In a time when we’re constantly seeking authentic, off-the-beaten-track destinations, it’s a mystery why Armenia has remained so long beneath the radar. A jewel of the Caucasus (a mountainous region wedged between Russia and Iran), Armenia has long been neglected by mass market tourists, more through lack of awareness than lack of inclination.
Now, budget airline Ryanair is hoping to help put it on the map. Two new routes to Armenia will begin in January 2020, from Milan Bergamo and Rome Ciampino, while another two will commence sometime in the summer, from Berlin Schönefeld and Memmingen Airport in Bavaria.
Here’s why Armenia deserves a spot on your bucket list, Ryanair or no…
1. It has magnificent monasteries
If you had to sum up Armenia in one image, it would be a remote, rickety old church perched precariously on a picturesque, rocky mountainside. The first nation ever to adopt Christianity as its state religion (c. 300 AD), it’s no surprise the country is littered with historic monasteries, many of them carefully constructed atop extremely insecure-seeming foundations.
Touring these stony sanctuaries is an ideal way to sample the brutal beauty of the Armenian landscape, as several key sites lie at the end of a hike.
Best in show are the Geghard Monastery – a UNESCO-listed attraction partially carved from the mountainside – and the reddish-brown Noravank Monastery, which blends into the surrounding cliffs as the evening light begins to fade.
2. The capital architecture is impressive
A vibrant, historic capital that wears its Eurasian heritage proudly on its sleeve, Armenia’s capital Yerevan is absolutely loaded with guidebook-worthy architecture. There’s the Blue Mosque – actually a dazzling array of blues, yellows, greens and pinks – and the effortlessly grand parliament building, an elevated, neo-classical masterpiece with three distinct wings.
Even the modern architecture manages to look generations-old. Consider the Cathedral of St. Gregory the Illuminator, only consecrated in 2001, which is covered in geometric arches and turrets.
The city is otherwise best known for its bar scene, and a smattering of restaurants and cafes serving up traditional Armenian cuisine. It’s one of the only place in the country where locals really understand any English – and even then, sporadically – so be sure to grab a phrasebook before heading further afield.
3. The wonderful wildlife
A photogenic mixture of mountains and forests, Armenia’s rich biodiversity covers everything from miniature hedgehogs to large Eurasian bears, contained within the country’s four designated national parks. For peak natural beauty, swing by Lake Sevan, one of the world’s largest alpine lakes.
Armenia is particularly fruitful for birdwatchers. A vulture’s paradise, eagle-eyed visitors will spot bearded vultures, griffon vultures, black vultures and more, while pelicans populate the lakes, and multi-coloured bee-eaters can be seen flitting through the trees.
4. The Armenian Genocide Memorial
Commemorating the victims of the Armenian Genocide – the mass slaughter of ethnic Armenians by the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1922 – the memorial features at its centre an eternal flame of remembrance, beside a row of trees planted by visiting foreign leaders.
The extent of the massacre is still not fully known – estimates vary from 700,000 to nearly 2 million – and Turkish authorities still refuse to acknowledge the severity of the bloodshed. The monument makes for essential, if harrowing viewing.
5. The Wings of Tatev
Officially the longest cable car on Earth (well, the longest “non-stop double-track” cable car), Wings of Tatev soars above Vorotan Gorge, connecting the village of Halidzor with the mountainside monastery of Tatev, 5.7km away.
Half-church half-fortress, Tatev has at varying times been a bishopric, a university, and a stronghold, and can trace its lineage all the way back to the 9th century. Variously plundered by the Persians, the Seljuk Turks, the Mongols, the Russians, and a series of earthquakes, it’s nothing short of a miracle that the monastery still stands.
The cable car takes 30 passengers per cabin, so there’s still plenty of room to rush from side-to-side and capture every inch of forest and undulating hill. A not-for-profit enterprise, every dram goes into the upkeep of the monastery.