Countries that celebrate Christmas in January
7th January 2020
Stretching from its biblical past to its most recent conflicts, there is a rich seam of heritage here: this is the land of Noah’s Ark, after all. Crammed with natural beauty and with more ancient churches and monasteries than seems feasible, Armenia wears its historical significance with pride. Adventurous travellers looking for scenic bike rides and hikes will love the plentiful mountains, gorges and valleys, and when it’s time to take things at a more leisurely pace, a lively cafe culture provides ample opportunity for languid days spent milling around markets soaking up the unique Armenian culture.
There are many wonderful experiences to be had in this fairytale country. For further inspiration take a look at the trip ideas put together by our trusted local experts, but in the meantime here are our top five things to do in Armenia.
Step into the past
Vagharshapat (once the capital of Armenia) is the home of Echmiatsin, considered to be one of the oldest cathedrals in the world. This stunning piece of architecture is believed to have been completed in the early 4th century and merits a UNESCO World Heritage listing. There are also many monasteries scattered throughout the country, most of them built at sites with a connection to St Gregory who certainly know how to pick some breathtaking locations...
Karahunj - also known as Zorats Karer - can be found close to the city of Sisian, and consists of more than 220 standing stones that predate the pyramids. The name Karahunj translates as "Speaking Stones" due to the whistling sound made by the ancient stones on a windy day, presumably due to the many reach through holes bored into them at different angles. The barren landscape high on a mountain plateau only adds to the eerie beauty of the spot.
At almost 2 kilometres above sea level and covering a full sixth of Armenia's surface area, Lake Sevan is one of the largest high-altitude lakes in the world. And what’s more, it also happens to be breathtakingly beautiful. Soak up some rays on the beach and, come lunchtime, take a wander to one of the fish restaurants that line the shore. There are plenty of waterside activities too with churches to explore as well as a ruined fortress dating back to the 8th Century BC.
All roads lead to…Yerevan
Several years older than Rome, Armenia’s capital city Yerevan was founded in 782BC. Known as the ‘Pink City’ for the rosy hues of its buildings’ volcanic rocks, it’s a vibrant hub where cultures harmoniously collide. Popular with visitors from Iran and its Eastern neighbours, abayas mingle with relaxed Western attire on the busy, European-styled boulevards that come alive with festivals and family gatherings by night. Alongside its sobering thoughts, the city’s Genocide Memorial Museum offers panoramic views across rolling rooftops. Take a culture crash course at the Cafesjian arts centre and visit the city’s history, military and archaeological museums.
Ogle at Ararat
With shifting geopolitics, Mount Ararat now lies within Turkey’s borders but remains a sacred mountain and iconic symbol of Armenia for its inhabitants and global diaspora. At 5,137m it’s the highest peak on the Armenian plateau and its snow-capped, twinned volcanic domes dominate views south from Yerevan. Seen rising mystically above low-hung morning mists, it’s easy to visualise it as the resting place of Noah’s Ark, as widely believed throughout Christendom.
While there are many well-known things to do in Armenia, what about the lesser-known highlights? Our local experts have shared some of their top tips for where to go and what to do if you fancy a bit of an alternative Armenian adventure.
Explore the birthplace of viticulture
Armenia is home to the world’s earliest known winery dating back over 6,000 years. Its home-grown vintages are increasing in stature as the country’s long-established wine industry grows. Winery tours can be tailored to suit, and vine-drenched slopes and tasting rooms with views of Mount Ararat await. New research suggests that the world’s oldest leather shoe, found in a cave in Armenia’s Vayotz Dzor province, was likely cast off by a winery worker preparing to tread the grapes. If Yerevan based, Saryan St is the place to go.
Sugar, spice and all things nice
Get your sweet tooth on! Sumptuously juicy apricots, while not the country’s official national fruit – the pomegranate – are a recognized symbol of Armenia, and fresh and dried fruits and nuts feature heavily in the national diet. Gata sweet pastries are bakery favourites and a street market classic is sujukh, a curiously meaty-looking treat (hung like misshapen salami in many stalls). Sujukh is actually pure fruit and nuts bound together with sticky sweet fruit syrup. Colourful fruit lavash, every child’s top treat, is a must-try.
Monuments and manuscripts
Yerevan abounds with monumental architecture and the exterior of the country’s book repository Matenadaran, impresses before you’ve even entered. It’s named after the Armenian alphabet’s creator, Mesrop Mashtots, and literature lovers will delight in its ancient collections, with over 100,000 manuscripts and fragments covering philosophy, science, church history and law. The collection, copying and preservation of its contents is an achievement as monumental as the building. To celebrate their alphabet’s 1,600th birthday, giant stone statues depicting its letters were erected in Aparan, a town 50km from Yerevan.
The best times to go are April, May, June, September and October. July and August are extremely hot, with temperatures reaching up to 40 degrees celsius in the capital, Yerevan. The shoulder months also provide the best views of Mount Ararat avoiding the summer heat haze which can sometimes block visibility. January and February are unrelentingly cold, which can disrupt travel plans and render mountain hikes impossible.
Being local, our experts have an extensive knowledge of the secrets to experiencing the 'real' Armenia. Here are a few of their top tips - ask them for other recommendations when you enquire to ensure you have the most in-depth experience whilst on holiday!
