ARMENIA: Europe’s Last Undiscovered Corner

Areni, Armenia

I had no idea of what to expect of Armenia, having no clue where it was or what it stood for. What a surprise to discover this tiny country’s massive will to prosper—at home and all over the world.

Armenia is a place for sinfully wonderful food, music, scenery, and intellectual banter, and small towns like up-north Gyumri are great places to begin this discovery. Gyumri’s Villa Kars, a restored survivor of the devastating 1988 earthquake, is a stark-but-accommodating hotel surrounding a garden courtyard that occasionally hosts an all-organic menu (vegetarians smile in Armenia) as well as the occasional concert. The Gurdjieff Ensemble is an ethnographically-authentic instrumental world music group playing traditional Armenian instruments. They tour the world, but also played at this living dream of restoration champion Antonio [last name and one line on him].

Many of Gyumri’s buildings are fashioned with large, dark volcanic stone blocks. Some of its stone structures upon desert landscape survived the devastating 1988 earthquake or were rebuilt—but most of the flimsy Soviet-era construction did not survive here. The Gyumri Ceramic School keeps the art of glazed-clay transformation alive, where the owner (translated) “Hoped not to abuse my patience.” Alexandrapol Brewery also captures this sleepy town’s architectural style that mishmashes Persian, Russian Empire, modernist, Art Deco, and Art Nouveau. Gorki Park is a green break from the trance of dark-block architecture. Work on Gyumri’s St Saviour’s Church started in the 1850s, and continues today (note facelift crane) courtesy of the 1988 earthquake. The Berlin Art Hotel’s 15 rooms each feature room from a different local artist, and their backyard is a nice place to take in the traveler’s scene. 

You quickly learn that Armenia is a land of toasts, where endless meals are punctuated by raised-glass celebration and conversation. Another feather in Armenia’s emerging tourism sector is preserving nature via conservation and ecology. Armenia’s diversity of elevations and microclimates allow 360 bird species to thrive; all of Europe has 450 total. The northeast’s mountainous Caucus-crossroads is raptor-soaring and birding terrain where high-elevation grassy meadows eventually give way to seldom-visited Lake Arpi National Park, which sits at 6000-feet within sight of the country of Georgia. En route, we passed isolated farm communities and Caucasian brown cows, owl-resembling kestrals, white pelicans, sun-drenched shepherds, and wolves.

Garni, Armenia

But the real mindblowers here are the old manmade stuff. Really old. The Connecticut-sized country has thousands of ancient monasteries and churches, several being UNESCO World Heritage Sites. (Take that, “classic” Europe: have fun waiting in endless lines for tourist traps.) And, Armenia’s religious sites are always open. The priests inhabiting these mountain-encircled landmarks have wives and families, and just might invite you to enjoy some wine. There’s no shortage of miscellaneous raptors soaring above these monastic complexes. Enter Marmashen Monastery, built in 988 using ground-breaking and later imitated solid construction in a rural midst of nowhere setting seismic zone.

 A second long-table dinner at Gyumri’s Triangle “forgery” restaurant with sixth generation blacksmiths is when I learn about Armenia’s incredibly low crime, more on it being a vegetarian’s heaven (but taking nothing away from the aubergine (eggplant with beef), and how the constant meal-toasting culture helps people pace themselves as the avalanche of plates of kaleidoscopic food ranges arrive—a share culinary carnival where all diners are in reach of varieties of veges, cheeses, and grilled meats. And, oh yea. It is the apricot capital of the world. They even make brandy out of them. In Latin, its scientific name is Prunus Armeniaca (Armenian plums). Locals quickly identify visitors who presented with apricots and bite right into them. As apricots here are automatically organic and non-GMO, locals first break them open and check for worms. Redefining the women’s sometimes repressed role is also on the menu here, where an emerging social justice platform is being built around creating legal language to define previously undefinable things like domestic violence and orphans at risk. This is a country on the move.

