By car to Tblisi, Georgia, to Yerevan, Armenia

Sevanavank (Sevan Monastery and churches) on Lake Sevan

I planned our Caucasus trip with a one-way Azerbaijan Airways flight from Paris (our current home) to Baku, Azerbaijan, with 6 nights in Georgia before a return flight from Yeravan, Armenia, to Paris. We hopped a short Azerbaijan Airways flight from Baku to Tblisi, Georgia. When doing my usual pre-trip research, I quickly decided that combining a transfer by car from Tblisi to Yerevan with a little touring along the way would be a great alternative to the hassle and expense of another flight or a no-frills minibus or private direct transfer. Once again, Viator made finding what I was looking for in the way of Caucasus tours and transfers easy. I connected with Sergey at Private Tours in Armenia and we settled on a Sunday transfer with stops in a couple of monasteries including one at Lake Sevan, the largest body of water in the Caucasus and one of the largest freshwater high-altitude lakes in Eurasia.

As with our first day trip in Georgia, a different driver showed up on the day of our transfer. Garnik arrived in front of our hotel promptly a few minutes before 8am and WhatsApped me a greeting and a photo of his car. This change in names was a little disconcerting, but Sergey replied promptly when I checked in with him that Garnik was his cousin and covering this transfer. Good enough.

It turned out that Garnik lived in Yeravan and had gotten up in the wee hours to drive to Tblisi to pick us up. These tour guides and drivers are some hard-working folks! Despite a treaty last fall between Armenia and Azerbaijan, there were still people not happy with the terms resulting in on-going disputes and Garnik wasn’t sure his first choice of places to cross the border would be open. We were also a little concerned that we might have trouble crossing since we had Azerbaijan stamps in our passports, but Garnik didn’t think it would be a problem. At the Georgia-Armenia border, Garnik pointed out where we needed to walk through passport control. We had no problems at all, although there was some hold up with an Asian tour group and we did hear the words “Baku” and “Azerbaijan.” Mostly, though, there seemed to be a big language problem with English as a common language in which no one seemed fluent. Sergey appeared at this point to introduce himself and say that he was driving other clients on a similar route to ours. He’d tried an up-sell online a few days before, but we’d declined extra stops that included more monasteries and a MiG airplane museum. I gathered he was hoping to caravan with Garnik, but we declined once more and we didn’t see Sergey again until hours later in the parking area below Sevanavank although he and Garnik stayed in touch by phone. I felt Sergey wanted to coordinate and make sure all went well for us. Once we had our passports stamped, we walked through security and browsed a duty-free shop while Garnik took the car through vehicle border security. The whole process went quickly and we met him on the Armenia side of the border to resume our ride.

Garnik said Sergey had suggested a route a little different that what we’d originally planned as he wanted to add a free stop to our agenda. Unfortunately, this route had us running up against a roadblock due to border disputes and protests. Faced by police and locals, Garnik had to turn the car around and retrace our path some distance back.

Road blocked due to border protests; time to turn back

Despite this (interesting) setback, we arrived at Monastery of Sanahin – Church of the Redeemer (966AD), a UNESCO World Heritage Site as planned. Garnik parked the car near a series of vendors booths and sent us ahead to explore the monastery on our own. The abandoned monastery provides a hauntingly beautiful site with its gray stone arches and jumble of ancient tombstones serving as a floor.

Sanahin

An open skylight through a domed ceiling lit the scene. Recorded music played in a small chapel which offered the only sign of current use aside from the scattering of tourists and a group of students that arrived near the end of our visit.

After Sanahin, we enjoyed a fun stop at a huge roadside restaurant/deli/bakery/fuel stop. This place was fascinating. The bakery featured big open brick ovens for bread like we’d see in Kakheti, a huge fireplace in the restaurant area, and spiffy bathrooms reminiscent of a “Buc-ee’s” in Texas. We bought Armenian pastries suggested by Garnik and enjoyed them with coffee before resuming our journey.

Since we were running behind schedule due to the border dispute that blocked the road, Garnik asked if I wanted to skip Lake Sevan. No way! (Besides when I looked at Google Maps, it didn’t seem to make any difference if we drove to Yeravan via Lake Sevan or by another route. Of course, the whole idea was to stop at Lake Sevan and see the monastery there, so that would take some time.) Garnik was game for whatever we wanted to do, so we headed to Lake Sevan.

A major benefit of traveling by car instead of airplane is the ability to see a country beyond its major cities. We passed through several towns and villages during our drive, struck by how often we saw large factories standing abandoned and derelict. Remnants of Soviet rule, they stand as testament to the economic upheaval in the region brought on by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

At 1,900 m (6234 ft) and with clouds rolling in and a breeze off the water, it was chilly when we arrived at Lake Sevan. Garnik waited below as David and I hiked up a lot of stairs to the top of a steep hill to where Sevanavank (Sevan Monastery and its two churches) overlooks Lake Sevan. [See lead photo above.] Founded in 874AD, the monastery sits on a peninsula that was once an island before the lake lowered by draining during the Stalin era. Only one of the two small churches was open to the public, ornate and filled with flowers.

Starting on a path towards the tip of the peninsula, David turned back to wait in the warmth of the church while I hiked to the tip. I enjoyed the rugged, barren view, but he may have been the smarter of the two of us.

Descending into Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, the skies cleared and the temperature warmed. As we entered the city, Garnik told us how much he loved his city, clearly glad to be home. We arrived late afternoon at The Alexander, billed as the most luxurious hotel in Armenia and a fun splurge for the last three nights of our Caucasus travels.

Practical info:

I booked The Alexander, a Luxury Collection Hotel, with a Marriott free night and points. It’s a fabulous hotel and a great point value, in my opinion. We enjoyed our stay and made use of the indoor pool, sauna and steam room. The view of Mt. Ararat from the spa seating area and balcony is spectacular. The Alexander is a short walk to Republic Square. There is also an elegant-looking Marriott just off Republic Square, but it is substantially cheaper and I found The Alexander a better use of my certificate and points.

I booked our transfer/tour with Private Tours in Armenia (+37441023333) via Viator. I paid $190 for the transfer and stops, a luxury price in the region, but it made for a comfortable, hassle-free day entirely suited to our interests. There was no charge for entry to the monasteries, so our only additional costs were for refreshments and a tip.

May 2024

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