If you are like most first time visitors to Armenia, you are sure to tour the ancient monasteries, explore the national museums and visit the historic brandy factories. But there are many amazing things to do in Armenia beyond the usual guidebook highlights. This past summer, I had a chance to visit Hayastan, the Armenian name for the country of Armenia, and step off the beaten path. I found myself soaring above alpine lakes, forming ceramics with local artisans and wandering through dusty shafts of light in an abandoned Soviet textile factory. Here are a dozen extraordinary ways to experience Armenia to the fullest.
Paraglide Over Lake Sevan
Soar through the skies paragliding above the mountains by Lake Sevan, the largest lake in the Caucasus. Gardman Tour arranges expert guides, many of whom have competed internationally, to provide equipment and tandem instruction for novices. It’s a thrilling and unique way to get to know the Armenian landscape.
Float through the comfortable sunshine (the region averages 256 days of sun per year) and over rocky hills dotted with patches of wildflowers. In the distance, you can see the town of Sevan and the village of Lchashen. Farther off, high above the lake, spot Sevanavank Monastery, founded in the 9th century by Princess Mariam, and beyond that the mountain peaks of the Lesser Caucasus.
Discover Prehistoric Petroglyphs
Surrounding a small sparkling glacial lake at about 10,500 feet above sea level near the top of Mount Ughtasar, prehistoric petroglyphs, dated 2,000 BCE to - 12,000 BCE, are carved onto the flat surfaces of manganese boulders left behind by an extinct volcano.
The petroglyphs were initially studied in the 1960’s, and archaeological research is still ongoing. Due to the site’s high elevation, the remarkable carvings are covered with snow nearly nine months of the year making them accessible only in summer months. Off-road vehicles take visitors through rocky fields full of flowers and butterflies that flit through the crisp mountain air. Celestial symbols, animals, hunters and even these dragons (pictured above) are evidence of the lives and imaginations of ancient ancestors.
Create Porcelain Ornaments with Ceramics Masters
Visit the ceramics factory of Antonio Montalto. Master artists may even teach you the extraordinary technique of making a decorative egg. The clay is attracted to the porcelain mold creating the hollow form. After the first firing, the egg is decorated with glaze and then fired a second time to create a beautiful ornament.
Explore a Mysterious Monolith
Explore the mystery of Karahunj, an ancient site with a circle of placed stones. Astronomers theorize that this 7,500-year-old archeological site is a celestial observatory pre-dating England’s Stonehenge by more than 4,500 years. Two hundred lichen-covered basalt stones stand tall and approximately 80 of them have small holes that align with bright stars in the night sky. A desolate, windswept site off the main road near the village a Sissian, visit Karahunge (literally translated as “speaking stones”) at dawn or dusk to experience its powerful beauty.
Forge Iron in a Historic City
In the artistic city of Gyumri, visit the Irankyuni Forge to learn to create a wrought-iron souvenir with the expert guidance of a master blacksmith. Heat the iron in the hot fire and then hammer, with sparks flying, to gradually bend the metal. Historic blacksmithing tools can be seen in the Dzitoghtsyan Mansion Museum of National Architecture and Urban Life, and ironwork can still be found with the black and red tuff stone architecture around this centuries-old “city of arts and crafts.” Top off your visit to the forge with a delicious dinner next door at the blacksmith’s family-owned restaurant.
Explore Spectacular Geological Formations in Mozrov Cave
Discover flowstone, stalactites, stalagmites, pristine rock “popcorn,” “soda straws,” “bacon-rind” and “draperies” while exploring Mozrov Cave, one of Armenia’s most decorated. The karst cave was discovered in 1965 during road construction. The entrance partially collapsed due to heavy snowfall in 2012, but the 300 meter cave is still accessible.
The cave is ideal for intermediate-level recreational cavers on their own and novice cavers with a guide. Discover Armenia Tours organizes excursions and provides hard-hats, head-lamps, flashlights and transportation to explore this wild and well-preserved cave located in Vayots Dzor province.
