A caravan of dreams in Armenia
WORDS & IMAGES: KAREN HALABI
Armenia is one of the most interesting yet unspoilt travel destinations on the planet, a place where responsible travel is a way of life and there’s no need to ask if your food is organic.
Thanks to an invitation from TATON, a USAID funded Bridges project, Karen Halabi gets to discover this intriguing country of varied landscapes, talented artisans and time-honoured traditions that is emerging from a medieval time warp and Soviet rule.
A largely unknown country, Armenia only emerged from obscurity with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Lending a helping hand
AMAP (the Armenian Monuments Awareness Program), an NGO started by Texan Ric Ney, recently finished documenting and signposting numerous Armenian historic natural and cultural monuments, and now is on a mission to reveal Armenia’s treasures to the world.
Another USAID-funded project, Bridges, was developed to spur regional economic growth through increased cross-border tourism between Armenia and Turkey. Bridges is an offshoot of AMAP’s other project, the Black Sea Silk Road Corridor (BSSRC) project which links over 4,000 km of the road with its bridges, ancient caravanserai and other remnants of an ancient trail that connected Turkey Armenia Greece and Georgia.
There is of course an obviously not-too subtle geopolitical strategy underlying all this USAID funding. But, in August I heed the call and set off to see for myself this tiny Christian country.
Susan Spano, the ex-New York Times travel writer who started the paper’s Frugal Traveler column back in the 90s has been a Peace Corp volunteer in Armenia for the last two years. She’s not the only volunteer here though. I also meet Zachary Biehler from California who is straight out of university. As part of their briefs they work some of the time with the NGO AMAP on initiatives to encourage tourism to Armenia.
“I had to do something,” Susan tells me. “It’s such a beautiful country, but desperately poor.
“I’ve had such a wonderful life and now it’s time for me to give back.”
Numerous NGOs and volunteer Social Projects operate here. We meet with many NGOS to see first hand what they are doing. Among them NOR LUYS, a mentoring centre for youth, in particular young women from orphanages and poor rural families.
I also meet the vivacious Araksiya Musheghian, Director of the bold AMEN Project which is planning international concerts, starting in Verona Italy, to spread awareness of the Armenian genocide and appreciation of Armenia’s vast music and artistic heritage, including the music of Armenia’s favourite composer, Aram Khachaturian (who could forget his theme for The Onedin Line.
Another NGO that helps the people of Gumryi was set up by Antonio Montalto, a Sicilian doctor who came here to help after the massive earthquake of 1988 that devastated the ancient city and stayed on. I meet Montalto at Villa Kars, the B&B he set up as the city’s first boutique hotel. We also visit a ceramic factory that funds his foundation. Profits from the B&B and ceramics production go back into projects to help the people.
There are hundreds of NGOs working in Armenia including the NGO that organised our trip and plenty of opportunities to help through volun-tourism and other means.
We meet US Ambassador Richard Mills over dinner at Voskevaz an amazing Hieronymus Bosch inspired winery on the outskirts of the capital Yerevan, that showcases Armenia’s blacksmith and other crafts.
USAID funded our trip to encourage tourism as a way to get money into these poorer rural areas. The Ambassador’s Fund for the Cultural Preservation of Armenia has since 2005 supported a wide range of projects preserving Armenia’s cultural heritage.
I soon realise there is way too much to see in this little known country – mountains, lakes, amazing monasteries and churches, museums like the Genocide museum, amazing arts and crafts, they do great wine and brandy. I also did a bone rattling 4wD in an old a Russian jeep up to a hilltop fortress (lots of remnants of Soviet period).
Today the Republic of Armenia constitutes only one-tenth of historical Armenia. Located in Eurasia’s South Caucasus region and landlocked between Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran, Armenia and Armenians have been persecuted and invaded by just about everyone including the Turks.
Home to some of the world’s oldest monuments, breathtaking vistas, and an hospitable culture with a rich history and a delightful food and wine scene, Armenia offers so many rich travel experiences that I know it will take more than one trip to see everything.
As Nina Dadayan from Armenia Travel tells me: you can do a jeep tour to remote areas, a cultural and music tour, go birdwatching, hiking, trekking, winery hopping, or just enjoy the nature and the cuisine.
Cuisine & culture
The food is close to Turkish and Lebanese but in some ways even better as it encapsulates an organic, home-made, farm-to-table concept.
Every meal starts with a table laden with fresh home-made yogurt, cucumber and tomato salad, and an array of other fresh salads including a carrot salad, sautéed vegetables, and bread to die for. Made in large often buried earthenware pots it’s a lot like fresh Afghani bread – and peeled off in thin puffed sheets when hot. After devouring the initial spread I’m usually full by the time the main courses of meat and fish, let alone the pastries, arrive.
