For my second full day in Armenia, I decided to take a day trip out of the city to visit the must sees of Armenia (according to TripAdvisor), Garni and Geghrard. I was planning on going alone, but one of my couchsurfing hosts happened to have the day off and I was lucky enough to have my own personal local guide for the day.
And boy was that a good thing, because just getting to the marshutka station to find the marshutka out of the city would have taken me all day I think. But, with my host, we got on the local marshutka, got off and walked to the intercity marshutka station, then walked into a side lot and found the marshutka heading in the right direction. We were lucky too that we only had to wait 5 minutes before the marshutka took off, as the marshutkas wait until they are full until they take off.
First stop was Garni Temple, a Zorostrian temple built in a Greco-Roman style. There's a lot of history at this sight but the temple is the most visible. This was the site of a fortress, summer palace and there are baths that are still visible with their original mosaics still visible on the floors. The view around Garni was spectacular, snowy mountains in the distance, railroad running through the gorge below and quaint village houses spotting the landscape. Garni is certainly worth stopping to visit, though it probably only requires about 30 minutes to see everything, even less if you don't stop to read the information placards.
From Garni, it’s 7 km to Geghrard. We hopped on the next marshutka and took it as far as it would take us, which was only another 2 km or so. From there we hitched a ride with a passing car another 3 km or so, which left us with another 2 km of walking the rest of the way to Gehrard. But, the walk was pleasant and while there was snow all around and the sky looked threatening, the precipitation held off and we were able to walk the rest of the way to Geghrard peacefully.
Geghrard is a monastery built into the side of a mountain. The monastery dates back to the 4th century, although the main chapel was built in 1215. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The church is absolutely fantastic, by far my favorite sight in Armenia. The whole church was carved out of the rock. The lighting inside comes mainly from natural light and candle light. This makes for some dark spots where it is nearly impossible to see, but this adds to the mystery of the place.
If you climb up the steps, you can find yourself in a second room from which you can look down into the first church from a hole in the wall. This room has amazing acoustics and apparently many singers come here to perform. The monastery used to be home to a music school as well, many years ago. When I found this little fact on the information plaque, my host offered to perform a chant for me, and it really sounded amazing in there. I wish I could have captured it on video.
Worn down stairs
Armenian sweet bread called Gata with "Armenia" written in the Armenian alphabet
From here, we joined up with two other travelers heading in the same direction and split a taxi for 500 drams ($1.75 USD) each back to Garni, from where we caught the marshutka back to Yerevan. From here it was another 45 minute marshutka through the city and back to our neighborhood of Erebuni.
There was still a little daylight left to be had and so I decided to make one more stop, this time alone, to see Erebuni Fortress, a 20 minute walk from my couchsurfer’s house.
I thought I had arrived too late, the gate was locked and I couldn't see any visitors around. I was turning around to leave when a security guard asked me “Can I help you?” Apparently the fortress was still open and he opened the gate and took the entrance fee (1000 drams, $3.25 USD).
View of the neighborhoods around Erebuni Fortress, from above
I was the only visitor in the whole place and my only company was a dog that took a liking to me and followed me all around. This was the location of an ancient citadel. The location, high on a hill, was strategically very good. You can see for miles in every direction from the top. The day I went it was not clear enough to see Mt. Ararat in the distance, but I could see closer mountains and I had a wonderful view of the city.
After this I headed back to the couchsurfer’s home for dinner and a relaxing evening at the house.