 Armenia makes great wine, and they’ve been making it for a loooong time. The Agarak Archeological Complex, dating to 4th Century BC, has cultic graves and ancient wine presses (that now ferment frogs). Living proof for sommaliers waits at Voskevaz Winery, whose all-things-wine campus includes an artisanal wine collection hall. I sampled a few ancient wine varieties and their “Golden Berry” chardonnay while dining with Current US Ambassador Richard Mills, who revealed that the US Embassy (built 2005) was the world’s largest until the 2008 completion of Iraq’s American embassy. Rick also confessed that he was once the doorman at a Detroit retirement community. Wine is another sampling of how this rising underdog country is getting ready to make its mark, again.

Geghard monastery, Armenia

Armenia’s number one export seems to be brains. Armenia’s long-standing academic tradition is traced to its first school, established in 406AD, which taught the Armenian language and the art of translation. The country enjoys a 98.8-percent literacy rate in general and a 99.8-percent male literacy rate as reported by UNESCO. Armenians regularly catapult themselves into the world’s leading schools via scholarships, foundations, and wealthy expat/Armenian-diaspora contributions. Their smarty-pants reputation is likely linked to their ancient and versatile alphabet, whose 39 characters include three different sounds for e and r. Armenian is an Indo-European language and hence related to English. The Armenian alphabet is considered one of the most ideal, because it portrays the sounds in the language perfectly.

Yerevan, a city captured by the allure of Turkey’s soaring and ice-capped Mount Ararat, is the most likely place you will encounter Armenia’s intellect. But Yerevan is about fun too, whether that means dancing in a smoking hot Latin American-style dance club, smoking a hookah, or sipping a craft beer. One of the worlds longest continuously inhabited cities and once Sovietized, it’s laid out in a circular sun-halo grid. Once centerpiece is the Cascade, a multi-level outdoor and indoor public art gallery. But to really drill down into what makes these people tick, you’ve got to visit the Manuscript Museum’s worldwide collection of documents starts from 887 and includes partial and complete manuscripts on parchment, paper, leaves, bark, animal skins, or elaborately decorated 6thcentury ivory bindings. Their Restoration Department stays busy maintaining more than 23,000 manuscripts including 10,000 foreign. 80,000 manuscript were destroyed during the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Turks before WWI that killed 1.5 million people that still doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. Although this plight has received ample attention both academically and diplomatically, Turkey won’t recognize it as a genocide. Yerevan’s incredibly stirring Genocide Museum will never stop fighting for the justice they deserve for enduring this horrible moment in history.

 But the entire world recognizes Armenia’s talent at chess. Chess is a national pastime that’s taught as part of their school curricula as a competitive sport. It is typically taught by the same teachers that instruct all things military. Armenia has spawned many chess champs, including Grandmaster Tigran Petrosyan. Grandmaster is the highest title a chess player can attain. Once achieved, the title is held for life.

Tatev, Armenia

Armenia is the cradle of Christianity. It became the first official Christian nation in 301AD. It makes sense that’s its home to the world’s first Christian church. Built between 301 and 303AD (atop a Zoroastrian alter), the sprawling Echmiadzin campus can be labeled the Armenian Vatican or even a Christian Disneyland, as [  ] buildings on [ ] acres. Just as the human mind can’t comprehend no beginning or ending, which gave religion its entrée, the group singing, vibe, and atmosphere inside this Holy City church was moving even for an agnostic. Add: smoke, jewels, and men in black—some in pointy hoods.

 It happens (Bonnie Raitt, Bad Company, Sari Schorr), but rarely does music make me cry. And then I stepped inside Geghard Monastery’s cryptic upper chamber—famed for its acoustics—to behold the world-class Garni Vocal Quintet performing in dim light under a stone dome. The quintet’s rendering of liturgical chants and ancient folk songs were as stirring as they were thought-provoking. The special people in my life, in whatever forms they now inhabit, raced in and out of my mind and a feeling of gratitude overtook me. I really kind of wished I could sing, too. These were my first musical tears since hearing blues goddess Sari Schorr at Carnegie Hall, which is ironic because members of Garni had also performed there. To keep all of these feelings of goodwill balanced, I next marched into Geghard’s main attraction of this UNESCO monastic complex (the main alter where a Christening was happening) and snapped shots of a “backstage” priest in the alter-side vestry who apparently was doing some kind of accounting (calculating the bill for the Christening?) and irked about my photography pursuit. Perhaps if it were an earlier century and he was a scholastic monks scribing manuscripts like a calendar, cookbook, religious script, or medical text on parchment and vellum, he would have been more of a poser.

