Travelling to Armenia with Artak Oganesyan

Once you travel to Armenia and see it with your own eyes, you will definitely fall in love with it. Armenia endows the travellers with unforgettable impressions and the pleasure of knowing the hospitality and sincere friendliness of Armenian people.

Travelling to Armenia is like travelling back in time and experiencing its several thousand-year old history. The famous British poet Lord Byron, a great admirer of Armenian culture, who learned the Armenian language in the Armenian monastery in Venice, wrote in his memoirs: “Armenian is the language to speak with God.” It’s not surprising, because at the dawn of history, Armenia was the cradle of civilization. It was in Armenia, on top of the Biblical Mount Ararat where Noah with his ark found refuge from the Great Flood, after which he planted in the Ararat Valley the first grape vine. Armenia is the first country to have adopted Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD. The first Cathedral of the world, Etchmiadzin, this year visited by Pope Francisis, is here, in Armenia.

Armenia is like an open-air museum with its captivating landscapes and many miracles of nature, as well as its unique monuments of human culture – temples, monasteries, churches and the infamous ‘khachkars’, the high carved stone-crosses, a fascinating symbol of Armenia’s cultural and religious heritage.

Today we are travelling to Armenia with Artak Oganesyan.

Currently living in Moscow, the Business Development Director at EPAM Systems, Artak Oganesyan was born in Yerevan, where he spent his childhood and also his youth, studying at Yerevan State University School of Physics and Mathematics. As his grandparents lived in the town of Ararat, Artak has always had a special connection with the region of the Ararat Valley. It is here that he first brought his Moscow friends in 2007, and since that time it has become a tradition for Artak to invite his friends for exciting trips to Armenia. He carefully collects photos taken during the trips and publishes the best ones in “Armenia through my friends’ eyes” albums on his Facebook page. Artak also makes beautiful pencil sketches and drawings of the impressive Armenian landscape.

We are delighted to have this opportunity to talk to Artak Oganesyan about Armenia, its hospitable people, the rich cultural heritage and the delicious Armenian cuisine.

Dear Artak, it is a well-known fact that there are many Armenians who are scattered around the globe but still feel close connection to the land of their ancestors. What does Armenia mean to you personally? And how did your regular travelling to Armenia begin?

I was born in Armenia. I lived in Yerevan till my graduation from the State University in 1995. There was a period of four years of my schooldays when our family lived in Moscow. That predestined my relocation to Russia. There were reasons like job and professional growth behind that decision. But I feel close connection to both countries. Armenia is my motherland and homeland. But Russia is my homeland too.

There are many occasions to go to Armenia for me. First of all, I visit my family and relatives. My every trip to Yerevan or Ararat town is like returning to my childhood and studentship. I am happy to meet my school and university friends. There are not only old friends but lots of new ones, the majority of them are from Ayb Educational Hub and the community around it: founders, club members, teachers, students and the alumni.

And I always do my best to combine each opportunity to go to Armenia with travelling with my friends and colleagues.

Every country has its special distinctive features. We speak of “art de vivre” when travelling to southern France, or the Italian “joy of life”. Could you name the most vivid impressions that first time visitors to Armenia experience and take with them?

More than eighty people have come to Armenia with me so far. All of them speak favourably of the country. They mention warm-hearted people and the sunlit land.

Luys Mari, a character of the performance by the Moscow Armenian Theatre, says that dried apricots are small pieces of sun. The apricot is one of the symbols of Armenia, and every guest takes a warm piece of sun with him or her from Armenia, in their hands and in their hearts. “The Sun in the Heart”.

Saint Hripsime Church, Etchmiadzin

Armenians all over the world use amazing words like “djan” (“darling”), “djigyar” (“sweetheart”), “tsavt tanem” (I will take away your pain) in their everyday speech. These words can hardly be translated into other languages, but express the true soulful, heartful attitude to another person. Could you tell more about this warmth and heartiness of Armenian people?

People everywhere appreciate kind attitude to each other. Armenians value human relationship much more than anybody else. An Armenian may care about a neighbour or a friend or even an unknown guest not less than about his or her family.

Perhaps, people have learnt such selfless behaviour because of centuries of hardship, when neither power nor wealth nor anything else really matter, but caring of each other does.

Armenia is so rich in its cultural heritage, its Christian churches, monasteries and many historical sights preserved since ancient times. What are your favourite routes, and what places are in the must-see list?

