Travel

At home in Armenia

Noravank is a 13th-century monastery in the Amaghu Valley.

Juliet Pennington for The Boston Globe

Noravank is a 13th-century monastery in the Amaghu Valley.

Juliet Pennington for The Boston Globe

In the Monument area of Yerevan, the hammered copper figure of Mother Armenia, her pedestal a military museum.

YEREVAN — “What the heck?” shouted my son as he ducked and tucked his cellphone under his shirt to shield it from the large gush of water that had been hurled into our car’s front passenger window.

On the sidewalk a few feet away were three boys with short dark hair and large brown eyes. They could barely hold the plastic buckets they had just emptied because they were laughing so hard and jumping around in victory.

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One of the boys, who looked to be about 10, shouted “Ayo!” (“Yes!”) with great enthusiasm, as the other two darted off to refill their buckets.

We had been in Armenia for a week, and though we were becoming familiar with the cultural differences, we were not aware of the annual holiday known as Vardavar, held 14 weeks after Easter and during which young people douse unsuspecting strangers with water.

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Vardavar was one of many surprises in our nearly two weeks in the Republic of Armenia, located in the South Caucasus region of Eurasia.

Given my Armenian ancestry, I was eager to learn more the country, which has overcome many obstacles, including the genocide during World War I in which 1.5 million people were killed by Turkish forces under the Ottoman Empire. April 24 is commemorated as Genocide Remembrance Day and many Armenian-Americans, including from the Boston area, will be making the pilgrimage to commemorate it.

“We’re getting many calls from people who want to know about things like flights, is a Visa necessary [yes, but travelers can get them when they land at Zvartnots International Airport in the capital, Yerevan ], safety, lodging, and those types of things,” said Venera Matevosian, a consultant with Village Travel in Brookline. “The best advice I can give is to book your trip as soon as possible if you plan on going next month.”

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Then, once the trip is planned, “go experience a country like no other. . . . Not only is it beautiful, but you can stay there for months and still have things to do for everyone — adults and children,” she added. “And you will not believe how friendly the people are.”

Given the number of dinner invitations we got from complete strangers, and the willingness of people to not just point us in the right direction but to walk us where we wanted to go, I could not agree more.

Visitors to this ancient mountainous country, the first to adopt Christianity and proclaim it as a state religion — in 301 AD — feel as though they are traveling back in time.

There are no direct flights from the United States to Armenia, but several airlines have connections in major European cities, including Paris, Kiev, Moscow, and Vienna, with direct flights to Yerevan. We flew from Paris to Yerevan on Air France in less than five hours.

29armenia - Khnzoresk bridge. (Juliet Pennington for The Boston Globe)

Juliet Pennington for The Boston Globe

A 125-foot-long swinging bridge connects two banks of the village of Khndzoresk.

There are a variety of lodging options, but we decided to stay downtown, at the Marriott in Republic Square. It turned out to be a great choice, as our room was clean and spacious and the staff friendly and helpful. We stayed on one of the two executive floors, which meant we had access to the executive suite, where we could always grab a quick snack or a cold or hot drink, and we spent many evenings on the lounge’s sizable balcony, mingling with other guests, viewing the fountains in the square, and even getting a front-row seat to a protest demonstration. It was peaceful, attended by about 200 people in opposition to energy cost increases. Such an event would have been unheard of just 25 years ago, when Armenia was under Soviet control.

The hotel was just 15 minutes from the airport and within walking distance of art galleries, museums, concert venues, cafes, and restaurants that feature traditional and contemporary Armenian cuisine — as well as a variety of others that serve international fare. Five minutes from the hotel was one of my favorite places, Vernissage, a huge outdoor market where artisans sell handmade wooden nardi (backgammon) boards, musical instruments, clothing, rugs, and paintings. The prices are reasonable — especially given the dollar’s strength against the Armenian dram ($1 equals 479 AMD) — and while vendors want to make a sale, they’re not overly aggressive.

Many of the paintings, wood carvings, and other items sold at Vernissage depict historic Mount Ararat, where the Bible says Noah’s Ark landed after the flood. The snow-capped peak looms majestically, and while it is in Turkey (it was taken from Armenia during the genocide), many still consider it Armenia’s Mount Ararat.

