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Debed Canyon

Lori, Armenia's largest province in terms of land area, is very beautiful. Largely a high plateau with small mountain ranges, its outstanding features are the deep gorges which fissure the landscape. Apart from these river valleys, Lori is sparsely populated. The principal rivers are the Debed and the Dzoraget. The Debed rises in the southwest of the province where it is called the Pambak, flows east and then turns north towards the Georgian border. It ultimately joins the Kura whose delta is on the Caspian Sea south of Baku, Azerbaijan.

The Debed Valley on the Georgian border is the lowest-lying part of Armenia with an altitude of 400m above sea level. The Dzoraget rises to the west in Shirak province and then flows east past Stepanavan to join the Debed halfway between Vanadzor and Alaverdi. The spectacular gorges of these rivers are excellent places to find eagles, vultures and also interesting smaller birds such as rock nuthatches. In addition, they are where Lori's most appealing sights, its ancient monasteries and fortresses, are to be found.

Debed canyon manages to pack in more history and culture than just about anywhere else in the country. Nearly every village along the Debed River has a church, a chapel, an old fort and a sprinkling of khatchkars somewhere nearby. The gorge is noteworthy for having five of Armenia's finest churches/monasteries, all of them worth visiting. Of the churches two are very touristy, two see fewer tourists and the other is somewhere in between. Two World Heritage listed monasteries, Haghpat and Sanahin, justly draw most visitors, but there are plenty more to scramble around. Soviet-era infrastructure is noticeable, however, with electric cables and railway lines running through the canyon, plus an ugly copper mine at Alaverdi. The road through the canyon is also busy, as this is the main artery linking Armenia to Georgia. Tourist facilities include a highly rated Tufenkian Hotel, but there is a dearth of quality budget accommodation; most travellers base themselves in Vanadzor and make day trips.

Stepanavan is the best place to stay if wishing to visit Lori Berd or any of the remoter areas north of Stepanavan. For the monasteries of the Debed Gorge, the most popular sites, the Tufenkian at Dzoraget is currently the only good, convenient hotel. A cheaper option, of course, would be a homestay in any of the towns or villages. Allow at least a full day to visit all the monasteries in the Debed Gorge. Vanadzor is a useful overnight stop when moving from one area to another.

Getting There & Away - Buses and marshrutkas travel from Vanadzor to Alaverdi at 8am, 10am, 1.30pm, 3pm and 4.30pm. But once you get to Alaverdi you'll still need transport to visit all the monasteries. Sanahin is fairly easy to reach on your own (using the cable car) and there are regular marshrutkas to Haghpat. But connections to Akhtala and Odzun are rarer, and most independent travellers miss Kobayr because it's poorly signposted. To see the sights quickly and economically it makes more sense to hire a taxi from Vanadzor. If your budget is tight or you prefer to explore the valley at a relaxed pace, hitching and bussing is still an option.

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