Ru En

In the land of holidays and sunshine

Veronika Zonabend Aurora Humanitarian Initiative UWC Dilijan College, Armenia
Veronika Zonabend spoke to Tatler about Armenia, the homeland of her husband, impact investor Ruben Vardanyan.

It’s hard for me to look at Armenia through the eyes of a tourist. In 2000, my partners and I opened our first business there, a restaurant called Cactus, which is now one of the oldest in Yerevan, along with the Dolmama restaurant. Then, in the early 2000s, I flew to Armenia almost every week, even more than Ruben. I was often the only woman in business class and the men looked at me with great curiosity, but the employees at Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport welcomed me like a native. Once when my husband and I flew in together, the driver was waiting for us with a sign that said “Veronika +1.” Ruben thought it was very amusing.

The old airport was a magnificent monument to Soviet constructivism, and in 2013 the new one was recognized as the best in the Commonwealth of Independent States and Baltic countries. I almost never use VIP services here because all the procedures, both for arrival and departure, are very well organized. For example, it never takes more than 20 minutes to get through passport control.

Nevertheless, VIP services can come in handy. For example last year, when the first Aurora Prize was held in Yerevan (the Aurora Prize is an international humanitarian award, co-founded by Ruben Vardanyan, which takes place in the spring – Tatler editor’s note). Several important foreign guests flew in for the event including George Clooney, who was co-chairman of the jury, and the VIP service was useful then. When we bring people to Armenia who haven’t been here before, I get the opportunity to see the country through the eyes of a tourist. Many of them have the idea that they are going to end up in the Middle East, but they are pleasantly surprised to find out that the city is in fact very European, both in terms of lifestyle and architecture.

I must admit that my first time in Armenia was before I met Ruben; we were taken there on a high school excursion. The republic’s capital fascinated me because against a background of grey Soviet cities, it stood out by its holiday atmosphere and hospitality, a completely non-Soviet way of life with street cafes and smiling, cheerful passers-by. I arrived in Yerevan in the early nineties with my husband when we were newlyweds. We lived in an apartment with Ruben’s parents in a building on Charents Street that was built by Ruben’s father, the architect Karlen Vardanyan. Times were hard, and they would only turn on the electricity and water for short periods. In the evenings you had to walk down the street with flashlights, with dark, spooky houses around you. It seemed eerie, like some kind of disaster movie.
Of course, now it’s a completely different city, that holiday feeling has returned. But it’s come at a price. Several monuments of Soviet constructivism – the central market, the circus (designed by my father-in-law) – were destroyed. I hope that such a fate will not befall the old airport building. The inspirational architect Alexander Tamanyan designed the city centre as a unified area with two focal points – the Republic Square and the Opera House, which are connected by Northern Avenue. This gives Yerevan a unique appearance, something that can’t be said about the majority of modern cities, which are more or less copies of Dubai.

Besides the opera, which I love very much, I like the whole Cascade area, which was restored by the Cafesjian Foundation. There, right on the street you can see sculptures by Botero, Flanagan and other world famous artists. The Cascade offers a beautiful view of Mount Ararat. I highly recommend going to the less well-known Lover’s Park, where an elephant figure by Nadim Karam, a well-known sculptor-architect of Lebanese origin, is going to be built soon. Both the Cascade and the Lover’s Park are good examples of how a modern vision can transform old forms.

The city looks completely different in summer and winter. In winter, it seems to dry up and go into hibernation, there are half as many people. But in the summer a lot of tourists and Armenians from Russia, the USA, Europe and Lebanon come here. They don’t just come to visit family, there are practical reasons too. Some of them – this might seem funny – come to Armenia to get their teeth fixed. In Yerevan, the standard of dentistry and plastic surgery is very high, and the prices are actually quite reasonable.

There is also a rich cultural life. I really love the Small Theatre run by Vahan Badalyan, who has performed in European festivals. Constantine Orbelian, who recently returned from the United States and worked with Dmitri Hvorostovsky for many years, is directing the Yerevan Opera House so we can expect some interesting productions there. I highly recommend visiting the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts (the Matenadaran) and the Sergei Parajanov Museum. The year before last, the designer Antonio Marras came to visit us and was absolutely delighted when we took him to the Parajanov. It turns out that his previous collection had been inspired by the films and drawings of the director.

Yerevan is known for its black coffee and when I got married 24 years ago I got hooked on it. The best coffee in town is brewed in a cafe called Jazzve, although in Armenia it’s easier to list the places where it isn’t tasty.

Another thing you have to do in Yerevan is listen to some jazz. Baron Eric Rothschild, a big jazz fan, said as much when he visited us. He complained that the jazz clubs in Paris and New York are closing down; here, though, there is a vibrant culture of live performance. My favourite jazz clubs are Malkhas, Mezzo and Yans, but there are many more in the city. In the summer they also play jazz in the streets and hold festivals. There is a relaxed atmosphere – even if you go to a fashionable place, you don’t have to dress up. Armenians don’t show a lot of bare flesh but there aren’t any strict taboos, people react calmly to everything. Moreover, Yerevan is a really safe city.

