Saturday, June 22, 2013

To Jermuk


Driving through Yerevan, snippets of history float by as I navigate the series of boulevards that eventually lead to the southern exit of the city:  Komitas, Heratsi, Tigran Medz, Arshagunyants.  As I turn onto the straight stretch of Arshagunyants, by queue, Ararat appears dead center – no matter how many times I see this mountain, each perspective brings its own moment of exhilaration.

Once on the principal highway south, the Armenian history lesson continues:  Artashat, Dvin, Khor Virap.  Having just read “the 10 Greatest Armenian Kings”, each of these names has a new meaning, and I imagine King Artashat I choosing this location, at the edge of the Ararat valley with protective mountains behind, to establish his capital city.  Khor Virap flashes by, a lonely but ardent statement of Armenian identity framed by Mt. Ararat.  Then comes the town of Ararat, recognizable only by its ugly cement factory.  The last stretch through the Ararat plain goes by quickly.

Then, forty miles south of Yerevan, a left turn signals the beginning of the ascent of the first set of Armenia’s southern mountains.  I turn off the cruise control, raise the volume, and prepare for my favorite stretch of driving road in Armenia – from the plain up and over the first range, and down to Areni, heart of Armenia’s wine country.  The legendary straight six BMW engine, even after 10 years, wakes up and jumps to 3000 RPM through the climbing turns.  With the music blaring, I’m dancing with the steering wheel as I float by trucks and Soviet-era cars.  I pass the turn where Paruyr Sevag tragically met his end and a bit later, through his native village, Zangakatun, then Yelpin and Chiva.  

The scenery, in the late afternoon sun, is mesmerizing, and as bring the engine back down to a more relaxed pace, I see the little church on the mountain side that signals the entry into Areni.  I’m already preparing for what comes next:  the right turn into the road leading to Noravank, one of the most magical monastery complexes in Armenia.  Do I turn or not?  A turn will mean a 2-hour meditation among the red rocks – very tempting, but not for today.

The next stretch of fifteen miles follows the Arpa river as it winds through the same beautiful red mini-cliffs, eventually reaching Yeghegnadzor, the gateway to the series of churches and monasteries that lead up to Lake Sevan in the north.  I breeze through Vayk, admiring the still snow-capped mountains of Zangezur to the southeast. 

Suddenly, time to turn left for the climb to Jermuk.  Beautiful topography and, once again, a chance to put the car through its paces.  Finally, Jermuk appears in the distance, and just as I approach the entrance to town, Lilit Pipoyan’s “Cilicia” floats through the car.  And it strikes me that here I am, hundreds of kilometers from Cilicia, home to all four of my grandparents, yet I feel right at home, right where I belong. 

Accompanying iPhone playlist:

Cascade Folk Trio – Old Street
Element Band – Yev O Phe
Armenian Public Radio – Retrograde
Le Quator Komitas – Komitas Instrumental
Lilit Pipoyan – One Day in the City

And, as I write this:
Tigran Hamasyan – A Fable

A few images from today:


Looking southeast

The magic of Vayots Dzor
Entering Areni

Noravank - to turn or not?
Arpa River

Climbing to Jermuk

Friday, June 7, 2013

Doing it right, Jirayr-style

A few weeks ago, we were invited to have dinner at Dolmama, by now a culinary landmark and foodie tourist destination in Yerevan.  It had been years since my previous meal there - somehow it had fallen off of our list of regular haunts to frequent.  I remember Jirayr Avanyan opening a tiny restaurant on Pushkin with 3-4 tables and a simple cooktop in the corner of the dining area many years ago; following a very creative series of expansions, Dolmama has grown in size but fortunately not in spirit or ego.

Two days ago, we reciprocated the invitation to our very close friends.  Of course, no dinner at Dolmama would be the same without Jirayr's heartfelt welcome into the world he has created.  We sat in the grape-vine covered back yard, an oasis of calm and serenity in the otherwise crowded and busy "little center" of Yerevan.  We enjoyed an amazing leisurely dinner, with appetizers and main courses transporting our taste buds to truly unique places in Jirayr style, accompanied by the wonderful Artsakh-produced Kataro red wine.

Dolmama has achieved a "premier" reputation as the place to eat foodie-level Armenian food, and there are many examples of of similar restaurants becoming spoiled, blaze or over-confident in the process.  Wednesday's meal reminded me that this need not always be true.  Jirayr, thank you for remaining so passionate and positive about your move to Armenia, and for giving us the opportunity to ride on your magic carpet, again and again!