By Richard Plunkett
For an unfair first impression of a country, try arriving at an unrenovated Soviet airport in the middle of the night. Armenia's Zvartnots airport looked like a space station from the outside and a disused factory on the inside.
Mercifully, this ancient country revealed its authentic - and attractive - nature very quickly. Along the stately boulevards of the capital Yerevan, cafes were still doing business at 3 a.m., and the hosts at my B & B (a modern apartment decked out with traditional Armenian carpets) were waiting up to embrace me, literally, and feed me until I dropped.
The next few days were a never-ending feast of fruit, cured ham, lavash (flat bread), salads, brandy, wine and divinely rich Armenian soorch (coffee).
Mountainous Armenia is a compelling mix of European elegance, Middle Eastern exuberance, ex-Soviet mundanity and modern economic miracle. The first country to convert to Christianity, it has countless legacies from 1,700 years of faith - from ancient churches and monasteries to the uniquely Armenian khatchkars, literally "crucifix stones," upright blocks of basalt deftly carved with crosses and interweaving patterns.
Though 20th-century wars almost destroyed the country, the new century is seeing a gratifying upsurge in fortunes. Armenia has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. It still has a long way to go, but prosperity is beginning to spread. Smart new hotels and guesthouses are sweeping away the gloomy old Soviet hotels.
The 3 million or so Armenians are rediscovering their traditional enjoyment of life - they share a passion for culture, food and family not unlike Greeks and Italians.
Armenia is the size of Maryland, and almost every corner of the country can be reached in a day's drive from Yerevan. The highlight for Diasporan Armenians is the Vatican of Armenia, Holy Echmiadzin.
The 1,700-year-old Mayr Tachar (Mother Church) is an exotic mix of Persian-style murals, monks in black cowls and richly gilded holy relics. Armenia's holiest treasure, the lance said to have pierced Christ's side, lies in the treasure room at the rear of the cathedral. The casing around the spearhead is a riot of finely wrought silver, but the relic itself is a brutal, crude shard of iron - exactly what a provincial Roman soldier might have wielded 2,000 years ago.
Echmiadzin is only 30 minutes away from Yerevan through the vineyard-studded Araks Valley. North from Yerevan lies the vast blue mirror of Lake Sevan. The richly forested northern province of Lori has two gorgeous World Heritage-listed monasteries. Heading south, you skirt past the awesome bulk of Mount Ararat and wind through jagged ranges and knotted valleys on the way to the spectacular fortress of Tatev. Numerous tour companies run day trips and overnight stays to the provinces.
Back in Yerevan, the cafes stay open late into the night on warm summer evenings; the Opera House offers high culture at bargain prices; and the national museum on Republic Square has a magnificent art collection, regarded as the third best in the former USSR. The Museum of the Armenian Genocide at Tsitsernakaberd just outside the city center commemorates the victims of the Ottoman and Turkish massacres of 1915-1923. There is a solemn procession here every year on April 24 to honor the fallen.
Best of all, there are the Armenians themselves. The language is something of a challenge (it has a unique 38-letter alphabet), but many people, especially the young, speak English. Armenians are an expressive, cultured, hospitable people who love barbecues, boxing and homemade liqueurs as much as the latest opera production. Visit someone's house, and within minutes a table
of food and drinks is set, but the hospitality is not over the top. As one host said, it is his duty to keep everyone's glasses full, but the next step is up to the guest. And I'm happy to report that an overseas Armenian businessman is totally renovating and modernizing that dismal airport.
British Airways, Austrian Airlines and CSA Czech Airlines fly via Europe to Yerevan's Zvartnots airport.
Yerevan has an excellent and rapidly growing range of accommodation options. Parev Inn (tel. 011-374-10-555-543, http://www.parev.am/) is a wonderful lodge-style B & B run by a delightful Canadian-Armenian couple. On the edge of central Yerevan, it features spacious doubles with kitchenettes for $50.
Avan Villa Yerevan (011-374-10-547-888, http://www.tufenkian/heritage.com) is a superb luxury boutique hotel, part of a chain of luxury hotels fitted out in traditional Armenian style. Double rooms
with all modern conveniences run from $120. There is also a delicious restaurant on site.
The classic Armenian meal is khorovats (barbecue), usually lamb or pork with salads, pickles and flat bread. The dining culture is distinctly relaxed - people settle in for hours of eating, drinking and talking. Our Village (011-374-1-548-700), 5 Sayat Nova Ave. in Yerevan, near the Opera House, is a charming traditional restaurant with meals for $5-$8 and live folk music.
Sayat Nova (011-374-1-580-033), at the corner of Sayat Nova Avenue and Khandjian Street in Yerevan, is a multi-level restaurant/cafe complex with a restaurant on the ground floor, a nightclub in the basement and a terrace cafe upstairs with hookah pipes.
Salt Lake Tribune, UTAH
Feb 12 2006