Early Saturday afternoon I ventured down to Jermuk with Anush to relax and stay there overnight, something I had been meaning to do for several years now. I was already aware that it would have been rather cold there as it’s still winter, but I also knew that we would have the entire place to ourselves since it’s the off-season.
Jermuk is a resort town located high in the mountains of the southern Vayots Dzor region, which incidentally is perhaps the most beautiful area of the country, in close par with northern Lori. During Soviet times Jermuk was a popular location for people to be cured of various illnesses at the numerous sanatoriums there. They still exist, although many are privatized but there are some old-school state-run places as well to get away from it all.
As you may be aware the national mineral water of Armenia is bottled there. Two companies are located in the town employing hundreds of people locally. Jermuk Group is by far the largest and their product can be found in most grocery stores and restaurants countrywide. Indeed, usually when you order Jermuk mineral water in a restaurant you’ll be served the familiar dark green bottle with the blue label. The other bottling plant is “Mayr Gordzaran” or literally the “mother factory,” which has been operating for something like 50 years. I actually prefer their product, but it’s harder to find. Although the naturally carbonated water is popular it does indeed have high amounts of mineral content, notably sodium. There’s also higher than average levels of arsenic, which caused quite a stir a couple of years back (click here
to find out more), although they are supposedly not toxic. In any case, Jermuk should not be consumed in mass quantities, despite that it is excellent for digestive problems. I cannot think of a better remedy for upset stomach, actually.
The entire landscape was already covered in snow as soon as we reached the towering plateau leading to the town. Along our 20-minute trip there from the main highway we were caught in a hailstorm, which was quite lovely. Hail as it turns out is excellent for getting the car clean. Strangely enough driving wasn’t as risky as I figured it would be-- the Niva didn’t slide or skid once during the drive.
After arriving the first thing we did was find a place to stay. We crossed the bridge leading to the town’s center, and I instinctively decided to take a right at the end of the road rather than making a left that leads to the main park and the tiny downtown area. After about 200 meters we stumbled upon a four-story hotel containing about 30 rooms called Ani, which as we found out had just opened for business at the beginning of the year. The place was extremely clean and the room was very comfortable. Our room was triangular in shape, a bit odd when you think about it but the layout worked. Seemed like they consulted a feng shui expert while they were designing the entire place. The closet, cabinets and bureau seemed logically placed. The tiny bathroom however was a bit cramped because of the corner-placed shower with its shallow tub and sliding glass doors; nevertheless the bath the next morning was invigorating. I’ll have to say that it is perhaps the best hotel I have stayed in anywhere in Armenia. And for only 5,000 dram per person, or around $17, you cannot go wrong at all. This price will undoubtedly double or even triple by the summer, but it’s an excellent alternative to the overpriced sanatoriums where you are required to pay $200 per night or even more. Just beside the hotel is the Gndevank restaurant, named after a monastery located in the adjacent valley. The service there was prompt and friendly, and we ate very well. They offer some excellent locally produced dairy products like strained yoghurt, salty cheese and a fantastic rich, thick buttermilk product, which actually looked like vanilla ice cream when they brought it out. People with high cholesterol problems should stay away from all of it, needless to say.
After dinner we ventured on foot into the park where there is a stone plaza with about six gigantic urns in a row alongside a wall. Into every urn flows a steady but light stream of mineral water, each at a different temperature. The first spout dripped out Jermuk at about 30 degrees Celsius, and the temperature increased in five degree increments with each subsequent spout. Into the last urn flowed mineral water at 53 degrees Celsius, and since I didn’t have a cup with me I simply let the stream trickle into my mouth, which I placed just under the spout. It was like drinking tea and warmed up my belly immediately in the chilly air. We went for a short walk through the park along a narrow path on top of the snow banks that must have been as much as four or five feet high in some spots. When we heard some dogs barking in the distance Anush became scared so we made our way back to the main road.
The next morning after a light breakfast of soft-boiled eggs, cheese and butter with lavash bread and wild mint tea we jumped into the car and were about to make our way into the gorge to see the waterfalls, which I have been meaning to find since the beginning of 2005 when I purchased my first Niva. When we saw that the narrow road leading into the gorge was partially covered in snow about six inches high Anush freaked again, so we turned back. While in search of the old road leading to the main highway we stumbled upon a newly constructed small church called St. Gayane and lit a few candles there. We inquired about how we could find the old road but the woman said it was best to ask a gas station attendant on the main road. There was someone waiting for a bus there who we asked, and he told us that he would show us how to get to it if we drove him to the main highway, as he was en route to Vayk, which is about five or so miles from the turnoff to Jermuk. His name was Virab, and he works as a driver for the electric company but also keeps bees. During the winter he places the hives in Vayk where it is much warmer, then transports them to Jermuk in the spring. Apparently the portion of the old road leading into Jermuk is blocked by fallen ledge, but it was possible to reach the monastery as that part of the road was not obstructed. We dropped him off in town, and I promised that I would try his honey the next time I was in the area.
We had to travel along the old road from the main highway for about 20 kilometers in order to reach the monastery. It was rough going at first because the asphalt had been worn away in many places and there were large pot holes scattered filled with dirty rainwater as a result. The left side of the road is almost completely lined with high ledge except for a few places, and along the right flows the Arpa River, the source of which is the lake in Jermuk. After 10 kilometers or so the road became littered with chunks of crumbling eroded ledge. We tossed aside as many rocks as necessary to move forward but we soon realized that at least 500 meters of the road had to be cleared up ahead, so we gave up after 20 minutes of futile work. That was when my lower back finally gave out. Turning the Niva around took another aggravating 20 minutes because of some huge blocks of stone that needed to be maneuvered around, which stressed both of us out. For the way back I decided that it was best to engage the four-wheel drive which helped immensely getting out of there. It perhaps would only have been possible to reach the monastery with a Villis, a Russian SUV that is raised much higher off the ground than the Niva and built like a tank. My friend Tigran Nazaryan has a diesel Villis that would certainly get us there despite the rocks, but he would have to be lured away from his apricot orchards, something that isn’t going to happen anytime soon with the beginning of spring.
On Saturday while driving through Areni I stopped at a roadside stand operated by a family of five, from whom I have purchased lots of wine before. The head of the family, Haigaz, makes the best wine I have had anywhere in Armenia and ages it, storing the wine in large containers in his cool stone garage. I bought about four liters of an exquisite three-year-old dry red wine and a two-liter bottle of wine distilled in 2004. He insisted that we eat a late lunch with him of baked chicken and sliced potatoes the following afternoon, and we did so eagerly, although we showed up an hour late having been unaware that the clocks had been set forward overnight. He asked me if it wouldn’t be much trouble to drop his daughter and her friend off in Yerevan where they attended university, and we immediately agreed to take them with us. Along the way through the craggy terrain we listened to some vintage folksy Roupen Hakhverdian songs and the girls sang along softly. It was a nice afternoon, and a lovely weekend.
Labels: Architecture, Armenian Churches, Nature, Personal Experiences, Travel