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Armenia - Eating and sleeping
Two points need to be made about eating in Armenia. First, Armenian cuisine has much more in common with Turkish, Persian or Arab cooking, all of which countries at one time ruled Armenia, than it does with the cooking of Russia, which also ruled Armenia, or that of western Europe. Secondly, given the range and interest of dishes which can be experienced in an Armenian household, the menus of restaurants and hotels tend to be repetitive and predictable. Very sadly, almost all restaurant menus, especially away from Yerevan, have been reduced to a few salads followed by grilled or barbecued meat and vegetables.
Armenian thinking is quite different from that in Britain or France, for example, where one goes to a restaurant for a good meal. In Armenia one goes to a restaurant to give the wife of the family a rest and accepts that the food will be worse than at home.
(Photo: Gata on sale at Geghard © Deirdre Holding)
The only way most tourists can begin to appreciate the range of Armenian cookery is to get a travel agent to organise for them some homestays with dinner included or else to book a meal in a private house – this can be arranged at houses which provide homestays as long as notice is given. The hostess is highly likely to outshine any restaurant in the vicinity. I personally have never eaten better in Armenia than in private houses.
In Armenia one goes to a restaurant to give the wife of the family a rest and accepts that the food will be worse than at home.
Having said that, it is also true that the quality and variety of restaurants, especially in Yerevan, has improved out of all recognition since Soviet days when surly staff glumly informed customers that everything they asked for from the menu was unavailable and meals took hours as the staff frequently vanished to enjoy a long rest. Nowadays one problem for foreigners who are not used to it is quite the reverse: meals are served quickly with the second course arriving before the first is half eaten. (It is the normal Armenian custom to serve everything at once. Avoid this if you wish by only ordering one course at a time.) It is perfectly acceptable to order a number of main dishes and have these placed in the middle of the table so everyone can sample a little of each.
The quality of the ingredients is extremely high because Armenia produces a wide range of excellent fruit and vegetables as well as meat: pork, chicken and lamb. The only exception is beef which tends to be less satisfactory because it is predominantly from Caucasian brown cattle, a breed developed between 1930 and 1960 by crossing Swiss brown bulls with cows of the local lesser Caucasus breed. The resulting beef does not compare to Aberdeen Angus, Beef Shorthorn or Hereford. Also the Armenian practice of eating beef and lamb fresh rather than hanging it for up to three weeks after slaughter tends to make it tougher and less flavoursome than in the West.
Wines for sale at In Vino, a wine merchant in Yerevan © Deirdre Holding
The quality of Armenia’s fruit and vegetables is so high, partly because the climate favours them, partly because they have not been bred to survive transport to a supermarket in another continent and partly because they do not have to appear absolutely identical to every other example of that fruit or vegetable which the supermarket sells. Probably apricots, native to Armenia, are the most famous produce, but in season markets and the ubiquitous roadside vendors pile their stalls with peaches, cherries, apples, pears, quinces, grapes, figs, pomegranates, plums, oranges, lemons, melons, watermelons, tomatoes, squashes, aubergines, peppers, asparagus, cucumbers, courgettes, onions, potatoes, carrots, peas, beans, cabbages, okra, a whole range of mushrooms, almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts.
A staple ingredient of Armenian cookery is bulghur. Traditionally it is made by boiling whole grains of wheat in large cauldrons until they begin to soften, upon which they are removed and dried in the sun. The grains are cracked open and the kernels divided into categories depending on size. This process ensures that they will keep for years without deteriorating. Fine bulghur is preferred for keufteh while coarse bulghur is preferred for pilaffs and soups.
Warning to vegetarians: although it is extremely easy to have a meat-free diet in Armenia some Armenian dishes may not be what they seem from the menu. For example, mushroom salad may contain as much chicken as mushroom and, because the ingredients may be chopped fine and mixed up together, it will be impossible to avoid the chicken. Always ask before ordering.
Yerevan is well provided with upmarket hotels. There is a wide choice of hotels within the central area although some visitors might prefer, particularly in midsummer, to stay outside the central district. Expect to pay Western prices at these hotels. There are also some less expensive hotels, mostly built in the Soviet era for tourist groups and since renovated. Small mid-range hotels are appearing. Budget travellers have a small number of hostels to choose from. An alternative is a homestay (bed and breakfast). For those staying longer than a few days renting an apartment is an economical option.
Outside Yerevan accommodation has now improved enormously and good hotels are available in most of the places tourists are likely to want to stay. Some of these hotels are new-builds while others are renovated Soviet-era hotels. The latter vary from very acceptable to excellent. There are still some Soviet-era hotels that were used to house refugees in the early 1990s, have never recovered, and are not recommendable. Soviet-era hotels tend to be renovated floor by floor. Renovated floors are usually fine, but avoid those which are not. A chain of upmarket Tufenkian hotels (www.tufenkian.am) aimed at Western tourists is being developed in restored buildings. They aim to showcase Armenian history and culture with furnishings handmade by Armenian artisans from local materials in a modern yet distinctively Armenian style. There are Tufenkian hotels on Lake Sevan, in the Debed Valley, at Dilijan and in Yerevan.
