Boston Globe, MA
March 28 2015
At home in Armenia
By Juliet Pennington
Globe correspondent March 28, 2015
In the Monument area of Yerevan, the hammered copper figure of Mother
Armenia, her pedestal a military museum.
YEREVAN -- "What the heck?" shouted my son as he ducked and tucked his
cellphone under his shirt to shield it from the large gush of water
that had been hurled into our car's front passenger window.
On the sidewalk a few feet away were three boys with short dark hair
and large brown eyes. They could barely hold the plastic buckets they
had just emptied because they were laughing so hard and jumping around
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One of the boys, who looked to be about 10, shouted "Ayo!" ("Yes!")
with great enthusiasm, as the other two darted off to refill their
We had been in Armenia for a week, and though we were becoming
familiar with the cultural differences, we were not aware of the
annual holiday known as Vardavar, held 14 weeks after Easter and
during which young people douse unsuspecting strangers with water.
Vardavar was one of many surprises in our nearly two weeks in the
Republic of Armenia, located in the South Caucasus region of Eurasia.
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In Armenia, orphans make music with us
Many of the kids are starved for attention and affection, so just
spending time together meant so much to them -- and to us.
Given my Armenian ancestry, I was eager to learn more the country,
which has overcome many obstacles, including the genocide during World
War I in which 1.5 million people were killed by Turkish forces under
the Ottoman Empire. April 24 is commemorated as Genocide Remembrance
Day and many Armenian-Americans, including from the Boston area, will
be making the pilgrimage to commemorate it.
"We're getting many calls from people who want to know about things
like flights, is a Visa necessary [yes, but travelers can get them
when they land at Zvartnots International Airport in the capital,
Yerevan ], safety, lodging, and those types of things," said Venera
Matevosian, a consultant with Village Travel in Brookline. "The best
advice I can give is to book your trip as soon as possible if you plan
on going next month."
Then, once the trip is planned, "go experience a country like no
other. . . . Not only is it beautiful, but you can stay there for
months and still have things to do for everyone -- adults and
children," she added. "And you will not believe how friendly the
Given the number of dinner invitations we got from complete strangers,
and the willingness of people to not just point us in the right
direction but to walk us where we wanted to go, I could not agree
Visitors to this ancient mountainous country, the first to adopt
Christianity and proclaim it as a state religion -- in 301 AD -- feel as
though they are traveling back in time.
There are no direct flights from the United States to Armenia, but
several airlines have connections in major European cities, including
Paris, Kiev, Moscow, and Vienna, with direct flights to Yerevan. We
flew from Paris to Yerevan on Air France in less than five hours.
Juliet Pennington for The Boston Globe
A 125-foot-long swinging bridge connects two banks of the village of Khndzoresk.
There are a variety of lodging options, but we decided to stay
downtown, at the Marriott in Republic Square. It turned out to be a
great choice, as our room was clean and spacious and the staff
friendly and helpful. We stayed on one of the two executive floors,
which meant we had access to the executive suite, where we could
always grab a quick snack or a cold or hot drink, and we spent many
evenings on the lounge's sizable balcony, mingling with other guests,
viewing the fountains in the square, and even getting a front-row seat
to a protest demonstration. It was peaceful, attended by about 200
people in opposition to energy cost increases. Such an event would
have been unheard of just 25 years ago, when Armenia was under Soviet
The hotel was just 15 minutes from the airport and within walking
distance of art galleries, museums, concert venues, cafes, and
restaurants that feature traditional and contemporary Armenian cuisine
-- as well as a variety of others that serve international fare. Five
minutes from the hotel was one of my favorite places, Vernissage, a
huge outdoor market where artisans sell handmade wooden nardi
(backgammon) boards, musical instruments, clothing, rugs, and
paintings. The prices are reasonable -- especially given the dollar's
strength against the Armenian dram ($1 equals 479 AMD) -- and while
vendors want to make a sale, they're not overly aggressive.
Many of the paintings, wood carvings, and other items sold at
Vernissage depict historic Mount Ararat, where the Bible says Noah's
Ark landed after the flood. The snow-capped peak looms majestically,
and while it is in Turkey (it was taken from Armenia during the
genocide), many still consider it Armenia's Mount Ararat.
There is much more to see and do in Yerevan, a city of about 1.2
million. Getting around is easy and inexpensive. Small buses and vans
called "marshrutni" travel more than 100 different routes throughout
the city and cost less than 20 cents per trip. Taxi rides to just
about anywhere in the city cost less than $2.
