We ride in the modern but small Sprinter, along the main road artery that connects northern and southern Armenia. This road runs from the Georgia border to the Iran border, the only two land borders that are open for crossing into and from Armenia. In doing so, it constantly travels along the Turkish border, as well as along with Nakhichevan, a province belonging to Azerbaijan. The difficult history of Armenia is immediately apparent: blocked roads and walls mark the entire Armenian border with Turkey and Azerbaijan. We keep our heads fixed on the ceiling of the van as the driver tries to avoid patches on the road. Although the main one, this road is of extremely poor quality. This does not bother us, because the window captures beautiful scenes of Armenian open spaces. The vast pastures and mountain peaks that rise from the Armenian highlands have their main "observer" in the background. It is the mythical Mount Ararat, the pride of all Armenians and the coat of arms on almost all products. The irony of historical fate meant that the Armenians could not reach the mountain where, according to the biblical story, Noah's Ark stopped after the great flood. This area was donated by the Soviet Union in the early twenties of Turkey, for keeping the good neighbourly relations, which separated Armenians who had just before survived a massive massacre in eastern Turkey.
History is constantly woven into the Armenian landscape, which we explored from the capital Yerevan. A city of wide boulevards and big squares, it is often called the pink city. The reason is the special pink colour of the stones and bricks that was used to built the buildings in the historic 14th Armenian capital. The ancient Erebuni was a powerful headquarters of the state of Urartu, but the city is more memorable by huge sculptures on the hills that surrounds the centre of Yerevan, harmoniously built in a circle. First of all, here is Mother Armenia, a statue replacing Soviet Lenin, which now stands with a sword as a guard, warning everyone (particularly the Turks and Azeri) that the Armenians will defend themselves, no matter who endangered their country. Below her pedestal, one can descend into the centre through the Cascades, and through the avenues bearing the names of the greats of Armenian cultures merge in Republic Square. From the south, one looks at the city from the Genocide Memorial Centre over the Armenians.
The walks in this city are pleasant, the boulevards are wide with lots of restaurants and cafes. "You can leave whenever you want," a guide of a free three-hour tour of Yerevan tells us. He answers each question with sharpness and precision, while showing us the beautiful old gardens and architecture of the hidden Yerevan. We ended our fellowship a bit briskly, because he cried that we were not interested in his country, so he left us in the excellent Old Town pub, where we tasted Gyumri beer named after Armenia's second largest city. However, we prefer apricot vodka; our eyes were at the same time fixed on the full range of wine options at this restaurant.
Each Yerevan resident will refer guests to the Sherep Restaurant, the gastronomic pride of the Pink City. In the evening, Sherep (which in Armenian means the serving spoon) is packed with visitors. It is located right next to the lavishly illuminated Republic Square, and at first a large tonir is noticed from where the lavash and other Armenian culinary masterpieces come from. Our visit to Sherep was in larger company, so together we tasted starters of Armenian cheeses and meats, pickled vegetables that go well with many Armenian toasts, hummus, but what makes Sherep so famous and appreciated are the large portions of meat and grill. By far the best barbecue selection in town!
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Just a few hundred meters from Sherep is the Yerevan Tavern, a beautiful space beneath the old volts that hides phenomenal gastronomy. We tried a great appetizer here, a condiment of dried meat products, with extremely strong horseradish and wonderful bread. Accompanied by homemade red wine, we ate Armenian lamb and sweetened our palates with a gata at the end of dinner.
Yerevan offers a variety of different trips throughout Armenia, and we have opted for the Yerani agency. They explained to us that this is the name that connects the last and the first Armenian capital: Yerevan and Ani. Cheerful tour guides run a list of passengers in vans in front of the Cascades, arranging them by destination, and every five minutes they deftly switch from Russian to English. All tours in Armenia are necessarily bilingual, because Russians are still the main tourist clientele in the former South Caucasian Soviet Republic. Our guides on the three tours, Armina, Armen and Aida were full of information but also proud of their country, trying to show us as much of Armenian history, religion, customs and gastronomy as possible.
It is definitely worth visiting the city of Etchmiadzin or Vagharshapat, where the Holy Mother See, the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church is located. The Armenian Apostolic Church is a pre-Chalcedonian church prevalent among Armenians. It belongs to the Eastern Orthodox churches, which accept only the first three ecumenical councils and therefore have a different Christological position in relation to Catholicism and Orthodoxy. This Church is the first national Church in the world since Armenia was the first country in the world to declare Christianity an official religion. It is headed by the Catholic Apostolic Church of the Catholicos of All Armenians, who, after numerous relocation of his seat for political reasons, has been permanently established in Etchmiadzin since 1411. Today's Catholic of all Armenians is His Holiness Karekin II. Nersisian, 132nd Catholic selected. There are three more patriarchates in Antelias in Lebanon, Jerusalem and Istanbul. The vast majority of Armenians belong to this church. The Etchmiadzin complex fascinates with its cathedral church and especially the museum where one can get to know the ancient Christianity in Armenia, which is the oldest country in the world since 301 AD. Armenia abounds in churches and monasteries, special Armenian architecture, and in Etchmiadzin we visited the Church of Saint Hripsima, as well as the Holy Mother's See itself.
