Exploring Armenia (with kids) – Part 3
Updated: Jun 18
My first trip to Areni was mostly focused on wine tasting and pottery baking (in Sisian). This time I went to Areni, which is about a 2-hour drive from Yerevan, the trip was all about exploring history. We visited Areni Cave, which is where geologists found a 5,500-year old shoe in 2008. The shoe is now displayed in the National History Museum in Yerevan, but there is still some stuff to see at the site itself.
The cave is not very big and the tour we got was kind of short. Still, I'm not sure I understood the meaning of everything we saw (I was too busy juggling two tired kids—I didn’t want to put them down on the dusty cave ground). But if I understood correctly, what we were looking at was mostly large wine vessels (“karas”) and human remains, meaning that wine had something to do with the ancient burial rites.
Near to Areni is Noravank, which is probably the most beautiful church I’ve seen so far in Armenia (most claim it’s Tatev, but I found little to do in Tatev and when it’s hazy the cable cars aren’t as spectacular as they could be). I liked Noravank because it has a gorgeous view and a small museum, and there’s some stuff you can do with kids: you can climb way down in a mysterious little cave, and we got a kick out of going up and down the tricky stairs framing the main entrance of the church.
We also visited an Orbelian karavansarai dating back to 1332, which is built out of solid rock and seems to be in the same condition it has always been. Big, sturdy and dark, this place really makes you feel how it would have been to arrive here after an arduous trek in the Armenian mountains many centuries ago.
The B&B in Yeghegnadzor we stayed at, Gohar & Ashot, was nothing short of perfect for our needs; we had a large family room with four beds and a private bathroom, plus a little room for granddad (and our son). Gohar cooked breakfast and dinner for us, using mostly ingredients from her incredible garden (which also featured an abundance of flowers and a small swimming pool). Among other things, she prepared salads, soups, fried potatoes, dolma, donut balls, and herbal tea.
JERMUK HOT SPRINGS
Our trip to Jermuk was very short, so I couldn’t possibly do justice to it by describing the few hours we spent there. We only had time to see the stone building where the various wells come out, spouting water with different temperatures. Cups are provided so you can taste the water, for free.
We also checked out a nearby waterfall named “Mermaid’s Hair” because the water streams down a wide rock. The nice thing about it is the large rock located in the middle of it, and many people (including us) got on this rock for making some pictures sitting on it. Since there wasn't much else to do (and you're not allowed to have a picnic there), we took the stairs down to the little river, where we bounced little rocks off the water for a while.
Erebuni fortress overlooks Yerevan and is only a 15-minute drive from downtown Yerevan. The ruins are what they are; it’s mainly the view that I found impressive. The history of the fortress is a bit more interesting (and complicated): the fortress was built in the 8th century BC by the Urartu kingdom and later used by various empires (Persian, Russian, Ottoman) for its strategic location.
Interesting fact: Yerevan’s name is derived from Erebuni (the “E” is pronounced as “Ye”). Although Yerevan itself was just a village full of clay huts until the early 20th century, the city uses the creation of Erebuni as the starting date of their city, which is why they can claim the city is—as of this year—2,800 years old.
To visit Erebuni fortress you first have to go to the nearby museum to buy tickets. The museum is an important part of the experience, because it houses the geological finds from the fortress, like cuneiform inscriptions, tools, pots, arms, etc.
ETCHMIADZIN: RELIGIOUS CENTER
Many countries have a religious center, and for Armenia it’s Etchmiadzin. Here you can find a religious “campus” and what is considered to be the oldest cathedral in the world. The original building is from the early 4th century and was created by Armenia's patron saint Gregory the Illuminator, who made Armenia the first Christian country in the world. When we visited, unfortunately, the entire cathedral was under construction.
Also in Etchmiadzin, we saw St. Hripsime church. The church itself is big and beautiful, although not remarkable. The legend attached to it, however, is interesting: Hripsime became the first Armenian saint around 290 BC after being tortured and killed for defying the Roman emperor’s (and subsequently the Armenian king’s) orders to marry him.
Zvartnots Cathedral is on the way from Yerevan to Etchmiadzin, and supposedly a must-see for tourists. It is World Heritage site and features a museum, although I have to admit I found the whole experience so-so because there is little left of the church itself. There is a model of the original shape of the church (along with testimonies from past visitors who marveled at how beautiful it used to be) inside the museum, but the mock-up is contested by many scientists–which doesn't help things.
Levon’s cave is not a cave in the traditional sense of the word: it’s not a natural phenomenon. Levon was a man who, back in 1985 and at the age of 44, started digging a potato pit for his wife and never stopped digging. He dug for 23 years, hauling out 400 truckloads of rock out, saving only some to create a mosaic in the garden. According to Levon, the digging was a religious experience. He spent about three days a week digging and sometimes worked nights after receiving spiritual messages in his sleep.
These days, Levon’s wife and daughter showcase the result of his work—a truly amazing cave with many rooms and stairs—to tourists who are willing to pay AMD 1,500 for a quick tour and a viewing of the tools used. Is it worth it? Well, yes! It’s a sight to behold, and it’s not far from the city anyway (we drove from downtown Yerevan to Arinj in about 20 minutes).
I have another year left in Armenia, so I’m guessing there will be more trips! Hopefully the next installment of Exploring Armenia (with kids) will include a visit to Armenia’s southern city Kapan and perhaps some hiking on Mount Aragats.