I have just returned form spending a week travelling around northern Armenia. Unfortunately, this was far from enough time to fully explore this stunning country and I’m already looking forward to when I can return. For such a small place there is really a lot to see and do there. We didn’t even touch the south of the country, and there are still a fair few places in the north that we didn’t reach. However, what I did see in Armenia was beautiful natural landscapes of rolling hills, snow-capped mountains and dramatic gorges dotted with monasteries and temples, as well as warm and hospitable locals.
Our first stop was the capital. Yerevan seriously defied my expectations. One of the first things that I noticed was how relaxed it was. We rolled into the centre early in the evening on a Saturday, and whilst there were plenty of people out and about on the streets, it was still surprisingly quiet. This was probably largely down to the fact that Yerevan’s wide avenues can actually handle the city’s traffic and people seem to orderly follow the rules of the road (take note, Tbilisi). The crescendo of Georgian car horns was gone! Another surprise was that there is plenty of greenery in Yerevan with tree-lined streets and parks dotted around the city. Walking around as we struggled to locate our hostel, I started to get more of a feel for the city. Seeing a fully decked out Rolls Royce driving abreast to a clunky old Lada was the perfect exemplification of how a select amount of Armenians have greatly prospered in the post-Soviet period, leaving everyone else far behind. Walking around the centre you see plenty of examples of wealth with luxury boutiques, trendy bars and fashionable restaurants in abundance, however, when we steered away from the more popular touristy sites, we saw a different side to the city. After leaving the cathedral of Saint Gregory the Illuminator (consecrated in 2001, this is the biggest Armenian Apostolic Church in the world), we decided to take a shortcut back to our hostel. Here we saw a completely different side of Yerevan, surrounded by the decaying facades of Soviet-era apartment buildings and tumbledown homes with holes in the wall and roofs made of corrugated iron.
The next morning we made our trip to what is probably the most important site in Yerevan, the Armenian Genocide memorial complex on the hill of Tsitsernakaberd. The memorial consists of an eternal flame surrounded by twelve slabs of rock (representing the twelve regions lost to Turkey) pointing skyward.Next to this a giant needle emerges from the ground, split in two by a crack running up its length. Whilst the memorial complex itself was moving, the museum was a far more harrowing experience. Located underground with no windows or natural light of any kind, the museum takes you through a chronological account of the events preceding, during and following the genocide. The exhibition was divided into 50 different sections, each with its own wall of text. Whilst this was a huge amount of information to take in, I slowly made my way through the museum, making sure to read everything that was on display. Part of the tragedy surrounding the Armenian genocide is how few nations recognise it to this day, and as such it is discussed surprisingly little in the West, even though these were the events that led Raphael Lemkin to coin the very term ‘genocide’. For this reason I felt that it was my duty to absorb as much as I could on my visit.
After leaving the Genocide Museum, one of the next recommendations in the Lonely Planet was the Yerevan Military Museum, but we decided that we’d had our fill of death and horror for one day. Thankfully, Yerevan is also home to a frankly staggering amount of museums and galleries, the most impressive of which might be the Cafesijan Center for the Arts. This remarkable gallery is located at the Yerevan Cascade, an enormous stairway that climbs up a hill in the northern periphery of central Yerevan. The gallery itself is located within the Cascade, and to visit the various exhibits guests ascend the inside of the hill via a series of escalators, gliding past the different pieces of art on display. Every other floor also takes you back outside onto the Cascade where there are fountains, sculptures and other interesting pieces of art on display. It’s a great vantage point to see the city from above and also is supposed to be the best place in the city to see Mount Ararat. We’re sure the view of this infamous mountain would have been spectacular, but sadly all we could see on the horizon was cloud and smog.
Yerevan is also in close vicinity to some interesting archaeological sites such Garmi Temple and the monasteries of the Kasagh Gorge. The medieval monastery of Geghard was a particular highlight. Whilst from the outside it might not seem overly impressive, inside it’s another story. The main chapel is built against the side of a cliff and the inside resembles a cave more than a place of worship. The interior hasn’t been restored so it is dark, gloomy, falling apart and full of atmosphere. We were particularly lucky as one visitor burst into song, reciting an Armenian hymn in a low, melancholic voice than reverberated throughout the structure and only added to the spooky character of the place. There was also the town of Byurakan, from which you could visit the 7th-century fortress of Amberd. It has to be said, we were left a little disappointed by this site. Whilst the Lonely Planet described it as ‘majestic’, what we saw was just a crumbling ruin that lacked any real character or defining features. However, the trip wasn’t totally wasted as we finally caught out first glimpse of Mount Ararat. I would have left Armenia disappointed if I hadn’t seen this majestic mountain, which represents Armenia’s most potent national symbol. One local got quite emotional talking to me about the mountain, saying how when he’d been at school he would stare out the window every day, marveling at what seemed to him to be the highest place in the world. He said he could never imagine a time when Armenians would accept that Ararat wasn’t theirs. The mountain, along with significant portions of western Armenia, was lost in the Turkish-Armenian war of 1920. As such the mountain has come to symbolise not only the Armenian nation, but also the genocide and the lost regions.
Heading further north we got to see two more of Armenia’s larger towns. Our first stop was Gyumri, Armenia’s second biggest city. Although it is not a particularly beautiful city, the locals here are famed for their peculiar sense of humour and strong accents. One afternoon as we sat on a park bench enjoying a brief spell of sunshine, one local popped himself down next to us. He introduced himself as Artur, a 50-something-year-old blacksmith, and although he spoke perfectly good Russian, he insisted on communicating almost entirely by hand gestures and singing old French songs (most of which he didn’t seem to know the words to). If we ever didn’t seem to understand what he was getting at, he would gesticulate wildly, pointing and staring at the sky as if asking for some divine intervention. At first I suspected he might have been drunk, but as our surreal conversation went on I didn’t catch a whiff of booze on his breath, and he seemed fully compos mentis. In the end I decided he was just a bit of a goofy local, but he certainly kept us distracted for a good hour or so! The owner of our guesthouse was also incredibly welcoming. Strutting around the house in his robe like an Armenian Hugh Hefner, Hayk always made us feel completely at home. Whilst he worked as a banker by day, in his spare time he was also the head of the Gyumri branch of the Rotary Club, and he made sure to show off the attic of his house that served as the local club house.
From Gyumri we moved on to Stepanavan, a small town located quite close to the Georgian border. It was a quaint and peaceful place, set on a high plateau and surrounded by gorgeous hills and mountains on all sides. If I’d squinted my eyes to blur all the signs in Armenian, I easily could have been in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan. The town itself seems like it has been frozen in time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, or even long before, but this only adds to the charm of the place. The only exception was a local cafe called Carahunge, which seemed quite incongruous with the rest of the town due to the fact it looked like a hipster-made log cabin, complete with a menu of European comfort food, board games,artisanal clay dishes, a wide selection of spirits behind the bar and American pop music on the radio. Whilst there isn’t much to see inside the city, we took a trip out to the Dendropark, a 35 hectare arboretum full of local families taking a stroll and gaggles of teenagers chasing each other about or serenading their sweethearts on park benches. I would have loved the chance to have walked more throughout the countryside of this charming region, however, on the final leg of the trip my stomach decided it had other plans and kept me bed-bound for most of the day.
Nonetheless, we crammed a lot in to one week and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Armenia. The strange truth now is that I’ve seen far more of Armenia than I have of Georgia! This is something that I’ll have to remedy in the coming weeks. Keep an eye on this space for more!