The Nagorno Karabakh region of Armenia is an area where there is territorial dispute with neighbouring Azerbaijan. Although it had been a war zone since the late 1980s a cease-fire had been established in 1994 and, when we travelled to Armenia a few years later, the local guide felt that it was safe to visit. Along with a group of other visitors we were invited to travel to the region to see the Noravank Monastery and the hotel we had been staying at, in Armenia’s capital Yerevan, threw in a picnic lunch.
Noravank is a beautiful monastery, built in typical Armenian style. It contains a number of buildings, the dominant structure of which is Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God). As with many Armenian monasteries there are a number of khachkars – carved stone slabs which each bear a cross – which can also been seen around the complex.
When we arrived at the site we discovered that we weren’t the only visitors. A local family were gathered together around a makeshift table and were clearly having a celebration. A fleece lay draped across the branches of a nearby tree, a sheep having been slaughtered at the site and was now roasting over a fire.
We know how we would feel if a coach-load of tourists turned up to a family celebration, that is, a bit miffed. But Armenia is still a relatively unusual destination and, when we visited, tourists were rare. We were welcomed with open arms.
We had no idea what event the family were celebrating. We could speak about seven words of Armenian and they could speak no English. The family beckoned to us to join them. Of around twelve visitors in the tourist group, only we and one other joined the party. Such a shame – the other nine missed out on a fantastic celebration, totally their loss. (You can see the grumps in the background of the photo below, sitting on a hill, waiting for their hotel picnic and watching us having a good time.)
The family had clearly prepared – they had brought 40 buckets of home-made wine with them and they generously plied us with drink. We were offered barbequed lamb so fresh it had been bleating just hours earlier, flat breads, pickled walnuts, the freshest salads and fruit. All delicious. Food always tastes better with friends, even if you have only known them for minutes.
This happened over 20 years ago. We still have precious memories of that afternoon; of a most delicious meal, of gorging on wine, toasting a group of people who had been kind enough to invite some foreign visitors to their party, of being made to feel unbelievably welcome. We could not properly speak their language (although we were able to thank them in Armenian), they could not speak ours. We had no idea what the correct etiquette was, but we learned that day that communication does not have to be verbal. What we could express was our gratitude – with a huge smile, a raised glass and a farewell hug. We may have been picnicking in a region where there was a territorial dispute between two countries, but our experience quite simply reflected the very best of humanity.