“Come to my house!” grinned Jora from the driver’s seat of his ageing Vauxhall. “We’ll have coffee and then I’ll drop you back off on the highway.”
Twenty four hours, one gargantuan barbecue, and an inhumane quantity of vodka later, Jora kept his promise. We had been hitchhiking around the Armenian countryside in the heady days of summer. The sunshine was glorious, our backpacks were filled with camping gear, and all we had to worry about was thumbing the next ride. Jora had pulled over to pick us up close to the historic Khor Virap monastery, to the south of the capital, Yerevan, in the shadow of iconic Mount Ararat. He wanted to express some Armenian hospitality to a couple of nomadic travelers. He certainly succeeded in that.
Your ideal destination
Traveling Armenia had already proved to be a joy. The summer weather was hot, the mineral water that flowed from the ground was icy cold and refreshing, and the food was cheap and delicious. Armenia is rustic, historic, full of intrigue. What more could you want from a place?
Much of this comes from the fact that Armenia is an ancient land. Dating back to times of antiquity, Armenia is heralded as the first civilization to adopt Christianity as its official religion. Today, the Republic of Armenia is dotted with churches and monasteries jutting out on the edge of mountain peaks and cliffs, each one more spectacular than the next. For intrepid, low-budget travelers, with a passion for all things historic, Armenia is a wonderful choice to visit.
A few days or weeks around Armenia can usually leave you with a lifetime of stories to tell. It’s also the easiest place in the world this writer has hitchhiked. Often the first car you see will stop to pick you up. Or you’ll be crouched on the side of the potholed highway on the edge of a village somewhere rearranging your bag, when a local will just pull over and offer you a ride. Or vodka. And a kebab. It truly is a joy.
Garden of Eden
It also makes seeing Armenia’s amazing countryside surprisingly easy. Mountain steppes stretch on and on for miles and miles. On a map, Armenia is tiny. But when you’re there, it’s vast, endless. The jagged peaks heading down to the southern border with Iran, the unspoiled plains in between, even the ramshackle, tumbledown factories from the Soviet era, are somehow beautiful. There’s one main highway that connects Yerevan to the south of the country to the River Arax and beyond. It’s one lane each way, bumpy, winding, but on every turn there’s something truly beautiful.
The grassy, but bare mountain slopes lead gently down to beautiful river valleys, all tree lined and as green as the Gardens of Eden, with the roofs of village houses nestled in between. In the autumn you’ll see the smoke of open fires from the chimneys. There, you’ll pass through the village, probably in the passenger seat of an old Russian truck, the driver having offered you a ride. You’ll likely stop, drink from one of the local springs (ignore the guidebooks – the unfiltered mineral water is the best I’ve ever tasted, and it’s perfectly safe), and usually purchase a Cola bottle full of wine for about a dollar from a local lady, who brewed the wine herself, in her backyard. From there, you’ll stroll down the dusty street in the sunshine, and smell freshly barbecued meat emanating from a backyard. Upon hearing your yelping at the delicious scent, the family who are grilling the beef, eggplant and tomato on hot coals will quite possibly invite you in for a hearty meal and ten-too-many shots of vodka. Be careful. It’s possible you’ll never leave, and soon end up married to one of the families inhumanly gorgeous daughters. I speak from experience, and my brother does too.
If you can drag yourself away from this paradise, you might find your way to another tiny village such as Areni, which each year hosts Armenia’s largest wine festival. Here you can sample the delights of the famed wine brewed there, or head further south to ride the world’s longest double track cable car, at 5.7 kilometres, to the Tatev monastery, perched at the top of a stunning mountain valley. Those with a fear of heights need not apply.
Chilling in the capital
The capital, Yerevan, is itself a joyous place to be. The centre is built in a series of circles, with parkland and fountains aplenty. The central Republic Square, colloquially known as “Hrabarak,” with its majestic archways and central fountains that dance to musical scores at night, is a social hub for all Armenians in the evenings. The square is built in native Armenian pink stone. It’s beautiful, and the perfect spot in which to sit and people watch, or wander to one of the local outdoor cafes in the warm, summer nights and drink a beer, or stuff yourself full of fresh Khachapuri, a pastry famous in the Caucasus, and especially in neighbouring Georgia.
Done with the first beer and feel like a few more? The centre of Yerevan is small enough to walk across in a few minutes, so make your way to Parpetsi Street, and find one of the many watering holes dotted around to get yourself a few of the locals’ finest brews. A beer, like everything else in Armenia, is cheap, and the bar-going community is fairly small. Everybody knows everybody, and westerners of Armenian descent flock to the motherland to rediscover their roots, and make the most of Armenia’s “Birthright” scheme to explore ones heritage. It makes for an extremely sociable setting once the sun sets and is a wonderful place to make friends.
I recommend the weekend as the perfect time to relax in the city. The huge open market, known as the Vernissage, is centrally located, a street away from Republic Square. There you can buy a full military General’s uniform, a puppy, second-hand clothes, some old dental supplies, or just about anything, for next to nothing.
Also costing very little is the local canteen, tucked away and completely unassuming on a street next to the market, where a lot of the vendors eat lunch. Go in here and meet the old lady who runs the place. She’ll feed you until you sweat with delicious home-made meat, bread, cheese, vegetables, wine, and anything else until you feel like you’re going to explode. It’ll also cost you between one and two dollars. Just don’t drink too much and get rowdy. She’ll scream at you. But she’s the friendliest, feistiest old lady in Armenia, and is often found downing shots of vodka at 11am.
Much of what you’ll see in the city and beyond is Russian influenced, as Armenia was part of the Soviet Union. As a result you’re constantly surrounded by the unmistakable and not-so-glorious sight of Soviet apartment blocks. The elevators are not for the faint of heart, and the smell from the trash chutes isn’t hugely pleasant, but exploring the winding alleyways between the buildings, or wandering across the post-Soviet remnants of old parks and canals, all having long fallen into disrepair, is a fun experience.
Also fun is “accidentally” finding your way into an abandoned factory and exploring around the endless rooms, and marveling at how it feels like one day, everybody working there just got up and left, leaving everything where it fell.
It sums Armenia, a tiny country that is simultaneously vast and shot through with intriguing history. Stay a few days, weeks, or months. Armenia is a difficult place to leave, and one place I’ll always go back to. Just look out for someone grinning at you from the driver’s seat of an old Vauxhall – you’ll probably wake up a few months later with a sore head and a ring on your finger.
About the Author
Ben Allen is a freelance writer from Northamptonshire, England. In 2008 he relocated to Vancouver, Canada, after wanting to make a change in his life. Not happy being in one place, Ben has just been on the road undertaking a hitchhiking trip around the Middle East. Now he’s returned to North America where he’s thinking about the next step. You can follow him on Twitter @ballenuk and read more about his adventures at www.benallen.ca.