Juliet Pennington for The Boston Globe
The eternal flame at the Grave of the Unknown Soldier.
The imposing Mother Armenia statue, a hammered copper figure whose
large pedestal doubles as a small military museum, looks over the
city. Visitors can walk up the Cascade, a giant stairway that links
downtown's Kentron district with what is known as the Monument area.
Here, visitors will find not only the Mother Armenia statue and the
eternal flame at the Grave of the Unknown Soldier, but also Victory
Park. While several sections of the park could use some sprucing up,
it is a great place to spend an afternoon.
Yerevan is walkable and kid-friendly. In addition to the kiddie rides
and boat rentals on the lake at Victory Park, there are fountains,
oversize musical instrument statues near the Opera House, museums
galore (the Geological Museum is a favorite, with its huge restored
skeleton of a primordial elephant), and dudukes -- traditional woodwind
instruments -- for all ages sold in just about every shop.
Tsitsernakaberd Park is home to the Armenian Genocide Victims'
Memorial Complex, which includes rows of memorial trees donated by
foreign dignitaries, a museum, and a monument built in 1965 to
commemorate the 50th anniversary of the genocide. There are 12
imposing pylons (representing the 12 main provinces where Armenians
were massacred between 1915-1923) that surround an eternal flame,
around which visitors gather to pay their respects, often leaving
flowers. Each year on April 24, thousands gather at the site and march
in remembrance of those who perished.
There are plenty of tour companies in Yerevan that offer excursions
that range from three-hour jaunts to multiday trips. We tried Hyur
tour company (www.hyurservice.com) and and wound up using it for all
of our tours. Not only were prices reasonable (one guided tour that
went to four sites of interest, lasted 13 hours, and included lunch at
a restaurant, a wine and cheese tasting at a winery, snacks along the
way, and a tram ride, cost $37 per person), but also the guides were
friendly, knowledgeable, and English-speaking. The air-conditioned
minibuses had large windows for sightseeing.
Venturing outside of Yerevan, whether to the shores of Lake Sevan or
to the cave dwellings at Khndzoresk in the country's southern region,
I was continually reminded of how steeped in history and tradition
Juliet Pennington for The Boston Globe
The exterior of the Grave of the Unknown Soldier.
Some highlights included Geghard Monestary, a World Heritage Site that
is a classic example of Armenian medieval architecture, with
breathtaking natural surroundings; the Temple of Garni, a
reconstructed symbol of pre-Christian Armenia set amid the striking
Garni Gorge; and Khor Virap Monestary, where St. Gregory the
Illuminator, Armenia's patron saint, was imprisoned for 13 years
before curing King Tiridates III of a deadly disease. Noravank, which
means "New Monastery" in Armenian, is anything but, as it is more than
seven centuries old and has some of the most beautiful khachkars
(ornate crosses carved in stone) flanking its altars. With the gorge
below and the steep red rocks towering behind the monastery, it is a
The Tatev Monastery is an impressive ninth-century landmark that
stands on the edge of Vorotan Canyon. Visitors can take a cable ride
(Wings of Tatev opened in 2010 and was declared the world's "longest
nonstop double track cable car" by Guinness World Records) from Tatev
to Halidzor Village. And a visit to the cave dwellings (inhabited well
into the 20th century) at Old Khndzoresk is surreal, walking among
caves dug into the sloping hillsides. Crossing the gorge from the new
Khndzoresk to the cave dwellings on the hill is not for the faint of
heart; visitors must cross a 125-foot-long suspension bridge that
wobbles considerably with each step.
A final memorable destination is Etchmiadzin Cathedral, home to the
Armenian Apostolic Church. The original church was built in the early
fourth century, when Armenia adopted Christianity, and while it has
undergone many transformations, it is still a captivating site and a
testament to the country's faith and perseverance. The Sunday morning
service has a regal feel to it, and the music is mesmerizing, so much
so that one doesn't have to be religious to be moved.
I left Etchmiadzin feeling a deep connection to Armenia and my
ancestry. Having barely skimmed its surface, I also felt a strong
resolve to return soon to explore more of this beautiful country and
its rich, inspiring history.
Juliet Pennington can be reached at email@example.com.
View photos at http://www.bostonglo...3mI/story.html#