Visitors to the Caucasus region often overlook Armenia for its better-known neighbours, yet as Wild Frontiers’ Senior Travel Consultant Natalie explains, those who make the leap discover a land of warm welcomes and wild landscapes. She tells us how it captured her heart.
What were your impressions of Armenia when you first arrived?
Before travelling to the Caucasus, I had only really heard about Georgia. So I entered Armenia with no expectations and excited to see what it would be like. We crossed the land border from Georgia and headed straight into Debed Canyon – a beautiful, dramatic landscape that caught the entire group by surprise. I remember thinking that it was wild and peaceful; this turned out to be a pretty good description for the whole country!
How have those opinions changed over the years?
I still feel it is one of the most serene countries I have travelled to (history and current tensions aside). The Armenian people are warm, welcoming and very smiley! They are not as loud as their neighbours when talking about their country, but those who remain in Armenia (there is a large global diaspora) are extremely proud and passionate about ensuring guests have the best time. The more I’ve learnt, the more fascinated I have become. We have even had a number of Armenians born abroad take their first trip to Armenia with us. This has led to some quite specific and niche requests, which have allowed us to establish new, exciting excursions.
You clearly love this country. How do you describe it to friends back home?
I tell them how surprised they would be if they visited. It isn’t all churches and monasteries as people might expect. Outside of captivating capital Yerevan, you can explore Lake Sevan, a high-altitude freshwater lake home to endangered ishkhan trout, or visit Selim Caravanserai, a roadside inn dating back to the 1300s. There is also Karahunj, Armenia’s very own Stonehenge to discover, as well as the cave village of Khndzoresk. You can go cycling, ziplining, hiking (in various regions) and even ascend some of the impressive Mount Aragats. The food is delicious, and you can try your hand at several cookery classes. Plus, Armenia even has its own wine region, Areni.
How does it differ from other countries in the Caucasus?
It is definitely the most overlooked part of the Caucasus, as it has fewer stand-out highlights, but I would say it is the overall Armenian experience that captivates you. In three words, I’d describe it as a resilient, charming and orthodox country.
How does the food in Armenia compare to Georgian cuisine?
I’d say it’s equally delicious. A lot of the same ingredients and similar dishes: tasty bread (lavash is traditionally Armenian), organic fruits and vegetables, barbecued meat, a lot of fish, meze dishes – there’s plenty to choose from!
What is Armenia’s capital like?
Yerevan is surprisingly cosmopolitan. Like many places around the world, there is quite a contrast between the capital and the rest of the country, but it feels more exaggerated in Armenia. There is a big art scene, and there is a Mediterranean feel to the city at night, with its café culture and the lively Freedom Square. You can enjoy street performers and fountain displays until the early hours.
What are some must-do excursions?
You cannot visit Armenia without seeing at least a small handful of its incredible places of worship, including taking the Wings of Tatev cable car between the Halidzor and Tatev monasteries. The Vernissage open-air market in Yerevan is excellent for traditional sweet treats and for interacting with the local traders, though it’s worth getting out of the city to do some walking in the more rural areas. I’d also strongly recommend a visit to the sobering Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex, which paints an important historical picture.
Where can visitors expect to stay in Armenia?
In the capital, you have everything from small three-star traditional hotels to luxurious five-star properties. Outside of Yerevan, you’ll find simpler, characterful yet often surprisingly comfortable three-star hotels and guesthouses. In certain locations, there are some really lovely boutique, traditional properties, but I tend to recommend at least one night’s stay in a homestay/guesthouse to experience true Armenian hospitality in full.
What are some of the quirkier places to visit?
In Goris, the Aksel Bakunts House Museum is fascinating. Aksel was an Armenian writer and public activist; this beautiful villa has a timber veranda, stone walls and a pretty courtyard garden with roses, raspberry bushes, apple and cherry trees, and was once his home. Aksel was an outspoken activist and intellectual, and was murdered In 1937 during Stalin’s Great Purge – he was only in his late 30s. The house is taken care of by the amazing curator, Anjik, who has been working at the museum for 50 years and leads the tour as well. Anjik is brilliant, knowledgeable and passionate. Another interesting place is the Mirzoyan Library. It houses the personal collection of the former Armenian minister Karen Mirzoyan, who has a vast array of books on photography, as well as an artist space. It’s a wonderful historic house and worth a visit.