As the saying goes, the best things come in small packages: an apt description for Armenia, a spectacularly scenic, landlocked country, roughly the size of Belgium. A long-time passion for medieval monasteries perched hilltop and rock-carved churches nestled into wild canyons, as well as a craving to sample lavash, a tasty, wood-oven baked flat bread on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, earned this southern Caucasus nation a slot on my bucket list. During a trip last May, little Armenia delivered bigtime.
A handful of U.S. tour operators, focused on destinations at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, now offer itineraries combining Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, but our focus—daughter Abigail and cousin Lucie—born in Egypt of Armenian parents, and me—was Armenia, perfectly crafted in the 10-day Treasures of Armenia itinerary with Silk Road Treasure Tours, whose owner, Zulya Rajabova, praises the destination as “ an ancient and beautiful country of incredible landscapes and a rich history, now modernizing and blossoming after years of Soviet rule.”
So why is Armenia amazing? Following are many discoveries we found to be Wow!-worthy.
Hip Hip Hooray for Yerevan, one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities in the world, now one that has recently exited the Soviet orbit and speedily transformed into a capital of elegance and cultural richness. Tops on our dazzlement list is The Cascade, a vast flight of 572 stone steps linking the multi-level Cafesjian Center for the Arts that rises in five monumental limestone tiers of fountains, topiary gardens and sculptures. Alternatively, an interior escalator ascends to all levels, each with a museum gallery at the landing. At the foot of Cascade lies a sculpture park, home to huge bronze works by Colombian sculptor Fernando Botero, the iconic LOVE installation by Robert Indiana and many other art works. On a smaller scale, not to miss is the treasure-filled, blocks-long Vernissage arts and crafts market, liveliest on weekends.
Yerevan is home to most of Armenia’s best museums. Tops on the must-visit list is the History Museum of Armenia, whose extensive collection includes superb Bronze Age artifacts, khachkars (stone steles richly carved with crosses), and the world’s oldest (5,500 years) leather shoe, found in a cave in the Vayots Dzor wine region. The museum sits on Republic Square, famous for its musical fountains that sing and sparkle during evening illuminations in summer. Essential, too, is the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial, a powerful hilltop museum commemorative of the horrific events faced by Armenians in the Ottoman Empire between from 1915 to 1922—not unlike Israel’s Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.
Tasting Armenia leads to a delicious discovery of a mouthwatering crossroads cuisine—Persian, Georgian and Levantine. You’re going to find a food-world of grilled khorovats (barbecue) and thin-crust pizzas prepared in wood-fired ovens. Armenia’s culinary tradition has recently been enriched by Syrian immigrants whose popular restaurants serve up open-faced meat pies called lahmajoun and lamb kebabs with sweet and sour cherries. When the late Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode of Parts Unknown here, tops in his tastings were a rice pilaf-stuffed pumpkin dish called ghapama, and a leg of lamb feast devoured at Dolmana restaurant in Yerevan. Armenia is also considered homeland of the apricot. You can buy apricot brandy following a tour and tasting at Yerevan Brandy Company, whose famous Ararat brandy was a Winston Churchill favorite. Even the capital’s first microbrewery, Dargett, pours an apricot ale, among other libations that are part of a lively cafe scene, which operated nonstop during our well-timed visit for Yerevan Wine Days—annually the first weekend in May.
The Medieval Monastery Treasury, numbering 60-plus, is scattered all over the country. Among our favorites is Geghard Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site founded in the founded century that’s hewn out of the rockface of the Azat River Gorge; nearby is the first-century, Hellenic-style Garni Temple. To the south, the Nokavank Monastery complex of churches and chapels, built of reddish-gold stone, is arguably Armenia’s most stunning religious site. Farther south is the fortified Tatev complex, perched on a plateau above the Vorotan Gorge; you access the monastery via the Wings of Tatev Aerial Tramway, the world’s longest reversible cable car. Heading north towards the Georgia border are two World Heritage-listed complexes, Sanalin and Haghpat, as well as Ahtala, whose main church boasts Armenia’s finest frescoes.
My Armenia is a cultural heritage tourism program that shows off this nation up-close and personal. Funded by USAID and working with the Smithsonian Institution, the State Tourism Committee created 50 community-based experiences countrywide. We, for instance, stopped for a go at weaving willow baskets, under the guidance of Artur, a master weaver from the village of Yegheg; toured two of the five wineries on the Vayots Dzor Wine Route; took a turn at jewelry-making and painting batik with Arman and Margarita at the Buduart studio in Dilijan; and joined an abandoned villages hiking tour with Wings of Tatev (in addition to our cableway adventure).
Hotels on our itinerary included: the Armenia Marriott Hotel (marriottarmenia.com), elegant in appearance, offering spacious rooms, dazzling breakfasts, and perfectly located on Republic Square. Over on buzzing Charles Aznavour Square, the new Grand Hotel (grandhotelyerevan.com) with a stunning rooftop pool earns its luxury accolades. The city’s most upscale recent addition, The Alexander, is fittingly a Luxury Collection Hotels member (marriott.com). Of note, the Tufenkian Historic Yerevan Hotel (tufenkianheritage.com) is one of four in this boutique hotel group; the lobby houses a cafe-bar, restaurant and a carpet showroom with weaving demonstrations. In the countryside, we stayed at the Tufenkian Old Dilijan (tufenkianheritage.com/en/accommodation/old-dilijan-complex), whose rooms and restaurant are part of the Dilijan Historic Complex—lively with creative and working artist studios, and north of the capital in Dzoraget, is the lovely riverside Avan Tufenkian Hotel (tufenkianheritage.com/en/accommodation/avan-dzoraget-hotel), beautifully furnished with spa facilities and pool.
For more information, visit the Armenian Tourism Information at armenia.travel. For more information on My Armenia, visit myarmenia.si.edu/en. For more information on Silk Road Treasure Tours, visit silkroadtreasuretours.com.