‘Why Armenia?’, ‘What do you get there?, ‘What are you going to see?’ Most people echoed these words when I told them I was leaving for a quick getaway to this Eurasian country. Honestly, I had zero expectations myself, and had this not been a work trip, I’d never have voluntarily picked an offbeat destination such as Armenia to travel to. The only knowledge I had about this country that papa Kardashian hailed from here, and I remember seeing some pictures on Kim’s Instagram page. #KeepingUp
I guess sometimes travelling with a clean slate of mind helps. It helped me discover this beautiful country with no predisposed notions about what was in store for me. And ohh, I was in for a beautiful surprise!
Armenia is a tiny, land locked country, south of Russia having Georgia, Turkey and Azerbaijan as neighbours. In fact, it is so small that you could be driving around in the capital city of Yerevan, looking at the snow capped peak of Mount Ararat which lies in the Turkish countryside. The country of Armenia received it’s independence from Russia in the year 1991, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Therefore, the Russian influence is immense in all walks of life, right from the language to their food and culture, and most importantly in their love for all things alcoholic.
Our flight to Yerevan was a relatively quick seven hour journey, including an hour long layover at Sharjah. Budget airlines such as Air Arabia offer frequent flights to Yerevan via Sharjah from Mumbai, at economical rates. (Our flights were booked barely a week in advance, and we ended up shelling out roughly Rs. 25,000 for a return trip, which is a relatively sweet deal.) Mind you, this is a budget flight so you pay extra for everything from food, to web check-in, to baggage allowance.
The best part about traveling to Armenia as an Indian tourist is that they offer visa on arrival. And if you’re skeptical, like me, of getting rejected for a tourist visa at the airport, you can apply for an e-visa which is quick and efficient.
Armenia is a fairly young and modern city, unlike the authoritarian country I was expecting. Yerevan is pretty buzzing throughout the day with people rushing to get to work, or to get back home. The city takes on a whole different garb at night, less austere, and more colourful. Nightlife is pretty intense during the weekends, and here you’ll find everything from restaurants and discos to strip clubs and casinos. It gives off an extremely modern European vibe, and is a perfect for those who want the feel of ‘Europe’ without shelling out the sort of funds that a European vacation demands.
Language is a major drawback here, since very few locals speak fluent English. Most sign boards and street signs are in Armenian, which makes getting around the country fairly difficult. There is an app based cab service like Uber, but that too requires you to instruct the driver. Your best bet is to hire a tourist car when you want to go sight seeing, there are plenty available at the city centre, and fairly reasonable as well.
The Armenian Dram has a lower value, than the Indian Rupee (roughly, 1 dram equals 0.14 rupees) and it is an absolute joy to travel in a country where you have to divide to convert into your local currency instead of multiplying. (Experienced travelers will share my feelings here.)
Accommodation, dining and services are fairly reasonable here, and there are options for every budget. For example we shelled out roughly 4000 INR to hire an 8-seater taxi to take us sight seeing all over the countryside for an entire day.
What to see?
Armenia is one of the first countries in the world to adopt Christianity as a religion, which is why some of the oldest churches and monasteries in the world are found here. You must visit the Geghard monastery, which is completely carved out of the surrounding mountains, and is a UNESCO world heritage site dating back to the 4th century. The entire monastery complex consists of a number of small chapels and caves complete with intricate carvings. You can easily spend half a day weaving in and out of the various rooms admiring the sculptures and taking in the serenity. One of the most sacred spots in the monastery is the site of a fresh water stream runs that emerges through the cave walls. The entrance to the monastery has women selling home made sweet bread, dried fruits and sweet lavash – definitely worth nibbling on.
The Garni Temple, believed to be a Pagan temple worshiping the sun, is one of the only symbols of pre-Christian Armenia built in the first century. Other theories believe it to be an ancient tomb. No matter what the purpose, Garni Temple still stands tall after all these years, proudly showcasing some stunning Greek architecture.
Barely an hour’s drive away from the Garni-Geghard complex lies the picturesque Sevan Lake. This high altitude water body is a favourite with locals for the beaches, and lake side restaurants serving the freshest trout. Trek up the adjoining hill to pay respect at the Sevanavank monastery complete with two ancient stone churches dating back to 874 AD! The charm of the two churches, stunning lake and the surrounding peninsula will make you travel back in time. Or atleast make you pretend that you’re on a Game of Thrones location.
If you take the Garni-Geghard-Sevan Lake route, another ancient spot worth visiting is the Haghartsin monastery situated right in the middle of the lush Dilijan mountains. Just as I was about to write the place off as just another monastery, Haghartsin completely floored me. The glass ceiling of one of the churches causes sunlit to refract all over resulting in pretty prism patterns all over the floor. It felt like I was walking on a rainbow!
If you even remotely enjoy your alcohol, I’d strongly recommend you pre-book a spot for one of the ‘Wine Brandy Vodka Factory’ tours in the city. You know a country takes their alcohol seriously when they have two such factories in the heart of the city – namely Ararat and Noy. They take you through the history of wine and vodka consumption, give you a glimpse into the wine making process including a photo-op in their century old cellars. I ended up tasting a port wine from 1944 on the tour, and we were also given a brief lesson on the art of brandy tasting. Good stuff! *hic*
Other points of interest in the capital city include the Armenian Genocide museum – a glimpse into Armenia’s tragic past, the Republic Square – the city centre complete with a musical fountain show in the evenings, and the Yerevan Cascade – a beautiful garden with steps leading up to a platform from where you are treated to a birds eye view of the city.
What should I bring home?
Without doubt, alcohol! Ohh, the variety of booze on offer, not to mention the price point will thrill even the teetotaler’s heart. Armenia is one of the first wine producing countries in the world, and offer a variety of local Armenian brands, including off-beat fruit wines. Must try the Pomegranate wine made from their national fruit, and bring back a bottle or two. Wine bottles are priced as low as INR 300 which makes them excellent souvenirs.
Armenian ‘Cognac’ is world famous too. Yes, I did say ‘Cognac’. Armenia is the only other country in the world that can refer to their local brandy as cognac, after defeating the French in a cognac competition aeons ago. In fact, Armenia has the most brandy factories per capita than any other city in the world. Vodka is another crowd favourite, thanks to the Soviet influence, and here you’ll find vodkas made from fruit such as apricot, peaches and berries. I brought back a bottle of Mulberry vodka aged in a barrel, and it’s so beautiful I could cry.
The Vernissage market in the heart of the city is the best place to pick up souvenirs and artifacts, including the prettiest bags and shoes made with local handwoven textiles. I also ended up buying half a dozen Russian hand painted ‘Matryoshka’ dolls, because this was the closest I was getting to Russia for a while. (You can try your hand at winning one by clicking on the link here.)