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“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.
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.
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
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