 Later, after enjoying another divine meal at an upscale countryside inn called Tsaghkung (casual candlelit dining with live dinner music via a piano and flute-like duduk) I perused the property’s outdoor patio, yard space, traditional oven, and adjoining B&B’s when I asked my incredible and intellectual guide Rafi about what might have pissed off that priest in the ancient-office-cubicle-resembling vestry. Rafi, first termed my assumption a “logical fallacy.” But then when I explained how the priest and got up and closed the door sort of in my face, he borrowed an interpretation from classic Soviet-era Armenian radio…

 Another day in this Cradle of Christianity led me into the Ararat Valley for a closer look at 5,125m Mount Ararat. But even more revealing were the seemingly endless green valleys with vineyards and other lush crops (might be the best tomatoes I’ve ever sampled) amid desert-mountain landscape. After passing a “stork village” where they build stork perches all over town and rejoice when they return each year, I enjoyed some medicinal bee-honey and learned from the beekeeper that Armenia is “a poor country, means no pesticides, so bees are fine.”

Tsakhkadzor, Armenia

Armenia’s rich history is not limited to religion. The world’s earliest known leather shoe (5,500 years old) and earliest known winery were recently discovered in the Areni-1 cave complex. They might have also unearthed the oldest human brain there as well (see, told you they were historically clever). This recently uncovered, winding cave is now officially an archeological site that will eventually close to public for more exhaustive research, and later re-open as a major tourist attraction.

 This trip just kept getting better and better. Imagine Utah’s colorful stone cliffs Moab region—but with 13th-century charms like Noravank Monastery. Getting there requires climbing Armenia’s stairway to heaven, an ascent up the Grand Canyon-like Noravank Gorge encircled by soaring and multi-colored red-hue rocky mountainsides. Nearly every religious structure includes the option to interact with the resident priest. Armenian priests, like most Orthodox priests, marry and have families, which seems to give them an enhanced sense of humor. Noravank’s chatty priest and MC was not short on jokes (bear joke?) or offering samples of home-brew wines in clay jugs. It was like hanging out with that funny uncle from your childhood, the one who made you laugh and feel safe. Despite having two gnarly neighbors, Nearly crime-free Armenia resembles the safest countries in the world—we’re talking in a safety league with Japan or Switzerland, but economically poor. Hitchhiking is still totally doable here. My Peace Corp pal Zach talked about frequently being “friend-napped” while simply walking along the roadside. Ten minutes away from this wonderful gorge, consider a stop at Areni Wine Art for home-cooked meals, regional wine tastings (your first nose might include a windswept whiff of manure in this all-organic valley), and comfortable rooms.

Independent since 1991, this land of contrasts bears harsh realities side by side with luxurious fantasy. Every village has at least one abandoned Soviet-era factory. After touring an abandoned but still breathing like everyone just left textile factory in Yeghegnadzor, we cruised back into Vayots Dzor’s (they call their counties Mars; there are 11 total ) arid mountain wine country in southern central Armenia, where wild goats, foxes, fig trees, mulberry trees, and ever-present watermelon stands enhance the landscape. A paint-can-shaker Jeep tour to Smbataberd, a 10th century mountaintop medieval fortress which once had 4000 middle-age dwellers was just another example of this tiny country’s dazzling variety. Further down south, famed Jermuk is a former Soviet-era spa getaway crown jewel that was then visited then by choppers and private jets. This one road in and out destination takes European-style spa science seriously, where the spa complexes operate much like curative hospitals. The stylish Hyatt Place very much fits in here, and is honeymoon caliber. But you can also still get your shoes muddy, as Jermuk’s mountain-flanked gnarly “hot spring” stream-crossing road dirt road terminates at further cheerful earth gurgle and a beautiful fertile valley. A perfect spot for a BBQ after taking in the waters. Jermuk Falls, in the midst of town, is also the label for Jermuk Water, which is now exported to USA.

