The south of Armenia is an elongated peninsula of territory sandwiched between Iran, Azerbaijan, and the disputed territory of Artsakh, formerly known as Nagorno-Karabakh. The area is one of the most mountainous in the country, with elevations ranging from 380 to 3,904 meters above sea level. It also contains one of the most iconic sights in all of Armenia: Tatev Monastery. Accessed via aerial tram or a death-defying mountain road, the monastery is one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Armenia.
Nature is impersonal, awe-inspiring, elegant, eternal. It’s geometrically perfect. It’s tiny and gigantic. You can travel far to be in a beautiful natural setting, or you can observe it in your backyard…Gretchen Rubin
Our first stop on the way to Tatev with One Way Tour was Noravank, a monastery built in a stunning location up a winding canyon road. Alla, our guide, explained that this was largely a defensive strategy to safeguard the structure and its inhabitants from invaders. Many Armenian monastic complexes, including Noravank and Tatev, served as universities in addition to being centers of worship. Since the monasteries were usually so remote, complexes included lodging, workshops for craftsmen, and more so they could be self-sufficient.
Noravank stands out from other monasteries because of the intricacy of its decorative carvings. The architect who designed the church was also a famed sculptor by the name of Momik, and the intricate embellishments make it clear why many locals call him the Armenian Michelangelo. Narrow steps lead up from the ground to the second-floor sanctuary, symbolizing the ascent to and descent from belief. It’s a harrowing climb, especially for those of us scared of heights!
Something I found especially fascinating was the carving over the door of the smaller church on site — Surb Karapet. A representation of the Christian Holy Trinity is featured over the doorway. The figures of the Son and Spirit are normal, but the Father’s facial characteristics are distinctly not Armenian. This had to do with the Mongol invasion and occupation in the 13th century. Mongols had a habit of sparing architectural and cultural items if they looked Mongol, so this depiction of God has distinctly almond-shaped eyes and high cheekbones, characteristic of the Mongol facial structure.
After a short informational talk about the complex, Alla let us have some free time to explore on our own, allowing me to scramble up the hillside for some better views of the site. The surroundings of Noravank are stunning, with red-hued rocks rising from the canyon floor.
After a lunch break at a roadside restaurant, our next stop was Shaki Waterfall — named after a young girl who, according to legend, cast herself from a cliff in order to avoid marrying a cruel conqueror. Her dress billowed out as she fell, creating the stunning 18-meter waterfall you can see below. After being cooped up in the van, the cool spray from the falls was a welcome refresher!
When we finally reached Tatev, there was a collective gasp of awe from our group as we saw the scenery open up before us. Stunning mountains are cleft by a gorge, with villages clustered on the ridgetops. The weather was cool and windy, the darkening clouds adding a touch of moodiness to an already impressive scene. It’s the type of view, Alla said, that makes you forget everything. All the stress, all the worry — gone.
Rather than braving the dangerous road from the village to the monastery, we took the Wings of Tatev, a 5.7-kilometer aerial tramway holding the Guinness World Record for longest non-stop double track cable car. A return ticket costs 5,000 AMD, and the ride lasts about 11 minutes.
An audio tour set to a soothing instrumental score accompanied our journey, with the narrator informing us of sights scrolling by in the distance or beneath us. One such site was an old monastic complex, visible more than 300 meters below.
Once at the top, we walked around and explored the grounds of the monastery, with Alla sharing some special tidbits of information to help us fully appreciate the site. Tatev was a famous university in the 14th and 15th centuries, with students coming from home and abroad to study science, philosophy, bookbinding, and more. Hidden rooms beneath the main grounds held manuscripts and art, with windows overlooking the mountains and gorges beyond.
We got another hour of free time to explore the monastery, which I tried to do quickly. I’d noticed a road skirting an adjacent hilltop, one which I hoped would give me the vantage of the monastery I had been hoping for. I wasn’t disappointed. Despite a brief downpour of rain and a narrowing window of time, I made it to the viewpoint and was able to spend a few minutes soaking in a view ripped straight from the pages of a fairy tale.
We left Tatev as the rain came down in earnest, a thick veil of fog obscuring the road as torrents lashed the van. The group was tired and conversation was muted until the music came on. The sound of Armenian bagpipes filled the car and energy levels lifted again — just in time for our wine tasting.
The village of Areni is famous for its wine, with a unique variety of grape providing the foundation for the region’s wine industry. We tried a number of variations, but none was as delicious as the blackberry wine I ended up purchasing for later. I’ll go for the sweet option any time!
Our experience at Areni Winery wasn’t merely limited to wine, however, as Guru — a member of our group — decided to fuse Armenian music with Indian dance and had us clapping and chortling with laughter as he and Alla danced to several lively tunes. I joined for one, but couldn’t bring myself to do more. I couldn’t help feeling like a fish flopping around on stage in the middle of a professional performance!
As a great person once said, “Music moves me, but it moves me ugly.”
Review of Tour to Tatev with One Way Tour
One Way Tour was one of two tour companies recommended to me, and I was very happy with my choice. The tour was comparatively priced with all of the other options I found (10,000 AMD for the entire day, excluding the Wings of Tatev ticket and lunch). It also contained all the sights I wanted to see along the way, namely Noravank and the Areni wine tasting. Checking out Shaki waterfall was a nice little bonus!
Alla was a fantastic guide, speaking fluently in 3 (!!) languages to cater to all the members of our group. The tour was planned very well time-wise, but when we were inevitably delayed for some reason, Alla and the driver tweaked the order of the itinerary to make the whole day flow seamlessly. If you decide to explore Tatev with One Way Tour, say hi!
I was very impressed with the number of places we visited, the free time we had at each, and the professionalism with which the tour was run. Overall a wonderful experience, and I’d highly recommend One Way Tour to anyone thinking of traveling around Armenia!