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Armenia - The author’s take
In the English-speaking world, an individual’s knowledge of this fascinating country generally falls into one of two categories. Most people know nothing about it at all, not even where it is. The others, a small minority, not only speak the Armenian language, although neither they nor their parents were born in Armenia, but also have some knowledge of Armenian culture and Armenia’s often tragic history.
(Photo: An ornately carved stone khachkar © Maria Oleinik)
When it comes to who actually visits Armenia nowadays the numbers in the two categories are more evenly balanced. The explanation is that Armenia has one of the most successful and supportive diasporas in the world and that present-day Armenia is very dependent on them. So far as Nagorno Karabagh is concerned, the contrast is even more stark with the diaspora being wholly familiar with its recent past while few others would claim even to have heard of it, apart from those who are well informed politically and might recall its name as the scene of some half-remembered conflict around the time that the Soviet Union disintegrated.
Most people know nothing at all about this captivating country, not even where it is.
Armenia is actually a very easy country to visit. Its people are overwhelmingly friendly, helpful and welcoming: I have only ever once encountered an unhelpful and unwelcoming attitude in my travels around the country. Many tourists no longer need a visa to enter the country, and those who do can easily get one either over the internet, paying for it by credit card, or upon arrival in Armenia. There is relatively little crime and the risk of theft or being short-changed is much less than in most other European countries.
Is Armenia in Europe? It certainly feels far more like a southern European country than an Asian one and it is a member of the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. In addition, the Armenian people have been Christian for 1,700 years and from 1828 to 1991 they were ruled by another country whose culture, the Bolshevik Revolution notwithstanding, was fundamentally Christian. On a more practical level, Armenia has an international telephone dialling code (374) in the European sequence and the British post office charges the European rate for letters sent to Armenia from Britain.
By contrast to these factors making it easy to visit Armenia, the main drawback is the language barrier, although even this is becoming less of a concern in places used to dealing with tourists. However, outside the main tourist locations in Yerevan and the larger hotels in the regions, few people speak English or any other western European language. The main second language is, and is likely to remain, Russian, so visitors travelling on their own may well find it convenient to consider employing an English-speaking guide or driver or else arranging accommodation in advance. Either can be done through one of the Yerevan travel agents or an overseas agent who specialises in the country.
The infrastructure continues to improve with good hotel accommodation now available in most places. However, there are still parts of the country where homestays remain the best option, providing an insight into Armenian family life. Roads are also improving. Most main routes now have a good asphalt surface although secondary roads can still be poor. While all villages can be reached by minibus there are many places of interest which are not served by public transport. For these, one of Armenia’s cheap taxis is a viable alternative. If hiring a car, it is generally cheaper to hire one with a driver than to drive oneself, although the car may then be older. Depending on the expected destinations a 4x4 vehicle can be requested, essential for getting to some places and quite helpful for many others. Good road maps are available but the lack of detailed maps for walking, such as the British Ordnance Survey maps, means that Armenia’s vast potential for hiking remains relatively difficult to access for the independent visitor.
As well as the improvement in hotels and roads most towns, especially the capital, have seen much new building and a significant improvement in the reliability of the water supply. On the other hand, many villages remain largely unaltered. Huge advances have been made on the technological side with Armenia leap-frogging from an antiquated and cumbersome Soviet-era telephone system to one of the most advanced mobile phone and internet systems. Armenia is changing rapidly and it is likely that some comments made in this book will quickly be superseded.
Many of the best things in Armenia have not changed: the hospitality of the people, the wonderful quality of seasonal fruit and vegetables, its magnificent landscapes and the abundant ancient sites, both prehistoric and medieval. It remains a country well worth visiting.
The amount of information available to tourists has increased almost unbelievably. At many historic sites welcome information boards, in several languages, have sprung up and there has been an improvement in museum displays and labelling, although much remains to be done. A significant amount of restoration of historic sites has been, and is being, carried out, some of it good, some of it questionable.
Political and economic problems remain for Armenia. Perhaps the most obvious to visitors is the unresolved question of the status of Nagorno Karabagh, resulting in the continued closure by Azerbaijan and Turkey of their respective borders with Armenia. The refusal of Turkey to recognise as genocide the 1915 massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire continues to influence Armenia’s relations with Turkey. There is also the question of how far Armenia can develop closer links with Europe in the light of the 2013 agreement to participate in the planned formation of a Russia-led economic union of former Soviet states, the Eurasian Union.
Armenia has so much to offer visitors. It will never become a mainstream tourist destination like Mallorca or Florida but few visitors to Armenia leave disappointed, apart from wishing that they had had more time in the country.
After centuries of foreign domination Armenia is now once again an independent nation preserving for future generations its unique heritage. Many of the best things in Armenia have not changed: the hospitality of the people, the wonderful quality of seasonal fruit and vegetables, its magnificent landscapes and the abundant ancient sites, both prehistoric and medieval. It remains a country well worth visiting.
Fishermen on Lake Sevan © Maria Oleinik
My husband and I first went to Armenia in 2001, on holiday. We were enthralled by the country: its landscapes, the wild flowers, the many medieval monasteries and churches, its unique alphabet, the welcome given to us, its complex history at so many crossroads – geological, historical, political and religious. But there were frustrations. There was virtually no information in Armenia itself. Even road signs were in short supply. Yes, there was internet information but how many printouts can be packed before a suitcase is overweight? Many times we bewailed the absence of a practical and informative guidebook, such as the Bradt guides we had used elsewhere.
I continue to find the country endlessly fascinating and have come to realise how much more there is to be known than Nick and I ever grasped during our early visits.
So when, after our return, Nick was asked to write the first Bradt guide to Armenia he accepted willingly. We enjoyed getting to know the country better and feeling that we were making some contribution. It was also hard work! It wasn’t just the journeys on dreadfully pot-holed roads but also the research involved. I remember Nick once spent the whole day researching an apparently authoritative statement that a certain cave held a colony of fruit bats. Fruit bats? In Armenia? It turned out that the species of bat referred to wasn’t fruit-eating at all and it was in fact quite another species which actually inhabited the cave!
Armenia has been one of the things which has helped me to cope with the enormous gap left in my life by Nick’s death. I continue to find the country endlessly fascinating and have come to realise how much more there is to be known than we ever grasped during our early visits. I hope the new edition reflects at least some of this increased appreciation of what Armenia was and is, and what it has to offer the visitor. From the start our hope was that the Bradt guide to Armenia would inform and make a visit there even more enjoyable than it is bound to be. That continues to be my hope for the new edition.