Sevan Lake, Armenia

Armenians have wandered and resettled everywhere—and not just Los Angeles (howdy Glendale, CA). Perpetually deported, in waves, from their homeland since the 11th century, Armenian communities and their traditions are prospering today in formed colonies (which means building churches and schools) in places like India, the Philippines, Argentina, Romania, the USA, and Ethiopia. And not unexpectedly, Jerusalem has an Armenian Quarter (where, in 1924, worshipped Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie noted that Armenian Churches strikingly similarity to his homeland’s churches). Armenia has a fossilized identity, worldwide.

Speaking of wandering, an off-road Land Cruiser expedition through and above Vorotan (thundering) Canyon showcases more of Armenia’s amazing, untouristed, semi-forested highland desert (Syunik mars “county”). Before our ascent between two lower-lying villages riding the spectacular Vorotan River-bank valley wall, we rested at at Vorotnavank Monastery, built by a Queen in 1000 and established as a center of religious and secular scholarship.

After that intellectual pause, the rugged four-wheel mountain climbing via hair-pin turns and roller-coaster lifts began. The savage off-road ride on the 16km Ltsen to Tatev Vorotan Canyon route—also available via trekking or mountain biking—included a 2/3-way stop for coffee and dessert at 3,200m on the off-road arc between the villages. Tatev, which is on the tourist trail, does have a no tour bus neighborhood where you can enjoy a homey lunch with a donkey soundtrack. But you’ll no doubt also visit Tatev Monastery, which has 5th century roots that set for the stage for it becoming a 9th century university with an adjacent seed oil mill. A tram called the Wings of Tatev delivers you on a 15-minute journey over a scenic valley and you’ll be ready to call it a day. But not until you finish off (go for sunset) at the Armenian Stonehenge’s megalithic structures at the Carahunge Ancient observatory. Some of the pillars with stone holes for planetary alignment were created in 7,500BC. Like most of Armenia’s attractions, this ancient gem is free, and not barricaded.

Karmravor church, Armenia 01

Another amazing thing about Armenia is where it is. It is bordered by Georgia, Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and autonomous Nagorno-Karabakh. They get along fine with Iran and Georgia; Turkey and Azerbaijan, not so much. It is actually the only country in the world that has closed borders with two neighbors (Turkey and Azerbaijan). But nothing is closed in Armenia, and my four-wheel off-road tour ascends into 3,400m grassy mtn wildflower lesson (“wild thyme”) with snow pockets lingering through the summer’s end. It reminded me of the tunnda-esque Scottish highlands if they were infused with volcanic remnants. The Ughtasar route through southeast Armenia’s Karabagh is way above tree-line and summits at the Sunick region’s petroglyphs, which has 10,000 motifs. It’s difficult to comprehend being among the communication relics of hunter-gatherer badasses from 7,000 years ago. Midway this top-of-the-world journey, we made a barbeque (khorovatz) as wild quail darted from fields of wild chamomile.

On the road back to modern civilization we stopped over at a Silk Road motel, Orbelian’s Caravanserai, made 1331. It’s where road-warrior merchants and their caravan-pulling animals once rocked happy hour. Such overnight ‘inns’ were built one day’s journey apart along the legendary, seasonal trade route. Silk Road trading undeniably influenced merchant culture here and enhanced the Armenian knack for diplomacy, craft making, building and many other talents ranging from jewelry to restaurants to regional wine production to architects.

Changing horses, so to speak, and continuing on the Silk Road we concluded our mission by landing in Dilijan, a forested mountain resort town that’s a national park renown for hiking or cooling off from the lowland heat. It seems apropos that my last glimpse of Armenia was from high in the sky, paragliding over the mountains surrounding Lake Sevan. Like eagles, paragliders seek and follow thermal updrafts, and while in the air they both take cues from each other. Take my cue and trust that the last undiscovered corner of Europe has zero tourist traps like all the pricey darlings in Western Europe. Yes, an Armenian mission fits on your list.

“We are all connected by our shared history, our shared human story. By understanding and respecting Armenian history, we can celebrate our present connections and build our common future.” —U.S. Ambassador Richard Mills re Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation of Armenia.

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