Noravank: Epic Church and Ancient Caves

Located a mere 90 minute drive from the capital city of Yerevan, Noravank is one of Armenia’s most iconic churches.  Set in a rugged valley, Noravank is given a backdrop of cliff sides splashed in red that climbs above the church on all sides.  In addition to one of the country’s most famous churches, the area is also home to Armenia’s most famous neolithic site.  It was home to the world’s oldest leather shoe you saw at the museum in Yerevan, and home to the earliest evidence of wine production in the world.  To say Noravank is a must stop while in Armenia would be an understatement.

The red hued Cliffs at Noravank

Exploring Noravank

If you got here on your own, there is no public transport up the the church from the intersection the marshrutka from Yerevan will drop you off at.  From the intersection it is a 7.5 km uphill road to the church so hiking up is probably not an option.  Hitchhiking or arranging your own transport are your options for getting up the valley.  While there were enough cars going up the hill, Claire and I had a difficult time trying to hitch a ride up the hill as most cars were full.  After trying to get a ride for more than 45 minutes we gave up and decided to ask for a ride up and back from the restaurant that sits at the intersection just below Areni-1 cave.  We agreed on 2000 AMD ($4) to drive us up which included waiting time and a return trip).

Climbing up to the upper church at Noravank

After reaching the Noravank site, we climbed up the rest of the way to the church and was first distracted by the beautiful scenery that surrounded the medieval site.  Armenians and Georgians were keen on placing churches in beautiful hard to reach places and Noravank is no exception.  The site is set beautifully in a valley where the cliff side if intertwined with fire red rock, complimenting perfectly with the churches at Noravank.  After taking in the surrounding scenery, Claire and I headed over to check out the historic site.

Looking down the valley from Noravank

The main church, Surp Astvatsatsin, dates back to the 13th century and was restored back in the 1990s.  The design of this church is unusual compared to others you will venture into in Armenia as the entrance into the upper half of the church requires you to scale steps that are barely wide enough for a foot that rise along the outer wall of the church.  The first time up is a bit nerve racking but there is a guide wire (very low) that you should definitely hold on to while climbing up.

Climbing into the upper church is really the highlight here as there is not much to see once inside the upper church.  Be sure to check out the doorway up top which has a carving of Peter, Paul, and Jesus.  The lower entrance leads to the church’s mausoleum where the noble Burtel Orbelian and his family are still buried today.

Carving at Noravank

After exploring Surp Astvatsatsin, Claire and I wandered the property and stumbled upon a dark well with a ladder heading down into its depths.  Being the explorer I am, I obviously went down into what looked like an isolated prayer chamber used for meditation.  After climbing back out, we ventured over towards the other churches on the property which have their own unique characteristics.

What on earth?

There are two smaller churches at the site including 13th century Surp Karapet which seems to be in active use given the amount of decorative draping around the alter.  Next to Surp Karapet is a more interesting church with lots of tomb slabs covering the floor of the church which is known as Surp Gregor.  Checking out the inscriptions of the markers is pretty cool given that the ancient Armenian script is very exotic looking.  The most unusual grave marker by far is the man-lion marker which today appears to be carved in a very seductive pose, adding amusement to the oddity of the carving.

khachkars at Noravank

After inspecting a few more khachkars and taking one last look of the cliff sides that surrounded us, we headed back to a car and back to the restaurant from where we walked back from our hotel to sit back, eat fresh fruit, and drink plenty of cheap roadside wine from a coca cola bottle.

Areni-1 Cave

You would think a cave which was home to the world’s oldest leather shoe and wine making site would have been a tough place to find but in reality, the cave sits just meters away from the main highway and touristy restaurant next to it.  The cave has only recently been opened to the public as archaeological projects begin to wind down inside the cave.  This gives travelers to Armenia today, a chance to explore a still active archaeological site and  check out how humans were living more than five thousand years ago.

Area where wine was produced inside the cave

You have to take a guide into the cave with you, who should be around the outside entrance.  If you can’t find him, tell someone at the restaurant that you want to see the cave and they will know where to look or who to call.  After paying a small fee, the keeper will take you into the cave where you can explore freely as long as you stay on the path.  The cave is lit but it is beneficial to bring your own flashlight in order to get a better look in the darker parts of the cave.

Entrance into the cave

To our surprise, the leather shoe that you see in Yerevan was found at the very entrance of the cave underneath a heap of animal crap.  At the entrance you can see the marker that indicated the location the shoe was found along with several partially buried storage vessels.  Farther into the cave is the area believed to be the world’s oldest evidence of wine production.  To the untrained eye, this will just look like a random collection of pots and jars but to archaeologists, it is very important.

Inside Areni-1

You don’t need long in the cave and could easily do Noravank and Areni-1 in the same day.  It is really cool checking out an active site as all of the markers and mapping out of the excavation is all in place.  It is something you don’t get to see everyday and the fact that you are seeing ancient artifacts in the place they were found is pretty cool all unto itself.

