Hiking in Armenia practically guarantees three things: breathtaking landscapes, being invited to drink homemade oghi (fruit vodka) – and finding an ancient Christian monastery tucked deep within the mountains!
Dilijan National Park is no exception. Scattered along or near the route of the Transcaucasian Trail through the park are no fewer than five major monasteries. In this article we’ll tell you how to hike to all of them – and experience the wonderful landscapes of the national park along the way.
(As for the oghi, we think that’s best left up to chance!)
Aghavnavank can be reached from the village of the same name, situated in the quiet and picturesque Getik valley. Head east from the village centre and follow the waymarked riverside path for about 30 minutes to reach the monastery.
You’ll find the 12th–13th-century Holy Mother Of God Hermitage church set in a fairytale-like forest clearing among ancient yew groves – hence the name of the trail that reaches the site: the ‘Yew Grove Trail’.
It’s an easy walk there and back – in fact, it’s a nice warm-up for a longer hike to the second monastery on our list…
Named after Mkhitar Gosh, an Armenian cleric who took part in its building, the 12th-century monastery of Goshavank is easily accessed by road – but of course, it’s much more rewarding to hike there!
Start this 15km hike from Khachardzan, just down the road from Aghavnavank. You’ll follow the Khachardzan river into the forest, then ascend an ancient trail up the rocky mountainside, weaving between cliffs and outcrops to reach the site of the ruined village now known as Chermakavan and formerly as Aghkilisa. All that remains now of the ‘white church’ from which the village got its name are the ruins of a corner wall and an arched doorway, surrounded by part-buried khachkars. Descending through the forest, you’ll pass the small but beautiful Gosh Lake before coming to the famous monastery complex itself.
Trivia time! The construction of Goshavank began in 1188 to replace another monastery in the region, Getikvank, which had been destroyed by an earthquake – the reason it is still sometimes referred to as ‘Nor Getik’, meaning New Getik. When the aforementioned cleric Mkhitar Gosh died in 1213, the monastery was renamed in his memory.
From Goshavank, you could jump in a taxi to Dilijan – or you could stay overnight in Gosh and then hike a 21km section of the Transcaucasian Trail to Dilijan.
After a night in a guesthouse in the ‘Little Switzerland of Armenia’, you can next hike to…
At the northwest end of Dilijan, head up Abovyan Street, passing beneath a tall railway bridge and through the wooded valley until you come to an information board for the ‘Medieval Monasteries Trail’. Follow the trail markers as the route weaves up the wooded hillside. It should take you no more than 30 minutes to reach the monastery, which seems to emerge from the earth like a slumbering stone beast.
Time for another history lesson! Matosavank, named after Saint Matthew, is a monastery that really shows its age. It was completed in 1247 under the supervision of Avag Zakarian–Mkhargrdzeli (try saying that after three shots of oghi). Avag was a Georgian governor and military commander of Armenian descent whose house had recently submitted to Mongol rule. He may never have seen the finished monastery, as he died just 3 years after its completion.
If you’re a fan of khachkars (cross-stones), there are many lovely examples inside Matosavank. An information board on the approach to the monastery gives you details of the layout, including what each of the several rooms were used for. And if you’re there in springtime, you’ll find the forest floor around Matosavank speckled with shade-loving wildflowers, including cowslips, violets, and blue anemones.
From Matosavank, it’s just a 30-minute walk to reach…
‘Jukht’ is an Armenian word for ‘pair’ or ‘couple’. Sure enough, Jukhtakvank monastery is actually made up of two churches, perched on the opposite side of the valley to Matosavank.
To get to them from Matosavank, continue following the ‘Medieval Monasteries Trail’ signs through the woods, crossing the river over a metal bridge and bringing you out just below the two churches after about 30 minutes.
These modest little churches were restored in the 1970s, but they’re actually older than Matosavank. The smaller of the two features an inscription stating that it was completed in 1201. It would once have had a dome but this has long since collapsed, meaning the roof is now open to the elements. Less is know about its larger twin, but its architectural style suggests that it was built earlier still, perhaps in the 11th or 12th century.
As you head back down the track, look out for the signpost for the Transcaucasian Trail on the left (beside the WC), which will take you on an epic 20km hike through the northern mountains of Dilijan National Park to the next and final monastery on our list…
5. Haghartsin Monastery
Its name roughly translating as ‘soaring eagle’, this 10th–13th-century complex is one of Dilijan National Park’s most popular attractions.
So why not hike there to beat the crowds? Enjoy the natural beauty of the national park all day, and aim to arrive after the tour groups have left!
The most spectacular routes begin either from Hovk (26km) or Jukhtakvank (20km), which both require a full day of hiking. If you’ve brought your own camping gear, you’ll be pleased to hear that the monks usually allow camping behind the main church – or if not, you can stay the night in the ‘Vanatun’ on-site guesthouse.
The complex was extensively renovated in 2011 thanks to a donation from the ruler of Sharjah, who was apparently so spellbound upon visiting the site that he made a very generous donation to have it fully restored.
You’ll find the church interiors look more their true age – an inscription was unearthed in the 1950s that gave an original date of 1071 for the building of the bigger Mother of God church, and the church of St Gregory is thought to be older still. In the sepulchre you can see the reconstructed tombs of the medieval Bagratuni dynasty of Armenian royals, under whose patronage much of the complex was established.
Most importantly of all, don’t leave Haghartsin Monastery before trying the delicious freshly-baked gata – the apricot and thyme flavour is our favourite!
Is a hiking adventure in Dilijan National Park starting to sound like your kind of thing?
If the answer is ‘yes’, you’ll be interested to know that our annual supporters’ trek on this route will be running from July 7–14th this very summer – and places are still available at the time of writing!
The deadline to sign up is fast approaching, so check out all the details and apply now to reserve your spot.