Fawn over the flora and fauna
Our on-the-ground experts recommend escaping to Armenia’s natural habitats which team with plant, bird and wildlife. The botanical menu includes over 3,500 types of flowering plant, giving Armenia’s roughly 30,000km2 over half the species found in the entire Caucasus region (at over ten times Armenia’s size). Binoculars are obligatory with 370 bird types breeding in the country, and notable animal species include the Syrian brown bear, the endemic Caucasian lynx, the Caucasian leopard and the Bezoar goat.
Trek the Transcaucasian
Armenia doesn’t yet have an established, long-distance trail network. But pioneering groups of locals and volunteers have been mobilized and are on the ground, creating and signing the Armenian section of the wider Transcaucasian Trail. With several hundred kilometres completed already, this world-class hiking route will ultimately cover over 3,000km, linking countries and protected nature zones together. Try the spectacular section now opened in the Dilijan National Park.
Get crafty with the Khachkars
Yerevan’s Museum of Folk Arts abounds with examples of wood, copper and embroidery arts. Experts are on hand to talk you through the history of the khachkar, the ornamentally carved cross-stones that accompany any journey into the hills or the country’s monastic regions. Suitably inspired, get your hands dirty by making some modern-day masterpieces with local artisans offering pottery and wood-carving sessions. If ready to up your luggage allowance, push the boat out by crafting your very own khachkar cross-stone.
The best thing since…lavash bread
The thing you’ll love while there and crave once home is Armenia’s delicious lavash bread. This flatbread is traditionally cooked in a ‘tonir’, a stone or ceramic-lined oven that’s dug into the ground – with smaller holes dug nearby to keep the baker’s feet warm! Our handpicked partners will skip the tourist queues to bring you to the best bakeries and secret spots to try brduj (Armenian cheese and herbs wrapped in lavash) and mouth-watering khorovats (spiced, barbecued pork meat wrapped in soft lavash).
Armenia is a fascinating country. But did you know any of our top 3 facts about it?
1. The world’s longest cable car
If using ski lifts or watching Vertigo makes you queasy, avoid the Wings of Tatev at all costs. Located near the precariously poised Tatev Monastic Site – UNESCO listed – Wings is a 5.7 km cableway that crosses the steep-sided and broad Vorotan Gorge between Tatev and Halidzor. Wings is the world’s longest reversible aerial tramway built in one section and offers epic views over the hair-pinning and sometimes hair-raising mountain roads that take you up to it.
2. Chess is compulsory in schools
As a nation Armenia has not just survived but thrived throughout the challenges history has thrown at it. What may contribute to its success is that strategy, long-range thinking and analysis are drummed into its citizens from an early age, with chess a compulsory school subject for children as young as seven. If a dab hand yourself, think twice before asking to join a game in a local café; you could be dealing with a Grand Master on their day off.
3. Aznavoor and Armenians aboard
Due to the waves of diaspora that have rippled out from Armenia over the generations, more people of Armenian descent now live abroad (over 5m) than in the country itself (3.6m). This leads to rich seams of Armenian culture and influence on many people’s doorsteps with notable Armenian quarters in major cities across the world. Their inventions include the ATM, the inimitable green ink of US dollar bills and the MR scanning machine. French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavoor was a well-loved export, and the Aznavoor Centre – at the head of Yerevan’s limestone Cascade terraces – is worth a visit.
If you're looking for something to get you in the mood before you set off on your travels to Armenia, we've gathered a list of our favourite books to inspire you.
'The Crossing Place: A Journey Among the Armenians' by Philip Marsden
Speaking a language considered by Byron one of the hardest on earth, the Armenians are a tiny nation whose ideas and influences have spread across the globe. By thirds travelogue, harrowing adventure and historical investigation, Marsden travelled with and among the Armenians to craft a book that offers a tantalizing insight into the history, habits and hopes of a tormented but tenacious civilization.
'Journey to Armenia' by Osip Mandelstam
In 1930, Russian poet Mandelstam left Moscow for Yerevan, ostensibly to wax lyrical about the great socialist strides Armenia had taken. In this ‘impressionistic poem in prose’, he instead breathes life into the country’s ancient churches and ochre landscapes, weaving his scattered vignettes together with wry portraits of the inimitable Armenians themselves.
'Black Garden' by Thomas De Waal
More fittingly described by its strapline, ‘Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War’, De Waal’s seminal book provides a rigorous analysis of the conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. A compelling socio-political study by a leading Caucasus expert seeking to encourage conflict resolution through historical understanding.
'The Hundred-Year Walk' by Dawn Anahid MacKeen
In her powerful and poignant book – shortlisted for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize – MacKeen excavates her family’s past to discover how her grandfather escaped from the Turks during the Armenian genocide. Her ensuing journey to Turkey and Syria is overlaid with echoes from his diary and is both an uplifting testament to human courage, and an ode to Armenia.
'Janapar' by Tom Allen
Tom pedals through a kaleidoscope of countries on his attempted world bike trip, but it is the events that unfold both in and after Armenia that captivate in this very modern, two-wheeled love story. Crossing cultures, continents, borders and boundaries, the ‘plot’ of this real life, on-the-road romance – featuring an IT escapee from Middle England and the Armenian-Iranian who knocks him off course – will soon have you yearning for Yerevan.
Do you already have an idea of what your dream holiday in Armenia entails? Whether you're ready to book or would like your ideas to be fined-tuned into something more, send an enquiry and our trusted local experts will design your perfect tailor-made holiday.