Under Noah's mount

5th March 2004 at 00:00
Armenians who have survived their country's chequered past are throwing open their doors to visitors. Renata Rubnikowicz samples some home-stay hospitality at high altitude

The Selim caravanserai in Armenia is as remote as you could wish. Standing slightly below the 2,410-metre-high point of the pass, the long, dark stone barn of a building was an overnight stop for merchants trading saffron, silk and carpets between Europe and Asia. Did the faintest whiff of camel train linger about this 14th-century bed and breakfast? Maybe not, but the bare, rocky landscape over which eagles and vultures hover remains exactly as the traders of old would have seen it, with one exception: the road. New asphalt provided a smooth ride up the hairpins almost to the top of the pass. There we met the road builders finishing the last stretch. We walked over the rubble while our driver bounced behind. The road, like so much else that is new in this mountainous, landlocked country, is the gift of an expatriate Armenian.

Kirk Kerkorian, a billionaire film mogul born in Fresno, California, may be richer than most, but he exemplifies the endurance of Armenia's language, religion and culture, which persist through generations of exile. Some of Mr Kerkorian's hundreds of millions of dollars have gone to renovate the grand Republic Square in Yerevan, and to mend its pavements so cafes can again sprawl elegantly over them. Others of the Armenian diaspora are giving aid to restore hotels, museums and churches.

Outside the capital, much of the country remains wild and poor, its churches and monasteries closed during the Soviet era, some of its provinces overturned by earthquakes, and the whole country ravaged by the Turkish genocide of 1915 and the attacks of its neighbours in earlier centuries that forced so many Armenians to flee. At the field of khachkars at Noratus, one of Armenia's prime heritage sites, where 900-odd stones intricately carved with crosses have survived for centuries, old women sit and knit socks as sheep graze.

The resort area of Lake Sevan looks sad, the lake partly drained by the Communists, some of the ugly hotels abandoned. Here the modern Tufenkian hotel on the shore at Tsapatagh, decorated with high-class handmade rugs and with a sophisticated restaurant and friendly bar, is the exception.

But at lunch in the Yeghegis valley, all was light and laughter. One of the families who offer rooms under the home-stay scheme, the Khlgatsayans, laid on a feast of fresh cheese with coriander leaves, dolmas with yoghurt, stuffed aubergines and tomatoes, yoghurt and wheat soup, wild spinach, green beans, walnuts, sweet desserts and Armenian coffee, and showed us how to cook the Armenian flatbread, lavash. We ate at a table on the terrace, an apple orchard with no two trees the same variety on one side, the Smbataberd fortress high on a peak above. It felt like Eden. No wonder that, after a visit to her sister, grandma Seda decided not to stay in Los Angeles.

The next day in the spa resort of Dilijan, with its filigree-balcony wooden houses, brought another lunch with an artist and his wife; the day after, a third family provided home-made vodka, a table of traditional dishes and good company. Armenians may joke that their mountainous country is rich only in stones, but what stones some of them are. Every other hilltop seems to be garnished with a 10th-century monastery, the ones in between boasting 13th-century churches perched over breathtaking gorges. Ejmiatsin's 16th-century cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator, who converted the whole country to Christianity in 301AD, seems brashly modern by comparison.

For atmosphere, the Geghard monastery, its graceful curves arching out of a mountainside carved into chapels, is hard to beat. At Khor Virap monastery, we had bought "doves" (pigeons that flew back to their vendors) to release on the hilltop with our prayers.

Earlier, we'd stopped to take the picture that sums up Armenia: its national symbol, Mount Ararat, rising out of the plain that surrounds Yerevan. Yet Noah's beautiful mountain is an exile, now over the border in Turkey.

That learning has always been a priority can be seen in Yerevan at the Matenadaran, or Manuscript museum. Guarded by a statue of Mesrop Mashtots, "the father of the alphabet", who devised Armenia's unique script in 405AD, it is a treasure house of 17,000 ancient volumes. I regretted missing Yerevan's Genocide Museum and the weekend vernissage, or craft market, said to be the place to find the best souvenirs. Instead, I took home sticky dried apricots stuffed with walnuts from the covered market in Mashtots Avenue, and a bottle of 10-year-old Akhtamar from the Ararat brandy factory, where we'd made our choice after a tasting, accompanied, as is traditional, with peaches and chocolate.

Regent Holidays offers a three-night break in a home-stay in Yerevan from pound;499 per person including return BA flights; and an eight-day itinerary, including full sightseeing programme, from pound;1,295 per person. Details: 0117 921 1711; www.regent-holidays.co.uk. More information: www.armeniainfo.am

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