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Armenia - When and where to visit
Armenia has a highland continental climate with hot, dry summers (June to September) and cold winters (December, January and February being the coldest months). However, this simple statement masks the fact that the weather can vary greatly within short distances because of differences in altitude and other factors affecting local microclimates. Variation in altitude often has more influence on the weather than north–south distances.
For example, Gyumri can be much cooler than Yerevan even although the distance between them is only 122km, and Amberd, about an hour’s drive from Yerevan, can be snowbound until late May. April and May are the wettest months: although this usually means heavy showers the rain can be continuous for long spells. Spring can be very short, the weather changing from wintery to summery in just a few days. During the hottest months of June, July and August, low humidity mitigates the high temperatures. Autumn is relatively long and often very pleasant.
The striking Geghard Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site © ruzanna, Shutterstock
Winter in Armenia can be bitterly cold and should be avoided by visitors if at all possible. Also, many of the sights outside the Arax Valley are inaccessible because of snow (however, there are those who relish the adventure and beauty of Armenia in the snow). That apart, the timing of any visit has to be a compromise because of the altitudinal variation in the weather. The best times to go are generally late May and June or else late September and October.
The former sees the flowers at their very considerable best and is the nesting season for birds. The latter is drier but of course there are few flowers and much of the country is parched and brown. As compensation, this does make the brilliant autumn colours of the trees even more striking. Particularly amazing are the apricot trees whose leaves turn bright yellow before becoming a wonderfully warm apricot colour. These periods of late spring and late summer are also when visibility is better with frequent views of Mount Ararat. It is usually invisible in summer because of heat haze.
I am particularly fond of medieval buildings such as monasteries or fortresses in spectacular scenic settings and having a pleasant walk to get there adds to the enjoyment. Despite its accessibility by a good road and despite the number of tourists who go there, Noravank with its splendid setting and wonderful carvings is a must-see. Khor Virap is worthwhile if the visibility is good for giving the best views of Ararat. Other fine sites accessible by good roads are the monasteries of Haghpat, Goshavank and Amberd (together with its adjacent castle), Selim caravanserai, the field of khachkars at Noratus and the prehistoric stones at Karahunj. The UNESCO World Heritage List monastery of Geghard is another must-see. Tatev in its dramatic setting gives a good idea of the layout of monasteries and can now be reached by the world’s longest cable-car ride.
I am particularly fond of medieval buildings such as monasteries or fortresses in spectacular scenic settings and having a pleasant walk to get there adds to the enjoyment.
However, my favourites are the wonderful carvings at Makaravank, the fortress of Smbataberd on its ridge (which makes a fine walk combining it with Tsakhatskar Monastery), Spitakavor Monastery (another fine walk), Akhtala Monastery (with its wonderful frescoes), Kobayr Monastery (short uphill walk), the petroglyphs on Mount Mets Ishkhanasar (4x4) and the monastery of Harichavank (together with the other small churches of the area). Some of Yerevan’s museums and art galleries are also must-sees, especially the State History Museum and the National Gallery (both in the same building) and the Matenadaran for a glimpse of Armenia’s wonderful illuminated manuscripts.
A minimum of two or three days should be devoted to Yerevan’s museums, though check carefully the opening hours and days they are closed when planning your trip. Try to be in Yerevan at the weekend so as to get to Vernissage market. (An extra two or three days in Yerevan would allow visits to some of the worthwhile sites which can be reached as day trips from the capital.)
In planning a trip round the rest of the country, there are three major factors to consider: whether or not to hire a car and, if so, whether to hire a 4x4; whether or not one wishes to do any walking; and whether some of the chosen places to visit will be inaccessible because of snow. The following would show a great deal of the country and could be tailored to suit individual requirements:
(Photo: The statue ‘We Are Our Mountain’ in the north side of Stepanakert is intended to symbolise the unity of the Karabagh people with their mountains © Maria Oleinik)
Days 1–3 Yerevan (or split time in Yerevan between start and end of tour).
Day 4 Drive to Gyumri visiting Talin, Mastara and Harichavank en route. Visit Marmashen from Gyumri. Overnight Gyumri.
Day 5 Drive via Spitak and the Pushkin Pass tunnel to Stepanavan. Visit Lori Berd. Then drive via Kurtan (visit Hnevank) to the Dzoraget/Alaverdi area for overnight.
Day 6 Visit the monasteries of the Debed Gorge: Akhtala, Haghpat, Sanahin and Kobayr. Overnight in the Dzoraget/Alaverdi area.
Day 7 Drive via Noyemberian to Dilijan visiting Makaravank en route and also Haghartsin. Visit Goshavank. Alternatively, drive via Vanadzor visiting Goshavank and Haghartsin. Overnight in Dilijan or Ijevan.
Day 8 Visit Sevanavank, the field of khachkars at Noratus and Selim caravanserai before descending into Vayots Dzor. Overnight in Vayots Dzor.
Day 9 Walk to Tsakhatskar and Smbataberd. Overnight in Vayots Dzor.
Day 10 Walk to Spitakavor. Overnight in Vayots Dzor.
Days 9 and 10 If not wishing to walk visit Yeghegis, Tanahat Monastery and Jermuk.
Day 11 Visit Tatev. Then return to Sisian for overnight.
Day 12 Visit Karahunj. Then drive via Gndevank to Vayots Dzor for overnight.
Day 13 Drive via Noravank and Khor Virap to Yerevan for overnight.
Day 14 Visit Garni Temple and Geghard. Visit Ejmiatsin. Overnight in Yerevan.
If you want to visit the self-declared Republic of Nagorno Karabagh then on the eleventh day, after visiting Tatev, continue to Stepanakert. Registering with the Nagorno Karabagh Foreign Ministry, either in Yerevan or Stepanakert, is essential before visiting other parts of the territory. Gandzasar and Dadivank can be combined in a single day and the opportunity should be taken to visit Shushi. If there is time, Khndzoresk is not far off the Goris to Stepanakert road.
The extreme south
Anyone wishing to travel to the extreme south of the country could do so on the twelfth day after visiting Karahunj. Travel via Goris, stay overnight in either Kapan or Kajaran and visit Meghri for the day, or stay overnight in Meghri, possibly driving there on the older road via Kajaran and back on the newer one through the Shikahogh Reserve.