I recommend spending one or two days in the Armenian capital to take it all in. After that go north-east, to Dilijan. Make sure to stop on the shore of Lake Sevan, which is on the way there. Generally speaking, the trip from Yerevan to Dilijan involves a change of climate, although the distance between the two cities is less than one hundred kilometres. We built our school, UWC Dilijan, (an international boarding school which has been running in Dilijan for three years – Tatler editor’s note) during the winter. In the capital it was minus ten degrees centigrade or even less, very cold by Armenian standards, but in Dilijan it was five degrees above zero, bright and sunny. It’s often the other way round in summer: scorching heat in Yerevan but quite cool here.

It’s worth staying in Toon Armeni, a cozy hotel which offers bed and breakfast in a renovated historic building. You’ll feel like you are visiting friends. The best rooms to book are the ones with a large balcony where you can enjoy your breakfast.

There are teenagers from 72 countries studying at UWC Dilijan College, and ten percent of the students are children from Armenia. The international school has had a great impact on the town. Young people from the local area study English and Russian, they get involved in the life of the community. In summer on campus there is a camp called Just Dilijan It! for children aged ten to sixteen. They have a two-week break where they play and study at the same time.

We plan to turn the city into an educational, cultural and health centre. You will be able to roller skate or ride a bike on the promenade, and we’ve just started building an adventure park with climbing ropes. The town of Dilijan itself is surrounded by a national nature reserve making it a pleasant place to go for walks.

I also recommend visiting the old town, going for a walk along the street restored by the Tufenkian Foundation and have a look around the artisan shops. Have lunch at the “Flying Ostrich” restaurant, which was opened by the owners of “Dolmama.” Not only is it tastefully decorated, they also serve wonderful food. Another good restaurant is Kchuch (which means “pot”) – it took me a long time to learn to pronounce the name properly!

Cafe #2 in the very centre of town, with a view over the lake, also deserves a mention. This cafe is a social project, the waiters are teenagers from Dilijan and the profits go towards new educational and social initiatives. We worked on decorating the cafe together with Natasha Kalfayan, a Lebanese designer from the TUMO Center for Creative Technologies. Under her guidance, the children restored old furniture familiar to all of us from Soviet times. Of course, the teenage waiters aren’t magicians and they’re only learning, but they are charming, speak equally well in three languages and guarantee a friendly welcome.

It is worth going east from the Armenian capital to see the pagan Sun temple in Garni, which dates back to the first century, and the Geghard monastery complex made from rock. Religious buildings make up the lion’s share of local beauty spots, but actually the most noteworthy thing about them is not even the ancient architecture, but how harmoniously they blend into the natural environment.

Traveling to the south of the country, it is worth taking an overnight stop in Khor Virap. In the afternoon the view is spellbinding: a small monastery against the huge Ararat mountain in the background. According to legend, St. Gregory the Illuminator, the first Catholicos of all Armenians who converted Armenia to Christianity, languished in the dungeon of the monastery for fifteen years. After that, you can visit the Noravank monastery. To get there, you need to turn off the main road and drive along an incredibly beautiful narrow ravine. Here you can also dine at the small cafe “Vardges’s Cave,” where they make a delicious lavash and matsun (Armenian yogurt) in the traditional way.

The next point of interest along the way is Tatev monastery. Before you go there, spend the night in Goris, a city built in the 1870s by a group of German architects. In recent years, a dozen new hotels have appeared but I still recommend the old, proven “Mirav,” which is really authentic. There is an excellent bakery nearby, in the morning be sure to get a durum, a traditional lavash with cheese and herbs.

After an early morning walk through the city, where the streets join at perfect right angles (it was built by Germans, after all), go to Tatev. At this time of day the tourists from Yerevan haven’t arrived yet and so there won’t be a queue for the cableway that takes you to the monastery. Before you set off, have lunch at the “Tatevatun” restaurant, which has an excellent view of the valley. After you have seen the monastery, sit on the top of the cliff and admire the eagles. There aren’t many places on Earth as beautiful as this one, and its no wonder Tatev was put forward for inclusion in the UNESCO list of world heritage sites.

The Tatev cableway, the longest in the world, was built in 2010 as part of the IDeA Foundation’s “Tatev Revival” program (Ruben Vardanyan was the initiator of the construction project – Tatler editor’s note). Before it was built, it wasn’t easy to get to the monastery – there are cliffs on three sides. People in the surrounding villages still keep to their old way of life, the girls even dance the traditional military dance of the Sasun region.

There are two interesting places on the way from Goris to Yerevan. The first is Khndzoresk, a small cave city (peasants and monks only left there in the 1960s and even then with a fight). The second is Karahunj, the Armenian Stonehenge.

From Goris it is also worth going to Artsakh (the new official name for Nagorno-Karabakh – Tatler editor’s note), which is ninety kilometres away. It will take you at least an hour and a half to get there along the winding roads, but your patience will be well rewarded. A lot of people think everything here is still in ruins like it was 20 years ago, but that isn’t the case anymore.

In Shushi, the ancient capital of the region, a phenomenal museum of geology opened not so long ago thanks to the efforts of the former USSR Geology Minister Grigory Gabrielyants, who has moved to Artsakh. A lot of philanthropists have donated pictures from their collections to local galleries. In the capital, Stepanakert, there are some hotels opening (a Park Hyatt is being built, for example). I recommend “Park Hotel” and the “Florence Garden” restaurant, which has a Venetian-style decor.

However, natural beauty is still the main attraction here. The Jzhdrduz Canyon and its river are on the outskirts of Shushi. When you sit on the rocks, listening to the rippling of the water, you ask yourself: “Why do I need the hustle and bustle of Moscow?”