WALES AWAY BLOG: Armenia Calling Part Three: A Trip Into The Mountains (13/11/23)

Today we ventured beyond the city limits up into the mountains.

Last night’s pub crawl wasn’t the best way to prepare for a six hour bus tour. But someone’s got to do it.

We stroll down to the  Hyur office, the tour company.  There’s an odd mix in the streets, ancient Ladas parked next to brand new Teslers, immaculate Mercedes next to Audis with their front end taken off. We spot a fifty year old Cadilac that looks like it hasn’t moved in forty of those years, but clearly has only just been parked there this morning.

As our bus pulls out of the city we are given a rough guide to Armenian driving,  which might explain the condition of some of the battered cars. Apparently Armenian culture thrives on individuality, meaning each driver thinks they own the road. The result is slightly anarchic, with drivers overtaking on slightly dodgy bends expecting other cars to get out of their way. It doesn’t appear to be a hostile thing though,  everyone takes it in their stride.

Armenian individuality stretches a long way, including their language.  Whilst most languages will adopt words from other languages,  like ‘beer’ and ‘computer’, Armenians have taken the time to invent their own words for these things. Although,  as I said in yesterday’s blog, they accept that some of their words are too tricky for many foreigners.  Most, not all, but most people have a grasp of basic English. Our tour guide today is giving the tour in both English and Russian.

Armenia has a population of three million.  Half of those live in Yerevan.

As we head out into the hills, dodging oncoming traffic,  we learn that for three hundred days of the year, there is no rain in Armenia. When it does rain, Armenians become sad and often down tools and have a bit of a lie down. The landscape is bleak, the lack of rain means only the hardiest of plants can flourish.

We soon find ourselves making a quick stop for photos from a viewing point. We look out and in the distance we can see Mount Ararat, a snow capped dormant volcano.  Most of the mountains in the area are volcanic and it is easy to find little peices of obsidian lying around.

Back on the bus, next stop, Garni. It’s a pagan temple, predating Christianity, having been built in the 1st century AD. Armenia is the oldest Christian country in the world. When they became Christian they went around bashing down all the old pagan shizzle,  but this one escaped all that malarkey because they said it was a tomb.We climb up into the temple and learn about a neat trick using water and mirrors to reflect sun up to the shrine created for their sun god (yay!) We also learn about sacrifices (boo!).

The temple is of Greco-Roman style, the only one of its kind in the former Soviet bloc. The building was severely damaged by an earthquake in the 1600s, but has been rebuilt using mostly original stone. Some of the stones that were too damaged to use are lined up along the side of the path up to the temple.

Although the area is dry, there are some amazing fresh water springs in the hood, which explains why the Romans rocked up to build a bath house next door. This has also been partially reconstructed.

Back on the bus and the next stop is a rustic traditional bakery. To get to the bakey bit, we wander through a garden filled with fruit trees and flowers. A veritable garden of Eden.

Two locals then give us a demonstration on how to make traditional Armenian bread. The dough has been pre-prepared and they roll it and chuck it in a traditional oven in the ground. The bread they are making is thin. Very thin. Like an ultra thin nan bread, almost puff pastry like in texture. So it goes in the oven and comes out baked quicker than you can say something that is very quick to say. Twenty seconds to be precise. We then get to sample it, along with local cheese and herbs.  It really is rather tasty for something so simple.

Back on the bus and we are heading deeper into the mountains. The views are stunning,  but the roads are all over the place: it’s like being on a ride at Alton Towers,  but with cars coming at you head on.

The hillsides are peppered with little villages.  The houses are funny old shapes, with extensions on extensions. This is because when the families have sons, the youngest son stays with the family even when he gets married,  so they have to build to accommodate the growing extended family. If a family has a daughter,  they traditionally keep going till they eventually have a son. Patriarchy eh! Don’t ya just love it?

Many of the houses are wrecked.  Earthquakes and landslides have done considerable damage over the years, but people don’t move out of a family home just because an earthquake has given it a good shoeing. Many of these houses will have been in the family for generations, as indicated above, so even if it has half fallen down, they make do and mend.

Eventually we arrive at Geghard Monastery. A UNESCO site with enhanced protection,  it features several churches mashed into one, with part of the buildings carved into caves in the side of the mountain. Originally founded in the 4th century, there is a sacred spring in one of the churches. Apparently the spring has magical life enhancing powers that can cure anything from being a bit miserable to being a bit dead.

The name of the monastery sort of roughly translates, ish, as ‘Monastery of the Spear’, because the apostle Jude brought the spear that wounded Jesus during the crucifixion here to stash. It’s now stored in a museum after being given up in a holy spear amnesty.

There’s no mention of the Holy Grail though.

Back in Yerevan we pop back into the Hard Rock Café.  It is, after all, next to where the bus dropped us off. I look around. There must be thousands of quids worth of memorabilia. There are 172 Hard Rock Cafés in 74 countries across the globe. If they all have shizzle like Brian May’s guitar, Bono’s first wallet and Elvis’ undercrackers, they must have collectively the biggest collection of rock memorabilia on the planet.

But despite all this, and my love of rock music,  we are actually only here for the Leffe Brun. But when we get the bill this time we are sober and actually look to see how much it is. Rocking in at £8 a pint, I don’t think this will be our ‘go to’ pub of the tour.

Fun fact (as if the other facts above weren’t fun), since 2007 the Hard Rock Cafe has been owned by the Seminole Tribe in Florida.

We get a message to say that the Beer Academy we checked out last night, potential venue for a Wales fans party on the weekend, was the wrong one, so can we check out the right one? Well,  as it happens,  it’s 100 yards from the Hard Rock Cafe.

We start off by going right through all the beers to decide which one we want. Hardcore eh! Well, it was only shot size samples, but the waiter hangs around and explains all the different beers, what they are made from and what they taste like. They are all local and all quite tasty.

Once we have picked our beer we pick our food. Including a bowl of spuds cooked with ganja seeds. When the dishes arrive they are a bit bigger than we had expected.  We look over and see a table of four locals sharing one dish. We have three dishes between two of us. We don’t quite finish them. But we have a jolly good go. Before you ask, no, you don’t get a buzz off the ganja spuds.

Eventually,  it’s time for home. Tomorrow’s tour is around the city in a Soviet era car with a bar in the back. I hope you guys appreciate what we have to go through to bring you these blogs.