Nowadays Armenia is a small territory, but any tourist can find very different historic sites to explore.

The sharp rocks named Kara-Hounge (sounds like English Stonehenge, “kar” means “stone”) witnessed rituals of people who lived several or even dozen thousand years ago. It is a very old open-air religious temple. It is also known as Speaking Stones. Probably, it was used as a prehistoric astronomical observatory. Another name is Zorats Karer, or Army Stone. There is another version, which claims it was used as a place of worship.

The colourful frescoes on the walls of Erebouni Fortress witnessed the ceremonies held by ambassadorial delegations from ancient Babylon and Assyria to Urartu three thousand years ago.

Karahounge, Armenia’s Stonehenge

Can you imagine that Khosrov Forest is one of the oldest protected national parks in the world? The reserve to improve the climate near the capital city Artashat was founded by King Khosrov III who ruled the Kingdom of Armenia from 330 until 339. It was more than 17 centuries ago.

The columns of the Temple of Garni experienced the transition from Hellenistic era to Christianity. It was built in the first century AD as a pagan temple to Mihr, the God of Sun and later converted into a summer royal residence of Armenian Kings.

The deep pit at the Khor Virap monastery tells the story of the Gregory the Illuminator to pilgrims: 13 years of imprisonment, the miraculous cure of King Tiridates, and the proclamation of Christianity as the state religion of Armenia in 301 AD.

The cave cells and carved out of the adjacent mountain church of Geghard monastery house sacred relics including the spear which had wounded Jesus at the Crucifixion on the Cross, allegedly brought to Armenia by Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew.

Armenian «khachkar» (carved stone cross)

The tourist can observe the development of religion, science, art and philosophy over the centuries when visiting medieval monasteries and universities such as Tatev, Haghpat, Haghartsin and Goshavanq.

The broken battlement of Kakavaberd, Tavoush Amrots, Alidzor, Amberd and other fortresses keep the memory of defenders against the many waves of invaders from ancient times to the bloody turn of the XIX and XX centuries.

The rosy and apricot-colour tuff stone decorates squares and streets of modern Yerevan, with the Republic Square and the Opera Building reflecting the revival of the nation by the 1930-40s.

The mixture of traditional and modern architecture of Tumo Creative Centre, Ayb School and UWC Dilijan College lays the foundation for the future of Armenia!

Noravank

It is certainly not possible to see everything during a short travel. What are the particularly significant places to see in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia?

I would recommend to enjoy the lights of the evening city if you are short in time. It is a moment when a light cool breeze flies into the downtown after a hot summer day.

Start your walking journey at the foot of the Cascade Stairway. Climb to the top of the hill using escalators or steps. Have fun looking round at the grotesque and amusing collection of modern sculptures. Relax after a day of sightseeing near fountains at each level of the Cascade.

Yerevan, the capital of Armenia with the view of Mount Ararat

After that, go to Abovyan street via Sayat-Nova. Listen to loud voices of townspeople and vacationers, the latter represent diasporas from all over the globe. Try to guess which language is used by guests and tourists who speak in low tones.

Stop at the Republic Square among the crowd of people waiting for the Fountain Show. Let dancing and iridescent jets of water astound you. Share your emotions with strangers, and you will see smiles around.

Walk through the North Avenue to the Opera. Find a nice café with a view to the Swan Lake where lights of the night city are trembling on the water surface. Taste local coffee with delicious cakes like “ghatha” or “pakhlava”.

If you are lucky to get a table at a jazz club, then Yerevanian musicians and singers will jazz you up.

The Square of the Republic in Yerevan at night

What makes Armenia attractive for foreign tourists?

Besides the historic sites I have mentioned above, I would note the nature and the national cuisine.

Once more I’d like to remind how small the territory of the country is. Nevertheless, tourists can find different landscapes and types of climate here.

A friend of mine, a photographer from Portugal, named his photo album depicting one day in Armenia “Four Seasons”. We had sunny summer in the Ararat Valley; spring forests with bare branches and first flowers near Gosh; red and yellow autumn colours at the banks of Sevan lake; white winter with cold wind on the hills of Tsakhkadzor skiing resort. That was December 11.

Come to Armenia for picturesque and breathtaking panoramas of Mount Ararat from the Valley, or the chain of fold mountains from the Syunik mountain range, or the rock ‘organs’ near Noravank, the bright light turquoise surface of Sevan lake from the hilltop of the peninsula and many other beautiful views.