There is much more to see and do in Yerevan, a city of about 1.2 million. Getting around is easy and inexpensive. Small buses and vans called “marshrutni” travel more than 100 different routes throughout the city and cost less than 20 cents per trip. Taxi rides to just about anywhere in the city cost less than $2.

29armenia - Eternal flame. (Juliet Pennington for The Boston Globe)

Juliet Pennington for The Boston Globe

The eternal flame at the Armenian Genocide Memorial.

The imposing Mother Armenia statue, a hammered copper figure whose large pedestal doubles as a small military museum, looks over the city. Visitors can walk up the Cascade, a giant stairway that links downtown’s Kentron district with what is known as the Monument area. Here, visitors will find not only the Mother Armenia statue and the eternal flame at the Grave of the Unknown Soldier, but also Victory Park. While several sections of the park could use some sprucing up, it is a great place to spend an afternoon.

Yerevan is walkable and kid-friendly. In addition to the kiddie rides and boat rentals on the lake at Victory Park, there are fountains, oversize musical instrument statues near the Opera House, museums galore (the Geological Museum is a favorite, with its huge restored skeleton of a primordial elephant), and dudukes — traditional woodwind instruments — for all ages sold in just about every shop.

Tsitsernakaberd Park is home to the Armenian Genocide Victims’ Memorial Complex, which includes rows of memorial trees donated by foreign dignitaries, a museum, and a monument built in 1965 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the genocide. There are 12 imposing pylons (representing the 12 main provinces where Armenians were massacred between 1915-1923) that surround an eternal flame, around which visitors gather to pay their respects, often leaving flowers. Each year on April 24, thousands gather at the site and march in remembrance of those who perished.

There are plenty of tour companies in Yerevan that offer excursions that range from three-hour jaunts to multiday trips. We tried Hyur tour company (www.hyurservice.com) and and wound up using it for all of our tours. Not only were prices reasonable (one guided tour that went to four sites of interest, lasted 13 hours, and included lunch at a restaurant, a wine and cheese tasting at a winery, snacks along the way, and a tram ride, cost $37 per person), but also the guides were friendly, knowledgeable, and English-speaking. The air-conditioned minibuses had large windows for sightseeing.

Venturing outside of Yerevan, whether to the shores of Lake Sevan or to the cave dwellings at Khndzoresk in the country’s southern region, I was continually reminded of how steeped in history and tradition Armenia is.

Juliet Pennington for The Boston Globe

The exterior of the Armenian Genocide Memorial.

Some highlights included Geghard Monestary, a World Heritage Site that is a classic example of Armenian medieval architecture, with breathtaking natural surroundings; the Temple of Garni, a reconstructed symbol of pre-Christian Armenia set amid the striking Garni Gorge; and Khor Virap Monestary, where St. Gregory the Illuminator, Armenia’s patron saint, was imprisoned for 13 years before curing King Tiridates III of a deadly disease. Noravank, which means “New Monastery” in Armenian, is anything but, as it is more than seven centuries old and has some of the most beautiful khachkars (ornate crosses carved in stone) flanking its altars. With the gorge below and the steep red rocks towering behind the monastery, it is a shutterbug’s dream.

The Tatev Monastery is an impressive ninth-century landmark that stands on the edge of Vorotan Canyon. Visitors can take a cable ride (Wings of Tatev opened in 2010 and was declared the world’s “longest nonstop double track cable car” by Guinness World Records) from Tatev to Halidzor Village. And a visit to the cave dwellings (inhabited well into the 20th century) at Old Khndzoresk is surreal, walking among caves dug into the sloping hillsides. Crossing the gorge from the new Khndzoresk to the cave dwellings on the hill is not for the faint of heart; visitors must cross a 125-foot-long suspension bridge that wobbles considerably with each step.

A final memorable destination is Etchmiadzin Cathedral, home to the Armenian Apostolic Church. The original church was built in the early fourth century, when Armenia adopted Christianity, and while it has undergone many transformations, it is still a captivating site and a testament to the country’s faith and perseverance. The Sunday morning service has a regal feel to it, and the music is mesmerizing, so much so that one doesn’t have to be religious to be moved.

I left Etchmiadzin feeling a deep connection to Armenia and my ancestry. Having barely skimmed its surface, I also felt a strong resolve to return soon to explore more of this beautiful country and its rich, inspiring history.

Juliet Pennington can be reached at writeonjuliet@comcast.net.
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