Some hotels have self-catering facilities. These may be in the form of so-called cottages – separate small buildings which can accommodate between four and eight persons, although the number is flexible as extra beds can often be erected. Such cottages in Soviet times tended to be in hotels with large grounds and were originally for families spending the whole of their holiday in one place. However, the concept of cottages has been happily adapted to new establishments and it is quite common for a hotel to comprise several small buildings rather than one large building. This preference for individual units can also be found in restaurants where instead of one large dining room there are multiple rooms with a single table.
Outside Yerevan accommodation has now improved enormously and good hotels are available in most of the places tourists are likely to want to stay. Some of these hotels are new-builds while others are renovated Soviet-era hotels.
Another feature of the Soviet era was the guesthouses run by various bodies to provide accommodation for their members while on holiday. They are therefore usually in pleasant surroundings. Some of these have been sold off, while in other cases they remain in the hands of the original owner. It is possible to stay at most of them and they are generally inexpensive. The standard varies enormously. The privatised ones are usually well managed, some having been upgraded, some still needing a lot of new investment. Soviet-era guesthouses were usually large establishments offering a variety of activities as well as accommodation. Now renovated, such establishments often call themselves ‘hotel resorts’. This slightly puzzling term usually means that the hotel offers a number of facilities (such as sauna and swimming pool) as well as activities (various sports, horseriding, etc) all within the hotel complex.
Yet another feature of the Soviet era was the spa hotels which provided various therapeutic treatments for their guests. More and more of these are being upgraded, most noticeably in the town of Jermuk. They combine their medical and hotel functions and are often relatively inexpensive for the facilities offered. It is perfectly possible to stay there without being a patient but prices usually include treatment (and full board) whether you take it or not.
Motel-type accommodation, often associated with roadside eating places on the main routes, is increasing rapidly. Such accommodation is often newly built and pleasant. Hostel accommodation in Armenia is limited. There are a few hostels in Yerevan and a small amount of YMCA accommodation in Spitak. Homestays (Armenia’s term for bed and breakfast establishments) are available throughout the country and provide a real insight into Armenian family life particularly as generally excellent meals can be organised. The one real snag is, of course, the language barrier but many visitors enjoy homestays in spite of this.
Even if you cannot manage to stay in a private home, do try to fit in one or two home-cooked meals.
Homestays, invariably safe and usually very comfortable, can be arranged through one of the Yerevan travel agents or one of the few regional information centres. (It is not unknown for tourists simply to ask around when they arrive in a village, but of course there is an element of potluck in this method.) There will be only one bathroom for everyone, both you and the household. Expect to pay about AMD10,000 per person for a twin room including breakfast plus about AMD4,000 per person for dinner – including drinks. You will need to give the hostess enough time to prepare an evening meal (eg: requesting it at breakfast time or the previous day) but you’ll get a feast. A lighter meal of salads, cheese, etc can usually be provided at much shorter notice. Also, it’s usually best to buy some wine yourself, or you’ll probably end up with a choice of vodka or sweet red wine.
Even if you cannot manage to stay, do try to fit in one or two home-cooked meals. As with homestay accommodation, such meals can be organised through one of the Yerevan travel agents. While the water situation has improved greatly in most parts of Armenia, some rural places still face difficulties and water may only be available for limited periods each day. Occasionally you may have to fill the WC cistern by ladling water stored in the bath. Hot water may not be continuously available everywhere.
Rented accommodation can be arranged through Yerevan travel agents and is a good option for those wishing to stay for more than a day or two. The price varies according to the standard and size of apartment; expect to pay AMD14,000–27,000 per day for a one-bedroom apartment. Many Soviet-era flats have an unpromising approach, with dark, dilapidated stairways and lifts that do not always function, but the flats themselves are usually spacious and comfortable. Hyur Service can arrange rented accommodation.
It is possible to camp anywhere except on private property and in the national reserves. There are no permanent campsites as found in the West. Some tour operators do include camping during their treks and one enterprise in Tavush province offers a riverside campsite.
Peak season is usually late May/June to the end of October, although for accommodation in winter sports areas, winter is the peak season (and here, at weekends, it can be very busy). Even in the peak summer season it should not be difficult for individual visitors to find accommodation although the choice is obviously greater if you book in advance. Groups do need to book in peak season.
Prices usually include breakfast although in a significant minority of establishments, both small and large, breakfast is extra. Where this is the case the cost is stated in individual accommodation entries. Breakfast rarely costs more than AMD2,000. A few hotels do not include tax in their price; this is noted in the listings. Armenia is a cash-based society and, although cards are becoming more widely accepted, most accommodation (apart from big hotels in Yerevan and some other towns) has to be paid for in cash or by bank transfer. Although the position may change, it should be assumed that cards are not accepted unless it is positively stated that they are.
Some hotels offer lower prices outside their peak season. One person occupying a double room will usually pay less than two people occupying the same room – the iniquitous single-occupancy surcharge has not reached Armenia. Often there will be a range of prices for double/twin rooms in hotels. The price depends on the size of room and whether there is a separate sitting room.