Yerevan to Tatev and back in a Day’s Journey
When you travel to Armenia, you will undoubtledly be offered a tour of the Country. But will you really need one to see the noteworthy sights, or are Armenia tours something for those who like their trips super organised? And what about Tatev, pretty much on the other side of Armenia from Yerevan?
For places close to Yerevan, such as Geghard, Garni, Echmiadzin and Svartnots, public transport takes you there safely and comfortably for most of the way.
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But what about other sights in Armenia?
In the North of the Country, you’ll have the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Sanahin and Haghpat monasteries, as well as the painted monastery of Akhtala, which is even more magnificent in my opinion.
In the South, there’s Khor Virap, and although Close to Yerevan, the marshrutka schedule is somewhat prohibitive and limited to three a day. Noravank is relatively close by but has zero public Transport.
So, having limited time in the country, and too chicken to rent a car and search for accommodations out in the countryside, which may have been a bit challenging, we booked two tours ahead of our trip. One to Tatev and one to Sanahin, Haghpat and Akhtala.
Our day trip to Tatev
Tatev and Karahunj are about 250km from Yerevan, so is it even possible to see them in a day?
Rest assured, Hyur Service says it is. They are a large, very professional Armenian tour company with two offices in Yerevan. I emailed them a few weeks before we were due to travel, made a reservation, and as soon as we’d jumped off the minibus from Tbilisi, we walked to one of their offices, identified ourselves, paid for the tour and were given tickets. They take cash only, so be sure to withdraw some before you go there. We had the impression that in low season (early April) it was possible to book onto some of the tours at short notice, but making a reservation is so easy, I would not risk it.
When we arrived at the meeting point two days later, we were somewhat disappointed to find a huge coach. But it was new, comfy, and with a 250km journey ahead of us, possibly for the better. Our Group was about 40% Russian, the rest were English speakers or Armenians from abroad so the tour was conducted in both Russian and English. Even with skipping Armenian, our guide was very busy.
First Stop: Noravank
As we drove towards Khor Virap, first through the somewhat monotonous Ararat plain, then into the mountains, she would explain a lot about history the significance of Mount Ararat, and what’s in Naxixevan. We pulled up in Noravank around 11.00, and our huge group made the small monastery really crowded. There weren’t many other visitors – mostly individuals on private (taxi) tours, it seemed. Our guide was excellent in keeping the masses happy, first conducting her tour in English, then the same again in Russian. An hour was okay to explore Noravank, except for some Russian guests who didn’t think they needed to adhere to schedules.
The Scenery on the drive from Noravank to Tatev is stunning
On we went, past increasingly dramatic-looking bare mountains, until we arrived in the village across from Tatev at around 14.00. We had a reservation for the cable car, hence the strict time-keeping. When you have your own transport, you can stop as often and as long as you want, as the scenery became increasingly more beautiful. There were barely any settlements along the main road, but in the 180km or so between Noravank and Tatev, there are at least two towns, Yeghegnazor and Goris, which will have accommodation. But with a coach tour there is no such luxury.
Riding the Wings of Tatev cable car
The English group was put into the cable car first, and a mini stampede for the best places to take pictures from ensued. One that I did not come out as a winner – or wouldn’t be bothered to join. So I glided off, safely cushioned by fellow humans, across the Vorotan Rover Gorge, occasionally glimpsing a piece of sky, and deposited in Tatev fifteen minutes later. Before the cable car was put into service in 2010, inhabitants of Tatev and surrounding settlements had to use a precarious road around the gorge to connect with the nearest town, one that would be closed in winter, essentially shutting Tatev off from the outside world. And tourist attraction it might be, it serves as an important year-round mode of transport for locals now – Tatev Villagers to access the main road and nearest town of Goris, and Halidzor villagers to visit mass more often.
Seeing Tatev looming through the fog, we were led uphill to the tiny village and lunch with a local family first. Here, in Tatev, there is little in the way of services apart from villagers selling honey, wine and sweets outside the monastery. So some enterprising families tacked and extension onto their house and opened private dining rooms. We had to order in advance and were greeted with plated of salad, followed by grilled meat or veggies on a stick – this is not the place for all-you-can eat buffets, given everything is either locally grown or transported by cable-car.
