It feels like I spent a week on the waltzers and in truth, I am still a bit giddy. Part of me blames Charles Masraff of Armenian Wine Importers Ltd who introduced me to Trinity 6100 Rose, a most delicious pale pink wine, made just outside Areni, a couple of hours north of where I live. Though calling to mind shells, rose petals and a pearly, early sunrise, this deceptively innocent wine is a scheming siren —once tasted the unwary drinker is forever hooked. Trinity 601-fueled, no wonder the last couple of weeks have been a blur–a rich mix of people, flavors, textures and sights that left my heart bursting, my feet blistering and my iphone buckling under the weight of so many new contacts, and so many must-have photos. The spur to all this excitement was the arrival of my first visitors from the outside world— Valerie and Richard came for seven days, all the way from the UK. It was just great to have them here.
The first delight was the discovery of the Bakery at 14 Vardanants Street in Yerevan, a cake-lovers’ cubby hole with hard-baked ornaments hung from the ceiling, and walls decorated by sweet nothings scrawled in marker pen by pastryphiles from all over the world. I represented Belfast (they already had a tart testimonial from Washington DC) by eating a large slice of coffee cake on day one, peach cake on day two, and a croissant on day three. I can recommend them all. Cake was in order as the weekend marked the 2,799th birthday of Yerevan Armenia’s capital, edging us into existence before the founding of Rome.
The occasion was marked by giant hot air balloons floating high, and smaller blow-ups fixed to every doorway, arch and railing. In the evening, there were fireworks and of course the fountains danced.
During the day, the Opera building was swarmed by city kids competing in chess, and martial arts contests, and proving that they could paint better than most of the street artists who typically exhibit their work.
Picture credits: Valerie Burke-Ward
The place was thronged by boys: out, about and engaged. Typically in Armenia, hobbies, exhibitions and all kinds of educational activities seem to attract only girls, but for Yerevan’s big birthday the boys were out in force. It was good to see.
Bellinis with fresh peach juice to toast the city, a few more pillars, monuments, arches and domes and it was time for dinner–a cheese plate and Thai appetizers at Wine Republic. (Thanks Valerie and Richard for making this Peace Corps Volunteer very happy). I would probably have lost all reason at this point were it not for the fact that V&R had hauled Wensleydale and cheddar, red curry paste and mango chutney in their checked bags all the way from Tesco in Taunton. I ate heartily at Wine Republic and hugged to myself the knowledge that I had more world-class cheese and spicy doings at home. Valerie’s fitbit recorded 17,000 steps. Let it be noted that my legs are much shorter than hers. I’m rounding my score up to 20,000, a personal best.
More walking on Sunday when two Irish, two English and two Armenians took the hill: Kond is the Armenian for “long hill’ and the name for a series of steep, narrow streets close to the center of Yerevan. Houses here date from the 16th century (Yes, when Yerevan was a mere 2200 years old). Once the the redoubt of Persian Muslims, few tourists–and indeed few locals–trouble to go to Kond today. Most of the buildings are rickety even by Armenian standards, but here and there are signs of creeping gentrification. One coat of ice-cream coloured paint and the whole place could become an inland Positano or a Caucasian version of Hull’s Land of Green Ginger, the Shambles in York, or one of those Greek villages that feature in the movie Mamma Mia.
Vagham from Gloria taxis picked us up punctually at 10 to take us to Jermuk. He’d brought some fresh walnuts and a flask of cognac for us all to share— Armenians are nothing if not hospitable. My beloved Ararat presented herself well— only a modest covering of cloud, which worked much like a crocheted, cobwebby wrap designed to show off a beautiful neck and shoulders. Two monasteries, a wine-tasting and miles of tortured tarmac later we hiccuped into Jermuk. The rain began to fall. We were expected in a chilly classroom and found it warmed by the crackling energy of the women and girls who form Raising The Future, a social enterprise making and selling handicrafts. Channeling our inner Kate Middleton and Melania, Valerie and I worked hard to deserve the excitement our visit seemed to have generated. Lilit, in the role of translator,worked hard to find a gap in the women’s enthusiastic flow of answers and questions to tell us what was being said. The group have high ideals and big plans for the future of their collective, that much was clear. We invested in some dolls made of string and dressed in national costume. The felt mustaches are particularly effective I feel.
A quick walk round the man-made lake in Jermuk and a chance to take the waters at the mineral springs. Despite the beauty of the autumn trees and the expert carvings of distinguished looking Armenians I can’t yet identify, the highlight of the visit was the chance to snoop inside a derelict Soviet hotel. Weeds grow on window sills now and the property has been pillaged for wood and tile. Fixtures and fittings are long gone but a line-up of the burghers of Armenia remains. May the day come when this fine old building can be restored and turned into a dance hall or a chess school, a hi-tech production shop or indoor market. It’s a shame to waste it.