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Bloomberg: 15 reasons to visit Armenia

Bloomberg: 15 reasons to visit Armenia
Wednesday, 24 April, 2019, 22:05

Armenia, a landlocked country of about 3 million people in the Caucasus Mountains, has a few claims to fame: gold medal chess players, fraught geopolitics, Churchill’s favorite brandy, and—OK, fine—the Kardashians, who are proud Armenian Americans. But tourism? Most U.S. travelers couldn’t spot Armenia on a map, let alone fathom a trip there. It’s time to reconsider, if you’ve considered it at all. Beyond Armenia’s popular tourist attractions—it has some of the world’s oldest churches—there are new reasons to bump the nation a few spots up your bucket list. Last year’s Velvet Revolution, which unseated a Russia-backed oligarch, has given the country a palpable, contagious optimism. New hotels are sprouting up in the capital city of Yerevan, where the restaurant scene is shedding its meat-and-potatoes standards in favor of bolder, spicier flavors.

1. Holy Ground: Garnias likely a shrine to the pagan sun god Mihr, though some scholars speculate it’s the tomb of a Romanized Armenian king or the defunct residence of some long-forgotten ruler..

2. Dance if you want to.

3. “Wings of Tatev”.

4. Soviet Relics: Cascade, opera house, and Republic Square.

5. Alexander: a Luxury Collection outpost, Pink-tuff buildings dwarfed by Mount Ararat in the background.

6. Armenian food defies hard-and-fast generalizations. It borrows from Russian, Georgian, Persian, and Levantine playbooks without surrendering fully to any—dishes can range from lemony tabbouleh and mayonnaise-laden potato salad to cow hoof soup and baked dumplings in tomato sauce. That kind of variety makes Yerevan’s food scene a thrilling one: At lunch, you could be in Dolmama’s wallpapered dining room feasting on the best stuffed grape leaves of your life; and by dinner, at Lahmajun Gaidz (opened by a Syrian refugee) inhaling spicy lamb-topped lahmajun (flatbread) as you would a New York pizza slice, experiencing Armenian fast food at its finest.

7. Dilijan National Park.

8. Echmiadzin Cathedral, founded in the early fourth century, is to Armenian Christians what the Great Mosque is to Muslims and the Western Wall is to Jews: a place of incomparable spiritual importance.

9. When archaeologists unearthed the world’s oldest winery, estimated to be 6,100 years old, in southern Armenia three years ago, everyone gasped—except for Armenians. Wine has long been the lifeblood of local culture, consecrated at Armenian Apostolic masses, sipped at elaborate traditional feasts, and chugged on raucous nights out. Sample some of the country’s best bottles at In Vino, a cobwebbed cubbyhole where wine geeks splurge on award-winning labels like Karas and Zorah, or at Wine Republic, where the French bistro menu is almost as varied as its 650-bottle list.

10. You could spend weeks monastery-hopping across Armenia and still not hit them all, but one is a must: Geghard, a Unesco World Heritage Site. The labyrinthine monastery complex includes a wealth of hypnotic khachkars (cross-stones), a 13th century church, and even older chapels and vestries hewn straight into the side of a cliff, their walls blackened from centuries of candlelight.

11. Meat, salt, and fire are all you need to make khorovats, Armenia’s omnipresent skewers of grilled beef, pork, or lamb. But don’t be fooled—Armenians have elevated the common kebab into an art form. A good grill master selects the finest cuts, salts the meat just so, and pulls the shampoor (skewer) from the flame when the meat is crackling and dribble-down-your-chin juicy.

12. The Armenian Genocide of 1915 killed at least 1 million Armenians and forced millions more to flee their ancestral home of eastern Turkey. This intentionally bleak, gray monument, part of the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial Complex, overlooks Yerevan as a memorial. Budget a couple of hours—and packs of tissues—for the haunting collection of artifacts, images, and testimonials that drive home the gravity of this national tragedy.

13. Armenia is renewing itself following 2018’s peaceful Velvet Revolution and subsequent parliamentary elections, which replaced an oligarchical, Russia-backed government with a more Western-sympathizing one. The new administration, headed by journalist-turned-politician Nikol Pashinyan, has a tough road ahead: 1 in 3 Armenians lives below the poverty line, while the average wage hovers around $355 a month.

14. “Cuban cigars, Armenian brandy, and no sport!” That trifecta, according to Winston Churchill, was the key to a long life. Test his hypothesis at Yerevan Brandy Co. (daily tours available), where the brandy he adored is still made in much the same way. Aged in Caucasian oak barrels and double-distilled for purity, it gives French cognac a run for its money.

15. Covering 16 percent of Armenia’s surface area, Lake Sevan makes the landlocked country a veritable beach destination. The lapping waves keep Armenians (and a host of other neighboring nationals) cool during parched summers. Even if it’s too chilly to take a dip, you can snap postcard-worthy pics of the Hayravank and Sevanavank monasteries, dramatically set against the sparkling blue water.