There is Zvartnots International Airport between Yerevan and Etchmiadzin. After officials scrutinize each page of the passport, the first big scene when leaving the airport opens: a huge bottle of Karas wine, which gives the impression that it will be very cheerful in Armenia. However, Zvartnots is not known for the drunkers that wander the roads, but for the ancient monastery that collapsed due to frequent earthquakes in this shaky Caucasian area.
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Moving south from Yerevan, one passes an industrial zone cleverly positioned in the south of the capital. Namely, northern winds blow around Yerevan and they protect the city from pollution. When one passes several suburban villages, along the border with Turkey and the huge Ararat wall at your fingertips, vineyards begin to emerge, making the staple for the world-famous Armenian cognac. It is late fall and the harvest is already over and the leaves are yellowing on the vines. Almost every house has at least a little vine, and we can see the same in the most urban parts of Yerevan. Here, people strive to live with nature, accepting all that this plateau gives. And this is a great deal: in Armenia, the first fruits of grapes, pomegranates and apricots were formed. This fruit is ubiquitous. Grapes are an integral part of any table, and when the time of the golden apricots is over, it can still be enjoyed in its dried form or (as often as possible) in vodka with apricot. The apricot tree is extremely revered because it is made of duduk, the Armenian national wind instrument that gives the memorable sounds of the Armenian plateau. As it was autumn at the time of our arrival, all of Armenia was full of pomegranates, that red fruit of paradise that protects against winter diseases. Freshly squeezed pomegranate juice can only be compared to its taste with the pomegranate wine it delights.
With the most beautiful view of Ararat and as a scene for many Armenian tourist visits, the Khor Virap monastery stands firm. The path to it leads through a desolate plateau, from the valleys where the vines of which the Armenian cognac appears are carefully prepared. Among those who wished us a happy trip to Armenia there was not one person who did not "expertly" instruct us to drink Armenian cognac. This drink is almost identical to the idea of Armenia, which is unfair because it narrowly interprets Armenia as the perfect destination for sipping cognac and neighbouring Georgia for wine. Armenia has a growing and thriving wine scene, which can easily compete with Georgia. But to come to Armenia and not to taste Ararat or Noy is a straightforward gastronomic betrayal.
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To begin with, it should be noted that Armenians do not have cognac; they have brandy. Cognac is a strong drink made from grape varieties and with a special technology, all related to the small town of the same name in the French region of Poitou-Charentes. If you compare the French and Armenian cognac, which still bears that name, then small differences can be seen. Classic French cognac uses distilled water, and Armenian natural. Cognac is stored in Armenia in barrels made of Caucasian oak growing in Armenia and Artsakh. Cognac began to be made in Armenia in 1877 when Nerses Tairov purchased space in the former Yerevan fortress and the first brandy came on the market ten years later. As early as 1899, Nikolai Shustov was buying a distillery and, with modern equipment, began the tradition of producing Armenian cognac. Shustov was a very famous brand throughout Europe, and had a legendary status in the Russian Empire. Another cognac, Dvin, was served on Yalta, and then Prime Minister Winston Churchill was reportedly told that the secret of longevity was to never be late for dinner, smoking Hawaiian cigars and drinking Armenian cognac. That cognac is called Ararat today.
Many of the first items from Armenia include the oldest preserved leather slippers in the world, found in the archaeological site of Areni - 1, in the rock near the town of the same name. It is not only the slippers that are fascinating in this Bird Cave, but also the fully preserved wine production. It is no coincidence that the Areni became one of the most important and famous wine centres of Armenia. High above the Areni, in the ravines among the surly mountains, is the beautiful Noravank Monastery, and apart from Noravank, many visitors will not miss the opportunity to see the UNESCO-protected Geghard Monastery. This beautiful place is located near the village of Garni, where the only pagan temple in Armenia is preserved. All around one can see the khachkars, beautiful crosses with lots of symbolism and significance for Armenians, and every single one of them is unique in its making.
It is best to visit Armenia in the spring or fall, when the sun does not set its strength on the plateau. In the colder months, there is often mist over the cities and the toothy sun does not give that much heat. The beautiful country of extremely rich history and legacy also offers wonderful gastronomy, which is why we expect Armenia to be an unavoidable point in the way of gastronomy very soon.