We would only have a hour for Tatev so we ate quickly end wandered downhill to the monastery, outnumbered by the workmen. They had also covered half the buildings in a rather unphotogenic scaffold. But with some of the buildings bulging upwards, it might be high time for a bit of work, although the site looked well looked after. I suspect they even might fix up the bell tower, which was destroyed in the 1931 earthquake. I first thought that upward-sideward bulging to be a special feature of Armenian ecclesiastical architecture, but no. Later, in less well-kempt Sanahin, I’d learn this is the general movement due to the traditional building style, and may result in collapse of the roof it not remedied. Since the cable car has been in service, the visitor numbers have risen sharply, and part of the ticket fee for the cable car will be used for the upkeep of the monastery – which, like all ecclesiastic buildings in Armenia, is free to visit.
Tatev is a 4th century Christian site, inaugurated shortly after Armenia made Christianity a state religion in 350AD. The monastery in its current form was built from the 9th century onwards, and really flourished in the 11th Century, when it housed about 1000 monks. The invasion of Seljuk Turks, Mongols and Timurids for the next 300 years diminished its library and significance, then it flourished again, only to be invaded by Persians and Czarist Russians, and finally given a deathly blow by an earthquake which destroyed a large part of the main church.
First, we walked into its main church, St. Paul and Peter. It looked… like pretty much every other Armenian church, but more bare.
It is awe-inspiring, but there is little else to do except to light candles. Prayer optional. The Armenians love church candles, you can buy them literally everywhere, and because the churches are relatively bare, there is very little that can catch fire.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take long in Armenia for someone vocally gifted to come along and perform a hymn or two. So, after ten minutes of wandering around the eerily empty church, a woman in a purple puffa jacket, complete with purple hoodie pulled up, walked in and gave a goose-bump inducing performance for ten minutes, made a sign of the cross and then touristed around like everyone else. And that, dear friends, was the highlight of my Tatev trip. Although I should mention the views. If you walk a bit towards the gorge and climb a pile of rubble you get a nice picture of the monastery.
Or if you walk into the scaffold. As far as you can. Use a wide lens. If you have a bit of time, walk 1km to the left as you exit the path to the monastery for the Tatev view point. Our time was a bit limited but if you’re into scenery and views rather than looking at every nook and cranny within the monastery complex, this might be a good alternative.
Too soon it was time to return. After all, 280km back to Yerevan, for the most part on mountain roads. But first, another cable car ride. Taking pictures through the smudgy windows was not so great, but you see the full extent of the gorge, with Tatev on the opposite side on the left, and the absence of a supporting pillar, making this cable car record-worthy as the worlds longest non-stop double-track cable car. Okay. Repeat three times, but faster!
Ah, there’s a pillar. Ouf. We made it. Actually, it is a lot less scary than it looks, The cable car is Swiss/Austrian built, new, and rides smoothly. There was a bit of wind going on the return trip and even then there were no excited turbulence-whoops… at least not from me!
As often is the trouble with such a large group, there is always someone who will return late and delay everybody. In this case, it was a gang of our Russian latecomers who made their own schedule again. Pretty annoying, because everyone else was punctual, but group trips can be a mixed bag sometimes.
We backtracked or way, now already well into the evening, but made it to Karahunj (Zorats Karer) in daylight. The site, out in the sticks on a little side road is magnificent. It is called the “Armenian Stonehenge”. Nobody really knows its significance, although recent research has shown it to be one of the oldest observatories in the world dating back to about 6000 BC.
What Karahunj was meant to be, nobody can tell for sure, but it is called the Armenian Stonehenge.
We had to walk a bit from where our coach parked. It looked nothing like Stonehenge but the surrounding mountains gave the site an utterly photogenic, dramatic look. If one were to compare it with anything, I’d say a smaller (and older by 3000 years) Avebury without the houses.
There were also no barriers, holding off the concerted selfie efforts by some from our groups. Heck, one could have chiselled a bit off Berlin Wall-style, but I wonder whether daily group tour climbing-efforts do more damage to these stones now that the site is accessible than for the past 6000 years. Absolutely no minders, except for a tiny booth who were more bothered to sell sweets. Incredible.
And then, a few windy circumambulations of the stone circle later, it got bitterly cold, and dark, and everyone just wanted to go back to Yerevan and have dinner. But first, we had to drive back, yeah. The driver ensured neither he or his passengers would fall asleep by playing some Russian gangsta rap, with an occasional dance number plunged in, over the bus stereo as soon as our guide took a well-deserved rest. In Areni, we were taken into a small hotel for a snack, and some wine tasting – or as much wine as you can muster int eh two minutes you got once you were finished queuing for the restroom. I ventured outside to find locals selling their wine in 1.5 l soft drink bottles for a fraction of the price. I should have bought some – over the short course of our stay in Yerevan, we drank exclusively Armenian wine and none was a disappointment (which sadly cannot be said of Georgian wines).
