly vineyards.
On a hillock close to the border with Turkey, Khor Virap monastery welcomes travelers. The mighty Ararat in the background appears to be so close that the church comes out as a tiny dwarf. Nonetheless, the place played a significant role in Armenian history.
The then pagan Armenian king imprisoned Gregory the Illuminator, the first head of Armenian Apostolic Church in a pit under the present-day Khor Virap. Yet, the Christian became the king’s religious tutor, which led to the adoption of Christianity as the state religion in 301. The first chapel above the pit appeared in the 7th century. To this day, pilgrims can descend to the sacred dungeon 60 meters (200 feet) below the ground.
Good to know: Clear views of Mount Ararat are rare. To increase your chances, visit just after sunrise. Khor Virap is only an hour drive away from Yerevan.
Stork villages under Mount Ararat
Allegedly, Armenia is a paradise for bird watchers. The villages around Khor Virap hide a pleasant surprise even for not such big fans this of particular activity. They are home to many white stork couples, that mate and bring up their offspring on man-made nests in the villages before migrating south for the winter.
We visited in May and could observe stork babies learning to stand in their comfy nests. It was a delightful sight.
How to get there: Look for ‘nests on a stick’ in a village along H8 road, park in a side street and enjoy. We randomly picked the municipality of Armash.
Our road trip in Armenia ended as it started: with a gorgeous view of Mount Ararat guarding above the land of Noah’s descendants.
Traveling in Armenia
Check out more information about Armenia
– Yerevan: The Pink Capital
– Garni and Geghard: Medival beauties close to Yerevan
– Sevan Lake and Armenian Stonehenge: Traveling to the South
– Tatev: Monastery on the edge of a deep gorge
– Noravank, Areni, and Khor Virap: History and wine
– Practical tips for traveling