What route or what special sights and activities would you advise for a nostalgic journey to Armenia for the Armenians living abroad?

If we are speaking about nostalgia, then we mean people who used to live in Armenia. In that case I am sure that they know where to go. I believe that they will go to their yards where they spent their childhood. Yards in the old Kond or Sari Tagh where laundry was hung on clotheslines across balconies full of dwellers. Yards in the central quarters of Sayat-Nova or Nalbandyan streets where Tamanyan’s architecture fostered a taste of culture and art to young generations. Yards among high-rise buildings in dormitory districts like Nork or Cheryomushka, which are always seethed with noisy inhabitants.

Armenian landscape

What is the Armenian cuisine famous for and what are the must-try dishes?

Armenians are always open to adapt and to absorb new things. A good example is the cuisine. We have not only original dishes but also the ones which are taken from neighbouring nations. European, Mediterranean or Middle-Eastern food was altered by repatriates when they came to Armenia.

When we visit Garni we always buy ‘sudjoukh’ of a few fruit syrups. After being amazed with Geghard mysteries, my guests are so hungry that they eat very sweet local ‘ghatha’ without tea and coffee, just drinking pure water. By the way, water in Armenia is very clean and savoury because of springs falling from mountain glaciers. That is why all vegetables and fruit are so juicy. The water is rich of minerals and almost all-the-year-round solar heat.

The travelling team can slake their thirst and hunger by a good portion of fresh salad, boiled or grilled vegetables, beans and greens (even weeds). Of course, Russian tourists expect Caucasian barbecue meat known as ‘shashlik’ or ‘khorovats’, and they find variety of them. Once near the Sevan lake we tasted kebab made of meat of crawfish. Classic Armenian menu consists of ‘dolma’, ‘aylazan’, ‘bozbash’, ‘khashlama’, ‘tzhvzhik’, ‘harisa’, ‘qyufta’, ‘plov’, ‘khash’; and each one is cooked in a different way in various regions. Oh, what about starters and “things to share” like ‘basturma’, meat ‘sudjoukhs’, cheeses, saltings, marinades, pickles! Soups like ‘spas’, ‘kololik’, ‘vospi apur’, and others. It is an endless list. I like the name of one of the dishes illustrating how tasty is everything here: “ker-u-sous”, which means “eat-and-shut-up”!

Noravank Canyon rocks

What are the best places to try the original Armenian cuisine?

The HoReCa sector is fast-growing in Armenia, more and more restaurants and cafés appear each year. All of them have nice interior and creative design concepts. They provide both traditional and distinctive choices of menu. But I prefer the type of restaurants which is called “object”. I do not know the origins of the name. A typical “object” is located not far from the road outside the settlements. It may be a big pavilion or several small summer or garden houses. It may be hidden under trees of the forest, or it may be very well visible because it is on the hilltop or high on the hillside. An “object” may be located on the bank of a quick mountain stream or lazy slow river. If you are in Yerevan at lunch or dinner time I would recommend to drive to the bottom of Razdan canyon where series of extraordinary “objects” welcome visitors.

Could you tell about Armenian wines and the world-renowned Armenia’s historic cognac, which is said to have been the favourite of Winston Churchill. Would you recommend visiting the wineries or the renowned Yerevan Brandy Company?

Back to Soviet Union epoch everybody knew that Georgia produced wine while Armenia specialized in cognac. That stereotype is gone. Archaeologists found winery in Areni nearby Arpa river, which is approximately six thousand years old. There is a great variety of endemic grapes: Areni Black, Voskeat, Kangun, Akhtanak, Karmrakhut, Anahit, Khndogni. Armenia brings to the global markets not only its famous brandy but also good wine brands like Karas and Zorah.

The Yerevan Brandy Company, “Ararat” factory building

As for cognac, I strongly advise to get tours to two factories: “Ararat” (part of Pernod Ricard group) and “Noy”. The latter occupies the territory of the first brandy production plant built by Nerses Tairyan in 1887 and extended by Nikolay Shustov later in 1900. The Yerevan Brandy Company holding the brand “Ararat” is located in a new plant complex, which was built in 1953 on the top of the hill on the opposite side of Razdan canyon. The tour to either factory combines an interesting excursion with the degustation of the legendary noble drink.

Could you share any remarkable or memorable experience that happened to you or your friends when travelling in Armenia?

You know the most remarkable experience was communication to people we met during our journeys.

