Planning a trip to Armenia? Here's what you need to know

Here are some landmarks that make the visit so much more worthwhile

By Stanley Carvalho

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Published: Thu 28 Mar 2024, 6:55 PM

Last updated: Sat 30 Mar 2024, 12:26 PM

Our car screeched to a halt when the traffic light suddenly turned red at Republic Square or Hraparak (as the locals call it) in the Armenian capital Yerevan. A woman in high heels and a striking outfit crossed the road slowly. Our driver Ashot, with a naughty look tells us that’s not Kim Kardashian. “Kim is Armenian, she is beautiful but no living here,” he mutters in broken English.

Any other famous Armenians, I ask. “Yes, yes, you know Cher? Gary Kasparov? Andre Agassi? They no living here,” he enlightens us. Our guide Elize interjects to add that out of the 14 million Armenians worldwide, only three million live inside the beautiful Caucasian country.

That was a revelation and the first interesting tidbit about the place we were visiting. There was plenty more to discover and imbibe — not just facts and figures but also the mesmeric beauty of Armenia, its food, culture and people.

Our exploration of this former Soviet state began on a crisp, sunny morning with a drive uphill to Victoria Park, a great point for starters, which provides a bird’s eye view of Yerevan as well as a scenic view of the iconic MountArarat.

The snow-capped mountains, a national symbol, dominate Armenia’s skyline and Elize explains with feeling and pride that Ararat is divine for Armenians although it is in Turkish territory. It was in these mountains that Noah’s Ark came to rest after the great flood, she explains, citing the Bible and looking me in the eye, says “I’m sure you’ve read it as a Christian yourself.” I had to sheepishly confess how poor my Biblical knowledge is.

From our vantage point, we took shots of the city, the Mount Ararat and the massive statue of Mother Armenia which replaced the statue of Stalin after his death. A fighter plane and missile, an armoured vehicle and a museum of history in the park are quiet reminders of the country’s past — marked with blood and victory and the gruesome genocide of 1912.

Indeed, the Genocide Memorial Complex on a hill not far away was worth a visit. Not so much for the imposing and impressive 40-metre-high spire next to a circle of 12 basalt slabs leaning over to guard an eternal flame but to experience the unforgettable tragedy portrayed informatively through photographs, historical documents and exhibits. When you come out of the complex a bit saddened, you walk past rows of memorial pine trees planted by dignitaries; the eerie music you hear in the background only adds to the melancholic atmosphere.

We stroll along listening to Elize’s stories until we reach a famous landmark in central Yerevan, The Cascade, an architectural complex with a system of huge limestone staircases beautifully connecting the downtown areas with the upper parts of the city. The 500-plus broad stairs are fun to climb or come down with grand views of the city, fronted by fountains, green spaces and some exceptional art sculptures. When we stop on one of the platforms for a breather, Elize points to the pricey apartments on either side, coveted by the rich and famous. Inside The Cascade’s belly is the Cafesjian Centre for the Arts with a collection of contemporary art that includes impressive glass artwork.

As the first country to officially adopt Christianity (something one is constantly reminded of), it isn’t surprising Armenia is home to many old monasteries, churches and holy sites. You can’t visit all of them on a short trip but a visit to the Geghard Monastery in the eastern part of the country is rewarding. The drive through the lovely countryside — green plains and valleys, mountains and gorges, fruit orchards and vineyards — is nature at its best.

From a distance the Monastery appears like an old castle amidst towering cliffs and rocks. But when you make your way up, you realise it is essentially a church, a chapel and caves carved out from the rocks at different levels. After basking in the serenity of the cold interiors of the tiny church and chapel and examining the carvings on the walls, we climb up another level to take in some stunning views of mountains, gorges and valleys. Cameras go click, click endlessly. The peace and quiet is soothing and we spend time breathing the fresh mountain air until we are called. Reluctantly, we walk towards the waiting car, impressed greatly that such an old medieval church has been preserved. It is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Curiously enough, around the Monastery I noticed some trees had strips of cloth hanging from their branches. Sensing my surprise, Elize revealed that anyone can offer a prayer or wish and tie a piece of cloth to a tree there to make it come true. Where would I go hunting for a strip of cloth, I gave it a pass.

Armenia’s monasteries typically stand in splendid isolation but the incredible natural beauty surrounding them is what makes visits so much more worthwhile. As we drove down roads meandering through rocky hills and mountain valleys, the changing scenery was a feast for the eyes. The near empty roads around the verdant countryside gave us the benefit of driving at our own whim and fancy and to stop and take in all that we could. Quaint villages, small lakes, canyons, forests of pine trees, orchards of apricots and pomegranate, vineyards, roadside shacks selling wine in coke bottles, road signs in Armenian or Russian, old concrete Soviet style buildings, waterfalls, shepherd boys leading cattle and sheep.

“Everything is nice and beautiful but we need more money and more people,” Ashot groans as we reach the ancient, pagan temple, Garni, created in the classical Greco-Roman architecture.

Despite its three decades of independence, Armenia remains an undiscovered gem, landlocked and hidden from tourists. Nature has blessed it abundantly with mountains, gorges, lakes. What makes the whole travel experience richer are its people, the food and the laid back pace of life.

Nobody seems to be in a hurry. As the sun shines brightly on a cool morning, I draw the curtains of our second-floor hotel room to find two men playing Backgammon at 9 a.m. right outside their shop. Later as we strolled around, it was a common sight to see groups of men playing Backgammon or Chess just about anywhere.

As we ambled along Yerevan’s main street, we spot men and women standing idly at street corners or chatting away while having an ice cream or coffee. When we reached Republic Square, the circular city centre, all the benches around the square are occupied; some lost in a snooze, some quietly watching the world go by while enjoying the cool breeze, others in their own world. Such sights make even tourists like us feel wonderfully relaxed.

Walk into a restaurant or bar, you see people eating and enjoying their beverages. Armenian food is known for its special taste and spicy flavours. Their barbecue, khorovats, made with lamb and served with vegetables and lavash (thin, flat bread) was unique as was ghapama, a dish of pumpkin stuffed with rice, apples, honey and raisins. We loved those dolmas (stuffed vine leaves) and gata, a pie with nuts and honey.

Exploring markets is something we never miss. The most popular is the GUM Market and no sooner we stepped in, than the passionate vendors began dangling their products, offering us samples to taste. “You from India? I love Shahrukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan,” a woman babbled, literally stuffing some dried fruit into our mouths.

Another vendor with an angelic face holds my hand. “I give big discount, come, you must take Sujukh (strings of syrup coated dry fruits).”

We tried everything that was offered, bought some stuff and quickly escaped to another side where we watched two women seriously engaged in making Lavash. We enjoyed sampling a variety of cheeses and feasting our eyes on the fresh fruits and vegetables area before rushing to our hotel with just an hour left to depart for the airport.

As we bid goodbye to Ashot, we promised we’d return and our next trip will be a relaxed one. “Ah, like the Armenians,” he guffawed, throwing a flying kiss.

Stanley Carvalho is an independent journalist and writer based in Bangalore, India

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