Sipping a glass of Ararat – renowned as some of the best brandy on the planet – and watching over the stunning ranges of the Armenian mountain that gave this fine liquid its name can easily make any visitor become infatuated with the country that has carried an enormous psychological baggage from the 20th century.
Armenia is a true and unjustly forgotten gem among the world’s travel destinations. While the inimitable taste of the Ararat brandy – that Churchill kept ordering on a yearly basis after sampling it at the Yalta Conference – signals the ubiquity of Armenia in many places the world round, the country itself is a storehouse of forgotten treasures with the ability of captivating visitors who wish to explore Armenia’s ancient monasteries, candle-lit churches and high-walled forts. Yet spending time with the gracious and humble residents of this small country gives Armenia its special character. Despite of its modest dimensions, Armenia’s history goes back to millennia rather than decades. It has always played an instrumental role in being the hub of commercial roads, which has, in one way or another, contributed to enriching this ancient culture. Armenia has a bright-colored landscape for trekking and thousands of architectural monuments to discover. One can try the flavors of Armenian cuisine while listening to the folk music performed in national costumes in any traditional Armenian restaurant.
A country of stones
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Caucasus region is the fact that it hosts more than fifty ethnic groups, the majority of which has lived there for millenaries. One of these is the Armenians, who speak a unique language relative to English, French, and Russian. However, it would be hard to find an identical word: Armenians have lived in their homeland for at least three thousand years, and their language has developed under the influence of local and neighboring languages such as Georgian and Persian. During its long and troublesome history, Armenia was a scene of war between the great powers of different epochs. As the larger empires rose and fell, Armenians were resolute enough to preserve their existence and cultural identity. The series of historical events have taught the nation about the secrets of survival.
After two centuries of Russian and Soviet rule, Armenia became independent in 1991. When the country finally broke free from its occupation, it had a territorial dispute and military conflict with Azerbaijan, another former Soviet Republic. Although the war ended in 1994, Armenia recovered slowly because of the rupture of the previously tight commercial bonds with the neighbors and the closing of most of its borders as a consequence of the armed conflict. Armenia today is best seen as a land of contrasts: it is a developing country with flourishing cultural life. Infrastructure and transport have seen considerable development over the last one decade, and the country houses several historical sites, recorded on the UNESCO World Heritage List, which have attracted an increasing number of tourists to the region.
Armenia has earned the nickname of “a country of stones” with a good reason. Forests are concentrated near the borders both north and south, while Armenia is located on a mountain range called Lesser Caucasus, and the average height of its peaks ranges from 2,500 to 3,500 meters, making the country a paradise for nature-lovers. Its land abounds in a variety of natural attractions. Several small lakes dot the mountainous landscape, among which Lake Sevan has become a popular bathing resort surrounded by eye-catching snow-covered peaks.
There is hardly another country in the world where so many old architectural monuments are concentrated in such a limited geographical space. While trekking, one will encounter prehistorical menhirs, citadels and even observatories from the same age when Stonehenge was built. Absconding between huge and colorful rocks, hundreds of medieval monastery ensembles built between the 5th and 13th centuries await inquisitive visitors. One of them, Tatev in the southern part of Armenia is connected to the motorway by a newly built ropeway, the world’s longest reversible cable car line. Few people know that cross-stones (khachkars) are particularly interesting artistic relics found only in Armenia. The shape of a cross is carved into a rectangular stone, together with optional rosettes, botanical motifs and the representation of human beings. Certain specialists affirm that this kind of ornamentation served to transmit the techniques of textile art. Amongst thousands of existing khachkars there are no identical ones. Cross-stone art flourished mainly from the 9th to the 17th century, but they are produced even up until now and have been recorded to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
Russian edifices, lush parklands
Moving into the cultural and economic heart of the country, one would agree that Yerevan is a city on permanent holiday. Yerevan is the most laid-back capital in the Caucasus: promenading up and down the main boulevards and stopping for a drink or two make it a vibrant place. The history of Yerevan dates back to the 4th millennium BC and its name may be connected with a citadel built Urartians, an ancient people who lived on the current territory of Armenia in 782 BC; this fortress (Erebuni) is one of the main attractions of the capital. While Yerevan has a multiplicity of Russian edifices from the 19th century in its central core, it is also proud to have a number of lush parklands and stylish brick squares. Dozens of theatres, concert halls, galleries and live music clubs dot the city centre, but one’s fondest memories of the place are likely to lie with the locals themselves. Impressive black eyebrows, classical Greek and Persian profiles and proud noses keep appearing in every nook and cranny of the city. Yerevan is also a spot of international festivals of different kinds. On each weekend, a flea market, called Vernissage opens its doors, where everything is sold, ranging from artistic paintings (surely a must-buy, and very reasonably priced) to spare parts of any machine, and, of course, traditional Armenian artworks such as khachkar models and puppets in national costumes. The Central Market of Yerevan is a sight for sore eyes: one can taste several kinds of dried fruits (chir) and traditionally prepared sausage (basturma).
While much of the current tourist traffic comprises Armenians living in diasporas and searching for a slice of their homeland, there is a boutique tourism industry in the making, and Armavia, the country’s flag carrier that flies to several European and Asian destinations, providing high-quality on-board services. The warm welcome anyone will receive from the locals after arrival belies the country’s reputation for tragedy and genocide. Armenia has built its memorials to pay tribute to the victims of the calamities it suffered in the last century, and is now striving to make progress – quite successfully at that. Armenia has witnessed a rapid economic growth (widely known as the Caucasian Tiger) and has moved on to devising no larger scale plans than integrating into the European Union. Armenia now exists in the human consciousness as a country with a promising vision, growth and prosperity.