Welcome to Armenia – the country of good people and excellent food.

We invite you to make an extraordinary journey filled with adventure and to explore the unique nature and cultural heritage of Armenia following the footsteps of participants of art-expedition Travedding Armenia, organised in the framework of Creative mountains project in a week of September 2-9, 2023.

The art-expedition kicked off by a meeting of its international participants in the capital city of Yerevan. Today the modern bustling city, steeped in history, is a vibrant metropolis worth a short stop. However, the first full day of exploring unique nature and cultural heritage of Armenia started after leaving the hot capital city.  By stopping on the way at the Arch of Charenc monument, it became clear from the view on the landscape one enters a different type of the world as if escaping the present.

The first destination of the day itinerary, the medieval monastery of Geghard (a UNESCO world heritage site) with its mountain backdrop and vocal singers eludes the atmosphere of the bygone times. The nearby town of Garni is not less fascinating with its hilltop fortress dominated by a restored pagan temple.

After enjoying tasty Armenian food for lunch in Garni having the temple and mountains in the view, the next surprise was around the corner. Below the fortress on the rocky outcrop lies a gorge modeled by extraordinary basalt columns, which the locals call aptly the symphony of stones.

Alongside this extraordinary work of nature, the surrounding mountains (protected area) give space for nesting birds of prey. We were lucky to see the nest of a very rare Egyptian vulture. The first day of the art expedition ended by a great dinner and traditional Armenian music and dances at Tavern Yerevan.

Even Armenia is known for its medieval monasteries perched on rocky outcrops surrounded by mountains, one should notice that the climate together with fertile volcanic soils make a great combination for producing tasty wines, sweet fruits and array of different vegetables. So not surprisingly on the second day when we travelled through the green Ararat valley, next to the well-known Khor Virap monastery under the spectacular Ararat Mountain (often depicted on souvenirs) one can discover two more treasures.

The first one is Khor Virap wetland contrasting with the surrounding dry land. The wetland destroyed during the socialist period is being restored and an educational trail being created there. The place is important for local climate and for birds. We had the luck to observe rare birds such as marsh harrier, black kite or whiskered tern. The other surprise awaited us in the nearby village Pokr Vedi where Harutyun Hovhannisyan lives with his family and in the footsteps of his grandfather produces traditional organic wines and fruit liquors. After learning how to prepare tolma (minced meat wrapped in grape leaves), we had it as a treat for lunch with wine tasting in his cool modern cellar hidden from baking sun. For the remaining part of the day, the group visited a bit touristy, but fascinating Noravank valley with Magellan cave and the medieval Noravank monastery set in beautiful mountains.

The third full day of the art expedition in Armenia took us to the little known village Yeghegis tucked in spectacular mountain scenery. We stayed in an amazing hotel Arevi built from ship containers by a world-travelled moutaineer who decided to start a small hotel business to support ecotourism in the local community. Alongside its sustainability features like using solar energy the hotel also serves its own delicious wine and food produced by local villagers. After some wildlife observation from the hotel patio in the morning, we split into two groups. The first group exlored the surrounding mountains on foot on well maintained trails and went to the impressive Smbataberd fortress which offers spectatular views.

The second group went by car to the famous Jermak waterfall. In the evening, the group rested and had a chance to learn about NABU Armenia and its activities as it was the organizer of the art expedition. Then we had an opportunity to learn from local ladies how the traditional bread lavash is made. The day ended with live music and local wine testing.

The fourth day of the art expedition was sunny again. It looks like there is no rain in Armenia. We bid farewell to the Yeghegis village and drove on a spectacular road to cross the Selim pass at the altitude of 2400 m above sea level. The pass was once part of the ancient Silk Road of which a passerby is reminded by a still standing historic building of Selim Caravanserai – the former resting place of merchants and traders passing here with their horses and camels.

After the pass the landscape changes as we enter a mountain plateau dominated by a very large Sevan lake and dormant volcano Argmaghan. Here we go first to a village called Horatus close to the lakeshore. It is an old place, now visited by tourists especially for its largest cemetery with Armenian khachkars – impressive elaborately carved memorial steles with a cross. But there is one more attraction in Noratus why we came – Mikayelyan’s family cheese farm. There are not many places in the world where you can taste high quality cheese made with Ararat brandy, wine or mountain herbs. It was a real treat for tastebuds trying 10 different varieties of homemade mature cheese combined with local fruit, smoked ham, lavash bread and wine. The degustation experience resembled slow food tasting in Austria or Italy.

