Goris (25,000 people), situated on the Goris River, is the most attractive town in southern Armenia. The endlessly winding roads that leap through the gorges over the mountains of Syunik come to a major junction at Goris, making this an inevitable stop between Yerevan, Stepanakert and the Iranian border. But it’s hardly a place to pass through – Goris is a destination in itself.
Boasting fine stone houses built of grey stone with arched windows and balconies on tree-lined avenues and an absence of tall blocks of flats, it’s a great place for strolling and chatting with locals. The houses, whose design was apparently influenced by a German architect who came to live here, have doors opening directly onto the street and some have balconies. The 17th- or 18th-century church has sheep gravestones outside which, unlike those at Sisian, can be freely photographed. On the south facade can be seen the trajectory of an artillery shell, which narrowly missed the building while the town was being bombarded during the conflict with Azerbaijan.
The pace of life is slow: there is little commercial or industrial activity, or even tourist kitsch, so it really feels like you’ve stepped back in time.
Goris is known for its variety of homemade fruit oghee including the deliciously potent mulberry and Cornelian cherry (hone) oghee – explore the shuka on Syuniki Poghots or ask at a B&B to find some. There is plenty to see around the town too, including a weird cave city on the other bank of the river and equally bizarre sets of volcanic pillars that spear through the steep grassy slopes above town.
Longer day trips can be made to Tatev, the Vorotan Canyon and the caves at Khndzoresk. There is a fine selection of hotels and B&Bs in town, plus a couple of museums and a busy little shuka. It makes a good place to break a long journey between Yerevan and Karabakh – plan on spending a few days to soak it all in.
Sights - The setting of Goris is very pleasant and strikingly jagged rock formations can be seen on the opposite hillside. Locals say the cave shelters and stables of Old Goris carved into the hillside on the east side of town were built and inhabited in the 5th century. Several trails lead up over a saddle where there are more volcanic pinnacle clusters to explore. Many of the rooms are linked together, and arched ‘shelves’ grace some walls. The caves are sometimes used to house cattle – watch your step.
The Museum of Axel Bakounts (Mesrop Mashtots Poghots; working hours 10am-5pm Tue-Sun) is a typical Goris villa with stone walls and a veranda looking onto a courtyard. The museum was the home of writer Axel Bakounts (or Bakunts), who died in Stalin’s 1937 purges. It features his personal effects and furnishings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The friendly director of the museum, Mikaelyan Kajik, may invite you into his office to sample some of the local mulberry vodka.
The Museum of Ancient History (Ankakhutyan Poghots; admission free; working hours 10am-5pm) displays Bronze Age knives, traditional costumes, carpets and other locally found artefacts. The most unique item is a five-sided stone with carved faces that represent the sun, moon, water, earth and sky, believed to date back 4000 years. The museum is dimly lit and everything is labelled in Armenian, but it’s still worth a look.
About 2km northwest of the avtokayan is the village of Verisheen, which houses the ancient St Ripsime Church. The barrel-vaulted structure saw restoration in 2007 and is believed to have been built on top of an old pagan temple. Continuing on the main road northwest you’ll spot plenty of cave dwellings by the road.
Getting There & Away - There are three main stands for onward transport. The old avtokayan is on the highway into town (where the highway continues to Yerevan in one direction and Stepanakert in the other direction). From here shared taxis travel to Yerevan for AMD3000. There are marshrutkas to Yerevan (7.30am, 9am, 10am, noon and 5pm). Transport to Stepanakert originates in Yerevan – four or five marshrutkas pass here each day; the 12.50pm seems to be a pretty regular service. A taxi to Stepanakert 104km away. Marshrutkas to Kapan (two hours, 9am, noon and 3pm) depart from the corner of Komitas and Syuniki. Buses for nearby villages, including Tatev leave from the shuka on Syuniki.
Around Goris - There are several historic villages around Goris, many with ancient artificial caves still used as stables. Khndzoresk, 10km east of Goris, perches above the ruins of Old Khndzoresk, which was dug into a grassy gorge of soft volcanic sandstone. Whole walls of rock are dotted with caves; you could spend several hours exploring the area.
There are more caves around Tegh on the Stepanakert road, and around Hartashen, a tough but rewarding 3km on foot from Old Goris or about 8km by road. A smattering of standing stones similar to the ones at Zorats Karer is visible from the main road towards Sisian. Interestingly, there’s a village in the gorge below Goris called Karahunj, which means ‘stone henge’ in Armenian. The substantial remnants of the 12th-century Kotrats Caravanserai (built by the Orbelian princes) lie 2km south of the main highway near Harzhis. The Sev Lich Nature Reserve, 14km northeast of town on the shoulder of Mt Mets Ishkhanasar, protects a lake (Sev Lich means ‘Black Lake’) at 2666m. The track up requires a Jeep and a guide.
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