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EnRoute, Modern Armenia

By Par Tracey Eaton

Thanks to a string of new rustic-chic design hotels, this country has emerged as one of Eastern Europe’s
surprise destinations.

 “There are three things that would improve tourism in Armenia,” states Samvel Shahbazyan – and they’re not the upscale traveller amenities you might expect. “New roads, better telecommunications and nicer public
toilets,” he says frankly. Sam, who happens to be the business advisor for U.S. aid in Armenia and one of many friends I made during a week in this tiny country, has a point. Over six days, I’d driven hundreds of kilometres over what seemed like a vast and undulating cattle grid, relieved myself in various holes dug in the ground and stood outside a boutique hotel with no land line at an altitude of 2,000 metres on a freezing evening, with my arm high in the air trying to get cellphone reception. As much as I loved the country, I had to admit there is some room for infrastructure improve- ments. But despite enduring war, genocide, Soviet occupation and natural disaster, Armenia is rapidly developing into a destination worthy of inter- national tourists. Roads, phones and loos aside, it’s well on its way with the creation of a modern hotel industry.

Certain destinations – like Bhutan or the Maldives – weren’t major tourism markets until luxury hotels opened there. Now these countries are high up on every discerning traveller’s list. This “hotel-cultural tourism,”
let’s call it, developed on the If You Build It (with five-star facilities) They Will Come template. One man has, perhaps unintentionally, embraced the concept and taken it to his home country, Armenia. New York-based businessman James Tufenkian is just one of the 4 million Armenians who make up the diaspora of this country of 3 million. A world traveller and a crusader for workers’ rights and cultural preservation, Tufenkian first made an impact by reviving the art of carpet weaving and developing a thriving – and ethically sound – industry in Armenia. Next was Tufenkian Heritage Hotels, which now consists of three boutique properties (with two more on the way). He has created 800 to 1,700 Armenian jobs (some of them seasonal) and, essentially, the country’s tourism industry. “Armenia has no tradition of hotels because people always hosted each other,” Sam’s wife, Lilit Hakobyan (formerly a Tufenkian employee but now a business advisor), explains: “In Soviet times, the only demand for hotels was from Iranian truck drivers. Now, in the regions where [Tufenkian’s] hotels are, more and more places are opening up.” The progress is visible. While Internet cafés and brand names line the streets of Yerevan, a distinctly Soviet influence remains here. The first thing I noticed was that every other car on the roads is a Russian-built Lada. There is an obvious absence of American fast-food joints, and the “Italian” shoe shop is, in fact, stocked with Armenian knock-offs. And yet there are still pockets of old Armenia to be found. Behind the Mango bou- tique and the JVC store is a 13th-century church, the remains of a much larger church that was partially destroyed by the Soviets. Further down the street is the Communist-built cinema, grand and gorgeous in its own right but on the site of a seventh-century church that was torn down. And,standing as a reminder of this country’s ancient and more recent history,Mount Ararat watches over the city from a distance. The symbolic heart of Armenia, Mount Ararat, fell to the Turks in 1915and now lies 32 kilometres south of the border. Nevertheless, the twin peaksare considered a national treasure and appear on the country’s coat of arms,bank notes and brandy bottles and in every hotel lobby in Armenia.“Ararat looks different every morning when I look out of my window,” says Hayk, my guide for the week and one of the lucky ones with a mountain view from his apartment. “This mountain alone should be enough to bring tourists to Armenia.” Well, that and the hotels – so off we go.

The road to Tufenkian’s Avan Villa Yerevan hotel is unsurfaced, made up of unpredictable sequences of cavernous ditches and sharp bumps, like many secondary roads here. This is a residential area that was once the sum- mertime retreat of the wealthy. Now the city has expanded, and the slightly Mediterranean low-rise, flat-roofed houses with vine-covered pergolas make up just another suburb. The hotel itself is a beautiful converted man- sion, small and rustic but very homey. When I hear the phone ring in reception (even from my room on the second floor), I almost feel like run- ning down and answering it myself. The rooms are decorated with wrought iron, walnut and black basalt – furnishings that prove to be typical of all Tufenkian Heritage Hotels. Everything is handmade locally, right down to the blankets on the bed, supplied by the Old Knitting Ladies,Tufenkian’s network of women dotted all over the country who use thistraditional craft to supplement their widows’ pensions. Simple but charming, this hotel epitomizes Tufenkian’s vision. The staff welcome you with big smiles at the end of your day exploring some of
Armenia’s 40,000 historical sites or visiting the burgeoning wine region in the south. (Tufenkian’s Avan Areni is slated to open in that region, near the hot springs of Jermuk.) But the villa’s location, on the edge of a major city that has started to welcome big international hotels, doesn’t quite do it justice. To really understand the impact of his one-man mission, I need to head north and east to the less developed rural areas that for so long were not easily accessible to tourists, foreign or otherwise.Avan Marak Tsapatagh is on the east shore of Lake Sevan, at an altitude of two kilometres. The sun is strong but the air is cool, and as we drive around the lake’s perimeter, the natural beauty is overwhelming. “I’ve been to Lake Sevan a thousand times and it’s never same,” I’d been told by GoharAraratyan at Avan Villa Yerevan. “Sometimes angry, sometimes serious, sometimes romantic. The colour is always changing.” She was right, butyou don’t have to visit a thousand times to see all this; it can happen in a single day. The water changes from a dull grey through bright blue and deep indigo to an almost black, finishing up with that magical pink that only a sunset can provide. As we head round the shoreline, clouds cascade down the gorges in the mountains surrounding us like white fluffy waterfalls; those resting on the surface of the lake are like the steam over a hot bath.

