Upon arriving in Areni, our taxi driver bought us a coffee at the “best” homemade wine seller’s roadside booth. While we were sipping our coffee and wine…and eating the free peaches that came with it, the taxi driver, the wine seller, and the couple we rode with convened to find us a homestay in the village. And just like that, we ended up in another local home with a fabulous garden and even more fabulous views of the red bluffs that dominate the horizon here.
The older couple that we were staying with were very proud of their garden and serving us mounds of their homemade food. Every few days, the wife bakes 45 loaves of lavash, the traditional bread, which she distributes in the neighborhood. Luckily, we arrived on a baking day and had a chance to see her rolling and baking the thin loaves. Later in the evening, we also had a chance to Skype with their daughter…in Brooklyn! Although the parents spoke no English, they were so warm and welcoming…and they made sure that we double checked everything with the daughter in English to make sure we were going to have the best time.
On our first afternoon in town, we made a beeline for the local winery. Areni is famous for being the “birthplace of wine,” since the world’s oldest wine press…over 6000 years old…was found in a local cave (the same cave also happens to be where archaeologists found the world’s oldest leather shoe). The grape varietal that shares its name with the village is believed to be the oldest cultivated type of grape. According to local legend, it was the type of grape that God gifted to Noah after the floodwaters receded, and he first planted them in this area, not far from Mount Ararat. In the winery, a tasting of 6-7 different wines, some with vintages of 1996, 1998, or 2001, cost only 600 drams (that is about $1.50!!).
In order to walk off the wine before dinner, we decided to try to reach the tiny church we could see clinging to the edge of the bluffs in the distance. Turned out to be a lovely walk through the whole village and into the quarry. As we were climbing, it sounded as if there was a dog barking from inside the cliff…but it was just a dog chained near the quarry calling to himself with the echo. The church itself is Saint Astvatsatsin, which used to be a part of a major castle complex and has carvings from the master Momik, who was living and working in this area in the 11th century. Climbing up and back certainly gave us an appetite for our fabulous, homecooked dinner.
Bright and early the next morning, we set out for a ten kilometer hike to the most famous monastery complex in the area, Noravank. After walking two kilometers out of the village, we turned into the steep-walled canyon that is home to both the 11th century church and the ancient cave of wine and shoe fame. It also turned out to be an important sanctuary for wildlife…we saw thousands of birds that make their home in the canyon walls and a baby snake feeding on a grasshopper. As it was daylight, we did not get to see the rare bat species that live here, nor did we see the critically endangered Caucasian leopards that live around here. We did, however, find a cave restaurant, where we had coffee and more peaches while reading about all the local wildlife.
At last, we reached the monastery. We sat down in the shade to rest, and suddenly the sound of singing started wafting out of the church windows and out over the canyon. The priest was singing the prayers in the upper sepulcher of the main church, so we climbed up the thin stairway into the main dome. Entering we saw the singer, clad in black…and suddenly a second voice, an ultra-pure tenor started to sing, as well. We looked around, and the second voice belonged to an ordinary tourist, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, clutching his phone. The two wove their voices together and everyone inside froze for several minutes, just listening. I started to tear up…it was that beautiful, all the more so in that it was unexpected.
After two days, we bade farewell to our little wine haven and hitchhiked back to Yerevan (part of the way in the back of a bread delivery van). It felt good to be on familiar turf again, as we had been there for one night earlier in the week. Our first order of business was purchasing a tent, now that we are heading into more expensive regions, where camping will be a cheaper option. The guesthouse owner advised us against buying one in the city center and gave us directions to the “local market.” Which turned out to be a gigantic ex-Soviet armory that has been taken over by stalls and shops selling everything from fresh-ground coffee to Jesus shaped brandy bottles to telescopes to camping equipment. Mission: success.
Back in town, we turned to serious exploring. We discovered a lovely little anti-cafe….tea, coffee, snacks, laptop rental, wifi, board games, books, rehearsal space, guitar rental are all free, you just pay for the time you are inside. The owner is another world traveling, couchsurfing, hitchhiking, free thinking guy, who gave us a discount. After that, we wandered up Pushkin Street and into Opera Square, where all the locals were enjoying the fresh evening air with their families and friends.
Behind the Opera House, stretching high up the hill, is the Cascade. This open public art space takes the Yerevan love of sculptures to a whole new level. At each level, both inside the gallery, and outside on the terraces, there are huge sculptures installations that draw the eye. At the top, we had a stunning view out over Yerevan in the setting sun…and far off in the distance, difficult to see in the August heat haze, is Mount Ararat. One can see why this large mountain (now in Turkey) dominates the Armenian psyche.
Night time is when Yerevan really comes alive…all the people who have been hiding from the scorching sun all day congregate in the center of the city to amble with their loved ones and acquaintances. Buildings of every architectural style…Art Deco, Soviet, medieval, modern…light up their facades and in Republic Square, the dancing fountain entertains the crowds with its nightly show. Each night that we spent in Yerevan, we found new surprises around every corner.
Sunday morning came all too soon, and we headed north for our next adventure. But we found ourselves saying the same phrase that has become our refrain while here in Armenia: “We will be back here.”