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October 17, 2004

San Francisco Chronicle

Armenia reveals ancient treasures, new life

Mountains, monasteries and modern capital

Jane Wampler, Special to The Chronicle

Yerevan, -- Armenia - On a clear autumn day, the smell of fresh cement and

the sound of chisels and hammers permeates the capital city of Armenia.

Sidewalk cafes overflow with suited businessmen and couples talk over

demitasse cups of strong, boiled coffee. Fashionable women in rimless

sunglasses and stiletto heels walk arm in arm, sidestepping wheelbarrows and

loose paving stones, and several new luxury hotels are nearly booked to


It's clear that Armenia is making a comeback. Again.

After surviving genocide, 70 years of Soviet domination, a devastating

earthquake in 1988 and millennia of foreign marauders who whittled this

once-massive kingdom to one-tenth of its size, this Eurasian country of 3

million inhabitants is reassuming its role of phoenix.

Because it was cloaked behind the Iron Curtain for most of the 20th century,

few Westerners, until recently, have glimpsed of this culturally rich,

mountain republic tucked between the Caspian and the Black seas. What only

the privileged have known, until this past decade, is that this is an

astonishingly beautiful country of high mountain lakes, snow-capped peaks,

ancient monasteries, cascading rivers and archeological ruins so impressive

they ought to be behind the velvet ropes of a museum.

Perhaps more significantly, for a region of the world more associated with

terror than tourism, many Westerners are surprised to hear that this

predominantly Christian nation -- bordered by Iran, Turkey, Georgia and

Azerbaijan -- is politically stable and welcoming to tourists.

Try to buy a single peach from a roadside fruit stand and the old woman will

wave your money away. Ask a farmer if you may take a photo of him with his

crop of newly harvested red peppers, and he will press a bag of 20 of them

into your hand, refusing payment.

The prices are particularly tourist-friendly. At Old Erivan Restaurant, one

of Yerevan's dozens of eateries that serve quality Armenian fare, my husband

and I enjoy a meal of lavash, tomato and cucumber salad, a cheese platter,

lamb stew and khorovatz (a meat and vegetable shish kebab) -- washed down

with several strong Armenian beers -- for under $15. [...]

While those who visited shortly after Armenia regained independent statehood

found gutted factories and streets stripped of trees for fuel, today they

find fountains spraying and flowers blooming along boulevards lined with

Russian olive and locust trees. Crowds of stylishly dressed mothers and

children walk down Khanjian Street to buy roasted coffee beans, potatoes,

onions, ice cream and fried sweet cakes from street vendors.

But despite Armenia's forays into modernism and self-sufficiency, the rich

and tragic past hasn't dimmed. Nor does anyone want it to: Armenia's

4,000-year-old history is its main draw.

Many consider this country the cradle of civilization. The biblical rivers

of Tigris and Euphrates originate in the original Armenia, the

16,945-foot-high snow-capped Mount Ararat (now inside Turkey's borders)

holds what many believe to be the remnants of Noah's Ark in its crevasses,

and there even is reference in the Bible to Ararat, the name of the former

Armenian kingdom.

In 301 A.D., Armenia became the first nation to embrace Christianity as a

state religion (a dozen years before Rome) -- another factor that shapes

this tiny republic's past and present tourist appeal.

A common sight from spring through fall are "monastery tours": busloads of

people on weeklong organized sightseeing excursions that shuttle from such

Hellenistic pagan temples as the 1st century Garni, to the 3rd century

Echmiadzin Cathedral, home to the Supreme Catholicos of the Armenian

Apostolic Orthodox faith. At Echmiadzin (think: Vatican but smaller)

nonbelievers mingle with pilgrims to view ancient silver chalices, bejeweled

crosses and religious relics such as a metal spearhead believed to have

pierced the side of Christ.

Group tours are plentiful, but if you want to strike out solo, consider

hiring a driver who speaks English to ferry you through the countryside, or

even to the main sites of the capital city. That's what we did during a

one-week visit in late September. We found our driver, Boris (a former

Soviet-system mathematician now struggling, like many of the highly

educated, to reinvent himself), through the Armenian Tourism Development

Agency, which was happy to supply us with a list of recommended

English-speaking guides.

We chose several sites, all southeast of Yerevan, for a 2-1/2-day excursion.

They included the famous dungeon of Khor Virap; Noravank monastery; the

historically and spiritually significant Tatev Monastery; the Bronze Age

celestial observatory, the Zorats Stones; and a natural wonder, Devil's

Bridge. Something to keep in mind: Although the map shows Armenia to be a

small country, getting from point A to point B can take longer than you

anticipate. There are no super highways here. And it takes time to wait out

cattle crossings, to dodge potholes and to wind up narrow mountain roads.


Getting there

A passport and visa are required. Three-week tourist visas are relatively

easy to obtain through the Armenian consulate in Los Angeles (for details,

click on "Consular Affairs" at www.armeniaemb.org or call 310-657-6102), or

at Zvarnots Airport upon arrival. [The embassy site also] has sightseeing

tips and lodging information under its "Discover Armenia" link. [...]

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