Everything at Avan Marak Tsapatagh is rustic and natural. While European and North American travellers will be impressed with the quirky, minimalist and natural fittings, locals aren’t as enamoured of stone floors, cement walls and exposed beams. “When Armenians arrive here,they think it’s not finished yet,” confides Hayk with a chuckle. There is an odd contrast between the seemingly basic surroundings and the modern influences: The bathroom has rough flagstone on the floors and walls, but the piping hot shower has a trendy stainless-steel cuboid faucet. In the hotel’s restaurant, halogen lights (powered by energy from the solar panels on the roof, no doubt) illuminate the main dining area that includes a lavash bread oven and an indoor barbecue. An Armenian obsession, barbecue is the unofficial national dish. There is even a street in Yerevan known simply as Barbecue Street, lined on either side by restaurants specializing in meats grilled over hot coals. At the very mention of the word “barbecue,” faces light up, and eyes sparkle at the thought of marinated chicken or lamb, crammed into flat lavash bread with onions, fresh coriander and lots of yogurt.Avan Marak’s restaurant,Zanazan, is a short stroll away alongside the village, where guests can chat with locals, pick up an armful of fresh fruit or accept the hospitable offer of a bottle of mulberry vodka. This fiery local brew, sold from roadside stalls in second-hand water or soda bottles,is 70- to 80-percent pure alcohol. “The Armenians have a saying,” Hayktells me. “If you are sick, it is medicine; if you are crazy, it is booze.

”The next morning, as we’re driving through a tunnel that cuts straight through the mountains north of Sevan, Hayk announces, “Now you will see Switzerland.” Emerging from the darkness, we are suddenly presented with a
huge vista of green hills and endless forests. The winding mountain path flanked by pine trees really does remind me of the Alps, along with thick forests of deciduous trees in vibrant shades of yellow, orange and brown.Our lunch is at Kima’s place: a cute if slightly crumbling wooden cottage-cum-restaurant with wild flowers in the front garden that’s just outside Dilijan, the location for another planned Tufenkian hotel. Kima has deep wrinkles and missing teeth. She presents us with enough food for six. “These foreigners eat like birds,” she mutters in Armenian as she clears my plate, so I quickly help myself to anotherstuffed vine leaf. I proudly use my only Armenian expression (other than “merci,” the expression locally used for “thank you,” which I’ve been using a lot) and say, “Hammova” (it’s delicious), which pleases her.We continue to Tufenkian’s most recent project. Accessed by a short bridge over the rushing Debed River, Avan Dzoraget is a luxury property on the road to Georgia, surrounded by imposing mountains and close to the Haghpat and Sanahin monasteries. This stylish hotel, which resembles a castle, is full of Armenian furnishings and impressive
marble and stone architecture; its location gives it a slightly wild retreat-like atmosphere.Back in Yerevan at the Club, a cool restaurant and cultural centre, the conversation turns to tourism. “Armenia is very exciting right now,” says Anahit Ordyan from the American University of Armenia. “Yes, we have lots of history – we are an open-air museum with a map full of monasteries and archeological structures – but we are also in the process of transition. It is amazing to see how Armenia has changed in recent years.”Hayk had told me of an Armenian saying: “You always have a place on my head.” (It loses a little something in translation.) As we sit sipping Armenian brandy in the tasting area of the Ararat brandy shop in Yerevan, he announces – for about the 20th time this week –“I would like to make a toast.” Here drinking is a popular pastime, but toasting is an art.

Hayk’s toast is an impossible-to-recreate speech on his expectations – and even prejudices – about guiding an English woman for a week, about the joy of making new friends and the importance of building relationships across nations, about his pride at being able to show off his country and his pleasure at my enthusiasm and enjoyment. It’s a humbling moment and, I realize, indicative of my Armenian experience.When I was planning my trip, the very word “Armenia” provoked puzzled expressions from friends and colleagues – all successful, well-educated people – who weren’t ashamed to admit they knew nothing about this distinctly foreign-sounding place. But now, I felt I had discovered a brave new world, a place that is just about to appear on the radar of serious travellers. Roads, phones, loos and Tufenkian Heritage Hotels are only the beginning.As the toast comes to an end, just before we sample the best brandy I’ve ever tasted,Hayk says, “And, above all, you must remember…” Here he pauses dramatically, with an expectant grin, waiting for me to finish his sentence. I reply sincerely: “You always have a place on my head".