Rather than letting past woes weigh it down, Armenia has built its memorials, dusted itself off and moved on with its rapidly modernizing capital, boutique tourism industry and warm welcomes.
For travelers, easily visited highlights include ancient monasteries, candlelit churches and high-walled forts – but lasting impressions lie more with the Armenians themselves. You will easily find friends among these gracious, humble and easy-going people, even without a common language. The travel experience is wide-ranging – you can have a four-star holiday.
Yerevan: A city swaggering into a new era
The break-up of the Soviet Union gave the world an impressive array of new capitals. One of them – Yerevan, capital of Armenia is a city swaggering into a new era, and making a mockery of the usual Soviet stereotypes of drab, grey skies and drab, grey architecture.
Lofty and landlocked, Yerevan is one of the sunniest of the ex-Soviet capitals, and for most of the year the azure-blue firmament is punctuated only by the awe-inspiring shape of Mount Ararat. This fabled 5137m peak is where Noah’s floating zoo is said to have come to rest after the floods, and although it now lies just across the border in Turkish territory, the fact that it can be seen from so many parts of Yerevan makes it one of the main symbols of the city.
One other unmissable feature here is the liberal, almost ubiquitous use of duf, a sumptuously colored stone used in the construction of the vast majority of Yerevan’s buildings. Its precise hue shifts from peach to pink to rose depending upon the weather and time of day, though the fiery tones that emerge under the rising and setting sun are particularly magnificent.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on Northern Avenue, a sleek pedestrian-ized thoroughfare in the very centre of the city. Half a kilometer of soft, pinkish stone regularly inset with the cafés and boutiques of a burgeoning middle-class, it would look stylish in any European city.
The street makes a grand place to people-watch over a coffee, served Turkish-style from a conical metal pot. The same could be said of most of Yerevan – indeed, on a summer afternoon it can seem as if the whole city is out, dressed for a fashion shoot, getting a caffeine fix.
Riding towards Mount Ararat
A horse trek with the Ayrudzi Riding Club is a journey into the distant past. Trips on their thoroughbred horses through the fruit groves and meadows lining the mountain streams of Armenia, which can last anything from a few hours to several days, take in pagan sanctuaries, a ninth-century church carved into a volcanic cave and the mighty Mount Ararat.
At night, either camp under the stars, often beside ruined castles or temples, or stay back at cottages adjoining the riding club. At the latter, organic meals are accompanied by Armenian shadow theatre (an ancient form of shadow puppetry) or folk songs to the tune of the Zourna flute – two of the many revitalized traditional activities.
Yeghegis and around
The beautiful Yeghegis Valley (yer-ghiz) is surrounded by towering peaks and contains a rare concentration of churches. This and the surrounding valleys are well worth exploring for a day or two. The stretch up to the Smbataberd fortress and a look from the other side of fortress gives a view of the Yeghegis Valley down.
Visit the 10th-century Tsakhatskar Monastery, a crumbling agglomeration of churches and old khatchkars.
Yeghegis village looks as though it has been inhabited forever; it has a couple of churches, including the very unusual Surp Zorats, where worshippers gathered before an outdoor altar. Across the river from the village, a metal footbridge leads to an 800-year-old Jewish cemetery – Hebrew inscriptions are clearly visible on some of the grave markers.
The next village up the valley is Hermon, where a rough track north up the valley (on the left) leads to Arates and Arates Vank, a monastery with three churches from the 7th to the 13th centuries.
Perched at 1900m above sea level, the great blue eye of Sevana Lich (Lake Sevan) covers 940 sq km, and is 80km long by 30km at its widest. The lake is perfect for escaping Yerevan’s summer heat. Its colors and shades change with the weather and by its own mysterious processes, from a dazzling azure to dark blue and a thousand shades in between.
This pearl of a monastery, perched on the lip of the Debed Canyon, has UNESCO World Heritage status, along with Sanahin. This place has atmosphere and architectural splendor in abundance and the views around the canyon alone are worth the trip. Founded around 976 by Queen Khosrvanuch, who built Surp Nishan at the center of the walled complex, it really took off in the 12th century with a magnificent bell tower, library and refectory.
Shopping at Vernissage
Armenian carpets, cognac, fruits, handicrafts and Soviet memorabilia are some of the most popular things people take home from Armenia. Most of these are plentiful at Vernissage, a seemingly never-ending weekend flea market next to Republic Square with the more touristy stuff in the back half, further from Republic Square. Another gift is a duduk, or traditional flute that is part of the UNESCO immaterial heritage.