Step Back in Time in an Abandoned Soviet Textile Factory
Explore an abandoned Soviet textile factory in the Vayots Dzor Province deserted in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. The site sits frozen in time with yarn still threaded in machines, lockers filled with photos and tools and folktale murals on the wall of the factory-workers’ children’s day-care. The now-silent rooms can be toured with the local owner in arrangement with Discover Armenia Tours.
Join a Public Sing-a-long
Sing along at a public song workshop at the new Komitas Museum-Institute in Yerevan. The “Lullabies” workshops (held every-other month on selected Saturdays) recently won the “Best Practice Award in Museum Education” from the International Council of Museums. On other Saturdays, the workshops feature seasonal songs that Komitas, a celebrated ethnomusicologist who is considered the founder of the Armenian national school of music, collected and arranged. Knowledgeable staff teach each line of the song and visitors of all ages are encouraged to lift up their voices in Komitas’s sometimes spiritual, sometimes playful folk songs.
Cook Up Traditional Recipes
Cook delicious gata and other Armenian treats with TV-cooking-show star Zara Karapetyan, director of Tasty Tour. Under the trees, next to her herb garden and orchard, stir-up the ingredients, roll out the dough and cook the sweet bread in a tonier, a traditional oven usually buried in the ground. Then dig in to a delicious lunch of local Ushi village favorites!
Spot Rare Birds in Lake Arpi National Park
An extraordinary number of species of birds - over 350 - can be found in Armenia because even though the country is small, there is a great range in elevation and diversity of landscape. Luba Balyan, a noted ornithologist, forest ecologist and founder of a bird conservation organization in Armenia, is one of several field researchers who lead exciting bird-watching tours aimed at both devoted birders and the casual tourist.
One particularly rich site to visit is Lake Arpi National Park in the northwestern corner of Armenia. Over 190 species of birds have been recorded in the park, including the globally threatened Dalmatian pelican, Egyptian vulture and European roller. Other birds include greater spotted and imperial eagles, red-footed and saker falcons, great snipes and semi-collared flycatchers. Plus, the park hosts one of the world’s largest colonies of Armenian gulls.
Hear Ancient Chants in Geghard Monastery
Listen to sacred chants in the ancient monastery of Geghard, located in the Upper Azat Valley. The Unesco-recognized site is partially carved out of the colorful rock cliffs and hosts a healing spring in the oldest chamber. The Garni Ensemble is one of the incredible a capella groups that performs by special request. In the near-darkness inside the tomb of Prince Papak, the acoustics are extraordinary – nearly a 90-second reverberation. The haunting harmonies of the 5-member ensemble sound as if you are hearing a 100-member choir.
Sip Modern Wine Made With Ancient Techniques
Celebrate with a visit to Trinity Canyon Vineyards in the Vayots Dzor highlands. The region's high altitude, sunny skies and volcanic soils create a unique terroir that the vineyard founders say allows for the cultivation of several wine styles.
“Trinity’s main focus,” the founders say, “is to reveal the potential of Armenian indigenous grape varieties by drawing on the best organic viticulture practices.” Using the Areni grape, the winery produces a wine that has been described as “silky, powerful, with refreshing acidity.”
The Voskehat, another prominent grape endemic to Armenia, is used for their ancestral line of wines made in karases (ancient Armenian terracotta vessels). The resulting varieties range in style – from light and crisp to “bold, skin-macerated orange wines.”
Their tasting area is a pleasant patio of rustic picnic tables near a garden set up for music and other special events with a demonstration vineyard on the hillside. Raise a glass to toast executive director-poet-musician, Hovakim Saghatelyan, enthusiastic winemaker Artem Parseghyan and the rest of the staff as you reflect on the winery’s deep connection to the land and its gifts.
With such marvelous and unique opportunities in Armenia, you will hope to return as soon as possible!
By Carolyn Rapkievian