Dusk is descending on the streets of Yerevan, Armenia, one of the world’s oldest capitals, when I reach the top of the Cascade. A giant limestone staircase connecting downtown with the monuments district, it offers incredible views over a dictionary of architectural styles and out to Mount Ararat’s imposing double peaks.
But while watching this town being gradually cloaked in the electric hues of urban nighttime is captivating, the devil is in the detail.
As my guide explains, the obelisk— a huge totem at the summit of these steps, built to commemorate 50 years of Soviet rule in Armenia— can be re-read as a protest piece. You just need to know what to look for.
Subtle design elements were plucked from Armenia’s visual history. When it was built, Moscow’s regime suppressed any signs of autonomy within the USSR. But the Kremlin was also too arrogant to notice the traditional iconography used on the imposing sculpture. It was a silent push back against authoritarianism that speaks volumes about this country’s psyche.
Situated between Turkey, Georgia, Iran and Azerbaijan, Armenia is under-explored and an unknown to many. The communist years blocked westerners from visiting, and economic woes that followed ensured international tourism wasn’t a priority.
Things have started to change, but those who make the trip now will soon realise some elements are the same. A vast, inspiring history, enviable culinary traditions and artistic and literary obsessions. Cultural aspects which have helped protect national identity and preserve the nation itself amid centuries of foreign occupation, whether that’s the unique alphabet and writing form, or indigenous dishes.
From the Ottoman Turks to Persians and imperial and Soviet Russians, Armenia has been hammered from multiple sides. Vast swathes of land has been lost, millions died in a genocide much of the world still doesn’t recognise, and the resulting diaspora was so huge estimates suggest there are three times more people of Armenian heritage living outside the country than within. Yet this nation’s story is one of determination, patience and perseverance, rather than hopelessness.
The tales behind Armenia’s countless churches put this into perspective. The country is widely regarded as the cradle of Christianity— the first to adopt the religion en masse despite frequent persecution by its neighbours.
Etchmiadzin is said to be the oldest cathedral on the planet, a striking juxtaposition of ancient, medieval and modern, where priests and nuns clad in traditional wears stride through beautiful gardens with mobile phones clasped to ears.
Then there’s Geghard, east of Yerevan. Built directly into the surrounding rock face, its ancient interior conjures images of Tomb Raider, outside in the courtyard there’s a game of ‘throw that stone into that hole’ to be had plucked straight from a 5AM after party, while out back, by the Azat River, you’ll find a functioning Pagan pilgrimage site. The faithful tie parts of their clothing to the foliage as an offering to their gods.
In the deep south, closer to any Iranian border than I’ve ever been, Noravank monastery is probably most visually arresting of all Armenia’s holy sites. The setting nods to some unmade Indiana Jones flick— dramatic gorges and uncharted rocky terrain, church hiding in plain view amongst an unforgiving landscape.
Barbarian raiders would regularly target such locations, forcing holy men to flee into the wilderness. To satisfy the thieving hordes, materialistic valuables were left out as offerings, while priceless books were packed up and taken to safety. As I’m told: “Their scriptures were considered the only real treasure.”
The whistle-stop village of Areni is close by, one of the most significant settlements when it comes to the country’s now-burgeoning wine culture. Driving down the main street I pass an almost-endless row of roadside stalls lined with plastic containers, filled with litre-upon-litre of home-made vin.
During the Soviet years, many vineyards were closed through direct policy. The industry is now recovering, and has already made a huge impact on the international stage. Visiting one of the new generation of wineries is a must.
The Areni-1 dig is also here. The cave has revealed the oldest traces of winemaking in the world. Not to mention a 5,500-year-old leather shoe. You can’t help but wonder what else could be discovered in the area if archeological efforts were given comparable funding to those in the west.
Khor Virap, closer to Yerevan, provides a jaw-dropping Kodak moment celebrating both the country’s religious and alcoholic legacies. Stopping the car next to agricultural fields packed with grapes, the scene features another fairytale monastery, Mount Ararat looming in the distance.
A snow-capped national landmark, ironically it’s inaccessible from this side of a Turkish border closed since 1993. With a powerful lens you can see watchtowers erected to prevent illegal crossings, but everything in sight was once part of Armenia until territories were overrun and populations displaced.
A country reborn
Despite its often-tragic history positivity pervades Armenia today, and any Brexit-weary Brit is right to be envious.
While our faith in the institutions of Westminster has vanished, here a peaceful revolution in May 2018 has reignited the flames of optimism. A corrupt and morally bankrupt government was overthrown without a single shot fired, bringing about a change of leadership.
The new party is not just aligned with the people, it’s made up of ‘regular citizens’ rather than members of the ruling class. Promising an end to the bribery, corruption and kleptocratic decisions that created a near-zombie economy, tourism is primed to be a major driving force in the rebirth, and for more reasons than the churches.
Hiking and hearty meals
Armenia’s diet is enough to warrant a visit by any foodie. Bulgur-based pilavs overflowing with fresh fruit and vegetables, slow roast meats with apricots, dolma generously stuffed with lamb, and hearty sorrel soup are highlights. Along with plenty of lavash— a traditional flatbread I find being made anywhere with a fire pit.
One of the most charming spots being Machanents Arts & Tourism. An old merchant’s house turned gallery, arts school and social enterprise with excellent on-site kitchen.
Those looking for outdoor pursuits will also be in their element. Hiking to Havuts Tar, a ruined church perched high in the hills, takes you through the Khosrov State Reserve; one of the oldest protected areas in the world. Reaching the entrance from the village of Garni takes you past the Stone Symphony, a UNESCO-recognised wonder of preserved basalt columns carved by the Goght River.
Opting for a full day on the beaten paths allows you to complete a loop and wind up at the Temple of Garni. An imposing Greco-Roman pagan structure clinging to the edge of a ravine, complete with baths and original mosaic floor. They really don’t built them like this anymore.
All of which is before we talk about the hustle and bustle of modern-day Yerevan, a city at the forefront of a youth-led revolution that has also been re-awakened in terms of nightlife, art and culture. Like so many other great capitals, though, it’s best explored in first person. Thankfully, then, in order to see the rest you’ll need to land here, so just be sure to leave enough time to fully explore its fascinating streets.
The trip to Armenia was provided by TravelLocal. Their online platform connects travellers with local tour operators, providing authentic experiences that benefit local communities.
They offer a seven-day trip to Yerevan and the surrounding regions from £990pp, including accommodation, breakfasts, all excursions, transfers, driver and guide. For more information and to book click here.
Fly to Yerevan from Manchester Airport with British Airways and Aeroflot via London Heathrow and Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport.