For many of us, Armenia is unlikely to come to mind when planning a vacation abroad.
The former Soviet country, located between Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan, is a relatively new child when it comes to tourism.
Now, in our post-pandemic era of travel, it is positioning itself as an off-the-beaten-path destination. Visitors are encouraged to look beyond the capital Yerevan and explore its rural and mountainous areas.
“We have a new slogan, ‘Armenia: the hidden trail’,” Sisian Bighossian, head of the Armenian Tourism Committee, told Euronews Travel.
“We have many hidden gems. We have amazing landscapes, we have stunning pristine landscapes for hiking, nature and adventure tourism.
“But we want to make sure that we can also preserve them. If we have overtourismit’s something that will potentially compromise that.
Head to the mountains and live like a local
Part of Armenia’s “hidden trail” approach is to entice visitors to stay in one of its many remote villages, experiencing the hospitality of the locals.
“When I was young, I used to go to big, all-inclusive hotels by the pool. But today I don’t like it. I like to be in nature, where there is something to see, to walk around a bit,” says Bianka Blom, a German tourist on a road trip to Armenia with her family.
The Bloms chose to stay at the Tegher Gastro Yard and Pottery Center, about an hour’s drive from the capital Yerevan, in the village of Tegher in the Aragatsotn region.
It is part of a network of Gastro Yards, run by villagers, which aims to immerse visitors in local culture, heritage and gastronomy.
In Tegher, you can try your hand at pottery and stained glass creation, with the help of the friendly and talented Shushan family.
They also provide accommodation, including a tree houseand a restaurant, nestled in gardens that are full of all kinds of creations and curiosities.
“It’s a special place, it’s very interesting inside. They make a lot of very cute and nice little pieces,” says Bianka. “A hotel is not the same. Here it is more authentic. We like it.”
Helping rural communities through tourism
Armenia’s “hidden” tourism seeks to satisfy the growing desires of slow and authentic post-pandemic experiences.
But it is also seen as key to unlocking the development of rural areas and communities in this small country of three million people.
“This is an opportunity for families and local people who work or can work in the tourism sector. This is a great opportunity to create new jobs,” says Zurab Pololikashvili, Secretary General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), who recently visited Armenia.
“The government itself invests a lot in infrastructure, mainly in roads, to create accessibility to new destinations. There are many opportunities to develop the regional areas of the country.
Taste wine and brandy from Armenia’s “sacred” fruit
Armenia’s wine heritage can also be found beyond the lights of Yerevan. The natives believe that Noah planted a vine at the foot of Mount Ararat after the flood, so it is something sacred to them.
Head to the village of Arenia in the province of Vayots Dzor and you can visit the remains of what Armenians proudly say is the oldest in the world vineyard. Other countries in the region dispute this assertion.
The Areni-1 cave was discovered in a cave complex in 2007 by Armenian and Irish archaeologists and is believed to date back to 4100 BC.
A wine press, fermentation and storage vats, vines and withered pips are among the many items found.
Nowadays, grapes grown in Armenia are not only used for wine, but also to produce brandy. Twelve varieties, from the rural fields of Ararat, go into its production.
Brandy is Armenia’s signature drink, Nina Azizyan, senior guide at the Yerevan Ararat brandy wine vodka factory, told Euronews Travel.
The historic factory in the capital produces 22 million bottles of brandy every year and is famous for its Noy brand.
“It’s very gentle, it’s natural and when mixing, we only use spring water. Perhaps the unique taste of this brandy is that.
Take a tour and you can taste a selection of brandies. You’ll also hear how former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill apparently fell in love with them.
Create a religious and spiritual connection
Getting out of the “hidden paths” in Armenia also means discovering more about the rich religious and spiritual heritage of the country.
Armenia is one of the first Christian civilizations, with its first churches said to have been founded in the 4th century.
“We have thousands of churches and monasteries through Armenia. Many of them are also in the region, which encourages people to leave the capital,” explains Bighossian.
One of the country’s most important and unique religious sites is the fascinating UNESCO-listed Geghard Monastery.
Located in the Upper Azat Valley of Kotayk Province, it is partially surrounded by cliffs and partially carved into the adjacent mountain. It contains several churches and tombs, dating from the 4th to the 13th century.
Getting around in Armenia
There are direct flights to Armenia from a handful of European countries, including France, Germany and Poland. You can also travel through hubs like Doha.
The road infrastructure is still under development in Armenia, so you should carefully plan your trips and routes if you have a car. It is also quite difficult to find places off the beaten path.
Other options include organized tours and hiring a driver through your accommodation.