I have been fortunate enough to be assigned the task of updating the Armenia section of an upcoming Lonely Planet guide, and spent the past week rambling through the north of the country. A few quick notes about the place:
*Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity and since the early 300s this religion has been the pillar of Armenian national identity. The north of the country has numerous ancient churches and monasteries that stand as testament to longevity of Armenian Christianity. Almost all the ones I visited were of a similar shape and design – stone buildings with vaulted ceilings and cone-topped towers. Most are in good shape and those that are not are being renovated. For me, the most interesting was at Haghartsin, where a stone carving outside the monastery depicts Mother Mary and Baby Jesus with distinctively Mongolian faces – the relief was created to deter Mongol hordes from destroying the church.
*Around 20% of Armenian men are named Armen. A national pride thing.
*Yerevan, the capital, is a surprisingly European city. There are sidewalk cafes absolutely everywhere and they are always packed with people. European fashions, liberal attitudes, cel phones and rows of BMWs are all part of the scene.
*The genocide of Armenians by Turkish forces in the early part of the century is still a very contentious issue, largely because the Turks deny the event ever happened. As a result Turkey and Armenia have poor relations. They do some trading, but everything has to be flown in or come through Georgia.
*Armenia had a war with Azerbaijan in the early 1990s (over disputed territory) and there still is no final peace agreement, thus the Armenians have poor relations with Azerbaijan as well as Turkey.
*But the Armenians do get on well with the Georgians, their neighbors to the north, but as a landlocked country it remains isolated from trade markets. Most imports come from Russia, but tariffs are high since everything has to come via Georgia. As a result, Armenia is bloody expensive!
*Armenian food can be fantastic. A couple of nights ago the guesthouse I was staying at laid out a spread of grilled meats, vegetables and fresh fruit. They eat plenty of dolma (meat wrapped in vine leaves) but the favorite local treat is khorovats (grilled beef, pork and lamb). Everything is very fresh and grown in local villages. Dinner is accompanied by unending rounds of vodka shots (the local stuff is distilled from mulberries, apricots or peaches).
I am back in Yerevan for a couple days of rest and will head to the southern part of the country later this week. My assignment includes Nororno-Karabakh, the territory that is disputed with Azerbaijian. It’s made out to be the most beautiful part of the country.