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The Best of Armenia Awaits


The travel trends of 2023 show many people returning to the most iconic cities and sights, so I want to continue suggesting more off-the-beaten track destinations that you can enjoy without crowds. Add Armenia to your travel plans and discover a new favorite country for history and culinary exploration!

Excerpt below from 1/26/2023 Virtuoso article by Larry Bleiberg can be found HERE.

From a 6,000-year-old wine culture to hiking trails that culminate in medieval monasteries, this country’s star is rising. Legend has it that Noah’s Ark came aground on Mount Ararat – a 16,945-foot peak looming over Armenia from just across the border in Turkey – and that one of his first tasks as the waters receded was to plant a vineyard. As I sip a red wine made just a few miles away from what researchers call the world’s oldest winery, I raise a glass to his foresight.

“Wine has always been part of our culture,” says Narine Ghazaryan, who, along with her husband, tends a vineyard in the tiny Armenian village of Areni, which began making wine 6,000 years ago. “On all of our churches, you see grapes carved into the stone. Even in our pagan temples.”

We’re chatting on the porch of the couple’s stylish wood-and-steel tasting room at Momik Wines. Perhaps it’s a stretch to call their village Armenia’s Napa, but it has high hopes. Dusk settles in, the modern trappings fade away, and the surrounding mountains’ silhouettes dissolve into the darkness. Maybe it’s the wine made from the ancient Areni grape, but it seems like it could be the twenty-first century, the tenth, or some other long-ago era.

This feeling of timelessness permeates Armenia, a Maryland-size West Asian country that manages to remain a bit of a mystery in these world-at-our-fingertips times. It’s a land of surprises: grandmothers in traditional black dresses selling pastries outside churches and stylish crowds packing cafés and wine bars; hulking Soviet Modernist buildings and deep gorges and precipitous mountain ranges. Its melting-pot cuisine is a mix of Middle Eastern and European flavors, and everywhere signs swirl with the Armenian alphabet’s unfamiliar script.

I first became interested in Armenia precisely because of how little I knew about any of this. It’s one of those increasingly rare places that hasn’t been overexposed by tourism. After looking into it more, I decided to spend a week wandering the nation, from its busy capital of Yerevan to its isolated highland villages, natural wonders, and sites such as the pagan Temple of Garni. I wanted to experience a country before seeing it through travel-show lenses and to connect with a place steeped in history. I’ll tell you what: Armenia delivers.

With longevity, of course, come challenges and triumphs. Over the millennia, Armenia has been occupied by the Mongols, Persians, Ottomans, and Russians, and the latter eventually absorbed it into the Soviet Union. Armenians also suffered what’s widely considered a genocide – 1.5 million lives lost – by the Ottoman Turks in 1915, an event detailed at a moving memorial and museum that overlooks Yerevan. And the country is still in conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan, although popular tourist sites remain safe and untouched.

The country has just 3 million residents, with another 7 million Armenians living abroad. Twenty years ago, a U.S. philanthropist launched Birthright Armenia, a program that offers a chance for people with Armenian ancestry to volunteer in the country and connect with their roots. Many have stayed. For some it was the lure of religion – Armenia is considered the world’s oldest Christian nation, having adopted the faith in the year 300. Others liked what they saw and wanted to help shape a country that’s off the radar but on the rise.

Armenia has been seeing an uptick in tourism, partly due to its burgeoning popularity with lovers of the outdoors. I find out why one morning on a five-mile hike between two UNESCO-listed monasteries, Sanahin and Haghpat, which are separated by a gorge with hillsides dotted with plum and hazelnut orchards.

After crossing a footbridge built in the thirteenth century, hikers follow a steep path up to Haghpat, which stands resolutely after more than a millennium. Stepping inside, it takes a moment to adapt to the dimness. The floor is covered with tombstones, the final resting places of monks, monarchs, and priests.

On another day, about 60 miles south, near Dilijan National Park, I settle into a Jeep for a bouncy ride through a village of stone homes clinging to the side of a hill. Towering mountains and alpine pastures loom above the road, and wild horses break into a gallop when we pass. From a promontory on Mount Dimats, the slope drops abruptly for hundreds of feet – it looks for all the world like we’ve wandered into a slick SUV commercial.

On the way down, a woman waves and we stop to talk, which seems to happen often here. At 72, she lives in the highlands four months a year, tending her family’s livestock and making cheese and yogurt. “It’s a hard life,” she says without complaining. “But still to this day, I’m amazed by the mountains.”