Where to Stay and Eat

That’s not Coca-cola… that is homemade wine.

While you can definitely do Noravank as a day trip, we decided to stay over for two nights as we planned to continue are way down into southern Armenia.  We ended up staying a short walk away from the turnoff beside a small lake nestled against the road.  Park-Hotel Khoren’s Lake is very basic but is run by a wonderful family.  Grandpa or his grandson will most likely show you around and offer you some fruit from the property if you’re lucky enough to be there for the right season.  A very basic room with two beds costed us 5000AMD ($10) a night which also included a small kitchen in the ‘common area’.  There’s a little dock where you can chill on the lake as you watch they young boy use mulberries to fish quite successfully.  You are free to pick and eat from the fruit trees found along the driveway which is the best perk about staying here.

Not a bad view for a cheap stay

As for food, there are two restaurants at the intersection of the main road and the route that leads to Noravank.  We opted for Edem restaurant with its large open air seating next to Areni-1 cave.  The food was decent, portions were large, and given where it was the price was reasonable.  A meal for two cost us between 3000-70000 AMD ($6-$14USD).  If there are no local tour groups the dining experience should be peaceful, otherwise expect loud cheesy music to be playing while you dine.

Expert fisherman at the hotel

Getting There and Away

You can easily check off Noravank off your list by going on one of the tours that every hostel and hotel will offer in Yerevan, often combined with Tatev another hour and a half drive down the road.  If you’re not looking to rush your way down and back, taking a marshrutka from Yerevan is your easiest and cheapest option other than hitchhiking.

Prayers and hope on fire

To get here, hop on the metro in Yerevan and get off at Gortsaranayin Station.  Down at the main intersection, you will see a bunch of marshrutky lining the street.  Vans leave for Vayk when full so don’t be in a rush when you get there.  When I write full, I really mean full so don’t expect much room for yourself during the ride.  Tell the driver you want to get off at Noravank and he will drop you off along the way.  A seat cost us 1300 AMD ($2.71) and it took us a scenic two hours to get to Noravank.


Leaving from Noravank is a bit trickier.  In theory it should be as simple as waving down a passing marshrutky but most of the vans passing at Noravank are full.  We ended up deciding to hitchhike our way down to Tatev after a few marshrutky didn’t stop for us.  This proved to be one of our most terrifying and most memorable parts of the trip.

Our Most memorable Hitchhiking Experience

We ended up not even having to signal for a car as one couple passing by had already stopped for us.  I indicated which direction we were going and they signaled for us to hop in.  We would part soon after in Yeghegnadzor as we would be heading in different directions.  Figuring we could get a marshrutky from here, we were unsuccessful and decided to hitch another ride to get further down in he right direction.

Having no luck waiting for marshrutky

 After a few cars passed, one with two middle aged men stopped and welcomed us in.  They were headed to Jermuk which wasn’t too far down the road but boy was it a terrifying ten minutes of driving.  The driver with a lead foot faced along the road, seeming not to care which side of the road he was on.  Blindly overtaking on curves and every bad driving practice possible was on display as I figured at any moment we could be dead as Claire grasped tightly onto my arm.  To our relief, we made it alive to their turnoff and once again sat on our bags as we waited for more cars to pass.

Mulberries galore!

The next car to stop for us would be my most memorable hitchhiking experience ever.  Two young Iranians were heading back down to Iran and were nice enough to stop and pick us and our bags up for a ride.  With Persian turbo folk blasting away, we made our way down into Southern Armenia.  While they both could not speak English, google translate, vodka, and fruits made for an enjoyable time.  The fellow passenger was trying to finish off his bottle of Vodka before the border so we were more than happy to help him out.  It was Ramadan in Iran, so these two were trying to get in some last minute fun before heading back to all of the restrictions that awaited them once getting back to Iran.

I forget where they were exactly from in northern Iran, but they described it as the city where American flags are burned regularly.  This mattered not as travelers often recognize the difference between a country’s government and its individual citizens.  We talked about how they really wanted to visit the United States while I likewise discussed my dream to independently travel Iran one day.  We laughed, we drank (not the driver), we sang (or at least attempted to) along to the music.  Up on the highlands of Armenia, wild flowers were in full bloom, so we stopped for a while to take in the scenery before heading down into the valley where our destination lay, Goris.  As quickly as we all became friends, it was soon after we had to go our separate ways.  We were dropped off in town where we would look for transport up into nearby Tatev.

Noravank: The church on Everyone’s Itinerary

Whether you’re in Armenia for one week or four, Noravank is probably on your list.  With the added attraction of Areni-1 cave, this is a must check out destination while in the country.  It was nice slowing down and staying overnight while drinking wine, eating hand picked fruit, and just letting time pass slowly.

Enjoying Noravank and the surrounding scenery



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