You haven’t seen Armenia unless you have made the trip south. At this point you will for sure get churched out, if you haven’t already (but all the churches were built into ancient temples, so maybe templed out is the better word?). Armenia is really ancient and it is almost like delving deep into human history as you make the trek south. We hired a driver who took us on the incredible tour, but it wasn’t without any hitches. At a certain point at night the headlights went out. Luckily Armenians are more than happy to help, as soon as you can find human life in the southern Armenian tundra.
The first stop was Khor Virap. This ancient monastery was an old temple, for an ancient capital once stood on that ground. Little of it remains other than the monastery. St. Gregory came to this ancient temple where the King’s court met and he was thus imprisoned for preaching Christianity. The pit he was put in can be climbed down and into. After 10 years he was pulled out an Armenia converted, becoming the first Christian nation in the world. Since this monastery used to be a temple, it is positioned differently than Armenian churches. Right below you can see the border with Turkey and a clear view of Ararat on any given day. Hostilities are far over, so there isn’t much military visible even though the border remains closed.
After Khor Virap you will likely zoom through mountains known as the vineyards of Armenia. Don’t expect the best wines in the world, but they are pretty good to try (which is free). Noravank Monastery is yet another church, but this one is deep inside a cool gorge. Around the gorge are several trails. Some of the complex is in ruins, it was once the center of Armenian learning.
Jermuk is an old Russian resort built during Soviet times. This unusual place is built on massive cliffs. If a hotel on a massive cliff overlooking more cliffs and a forest, this is the place to go. Unfortunately Jermuk is a bit out of the way on the road south. Its primary attraction is the waterfall which is below the cliffs and behind numerous tourist stalls. At the top you can try taking the ski lift which will take you to the top of an even higher mountain above the cliffs.
Voroton Pass connects Southern Armenia to the rest. At 2344m high, it is more flat than you think. The pass is essentially a plateau, which is substantially colder than the rest of Armenia. Rolling fields pass you as the landscape turns greener and greener.
Tatev Monastery is the goal of any trip south. Sure you have seen enough churches, but this one is the crown jewel. Up till 2 years ago this monastery was only accessible by a tough car ride up a mountain (which we had to do anyways). Today it is connected via the longest tram in the world (as of 2011). This hanging tram goes over an awe-inspiring landscape with mountains, gorgeous, and several ruins of a civilization long past. Tatev used to be a university, which makes it a bit different from the other churches. It also has several ancient rooms and housing complexes you can run around in. Actually the church itself is a bore, the entire complex is definitely worth getting lost in.
Unfortunately, the monastery seems to be falling into the gorge below it. Some rooms are pretty much hanging out off a cliff as the ground slowly disappears. It really is a magical place none-the-less. It has excellent location and pretty interesting history. To think students once studied in this place, looking through massive stone windows at a giant gorge and mountain landscape is incredible. The tram stops running at 6, so if you get there at 5 you only get to go one-way.
Goris is the last stop south. From Goris is the “border” to Karabakh. Goris is known for its cliff faces, but by the time we got there it was time to turn back. In Goris, as we were waiting for our natural gas to be filled into the taxi a group of locals invited us into the station to eat and drink with them. It was pretty hilarious. Armenians are incredibly hospitable, like no one else in the world really.