Guess who’s having a birthday party? Yerevan, the capital of the Republic of Armenia, just turned 2,800 years old this year, which makes her 29 years older than ancient Rome. The current news from modern Armenia, with its old traditions and well-preserved heritage, is the country’s marketing debut in the U.S., promoting My Armenia as a beautiful, friendly, safe and undiscovered destination.
Well, perhaps not totally undiscovered since 1.5 million travelers came to explore Armenia in 2017, an 18.7 percent increase over the previous year.
During the travel workshop in New York City—hosted by the State Tourism Committee of Armenia, along with private sector representatives—I learned many things about Armenia, now a destination sitting near the top of my travel bucket list.
- Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion, and the world’s first official church, Echmiadzin Cathedral, was built there in 303 A.D. Located on the site of a pagan temple, the Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site and an essential excursion from the capital. Actually Armenia, almost equal in size to Belgium, has a staggeringly rich treasury of uniquely styled religious monuments: churches and monasteries, some carved into and out of mountains, and unique khachkars—stones with elaborate crosses that are placed in spiritual buildings, forests, and on mountain peaks.
- Armenia is considered the homeland of the apricot, exported in the first century B.C. to Italy, where records show it was called “Armenian apple.” Jump to the 21st century and find that Yeveran now has its first microbrewery, said to pour out a mean apricot beer, among other libations that are part of a lively cafe scene—including a brandy favored by Sir Winston Church. On a mellower note, the Armenian musical instrument, the oboe like duduk, is made of apricot wood.
- Biblical Mount Ararat—where Noah landed on his ark after the waters of the world flood subsided—is the symbol of Armenia. Under terms of the Treaty of Kars (1921), Mount Ararat was moved behind Turkish border lines (access only to visitors with religious authority permission). The modern Armenian Republic does not recognize that treaty, hence the magic mountain—on view from many corners of the country—remains Armenia’s national emblem. However, among other mountain attractions is skiing at Tsaghkadzor, complete with a Marriott resort, just an hour from Yerevan.
- The winery in Areni is the oldest in the world, its remains—juice presser, fermentation vessels, cups for drinking—were found on the banks of River Arpa and dated by scientists to wine production over 6,000 years ago. Also, vines and seed found on site point to the production of a wine varietal that is the ancestor of Pinot Noir. The village of Areni is still famous for its wine, and hosts a wine festival every year, showing off the fruits of the vine, as well as cheeses, songs and dancing.
- Also found in Areni is the world’s oldest shoe—European size 37, leather, complete with holes to accommodate the accompanying shoelaces—more than 5,550 years old and perfectly preserved under a layer of hardened sheep dung. The shoe is on display in the History Museum of Armenia in Yerevan, where today high-quality shoemaking is just one facet of a burgeoning fashion scene.
- The Wings of Tatev, the world’s longest aerial cableway (3.5 miles) according to the Guinness Book of Records, carries 30 passengers and one attendant over the Vorotan Gorge and the Tatev Monastery complex. The ride to the top takes 12-15 minutes, depending on the weather, and treats visitors to the Tatev complex, in medieval times a scholastic and spiritual center that was built on the edge of a cliff between the ninth and 19th centuries. The cable way was built in 2010 as part of the Tatev Revival Project, and all profits are invested in the maintenance of the monastery and development of the local community.
- Comfort levels seem high for an up-and-coming destination. In the capital, international hotel brands are represented by Hyatt, Ibis, Radisson Blu, Marriott, Kempinski, and DoubleTree by Hilton. Then homegrown and unique in the boutique class are the four luxury Tufenkian Heritage Hotels, one in the capital and others in areas of visitor interest.
U.S. tour operators are already on the “visit Armenia” bandwagon; samples cited below may be combined with a week in Georgia:
- Silk Road Treasure Tours takes travelers to all corners of the country on its escorted 10-day Treasures of Armenia tour. Highlights include visiting UNESCO monasteries, hiking up Mt. Aragats, exploring art-filled caves and the Devil’s Bridge, making bread when dining locally; touring both a brandy distillery and a winery in Areni. Cities and places visited are Yerevan, Etchmiadzin, ancient Siunik, Lake Sevan, Tasghkadzor, Dilijan, Yenokavan and Lori. The land tour, basically all-inclusive except for a breakfast and dinner meal plan, is priced from $2,899 pp. Silk Road Treasure Tours will offer additional departures between April and October in 2019. For more information, visit silkroadtreasuretours.com.
- Sophia’s Travel, specialist in small-group cultural heritage tours, focuses on Armenia with its 8-day escorted tour departing Oct. 1. Company owner Sophia Kulich will escort this tour, covering sites of major historical importance, as well as Jewish heritage. Featured are five nights in Yerevan, visiting the Genocide Memorial Museum and the Mordechai Navi Synagogue and making excursions to the Ararat Valley, the pagan temple of Garni, and the Haghpat monastery complex. Additionally, guests spend one night each in Dilijan, known as Armenia’s Switzerland, and on Lake Sevan. A visit to a local food market, dinner in a local village house, brandy, wine and honey tastings, a folklore show, and a concert are all included in the land cost of $1,930 pp dbl. For more information, visit sophiastravel.com.
For more information, visit armenia.travel/en.