Armenia? It’s not a place that immediately springs to mind. But this little country in the Caucuses at the gates of Central Asia has some beautiful surprises waiting for those who dare to explore its lands. Héloïse, our epicurean, curious travel designer, took the plunge. Our girl scout talks to us about her impressions of this little-known destination. Her experiences will make you want to find out more.
Confidential, intimate, endearing and intriguing: Hayastan (the Armenian word for Armenia) as seen by Héloïse
Armenia is not a destination that immediately springs to mind. So, why Armenia?
It’s true that Armenia is not a well-known destination. When I told my friends and family about my planned trip, almost everyone had the same reaction. They asked me “but what are you going to do in Armenia?” Many of them struggled to pinpoint the country on a map, which, if you need a reminder, is nestled between Iran, Georgia, Turkey and Azerbaijan.
Although this adventure was a work trip for me, I don’t think it’s a destination you would choose by chance or on a whim. Of course, it has truly exceptional landscapes and cultural sites. But first and foremost, you visit Armenia to find something else. Experiencing the soul of this small country with its rich history is reason enough. That’s something you come to learn.
Can you describe Armenia in two words?
The first word that comes to mind is unusual, for all the reasons I mentioned above. The second word I think of is rebirth, as there seems to be a real desire to overcome the past and move forward. This is reflected in the multimedia training centres we discovered that focus on digital technology and graphic design, and also in their desire to promote
Armenia as a destination. Roads are being improved, hotels are being built, and people are developing skills focussed on new technologies. There’s a real feeling that the country is being born. And, as Armenia has only been independent since 1991, this is really the case.
What makes Armenia a destination in its own right?
Armenia reminded me of Namibia, although it’s not a comparison that is immediately evident. But the desert, high-altitude lakes, steppes, mountains, canyons and forest-covered gorges create a multitude of landscapes and ambiances that are entirely unique. And all within a small country not quite the size of Belgium.
But Armenia isn’t a flat country, far from it. Large plateaux surround Yerevan that are home to vines and orchards. The mountains are just two hours’ drive away. Let’s not forget the lakes, such as the famous Lake Sevan which measures 1300 km2 and is located at over 2000 metres above sea level. And that’s without even mentioning the ski resorts or the village of Areni were archaeologists discovered the very first vineyards. The most incredible thing is that the diversity found in the landscape is also reflected in Armenian culture and gastronomy.
Talking of gastronomy, is the food good in Armenia?
It certainly is. I really enjoy my food and I am very curious by nature, so Armenian cooking really spoke to me. Their cuisine has oriental, Persian and Greek influences. The tradition of tables full of plentiful mezze platters and their pastries made me think of Lebanon. Armenia is the promised land for people who love fresh fruit and vegetables that are organic, local and seasonal. Bread also forms an integral part of Armenian culture. Lavash was placed on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage in 2014.
What surprised you most?
I was particularly moved by the ability of the Armenian people to adapt to any situation despite their past and their difficulties.
One day we became stranded by the snow in the middle of nowhere. A network was very quickly formed between our in-country partners and the people of the mountains. I saw this mindset of sharing and generosity everywhere throughout the trip.
Before going to Armenia, I read in a book that “they give more than they have.” I don’t think it’s a myth. They are a very warm and kind people.
When you think about Armenia, images of churches and monasteries in abundance immediately come to mind. What is it really like?
It’s true that the country is home to a plethora of ancient religious sites, many of which have UNESCO world heritage status. It is also said that you would need a whole lifetime to visit all the churches and monasteries in Armenia.
I was afraid I would experience a bit of an overdose of monasteries, but I was wrong. Each different site had something unique about it, which meant visiting them was anything but monotonous.
Geghard monastery (12th century), for example, is unique as it is partially carved out of the rock. Khor Virap monastery is spectacular as it was built at the foot of the legendary Mount Ararat (5160 metres tall). A kind of fervour and devotion also reign in some of these places.
The monastic complex of Haghpat moved me particularly. We travelled a long way to get there, and when we arrived, we were the only ones there. There were so many nooks and crannies, stone edifices attached to one another, intricate interconnecting arches and remarkable specimens of khachkars (carved stone steles). It was a beautiful surprise.
Who would you recommend the destination to?
I would recommend Armenia to people who are already well travelled and/or people who are truly curious and interested in exploring off the beaten track.
Many people think of it as a land of pilgrimage, which it certainly is. But Armenia is so much more than that. It is a destination with many different facets.
Why is it important to have a guide in Armenia?
The services of a guide, which are unparalleled in Armenia, enable you to reach places that are inaccessible or difficult to access. Even without leaving Yerevan, our exceptional guide really helped us to understand the spirit of the country. I will always remember my visit to the Armenian Genocide Memorial. It was a highlight that was very emotionally moving thanks in particular to the comments and explanations of our guide.
What did you bring back in your suitcase?
So many things. There is a craft and flea market in Yerevan called the Vernissage. You can find all sorts of things there, in particular amazing chess sets. In Armenia, learning to play chess is mandatory at primary school.
You can also find entire stalls dedicated to dried fruit pastes in the markets. And that’s not to forget the cognac (brandy) and Areni wine that is produced from an endemic grape variety.
What would you recommend for a first visit to Armenia, and what would you recommend for people wanting to really explore?
In Yerevan there are really great high-end hotels with local character. You could easily base yourself there and enjoy several day trips over a long weekend for example.
For a trip that takes in more places or for something more in depth, you need to prioritise the destination and be less demanding when it comes to accommodation outside the capital. It’s the price you have to pay to reach the more distant and unexplored places.
Alternatively, the Charly team can organise for you to visit these sites by helicopter. And why not combine your trip to take in both Iran and Armenia?
You went in February which is a snowy month. Wasn’t it too cold? What is the best season to travel around Armenia?
Luckily, I had planned for it, so I was perfectly well equipped to deal with the snow which fell heavily in places. But February is not the best time to visit Armenia.
I would recommend going out of season, in particular in September and October. The rain has stopped, the temperatures are mild, the days are long, and the countryside is full of beautiful autumnal colours. In short, it’s perfect timing.
Will you be visiting Armenia again?
Definitely. This trip made me want to (re)discover the country, but at the right time of year.
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