My top recommendations for Armenia

As I write this, the first leg of my round the world trip is slowly coming to an end. In less than a month I will be back home for Christmas. So far, I have travelled during three months, and through six countries. While all of them were great in their own way, two have managed to completely exceed my expectations: Kazakhstan and Armenia.

In this post I will attempt to share both my love for the country and my recommendations for low-budget travellers.

Armenia is a small country, sandwiched between neighbours with whom it doesn’t always have good relations. While I usually like to avoid political discussions abroad (as it is as controversial as it can be interesting, and I don’t want to upset the wrong people), it is impossible not to talk about it in Armenia.

The horrible genocide by the Turkish in the early 20th century, the loss of the beloved Ararat mountain and surrounding territories, the ongoing war with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabach region,… Armenians carry these topics in their hearts and on their lips, and for them it’s impossible to talk about their much beloved country without mentioning them.

The kingdom of Armenia, with it’s rich and long lasting history, once occupied an immense territory (including parts of present day Turkey, Syria, Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan). I never got the feeling many Italians crave the return of the ancient Roman empire on a daily basis, but I do believe many Armenians still feel entitled to the whole of their former glory. They’re immensely proud, nationalistic and religious people in general, and with that comes an impressive hospitality: a longing to show the beauty of their country to anyone who sets foot in it.

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The view from Garni temple

As a tourist, I felt at home instantly. Armenia is an extremely easy place to travel in. It’s cheap on all levels, has a good network of public transportation, safe driving (compared to it’s neighbours Iran and Georgia), delicious cuisine (one of the best I encountered during these three months of travel, actually), an intriguing history to discover and heritage galore. While it might lack big, cosmopolitan cities or extreme scenery, it is dotted with ancient monasteries, rolling hills and river-cut gorges. And it feels as much European as it feels Soviet or even, sometimes, Persian: an amazing mix that invites you to stay longer, and explore more.

The fresh produce used in the cooking is a bliss. Never have I tasted tomatoes so brightly red and full of flavour. Never have I eaten such seasonal inspired, locally grown dishes. People harvest fruit from their gardens, they make their own wine and vodka, they cook with herbs and mushrooms fresh from the fields. Life is quiet here compared to Belgium, simple perhaps, but I mean that in the best way possible.

On top of that, the nostalgic, poetic flair that floats around Armenia is a lullaby to the soul. Does it come from the tormented past? Was it due to the changing of the seasons? Or was it merely a fraction of my imagination? It’s hard to tell. But I felt it, in all parts of the country. And I loved it, as it enveloped me in a laid back, introspective, philosophical mood that helped shape my memories.

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Autumn scene in Yerevan

With all that and more, Armenia is one of my all time favourites as a travel destination. It’s visa free for Europeans, not too far away, friendly and cheap. What more would you ask for?

Here are some of the places I liked most during my journey:

Sleeping

Bivouac Hostel in Yerevan is one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in. It’s not the cheapest in town, but I doubt any place has beds more comfortable. The location is perfect, the staff extremely helpful and joyful, and everything is SO clean. Bedlinen was changed every two days (that never happened to me in a hostel before!), and rooms and bathrooms cleaned multiple times a day.

Parisis B&B in Alaverdi is run by an amazingly kind and helpful family that cooks delicious, local meals. The rooms are located in a grim and run down Soviet apartment block: an experience on its own. The interior is well maintained and the rooms are comfortable enough, although some of the mattresses are soft as butter. A stay here is really all about the Soviet feel and heart-warming people.

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The Soviet town of Alaverdi

Eating out in Yerevan

Twelve tables is a cheap, cosy restaurant just around the corner from the hostel. It does some Armenian dishes, but mostly simple and (a little more healthy) plates like open baguettes, salads, pastas and soups. The mushroom soup was to die for, and so are their home made lemonades and pomegranate salad. Staff speaks perfect English and is amazingly kind and attentive.

Pandok Yerevan is a little more upmarket but has an amazing array of local dishes on offer in a nice setting. It’s worth splurging here once or twice during your trip (it’s not that expensive), but make a reservation as it’s always packed. Service is efficient and the food is to die for. Even their katchapuri (baked in an on-site oven) was better than any I found in Georgia!

Queen cake is your place to go for well executed French patisserie at Armenian prices. It’s a treasure trove and making a choice from the well stocked counter will be hard! I went many times and the only thing I didn’t like was the Napoleon cake. All the European style sponges and gateaus were top notch!

Dargett Craft Beer is a hip and modern looking bar that makes their own (impressive list of) beer varieties in the basement. We were unlucky with the food we ordered (the poutine is truly horrible), but the burgers and other dishes looked pretty nice. You come here to taste the craft beer, though, which is really worth the money. There’s even a list of Belgian beers for those of us who miss their beloved Duvel or Trippel Karmeliet while travelling.

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Food is good!

Monasteries

I’ve visited the most famous of the Armenian monasteries, but the ones I liked most were the following.

For the location:

  • The easy walk between Geghard monastery and Garni temple is pretty pleasant and an easy get away from the city, especially if you haven’t gotten time to venture further out.
  • Tatev monastery is located next to the higher mountains and reached by a Guiness Book of Records listed cable car. There are also hiking trails in the area.
  • The walk between Haghpat and Sanahin is a lovely rural experience with some great views, and there are plenty of other hikes in and around the gorge.
  • The canyon looming under Saghmosavank is simply spectacular, and it’s possible to walk through it from one town to the other.
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Pretty impressive and only half an hour from the centre of Yerevan!

For the architecture:

  • Noravank monastery was, for me, one of the most magical due to the atmosphere of the site.
  • Sanahin monastery is architecturally impressive.
  • The carved crosses at Goshavank are among the most beautiful in the country.

In summary: go to Armenia asap! You won’t regret it.

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