What is armenian coffee

Turkish coffee in Armenia: the biblical mountain behind barbed wire

After 700 years, Armenia is independent again. The planned economy has been abolished. Now the capital Yerevan is being made chic again.

In the far distance the Ararat can be seen over the roofs of Yerevan. Image: ap

No restaurant, no snack, and the gas station is open. For years. But if you stop in Sarnakunk halfway between Yerevan and the border with Iran, you can get coffee. Coffee at Melanja Ghazarian. Everyone, says Melanja, gets coffee from me. You can't send guests away.

"Sarnakunk" means "cold spring", and spring water runs continuously ice-cold in Melanja's kitchen through the sink and now into the cast aluminum coffee pot. A spoon for every cup: Turkish, she says, in Armenia we drink Turkish coffee, despite everything. She brings the holiday dishes for guests.

Then she says: two cows, a couple of goats, the beehives in front of the house, four apple trees and a batch of potatoes, these are her possessions. And the little house made of roughly plastered tuff and the brightly colored, wet laundry on the line that now breathes the village air of Sarnakunk, the smell of burned cow dung, kerosene and warm chicken dung. It's not that much that is missing, says Melanja, all she would like is a glass veranda and sometimes a little cash.

Getting there: The way to Armenia almost always leads via the airport of the capital Yerevan, because the borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are still closed.

The travel destination: For traveling on your own, Armenia is not an easy place: English is hardly spoken, and because of the Armenian alphabet, tourists usually cannot even read the place names.

Organizer: Hauser-Excursions offers an 18-day round trip with many trekking stages from 2,490 euros, Tel. (0 89) 23 50 06-0, www.hauser-exkursionen.de; GEO Reisen offers a 12-day cultural and historical tour, www.georeisen.com

This journey was organized by Hauser excursions.

Most of them are exchanged in the village, money is only available on the road towards Yerevan, where their sons sell mushrooms, sorrel and St. John's wort. There is not much to earn, because the Mercedes limousines of those who have become rich from the capital rarely stop in Sarnakunk. They don't see us at all, says Melanja. Yerevan? She has never been there.

With a view of the Ararat

A joke made Yerevan famous, and in principle, yes, they have a radio there too. A red and white transmitter mast on the hill above the Army Museum, tower-high, dominant, unmistakable. But not the radio station towers over Yerevan, but the Ararat. If Armenia has a soul, says Ara Haytayan, it is this mountain.

He has painted it a hundred times and more, in oil and watercolor, in his studio on the top floor of the prefabricated building on Nikol-Duman-Stra├če. From his balcony you can see him, the place where Noah was stranded: a mighty cone, covered with snow.

And as close as it seems, the biblical mountain, it is inaccessible: between Yerevan and Ararat, behind barbed wire barriers and cleared no man's land, impassable, the border to Turkey. Nothing offends the Armenian soul anymore, says Haytayan.

The mountain was always a worthwhile motif for a painter, at least in the Soviet years, when the art market was organized by the state. Hardly anything appealed to the picture buyers of the Ministry of Culture more than symbolic landscape painting around Armenia's holiest place. But now Haytayan has to sell his pictures to art lovers in Paris and Tokyo. He also works as a tour guide. As everywhere, he says: more freedom and more rent.

This is often the case in Yerevan. The old town is currently being turned inside out: from the square in front of the opera, an investment trust is digging a diagonal path through the chessboard pattern. The new Northern Avenue is plastic architecture cast in concrete, more of a shopping mall than a street. "That's just the new mix," says Ara Haytayan, "look at the cars: a luxury Lexus there, a Lada there."

Lada-Land are the alleys around the central market hall across from Yerevan's only mosque, where the plane trees are in bloom and wild vines entwine around old pink tuff facades. And at the stands in the hall as always: beetroot, dried fruits, nuts, aubergine puree and goat cheese. In May, when the fountain on Republic Square belongs to the couple, Yerevan is at its serene. The dust comes in August. 40 degrees, says Haytayan, and the air is too thick to breathe.

If you can, you can take the Lada or Lexus and drive to Lake Sevan, a good hour to the east. The lake is so big that you can no longer see the bank opposite, smooth as a freshly stretched sheet, lined with black, fine sand. All around the furniture of the bygone Soviet summer freshness: pedal boats that barely wear paint, parasol stands, snack bars with bilingual maps, Cyrillic and Armenian.

Hardly any country was in such a hurry to get away when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics imploded. On September 21, 1991, Armenia declared itself independent, was again a separate state after 700 years and shut down the planned economy overnight.

The Russians packed up and drove home, says Stefan Simonian. He made wine for the Russians for many years in the Areni wine cooperative. Now the former foreman is a self-employed winemaker.

He bought new tanks and cut back the vines. The Areni grape, which has the same name as the place on whose barren slopes it thrives, now has a sugar content of 26 percent. You don't need to sweeten 26 percent, says Simonian, we never had that much among the Russians.

He fills 150,000 bottles a year of his soft wine, which tastes like currants. He sells the good vintages to Georgia and Russia. He fills the bad ones in 2-liter Coca-Cola bottles and builds them on the side of the road for the Iranian truck drivers who smuggle Simonian's goods as soft drinks to Tehran.

Actually too good, says the winemaker, but one shouldn't be vain, and who knows, maybe one day I'll sell to France or Italy.