It’s been almost a year since we moved to Armenia, so it’s time for a second installment of Exploring Armenia (with kids). In Part I, I talked about my visits to Areni, Dilijan, Geghard Monastery, Tsagkadzor, Goris, and Tatev.
Spring is an amazing time to travel in Armenia. Nature comes alive in techno color and, even though there’s been a fair amount of rain, the sun shines almost every day. As Yerevan gets hotter and hotter (temperatures above 30°C/85°F since June) and slowly becomes unbearable, the temperatures for high-altitude places like Gyumri and Lake Sevan are just perfect.
On our weekend-trip to Gyumri we arrived around dinnertime after a two-hour drive from Yerevan. As we made our way to our hotel, we caught glimpses of the two things that characterize Gyumri today: beautiful historical buildings and earthquake devastation.
After checking into Villa Kars—a charming guesthouse renovated and run by an Italian honorary consul—we went out for a low-key dinner at Hatsatun where we promptly ran into a group of newly arrived Peace Corps volunteers. If our kids had been less tired, we would probably have gone to Gyumri’s highly rated Fish Restaurant (Cherkezi Dzor) instead. Maybe next time!
We got up early the next morning to drive around and hit some of the local highlights; we toured the Museum of National Architecture and Urban Life with an English-speaking guide, walked up to the Mother of Armenia statue, and visited Sev Berd, which is a Russian imperial fortress that is now used as an event space.
The afternoon was even better; after a delicious lunch at a restaurant with no name (located next to Monchik-Ponchik) we toured the city with an embassy contact who told us many interesting stories, particularly about the destruction of the 1988 Spitak earthquake and current efforts to remake the city. Unfortunately, Gyumri hasn’t exactly recovered from the earthquake that happened 30 years ago.
We had dinner at Villa Kars, where an Italian chef prepared our meal as we awaited a live musical performance (that never happened). The next day, we didn’t have enough time or energy to visit the Gyumri Brewery and instead hit the shops; we bought some toys for our kids and my husband found a replica of a famous local hat.
By the way, if you’re interested in visiting Gyumri by train you’re in luck; there’s a new train connection between Yerevan and Gyumri. Look here for more info.
VANADZOR, TUFENKIAN & ALAVERDI
Vanadzor is a two-hour drive north of Yerevan; it’s a real city but somehow we haven’t been able to find anything fun to do there. It’s rare for us not to find a way to enjoy a city, but so far we only visited a pretty bad restaurant called Jazz Café and a seriously outdated "kids cafe," which was quaint but also depressing.
The second time we went to Vanadzor (again for work) we decided to drive 40 minutes further north in order to spend the night in Dzoraget at the Tufenkian—a historic “heritage” hotel that also has branches in Yerevan and Dilijan. From there, we visited beautiful Alaverdi Monastery, which had a church service going and a small tour bus full of onlookers.
We also hiked up a short way to check out Kobayr Monastery, which features some cool medieval frescoes that are fading fast since the 1988 earthquake laid the walls bare (the Italian government paid for a small roof to protect them for now). The monastery looked fairly deserted and can only be reached by a little trail but interestingly enough there was an Armenian singer there filming a music video using a drone camera. On the way back to Yerevan we drove through Stepanavan to have lunch at one of our favorite restaurants: Carahunge.
LAKE SEVAN CAMPING
Camping in Armenia was definitely on my list, but hasn’t been easy because of a serious lack of camping grounds and the fact that we have two small kids. Summer is really the only time it’s warm enough to swim in the lake and to be comfortable during the night. We found a great spot away from the main beach areas. There were no amenities other than a fire pit.
We only stayed one night. We had fun the first day, but it also showed us the disadvantages of camping at Sevan: biting flies, lots of wind, and washed-up birds and brush on the beach. Also, the sun was too hot for our sunscreen so we all baked into a crisp. The next day, however, was much better: the wind was gone, the beach was clean, and there was hardly anyone there. I had a lovely swim and vowed to myself to come back soon.
This certainly won’t be the last installment of Exploring Armenia (with kids); this summer/fall we’ll be visiting Noravank monastery, Jermuk hot springs, and sights around Yerevan like Levon's Cave, Erebuni Fortress, and Armenia's religious center Etchmiadzin.