And then, another two hours and a collection of Russia’s finest dance music later, we were dropped off in central Yerevan. It was nearly midnight, and restaurants looked somewhat sedate, save for the odd bar in our neighbourhood.
So, Tatev, long way to go – is it worth it?
It’s a long way from Yerevan. Well – I would do it again. You see a part of Armenia that is not really accessible by public transport, and were it only for the scenery. You will spend a long time sitting in a coach, with little opportunity to be active during that long day. If you are not deeply into Christian history or stone carvings one monastery, such as easily accessible Geghard, might suffice, but Geghard, Noravank and Tatev are fairly different in location and looks.
Getting to Armenia
Zvartnots Airports takes flights from some Major European cities as well as Russia and the United Arab Emirates. Unless you live near a Major European hub, you will probably change planes. We flew into Tbilisi and took a shared van from Avlabari Metro in Tbilisi all the way to Yerevan. they will drop you off at the Kilikiya Avtokayan which is not central – much better to ask the Driver to let you out in the centre – Chess House makes a good Stop if you’re based in the North of the Centre, and Vardan Mamikonyan is a good stop for Republic Square. For Republic Square, you can also be asked to be dropped off by St Gregory Cathedral. Unless you have a ton of luggage, it’s then pleasant enough to walk to your accommodation.
Accommodation in Yerevan
It makes little sense to stay outside the Centre, roughly between the Kaskad and City Hall – there are lots of Options.
We stayed two nights at the Ibis Yerevan Centre Hotel* on Northern Avenue, paying 47 EURO per room per night. The Ibis is new, clean, central – you have a lot of cafes and restaurants in walking distance, the area is safe and lively even at night without being too noisy. And if you know Ibis standards throughout Europe this is what you can expect. AS this is one of the newer hotels of the chain, expect colourful decor, and pleasantly decorated small but very functional rooms. I also give the the near-maximum number of stars to their nice cosy white bedlinen, a great improvement to previous Ibis experiences.
Then we spent four nights in a private room just behind the Opera House. You can find the listing here. We loved it but be prepared to speak at least a smidgen of Russian. From both places, everything in the centre was just an easy walk away, and we were lucky that both times, we were in a semi pedestrianised area, meaning it was really quiet at night. If pushed, I’d say I slightly preferred our room near the Opera, as it was more locals, the lovely Poplavok Park with its cafes was a stone’s throw away and so was Mashtots Avenue where nearly ALL public Transport goes though.
We used public transport 80% of the time, and resorted to cabs when we were too tired or too lazy. As far as I could see, there are no passes, just indicate when you want to leave and pay the Driver before getting off. The fare within the City is 100 AMD, and 200AMD to Echmiadzin or Garni. Public Transport drivers (that include the marshrutka ones) were always totally honest and charged us local rates.
Taxis are an entirely different matter. Taxis are plentiful, and with the majority being inofficial with no metres, chances are you might end up in one of them. Either keep looking for metered Taxis (good luck) or use a taxi app, or just take the inofficial ones – you shouldn’t pay more than 700 AMD for a trip inside the City, sometimes 100AMD just because you’re a Tourist. For anything further out, just make sure to agree on a a price beforehand. We paid 1000 AMD to Tsitsernakaberd and 4000 AMD from Garni to Geghard (with waiting, we stayed as Long as we wanted). As for a free market economy, expect to pay a lot more if there’s just one taxi around and have plenty of small notes – the “I have no Change trick” is well used. On principle, I am happy to pay a mark-up as a Tourist, but I stop at being blatantly ripped off.
We travelled on an organised group tour with Hyur Service. The tour runs from March to November and cost 18000 Armenian Dram (32 EURO) at the time of writing. This includes the cable car but not lunch. This is, of courss,e great for a solo traveller, and in my eyes, is great value. Everything worked like clockwork, the bus was new and safe. I would not expect individual pampering at that price, but our guide was great in trying to keep everyone in our full coach happy. We reserved by Email, and the company requests that you confirm and pay 24h prior to the tour – we just went to their city centre office and paid in cash. As far as I remember, they only accepted cash. They run a similar tour as a private tour with or without a guide for 75000-100000 Armenian Dram per car- I presume your schedule would still be pretty tight but you may be more flexible about how long you stop where.
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