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Armenia is a landlocked country with Azerbaijan to the east, Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north. Armenia boasts a history of the European countries and it is the destination where one can be attracted by history, awestruck by monuments, wonderstruck by the landscape and impressed by locals. This is one of the most glorious parts of Europe, which has a large number of historical monuments, and early Christian memoirs, dominated by natural splendor and legendary tales.
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Hidden cave monasteries are the most evocative memoirs to Armenia’s early Christian history. Holy Lance in Geghard is unmissable if you are planning to visit only one monastery. It is easy to visit on a trip from Yerevan, and it is symbolic in both its style and detail. Noravank Monastery hides in a narrow river gorge, surrounded by flaming red cliffs. Tatev Monastery is reached on the world’s longest aerial tramway, while the ruins of many fill both forests and mountain slopes, such as Khor Virap on Mt. Ararat. Sanahin and Haghpat are also on the UNESCO World Heritage list; their styles are very different. A revered school for illuminators and calligraphers was based in the area, and the monasteries’ elaborate interiors showcase an artistic style from the ninth and tenth centuries.
Old Silk Road
Throughout history, Armenia has been at a crossroads between east and west. It was an essential part of the Old Silk Road; a trading post from which monks sold a fiery red dye that would travel to both Beijing and Cairo. Remnants of this trading history remain, including a road of ancient bridges and freshwater springs that caravans used to travel along. Caravanserais wait in a redolent state of ruin, mostly scattered across the countryside. On tours, you can also learn more about the Armenian cochineal that produces the famed red dye that does not fade in the sun.
Cooking With the Locals
Like most things Armenian, the cuisine sticks firmly to tradition. Dolma (stuffed grape leaves) made from organic produce, dishes made sweet by local fruit, beetroot soup with sour cream. The bread is memorable, a warm fluffy flatbread that makes breakfast a meal to remember (known as lavash). You will find the raw ingredients in atmospheric food markets, and the best place to taste is with the locals. Cooking classes are a chance to converse with the people and learn ancestral recipes. Many locals brew alcoholic spirits from fruit and Armenia has a 6,000-year history of making wine.
Jermuk Mineral Waters
Perched in the mountains of Southern Armenia, Jermuk has always evolved from its bubbling hot springs. The water comes out hot here, and local baths provide the experience that put Jermuk on the map (as well as making it popular with Russian visitors). Different ailments are treated at water galleries, where the water pours out at contrasting temperatures, something else that is included in most spa hotel stays. In winter the surrounding slopes are open to skiers, while a hiking trail can take you down the cliffs to fortified Gndevank Monastery beneath the town.
Armenia is rural with little development beyond Yerevan, the country’s second and third towns feel more like villages. Throughout the Old Testament, Armenia was known as a legendary place of high mountains and dense forests. This is still very much the case. Discover thousands of petroglyphs on Mt. Ughtasar, disappear into the forests around Dilijan, explore monasteries scattered around alpine Lake Sevan. You do not need to be a hiker to enjoy these landscapes. With their potholes and ochre color, the narrow roads sometimes appear more like hiking trails than places to drive. This is a country that makes beautiful and remote landscapes accessible. Walk for only 20 minutes, and it feels like you have ventured into the heart of the wild. When you are deep in these landscapes, there is breathtaking evidence of an ancient past. Stroll on the foothills of Mt. Ararat, find rock-cut temples amid the thick forests of Khosrov Reserve, or follow the Debed River Canyon towards Georgia in Northern Armenia. Rolling green hills fill the gaps in between, and you will never be far from a high mountain backdrop.
Armenia is a great country to consider in July and August, the months when other European countries can become uncomfortably crowded. There is not much tourism here, so a quick jaunt to Armenia can provide a lovely contrast to a wider European tour. The summers are hot and dry, with temperatures peaking in June and July. Winters are cold, especially outside Yerevan, where your destinations are likely to be at altitude. As with a lot of Europe, spring and fall are beautiful times to visit, with color changes adding another inimitable factor to the landscape.
