As soon as we managed to get our passports back and with our Azerbaijan visas finally secured, we headed south. Until the day we reached the Armenian borders, all I knew about the country was that it carries a lot of psychological baggage from a traumatic 20th century genocide by the Ottomans (still not recognized by Turkey). In reality and to our surprise it’s exactly the opposite. A rapidly modernizing capital, a boutique tourism industry and a warm welcome, that we received everywhere, seem to leave out the country’s reputation for tragedy. Rather than letting the past run the country down, Armenia has built its memorials, honored the people that died and moved on. With only 3 million Armenians living in the country but another 50 million influencing from abroad, this small country feels like it’s living every minute of the 21st century. From a traveler’s point of view, Armenia has to offer ancient monasteries, candlelit churches and high-walled forts, but lasting impressions lie more with the Armenians themselves. You’ll easily find friends among these humble and easy-going people, even without a common language.
As it was almost dark when we completed the border formalities, we decided to spend our first night in the Debed Canyon and the village of Gayane. This canyon manages to pack in more history and culture than just about anywhere else in the country. Two World Heritage–listed monasteries, Haghpat and Sanahin, justly drew our attention the following day as they do for most visitors in the area. The drawback of all this is the Soviet-era infrastructure that is noticeable everywhere. Electric cables and railway lines running through the canyon ruin most of nature’s beauty. As if that wasn’t enough, an ugly deserted copper mine at Alaverdi completes the unappealing picture. As our first impression of the country was a bit disappointing, we didn’t spend any more time there and followed the road through the canyon which by the way happens to be the main artery linking Armenia to Georgia (a road in really bad condition) .
Next stop was Yerevan, the undeniable cultural, economic and political heart of the nation. The city itself consists of 19th-century Russian mega-buildings in its main core as well as rings of parklands and brick squares.
The street life and attractions of Yerevan kept us busy for a few days. The cultural life is intense for a city of this size. Dozens of theatres, concert halls, galleries and live music clubs add a pleasant note to the scenery. Yerevan also displays superficial improvements, with international brand-name stores and flashy SUVs at almost every turn.
After an unsuccessful attempt to stay in Lake Sevan, we pushed forward to Dijilan, the ‘Switzerland of Armenia’. That “title” may be a bit of a stretch but alpine Dilijan was for us one of the most pleasant regions in the country. During Soviet times this was the peaceful retreat for artists, cinematographers, composers and writers. Today its centre has a revitalized historic district and there’s certainly enough natural beauty to inspire your creativity.
Unfortunately, with onward traveling not being an option -Armenia’s borders with Turkey on the west and Azerbaijan on the east are firmly closed- we were forced to spend only a week around the region. Another factor that pushed us to move on was the weather because most of the highlight villages are in high altitude and that in mid November meant snowfall, something that in remote areas could get us immobilized for days before the streets would open again.
As a whole and considering the short time of our visit, our travel experience in Armenia was wide ranging. You can pick from a four-star holiday in Yerevan to a much simpler experience in rural towns like Dilijan and Gayane. Come here with your mind open and you will be rewarded with a unique experience in crowd-free bliss.