Sunday, 20 August 2017

Europe's strangest furthest corner

Beyond the Black Sea: Tbilisi
We met a young Londoner on a walking tour of Skopje, Macedonia. He said he had nearly finished visiting every country in Europe, having just returned from Armenia. Not wishing to look stupid, I didn't blurt out, "But Armenia's not in Europe my young friend, it's on the far side of the Black Sea, between Turkey and Iran", but straight after the conversation I of course cranked up Google.

Armenia had figured in our travels already. In cities everywhere including Calcutta, Rangoon and Colombo, we noticed that the oldest churches - unimpressive to behold but obviously ancient - were Armenian. All originating from a sliver of a country thousands of difficult miles away. Why? 

A genuinely great read
I found the answers in a celebrated (it transpires) travel book, The Crossing Place: A Journey among the Armenians, which intrigued me so much that we changed our entire itinerary to visit the country.

So what did we see?

Well, first of all, the road sent us through the country next door, Georgia, and that was another revelation. In fact, ironically, we spent far more time there than Armenia.

Georgia has mountains as high as the Himalayas. It is so green that the Russians regard it as the original Garden of Eden (perhaps why they illegally squat on a quarter of its land). It has its own delicious cuisine, including sublime grilled aubergine slices folded around a walnut/garlic filling. It invented wine - and its wines are unusual to say the least. Despite Soviet baggage it's an economic success story.

Armenia's icon, Mount Ararat, sadly part of Turkey these days
capital city, Tbilisi, is quirky and beautiful, if collapsing in parts. The famous polyphonic singing is mesmerising and beyond description. And it has the worst driving we've ever seen, including in Africa. So, exactly the things you go travelling for.

We stayed there for longer than planned because the car's front differential was chewing itself to bits and needed fixing (as previous blog post). But then we headed south to the border.  

Two things to know about Armenia: one, it was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity (301 AD) - hence all the churches from the world's first missionaries; two, its people are tough as old boots with a fierce sense of identity. As such, and surrounded as it is by huge non-Christian nations, it has suffered enormously over the centuries. But it has survived, even if many of its people now live elsewhere. Sadly Kim Kardashian is the most famous, but there are many others. If you ever see a local business with "Ararat" in the title, it's run by Armenians.

Dan Brown eat your heart out
We only spent four days there but we saw earthquake-cracked towns (from the ten-second jolt that killed 25,000+ in 1988), we wandered into the world's oldest, and probably smallest, cathedral, we smiled at the dippy statues in the capital, we drove across dreamily broad green steppes, and we scarcely believed that was the snowy top of 16,900ft Mount Ararat, not clouds, looming over Yerevan.

It's a frustrating country to describe because its culture and history are so much bigger than the place itself. It's said that all European medieval architecture derived from here, that significant mathematics and philosophy were born here. And let's not get started on the seminal language and script.

So there it is. In some ways we enjoyed this part of our trip more than any other. That's because we learned so much, and because we feel particularly lucky to have visited.

Click here for more of our photos
Thanks to this chap for the tip-off

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