From ancient monasteries in mist-shrouded mountains, to a capital city that's older than Rome yet dominated by early Soviet architecture, Armenia loves to surprise. It was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion and was the first to make chess compulsory in schools. The country’s national emblem is snow-capped Mount Ararat, where Noah's Ark landed, according to the Old Testament, although the peak now lies within Turkish territory just over the border. So where should you head for in this relatively unexplored nation and what can you do? Emma Levine visits five destinations in Armenia offering experiences that are not to be missed.
The country’s limited transport infrastructure can challenge even the most experienced travellers – especially as signs are written in the indecipherable Armenian language and Russian Cyrillic. The hospitable locals, however, are always happy to step in and help, especially at marshrutka (minibus) stands – even if departures are unscheduled and few and far between.
Although you could opt to grab a taxi or take an organised tour for longer journeys, especially if time is short, those preferring to travel independently will find that the capital, Yerevan, is a decent transport hub for buses. Be aware though, that departure points vary depending on your destination. In smaller towns, check with the locals when a marshrutka is scheduled to pass through. And although there aren't many cars on the road, it's always an option to thumb a lift on main routes, which is generally considered safe even for solo female travellers.
Yerevan: for contemporary culture
The capital city celebrates its 2,800th birthday this year. The citadel of Erebuni, founded in 782 BC, now lies in ruins and was the original site of Yerevan. Unsurprisingly, the local mayor and national government plan to host the mother of all celebrations, scheduled for 29-30 September. Expect live music performances on stages across the city, and fireworks displays in the rose-hued Republic Square, which gives the city its nickname – 'the pink city'.
You'd be hard-pushed to find ancient relics in the city today, though. It's more about contemporary culture, from art galleries to a burgeoning craft ale and wine bar scene. Come face-to-face with larger-than-life whimsical sculptures at the terraced Cafesjian Center for the Arts, before heading up its broad steps to take a look inside at exhibits of works by local artists on each level. You can also take in views of the distant Mount Ararat from the top.
Garni: for astounding rock formations
A visit to Garni might well be focused on the village's first century AD, Hellenistic-style Garni Temple, its colonnaded facade an exquisite landmark in forested surroundings. To visit the relatively nearby Geghard Monastery, you could hitch-hike the 10km journey, try to catch a marshrutke from the main road, or take a taxi - one can often be found waiting outside the temple. Geghard's medieval tombs and churches look even more dramatic thanks to the surrounding towering cliffs.
The more adventurous, and those keen to hike, can take the opportunity to navigate from Garni Temple along a rough path running alongside the Azat River. Worth making the effort, you'll soon find yourself walking alongside sheer basalt column cliffs, eroded by the river, composed of tube-like rock formations dotted with clusters of wildflowers. Dubbed they 'Symphony of Stones', they are reminiscent of Northern Ireland's Giant Causeway - though mercifully, without the crowds.
Tatev: for a cable car ride to a monastery
Armenia is renowned for its remote, medieval monasteries, which are usually found in stunning mountain settings. The journey to reach them is part of the experience – perhaps a bracing uphill trek, or thumbing a lift in a local's Lada.
Little can beat the drama, however, of reaching Tatev Monastery, in south-eastern Armenia. The journey involves a ride on the world's longest cable car: the 5.7km-long quaintly named Wings of Tatev. For those happy to look down, there's a birds-eye view of the rugged Vorotan Gorge, ancient cave dwellings, Satan's Bridge, and immense hairpin bends coiled like a sleeping cobra.
One you're at Tatev, explore the main church of St Peter and St Paul illuminated by candlelight, and look out for intricately carved khachkars (tombstones).
Areni: for local wine tasting
Along the winding Areni highway, locals sell their home-made red wine in soft drink bottles stacked up at tiny roadside stalls. Thanks to the proximity with the Iranian border, where truck drivers make regular journeys between the countries, there's a regular passing trade for these enterprising vendors.
Areni village lies in the fertile Vayots Dzor wine region, backed by spiky red rock formations near the deep Noravank gorge. It's known for its ancient wine culture, recently revived when a bat-infested cave was unearthed to reveal a 6,000-year-old wine press. It gave Armenia the title of the world's oldest known winemaking country (briefly, until neighbouring Georgia contested it) with many wineries springing up, offering tastings.
It's a far cry from the era following the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991, when Armenia's wine industry was as neglected as a badly corked red. October's annual Areni Wine Festival celebrates the local harvest, with plenty of tastings complemented by traditional music and dance performances.
Jermuk: for spa treatments and geysers
Spindly fir trees and traditional mineral baths are the main draw here in the laid-back mountain village of Jermuk above the Arpa River, popular with locals keen to escape a hot summer or to enjoy its simple ski slopes during the winter.
This was a popular spa town in Soviet times, and now has a couple of wellness and spa hotels offering therapeutic treatments – you don't usually have to be a guest to be able to enjoy the spa and pool.
You may well be familiar with the brand of Jermuk natural mineral water – but less well-known is the Jermuk Drinking Gallery. This colonnaded 1950s building houses a series of taps providing naturally heated mineral water, ranging from 30° to 53°, straight from the mountain slopes. Locals come here to fill up their bottles and flasks from the tap of their chosen temperature – proving that some like it hot, and others like it hotter.
Top image: Tatev monastery, Armenia © Mantvydas Drevinskas / Shutterstock