Finding somewhere good to stay has been a limiting factor in both bringing visitors to Armenia and getting them beyond Yerevan. The capital city has style, reflected in the new breed of hotels found on the streets. In particular, there are good contemporary hotels in the pedestrianized area around Northern Avenue. Business hotels have also ensured high standards are maintained in the capital, with some of the big international names represented. Dilijan and Jermuk also have quality hotels. Dilijan is firmly in the boutique category, similar to a luxurious homestay. Those in Jermuk hark back to a Soviet era, with pomp and excess that is found in many old Soviet spa towns. Both destinations have had been a recent facelift, and the facilities are much closer to 21st-century comfort than you might expect. Outside of these towns, it can be hard to find somewhere that is tempting to stay, although there are two exceptions: a very local homestay experience or a relaxed and remote retreat along Lake Sevan. Recent developments have ensured that the four and five-star hotels have amenities to cater for small and large families.
Visa requirements for visiting Armenia have loosened significantly over the last decade. U.S. passport holders can now travel visa-free, as well as nationals of European Union and Schengen Area countries. Canadian passport holders can obtain a visa upon arrival at the airport. It is important to clarify these visa requirements with your tour operator before travel, as they do change and not all land borders offer a visa upon arrival service, which can cause complications when traveling from neighboring Georgia. Travel advisory warning has been in place sporadically. These refer to Armenian regions bordering Azerbaijan and concern the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian mountain land that is still internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. Check your relevant foreign office advice before traveling and note that your travel insurance will not be valid for visits to regions where travel is not advised. It is also worth remembering that past conflicts mean Armenia does not have good relations with its neighbors Azerbaijan and Turkey, so situations and travel warning can change. Having a local contact in Armenia is important. English is not widely spoken, and the country can be confusing to first-time visitors. A local contact helps remove any apprehension.
Armenia is a country of organic food and blissful landscapes, healing hot springs and hiking trails. You may end up leaving feeling healthier than when you arrive. If you do not, it is probably due to the strong fruity alcohol. Tap water drips down from the mountains and is some of the tastiest in Europe. Bottled water is available throughout the country and most of it comes from the same sources in the mountains. Having a local contact is essential in case of an emergency. It is unlikely you will be treated by an English-speaking doctor or nurse, even in the capital city. Medical facilities in Yerevan are relatively good, but they can be rudimentary when you travel further afield, with sporadic opening hours. Local guides should have a grasp on the situation in the places you visit. Crime is low and is extremely rare against both Armenians and foreigners. This is a country where you will not hear the European tales of pickpockets. It is the roads that can cause the most danger, as locals play rather fast and loose with the road laws. Take care when crossing the road in Yerevan and beware of taxi drivers that want to go places fast.
Armenia will welcome you into its culture. There is no tourist facade to clamber through first, just a country that lays out a welcome and an authentic impression to everyone that visits. Locals warmly welcome foreign guests and lay on the hospitality despite the language barrier. For many, it is the people that provide the memory of a visit.
Culture and Etiquette
At its heart, this is an extremely conservative Christian nation. Religion plays a huge role in most people’s lives, both out in public and at home. This needs to be respected by any foreign visitor. In particular, unaccompanied men should be wary about causing offense by making passes at Armenian women, whether they are married or unmarried. Although such a situation is unlikely to arise, there may be serious repercussions for the woman involved. This conservatism can be extended to what to wear. Many of Armenia’s attractions are religious, and it is rare to go a day without seeing another surreal monastery or church. It is best to pack and wear clothes that comfortably cover both shoulders and knees, that way there is no stress about whether you may cause offense.
The Armenians are immensely proud of their language, with a history dating back many millennia. It has its own alphabet; those versed in early Greek language may recognize some similarities, but for most, it can be baffling to follow. The locals will not expect you to know their language, but learning a greeting and thank you can help open up the local conversation. More and more young people are learning English in the city. The area around Yerevan’s Northern Avenue has seen English used as a form of upper-class cultural capital. Restaurants in this area translate menus and people in shops may be bilingual. High-end restaurants and hotels should also have English-speaking staff. However, beyond Yerevan and upmarket establishments, communicating can be a challenge without a guide to translate.
Armenian dram is the currency of the country. U.S. dollars and euros are easy to exchange in both cities and towns, with forex offices and banks offering this facility. Other than Russian roubles, it can be difficult to exchange other currencies. Upmarket establishments, including shops and restaurants, have started accepting credit cards. Four or five-star hotels should accept cards as well. However, finding a place that accepts American Express may be difficult. Your guide can advise on where it is possible to pay with Visa and Mastercard. It is possible to withdraw drams using a foreign card at some ATMs in Yerevan. This should not be relied on when you travel beyond the capital, and it is always recommended to carry emergency cash when visiting Armenia.
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