The last place on the programme for the fourth day, still staying at the altitude above 2000 m, is Tatoyan’s mill in a village called Nerkin Getashen near the Sevan lake. The restored mill with a green roof is still in use and can grind wheat into flour the traditional way, its grinding stones are turned by power of flowing water. The family owning the historic mill also runs a nice guesthouse with a garden to chill out. After seeing how the mill operates, we had a chance to observe how the sweet bread called gata is made. Of course we could try it when was baked. It was delicious.

The fifth day of art expedition #travedding started with hearty breakfast from local products at the Tatoyan’s mill. After saying good bye to our host, the group went to explore the Sevan lake – the largest freshwater body in the Causasus region with its alluring turquoise blue water and national park status. In the morning we enjoyed bird-watching at its western shore, in the afternoon we spent time at the old Sevanavank monastery and its attractive surroundings. Afterwards the route took us through a tunnel to the Tavush region where the dry steppe around the Sevan lake was replaced by lush forested hills. This nice area is another national park and our first stop was at the Aghavnavank village (translated as a pidgeon monastery village) at the guesthouse called Aghavnatun (meaning a pidgeon house). The owner of the guesthouse is also a winemaker producing specialty wines from handpicked native Armenian sorts of grapes. You may wonder why a pidgeon is used in local names. The answer of the guy was that a pidgeon symbolizes peace and peace is needed in Armenia, in Ukraine and everywhere else in the world.

The sixth day of the #travedding art expedition was devoted to the green heart of Armenia known for visitors as Dilijan National Park. We started the day with the discovery of the ancient Haghartsin monastery (its name means a nest of eagles) which is nestled in lush broadleaved forests in the picturesque mountains. In the middle of the national park, we also visited Parz lake surrounded by old woods, unfortunately an area turned commercial and serves more for entertainment than tranquil escape into nature. A wilder place for us was the Ijevan state sanctuary with astonishing mountain scenery and wildlife. The evening belonged to local music and gastronomy. We spent it in Yenokavan village at the Berkri gastro yard and guesthouse with the owner’s family. We had an opportunity to bake a proper Armenian stonebread, taste local wine and food accompanied by mellow live music performed by the talented Hatik band.

The seventh day of the #traveddning art expedition continued with a trip to Tavush – a village in the northeastern corner of Armenia. For the first time, there were rain and fog in the mountains. But this change of weather could not spoil the good mood in the group. When arriving at Tavush we were warmly greeted by Gnel Nazanyan who created a successful herbal tea production company in the village giving work to local people. The tea products bear the name Darman – meaning medicine as herbal infusions can heal both body and soul.  No wonder Darman teas are in demand and are exported to many countries, because as we witnessed they are produced with care and love. But it is important to know how to drink the tea properly. So we were initiated how to savour it by a tea ceremony at the bank of the wild mountain river Varagajur. After enjoying the delicious tea alfresco, Gerel invited us all for barbecue and drinks.

In the morning of the eighth day of the art expedition we were woken up by some rain. However, we sticked to our programme to visit an old yew grove near the Aghavnavank village. Before seeing the rare old yew trees, seldom growing in wild nature in such numbers, we passed along an old St. Astvatsatsin church where we met a young priest who gave us a blessing. Not far from the stony church, darker needles of yew trees predominate in the woods – some of these trees are older than 300 years. This is a real natural treasure of Armenia. Before heading to Yerevan, we had our lunch in a chef house in Tsaghkunk. It is another example how a cook with international experience can create a gastronomic retreat far from a city based on local quality food products and fabulous recipes. He showed us his skills by preparing a garden salad, i.e. fresh salad made from beetroot, pears, rucola and other ingredients from his garden. We rounded off the day in Yerevan with a farewell dinner at a riverside tavern with live music and dance.

What an amazing art expedition it was.

Text: Jozef Bednar

Video: Jakub Antypenko

Photo: Jakub Antypenko, Vladimir Sifra

Posted on September, 26, 2023


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