I call it the Thunder Road, although there is nothing loud, scary or stormy about it, and there’s not a Hell’s Angel or Harley Davidson in sight. No sign of Bruce or his bandana either. The road from Sisian to Melik-Tangi bridge–surely one of the most beautiful in the world– runs beside the Vorotan river and to Vorotnavank monastery and Vorotnaberd fortress. Vorot, if you hadn’t guessed by now, is the Armenian word for thunder. On the day I was there, the weather was sunny and serene, and no rolling thunder–indeed no engine of any kind–was heard. That’s one of the best things about Armenia’s emptiness: you often have the road to yourself. Historic sites, though usually lacking a tea-shop, a museum shop and a toilet, feel like yours alone. Better yet, you can clamber all over them–there are no signs, no notices and no guards.
Our first stop on the road from Sisian was at a 6th century memorial to three battling brothers who fought off the Persian army. The land around the monument in Aghitu is dotted with khatchkars—cross stones—depicting a playful range of people, children and animals along with Christian symbols. Climb the monument to see the cross engraved on every side of the center stone, or stay on firmer ground and marvel that bits and pieces of ancient rock carving that would be behind museum glass in darkened rooms in most other parts of the world just lie around by the roadside here, like rubble.
You’ll see the river on your right, deep in the gorge, flanked by tangles of green. In the foreground at this time of year, yellowed grasses. Behind the river, blue and grey mountains stretch for miles. Round a corner and there is Vorotnavank monastery. I defy you not to gasp. The monastery is a monument to Armenian girl power. The complex was built in AD 1000 by Queen Shahandukht and added to by her son Sevada in 1007. The monastery also served as a fortress (those pesky Persians again) and within its walls were a once shops, a seminary, workshops and housing for the poor. Today you can see a snake pit in one of the churches, the remains of a 11th century painting, and the new dome, rebuilt in 1931 after the original was destroyed by an earthquake. The ancient cemetery, surrounded by a centuries-old dry stone wall, contains two incongruously modern graves— those of a famous translator who died in 1965 and his son, a general killed in the 1994 war with Nagorno-Karabakh. At 10am on a summer Saturday morning, the place was deserted. We ate small, sweet apricots from a tree overlooking the gorge and listened to the silence.
On to Vorotnaberd, the remains of a fortress first mentioned in reports of liberation from –yes–the Persians in 450 AD. Today, just one wall of the fortress remains, strung between two giant basalt rocks, high on a steep hill 1,365 meters above sea level. You can scramble up the grassy side of the rock, but I recommend walking beside the river to the Melik Tangi bridge and admiring the fortress wall from the bottom of the towering, natural pillars. I got dizzy looking up. As a citizen of Northern Ireland, home to the Giant’s Causeway, it pains me to say this, but really the rock formations here are more impressive than those on the Antrim coast. Here, there is no heritage center, no opportunity to buy a teatowel, or earrings made from igneous rock. The guide books hardly mention the volcanic activity, or the beauty it left behind. The bridge at the bottom of the valley was built in 1855, using two enormous natural rocks as its base. Today it is used mostly by sheep and cows, but it’s sturdy enough for cars, if there was anywhere to go.