Armenia, where natural beauty, wine and brandy trump a troubled past and a volatile present

Armenia, where natural beauty, wine and brandy trump a troubled past and a volatile present

21.06.17 | 14:48

From a vertiginous 1,476 feet, the almond-coloured cityscape of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, looks bewitching. A 572-step stairway has transported me to the Mountain Terrace of Cascades, a contemporary art museum and sculpture garden, from where I am soaking in a panorama of terracotta-roofed houses, statuesque buildings and green pastures stretching out to snow-swathed mountains. Above it all soars Mount Ararat where Noah’s Ark is believed to have landed, every bit as mighty as its biblical status.


Bucolic locations, monasteries set in tumbling landscapes, gurgling streams, lapis lazuli lakes — Armenia is picture-postcard turf. One of the cradles of civilisation, the pint-sized country was also the first in the world to officially adopt Christianity as the state religion in AD 301. With doughty neighbours (Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Russia and Iran) hemming it in, the nation is also at a geopolitical and cultural crossroads.


Much of that eclectic heritage is on view at the city’s numerous historic sights. At Matenadran, the museum of ancient manuscripts in Yerevan, we inspect fascinating memorabilia, including scroll upon scroll of medieval parchments and complex documents expounding on everything from geometry and cosmology to theology and poetry.


As the world wakes up to the charms of this Caucasian nation of 3 million people, tourism is galloping — at about 25% per year. Effervescent eateries, cafes and malls are mushrooming and stylish hotels are replacing vapid, Soviet inn-type accommodations.

Yerevan — located 12 km from Turkey — is where Armenia’s heart beats. It has street art-splashed alleys and leafy boulevards sprouting olive, cherry and mulberry trees. Cafés and wine bars remain open until early morning as punters hold chinwag over coffee and gelatos. Locals and tourists stroll along promenades or congregate around musical fountains prancing to classical tunes.

Buildings hewn from pinktuff (an igneous rock, formed from the debris ejected by a volcano) give Yerevan a pink glow as well as its moniker, the Pink City. The majestic Republic Square is studded with buildings. I take it all in one evening from a cafe on Abovyan Street while nursing my soorj ( in pic below ), the Armenian coffee prepared in a long-handled, bronze jezve coffee pot that derives its name from the sound of slurping made by a contented coffee drinket.



Volatile Past
Despite its cosmopolitan facelift, Armenia’s turbulent past still lingers. Roiled by bloody invasions by Romans, Persians, Ottomans and the Soviets, the scars of vicious ethnoterritorial conflicts and economic despair remain.


A visit to the Genocide Monument in Yerevan is a stark reminder of a mass extermination — the Armenian Genocide that killed 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians between 1915 and 1923.



Set on a hilltop, the spot also houses an underground gallery recreating the horror. Outside, a Spartan memorial stands over an eternal flame. There’s also a garden of trees planted by representatives of various nations that recognise the genocide, including the UK, US, France and Russia.


Not all of Armenia's troubles are in the past.


The country is still bedevilled by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan that has left it with closed borders. Human rights issues and wrenching poverty add to its woes.

"Today, over two-thirds of Armenians live outside the country and have settled as diaspora communities," says our guide Sira. The country's most famous surname must be Kardashian - the socialite Kim Kardashian's family escaped from Armenia to America in 1913 but they still have strong ties to the country. In 2015, when the Kardashians went on an eight-day tour of Armenia, it created quite a kerfuffle in the tiny nation.





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