Greetings from Lake Sevan - about 60km from Yerevan and regarded as the "pearl of Armenia".
We left Yerevan and drove out to Amberd Fortress - where the ruins of the castle and a church can be seen and visited. The Amberd Fortress is built on a promentary at the confluence of the Amberd and Arkashen rivers - and the views are just magnificent. The grassy slopes are covered in a multitude of brightly coloured wild flowers - red, yellow, purple, white - just glorious. They even have wild tulips growing there - but don't tell the Dutch otherwise they might start some barmy trade in tulips & people could lose a fortune.....
The castle looks a bit precarious & in Health & Safety-obsessed Britain visitors would need to wear hard hats; hi-vis vests; steel capped boots & not go within 3 metres of the walls - here school kids climb the walls & have a whale of a time. Walking out to the church from the castle is lovely as you get breathtaking views surrounded by all the flowers. We drove past a small Yezidi encampment - Yezidi are Kurds but Zoroastrians not Muslim and live a semi-nomadic life peacefully in Armenia. We continued driving to Gyumri - passing the Byurakan observatory on the way (www.bao.am).
Gyumri is Armenia's second city and the inhabitants are famed for their sense of humour - a bit like Liverpool, i suppose. They certainly need their sense of humour as it is very poor and run down. There are some lovely streets and buildings in desperate need of renovation. The area suffered greatly in the December 1988 earthquake - 45,000 died and 500,000 were made homeless. There are lots of blocks of flats on the outskirts of the city (on the way to Marmashen) - built after the disaster - some finished, some not - quite eerie. Once Armenia ceded from the Soviet Union there was no money to finish the development. There is a brewery here & the beer is named after the city - Gyumri - a blonde, soft beer with little hop character - unlike Kilikia or Erebuni, which are refreshing, hoppy beers. We wandered around the centre of Gyumri - visiting the main church. There was a wedding underway, which was sweet - the bride looking lovely in her white dress and the groom radiating pride & happiness. Out in the square Abba's greatest hits were blaring out over the public address system. No one seemed to know if this was due to the wedding or not. After the brief city tour we drove out past the Russian army camp, past the unfinished new town and on to Marmashen. The church complex is set in the gorge of the Akhuryan River. The biggest church was built between 988 and 1029 and continues the trend for these early Christians to build their churches and monasteries in the middle of nowhere! Another lovely location, however, and the people from Gyumri use the site for picnics, games & barbecues - which is nice to see but gosh the locals like to strew litter.....
For dinner we went to Cherkezi Zor (Fish Farm) - where we had a lovely meal of fresh salads and barbecued fish. We had a dry white wine made from Lalveri - a grape variety i'd never heard - although that may be the name of the region! The restaurant is out of the town & quite difficult to a) find and b) get to as the roads are dreadful. There aren't any signs, either. We stayed in the Hotel Berlin - built & run by the Berlin Red Cross. It is an annexe of their hospital and they use the hotel to generate funds for the hospital. The hotel is much nicer than it looks from outside & is very friendly with comfortable rooms.
We left Gyumri and drove to Lori and stopped firstly at Kobayr. There's a short drive off the main road by the railway line - cross the line & climb up a very steep path up through the woods for about 15 minutes and emerge in a clearing where there is a ruined 13th century convent that - miraculously - still has frescoes, albeit partially restored - they are faint but you can see them. What posessed anyone to build a church here is a mystery and further restoration is going to be a nightmare. After that we went to Sanahin - another beautiful church complex. To get to Sanahin (and nearby Haghpat) you drive through Alaverdi - a gruesome town that was home to a lot of Russian heavy industry - the copper mine & smelting plant are all that remain. You drive past lots of empty, disused, crumbling factories - very sad. The smelting plant belches out yellow, sulphurous smoke making the area a bit grimy. In the town there's Tamara's bridge - a 13th century stone bridge that apparently was still open to road traffic 25 years ago. Anyway, Sanahin has a lovely church and monastery complex - home to lots of nesting Swallows! It's lovely watching the Swallows dart in and out and about - feeding their young & zooming off to catch more insects. Sanahin & Haghpat are UNESCO World Heritage sites (Haghpat was closed for restoration).
On leaving there we drove to Dilijan and the heavens opened. It belted down - we even had hail - driving was a bit perilous, to say the least. We stayed overnight at the Daravand Guesthouse which, given the conditions, it now seems amazing the minibus made it there as it set up high in a valley up a steep track, complete with hairpin bend, off a side road off the main road... - but the guesthouse is lovely - the setting is beautiful and the owner, Razmik, speaks good English and is a delightful and welcoming host.
This morning we left the guesthouse - reluctantly because while you're standing on the balcony overlooking the forest you see Bullfinches; Paridae; Jays and lots of other birds i can't name - and drove into Dilijan itself to visit a museum street that's been recently restored (created?) - very nicely done but completely at odds with the rest of the town and really only for tourists. The area around Dilijan is a nature reserve and is heavily forested - really lovely. And so to Lake Sevan.....
At 1900 metres above sea level, it is one of the highest fresh water lakes in the world. In the 1930's the Russians built a series of hydro-electric power plants on the Hrazdan River that drains from the lake and took water from the lake for irrigation. By the 1950's the water level had fallen by 20 metres. The retreating waters exposed forts, houses & artefacts dating back 2,000 years and what was Sevan Island became a peninsula. The Russian's plan to drain the lake down to a sixth of its original size was abandoned. Since 2002 the water level has risen by 2 metres an environmental achievement that has also meant cleaner water and more fish.
On Sevan Island - or, rather, Sevan Peninsula as it now is - there's a monastery complex that's being restored. Once you climb up the steps you get a great view over the lake. You can only go into one of the churches at the moment. Tonight we stay on the shore of Lake Sevan at the Best Western Bohemia hotel - a Czech/Armenian joint venture....