I think of her a few days later as we drive up a twisting highway that had once been part of the Silk Road. On the ridgetop, we pull over at a fourteenth-century caravansary, the medieval equivalent of a Holiday Inn. A network of these wayside shelters across Asia and Europe offered safety at night, with sleeping nooks for travelers and room for animals. “A thousand years ago, people came through from China and India on horseback or camel,” says the current caretaker, who looks after the landmark with his wife for the Ministry of Culture and sells snacks and souvenirs under a canopy.

A few hours down the road, I get a chance to view the land from above, soaring over mountains on a gondola called the Wings of Tatev, the world’s longest reversible aerial tramway. The 3.5-mile ride leads to the Tatev Monastery, an ancient center of learning that crowns the ridgetop like a chess piece protecting its board.

While the countryside offers storybook scenery, Armenia’s cities present a more modern face. Although it was founded nearly 3,000 years ago, Yerevan has spent the last 30 since gaining its independence from the Soviet Union catching up with the rest of the world. Russian-influenced structures now give way to glass office buildings and hotels.

Still, the city is easily walkable and navigable. During the heat of the day, visitors might head to the Museum of Folk Arts to browse its collection of brightly colored woven clothing and intricately carved stonework or break for fresh juices at the numerous cafés near the Cascade, an elaborate arts complex built into a hillside. In the evenings, families drift to Republic Square for an illuminated fountain show set to music, while couples head to wine bars on Martiros Saryan Street. Night owls will find clubs featuring Armenia’s soulful jazz.

One highlight of the Soviet-era holdovers is the cavernous GUM Market, packed with produce, meats, cheeses, and, in one corner stall, sheets of lavash, the country’s staple bread, piled on tables like stacks of Arabian carpets. In a section devoted to dried fruits and sweets, I’m greeted by a smiling woman offering a candied walnut. I hesitate, but she persists. “This is for you, Brother,” she says. “You are in Armenia – you have to eat.”

Who’s to argue? I thank her, and during my time in the city I snack my way through grilled meats and pilafs, try traditional gata pastries, taste wines, and visit the historic Yerevan Brandy Company distillery to sip its silky, smooth liquor that Winston Churchill proclaimed his favorite brandy. Before my trip, I’d read that Armenian culture is tightly knit, with strong family ties. I wasn’t sure how I would be treated as an outsider. But I didn’t need to worry.

Early in my visit, I went out for a walk and met an elderly woman who stopped me. “Where are you from?” she asked. When I told her, she broke into a broad smile. “Welcome to our land!” We spoke for a moment, then waved goodbye and continued on our ways. Armenia awaited, and I intended to discover it all.

Armenian Adventures

Exeter International

A private driver and guide lead day trips from Yerevan on Exeter International’s five-day Armenia exploration. The museum- and monastery-packed itinerary includes a tasting at the Ararat brandy factory after a tour of Khor Virap Monastery, a pilgrimage site where Saint Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned in a dungeon for 13 years. Departures: Any day through 2023.

Abercrombie & Kent

Spend five days in Armenia on Abercrombie & Kent’s 13-day tour from Tbilisi, Georgia, to Yerevan. Highlights include a lavash bread baking class and a vocal performance in the ancient Geghard Monastery. Departure: Multiple dates, May 3 through October 11.

Intrepid Travel

Intrepid Travel’s ten-day food-focused tour through Georgia and Armenia features a brandy tasting and a class on making tolma, a dish of grape-leaf-wrapped rice, herbs, lentils, and tomato. Departures: Multiple dates, May 21 through October 15.

G Adventures

Travelers on G Adventureseight-day Georgia-Armenia trip visit Lake Sevan, one of the world’s largest freshwater, high-altitude lakes, as well as the Roman pagan Temple of Garni. City tours and an overnight near the Haghpat Monastery, overlooking Debed Canyon, round out the trip. Departures: Multiple dates, May 13 through October 14.

Ker & Downey

Cross the Caucasus on Ker & Downey’s journey through Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia. The 14-day customizable trip goes deep on culture: Zoroastrian sites and ancient rock art in Azerbaijan, food and wine tastings and fortress visits in Georgia, and a tour of Yerevan’s cave complexes and Etchmiadzin Cathedral, widely believed to be the world’s oldest Christian cathedral. Departures: Any day April 1 through October 15.

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