The family of the motor mechanic who hosted us when our car was broken. We cannot forget their hospitality and cordiality!

The talkative woman who baked ‘lavash’ (traditional Armenian bread). We spent more than half an hour near her ‘tonyr’ (type of oven) listening to her stories.

The philosopher ‘choban’ (shepherd) who answered our questions about the direction and neighborhood with brief sentences, each of which was a well-formed aphorism.

The boastful countryman selling corn near the road. He told us dozen of stories about his fellow-villagers. Looks like everyone from that area traveled to Russia or America in search for a job, and became a lucky merchant. We called that village Qaj Nazaryants in honor of Nazar the Brave, the hero of a popular Armenian tale.

The joyful company of hunters we accidentally met at the Selim Pass. We were invited to share their food and home-made ‘kizil’ (dogwood) vodka. The makeshift wooden table was almost like medieval ‘caravanserai’, quite symbolic.

The man with the notable mustache in the Khor Virap monastery. He said nothing. He just smiled when he was asked to pose for a photo. He made a serious stern face in front of cameras. He is very popular in the Internet and one of his portraits has won a photo competition.

Let me finish my story with memories of the Noravank monastery. The abbot wins everybody’s favor by his friendly and affable conversations. He gives his works, high-quality printed photo views of churches, and his wise words, in a form of short parables, to guests who approach him.

Drawing by Artak Oganesyan

We know that you are fond of drawing. Do you usually draw in nature? When did you start drawing? Could you tell more about your drawings and the process?

It is an amateur hobby. I did not learn painting or drawing. My passion to impressionism made me undertake first attempts in copying favorite artists. I was a high school student. The majority of my paintings and drawings are sceneries, because this is a way to share my impressions of travelling with the audience.

That is why many of my works are about Armenia: mountains and rocks, roads and streets, churches and old houses, forests and lakes.

Drawing by Artak Oganesyan

By the way, when my cousins were repairing the garage I decided to restore the paintings on the gates. My grandfather used to paint not only on canvas but also on walls and gates. Welcome to the house of our family in Ararat city to take a look on ‘jeyran’ and ‘mouflon’ on the garage gates (these gazelle and wild sheep inhabit the Armenian highlands).

Painted gates in Artak’s grandfather’s house in Ararat city

What are the gifts or souvenirs to take home from Armenia, in addition to a bottle of wine or cognac?

I do not recommend souvenirs. I just bring my guests to the Vernissage, a sort of flea market in Yerevan, and let them find something there. One likes carpets, another prefers silver household goods, women admire jewellery with selection of semi-precious and precious stones, antique-lovers are looking for a windfall like an authentic ‘duduk’ (traditional musical instrument), and so on, and so forth.

Also, I always plan a stop near a farmer’s market and guide my team to counters of dried fruits. There are so many beautiful and delicious combinations of dried apricots, peaches, pears, cherries, plums, melons, watermelons and nuts.

Everybody should bring small pieces of sun from Armenia: either fresh or dried apricots.

Are there any practical tips for travelling to Armenia that you can share?

I do not think that there are any specific tips for travellers. If you have an Armenian friend then you need nothing, just enjoy people, architecture, art, nature and food. To the point, I recalled two tips. Don’t eat too much starters and salads because the main course is coming. The second hint is don’t eat too much meat and fish because delicious dessert is coming next.

Are there any guide-books that you would advise to get before starting the journey? Or what preparations to make?

Hmmm, I cannot recollect any guide-book, but I am sure that there should be good ones. I would advise to read a couple of fables by Hovhannes Tumanyan, watch a few paintings by Martiros Saryan, browse pictures of sculptures by Ervand Kochar, listen to music by Aram Khachaturyan, watch “The Colour of Pomegranates” film by Sergey Parajanov and at least one of the cartoons by Robert Sahakyants. And you will be prepared to discover Armenia.

What are the most important words to learn for the travel to Armenia?

“Barev” (Hello), “Shnorhakalutyun” (Thank you) and the rest must-have words can be found in all phrase-books. Let’s learn a few sunny words: the sun is “arev”, an apricot is “tsiran”, a smile is “zhpit”, laughter is “tsitsagh”, and love is “ser” (with soft “r” at the end).

With Love, Artak – “Sirov, Artak”

We thank Artak Oganesyan for such an amazing virtual trip and wish all our readers get an opportunity to travel to the beautiful Armenia!

Photo Credit: Artak Oganesyan