Armenia: Taste of the old order

IT’S HARD NOT to go to a country from the former Soviet Bloc without a James Bond moment. I had a perfect one on arrival at Yerevan Airport, a pleasing concrete flying saucer of a building. A police officer kept staring at me.

Perhaps I should have been a tad more nervous but, despite the severe green serge uniform and over-large Soviet-style peaked cap, her pointed stilettos were oddly attractive. Well, perhaps not oddly at all.

Anyway, Armenia. Some of the nicest and most hospitable people you could ever wish to meet – and one of the poorest countries you could ever expect to find, certainly in Europe. Not that capital Yerevan lacks modern hotels and fine bars and restaurants. But out in the country, times are obviously hard.

A lot of that may be the legacy of Soviet times, where beauty does not seem to have been a consideration. There are lots of unfinished concrete structures on a massive scale blotting the landscape. But there’s also quite a few medieval churches – 40,000 ancient churches and monuments in fact – beautiful for their remote settings and simplicity, if not their stripped interiors. After visiting Ethiopia last year, and now Armenia, I don’t think I need to see an old church again for at least a good decade.

Armenia was the first country in the world to embrace Christianity, a fact of which it is pretty proud. This isn’t the place to go into that history, but Yerevan’s Matenadaran or manuscript museum will give you an inkling. Some 12,000 ancient manuscripts hark back to the glorious days when the Armenian kingdom stretched from the Caspian to the Black Sea.

Now it covers an area a fraction of that size, and a conflict between Azerbaijan and Karabagh stutters on its borders. A ceasefire has held for ten years, but there’s no peace deal yet. Yerevan’s Ararat distillery, which makes the cognac that was Winston Churchill’s favourite (and that the British prime minister was supplied with throughout World War II) holds a vat ready to be breached on the day the treaty is signed. You can add your name to the autographs from all around the world that ask for peace – not just in this region. Well, who’s against world peace?

The bad guys, in Armenian terms, are the Turks who were responsible for the death of 1.5million in 1915 – a genocidal campaign still yet to be acknowledged by our Nato partners in their capital Ankara. Hitler is said to have launched his better-known Holocaust by asking: ‘Who remembers the extermination of the Armenians?’ Fair point.

The holocaust memorial is another mass of concrete, moving in its simplicity and with an eternal flame, essential for any understanding of the soul of this country but also worth a visit for the views of Yerevan. The site is dominated by a massive statue of Mother Armenia, replacing an earlier one of Lenin. Times have changed.

One thing that seems in no danger of falling out of favour in Armenia is eating. ‘Is this second breakfast, or first pre-lunch?’ became a joking refrain during my trip. The country’s poverty belies (as it often does) the generosity of its people. I’d sit down to a table groaning with food, eat my way through a massive plate of cheese, bread, vegetables and chicken, then realise I’d just had my starter. If I was lucky. Sometimes that was just the pre-starter. How come no Bond villain ever tried just feeding 007 to death?

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