We eat in farmhouses and small country inns such as B&Bs like Tsaghkunq. We try the local wine and honey and revel in the discovery of exquisite Armenian brandies and cognacs, These are made at home in the country but there are several large distilleries where you can peruse the oak barrels in elaborate underground cellars.
Armenia also has the most amazing water in the world. People come here to drink the water, rich in sulphur, magnesium and other healing minerals that rushes out of the mountainside or from underground springs. You can buy it in bottles but you can also just stop and drink it from tapped springs coming out of hillsides, mountains and in the centre of towns or homes. There‘s even a mineral water stream running through the centre of Dilijan, Armenia’s little Switzerland.
Most of my time in Armenia is spend in rural areas where the Soviet influence remains – with old military green Russian tractors and ladies with toothy smiles and white headscarves ¬– and part in a medieval time where architects and builders invented their own symbols and hieroglyphs unlike anything seen elsewhere in the world.
There are many times we have to leave the main road and lurch up rocky mountainsides in a Russian jeep to see ruins of ancient fortresses, hilltop monasteries and even hot mineral springs. We paraglide above Lake Sevan to the western shore of the lake to see ancient Armenian khachkars that are inscribed in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural heritage.
Medieval Christian art
These richly carved cross-stones are important relics of Armenian medieval Christian art.
Near Sisian our jeep heads off-road again to Carahaunge one of the oldest known megalithic sites. Armenia’s Stonehenge, it is estimated to be 7,500 years old (about 4,500 years older than Stonehenge). It’s believed to be the oldest astronomical observatory on the planet and a great place to stargaze. A spyhole in one of the standing megalithic stones gazes directly at Cygnus.
We also visit the Areni cave where archaeologists are digging up a 6000 year-old wine-producing facility from 4000 BC; it’s the same site where the world’s earliest known leather shoe (5,500 years old) was discovered in 2008.
As we cross the country on our Caravan of Dreams journey across Armenia’s ancient lands, we see ruins of old bridges, stone walls and caravanserais (rustic stone hotels) that are reminders traders passed through here between 114 BC and 1450 AD just as we are passing through now staying at rustic inns and B&Bs. A large portion of the historic Silk Road passed through Armenia.
Armenia was the first country to officially adopt Christianity in 301 AD, though the religion was practiced before that. Biblical legend says Noah’s ark landed on top of the biblical Mount Ararat after the Great Flood. Mt Ararat, barely visible in the distance, is now in eastern Turkey (former Western Armenia) but Khor Virap monastery sits in Armenia in its shadow.
Noravank, a 13th-century monastery, 120 km from Yerevan near the town of Yeghegnadzor is a stunningly beautiful church built from sandstone like “tuff” that blends into the red ochre mountain behind We have to climb up to the main entrance via narrow stones that jut out from its façade. In the ceiling you can make out a face of Christ that mysteriously appeared in the ceiling stones only two years ago.
Gerhard, a cave monastery carved inside a rock mountain is a natural acoustic chamber where Armenian acapella music is sung directly beneath a sky-lit opening in the roof of the cave; the sound is so ethereal and acoustically perfect it sends tingles up our spines.
Armenia is a geographically stunning country, perfect for outdoor adventurers and nature enthusiasts. But tourism is barely developed beyond Yerevan, so fancy hotels are thin on the ground.
Armenia may well be the “next big thing’ in tourism. Georgia, it’s neighbour, is on numerous “hot” lists this year. It’s also not overcrowded with tourists – yet – but go now before Armenia hits those lists.
Did you know?
• Armenia was the first country to officially adopt Christianity
• The oldest wine produced in the world is found in Armenia
• The world’s oldest shoe was found in Armenia
Karen Halabi travelled to Armenia courtesy of TATON (Turkish and Armenian Tour Operators Network) a cross border initiative funded by the USAID Bridges project and the following individual tour operators in Armenia: Armenia Travel (www.armeniatravel.am), Travelon (www.travelon.org), Armenia Travel Bureau (www.atb.am), Gardman Tour (www.gardmantour.com) and DA Travel (www.da-tours.com) – all can arrange jeep, hiking, nature or cultural tours of Armenia.
For information on volunteering or voluntourism contact AMAP: firstname.lastname@example.org
Download the app at: www.BlackSeaSilkRoad.com
From Australia you can get to Armenia via Turkey on Turkish Airlines, or via Dubai and Moscow on various airlines including Qantas, Emirates, Qatar and Aeroflot.
A freelance travel writer based in Bondi Sydney, Karen was a journalist for more than 25 years. Nowadays she takes her laptop with her and her desk can be anywhere. Never happier than when on the move, she seeks out exotic, spiritual and beautiful places around the planet. Her favourite destination is usually her last, but a few stand out: Morocco, Bhutan, the unspoilt Greek island of Kythera and, most recently, the Rastafarian “just natural” culture of Jamaica where even the weeds get to live. See more: instagram.com/luxetraveller or theluxetraveller.com
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