There are few things which can make me so excited I get teary-eyed. Coming upon an epic view while hiking is one. Crushing a huge sale back in the day was another. But food? Food can get me just about every time. So when I saw a meetup on Couchsurfing to go to the Tolma Festival in Dvin, I was all over it.
Apology: Before I over-promise and under-deliver, I’ll just come out and say it: there’s only one picture of food in this post. I understand you’re disappointed. But this post is called EATing all the things… not photographing all the things. Honestly, you’re lucky I took the one picture.
The group met up in Republic Square at 10, giving me a new appreciation for ‘Armenian time’. I’m so over that 7 am crap. I showed up a little bit early, which allowed me to chug a coffee before we packed six people into a five-person car and took off.
Our first stop was Khor Virap, a popular pilgrimage site not only because of its proximity to Mount Ararat, but for the deep hole on site, into which Gregory the Illuminator was thrown by King Tiridates III and held prisoner for 12 years. Historically and religiously minded people go for the hole, while others go for the epic view of the monastery with Ararat looming behind it.
Unfortunately for us, the clouds were out in full force, obscuring the iconic view. A bit disappointed, we wandered around the church grounds.
Vart, our fearless leader, was set on taking us down into Gregory’s Hole, but the place was absolutely swarming with tourists, so I bailed. The group came with me, and we climbed a nearby hill for a nice view of Khor Virap and the surrounding countryside.
The Tolma Festival in Dvin
Our stomachs urged us onward, so we piled back into our taxi and made our way to the little town of Dvin to enjoy the tolma festival. The village was absolutely overrun with tourists, mostly locals from Yerevan. I was worried I’d hate the experience, but once I got my hands on some tolma, those worries disappeared faster than the food on my plate.
Some of the stalls were shoving food at me, not caring if I was planning to purchase a dish or not. Others would take my order for one serving of tolma, then add a bunch of extra stuff to my plate. The plate below cost me 200 AMD, about $0.40 USD. For once, the crowds didn’t bother me. I was bumped and jostled about, all the while cramming food into my face with oil-covered fingers.
Nathan had found paradise at last…
A few days later, when I asked my host in Garni what the best Armenian food was, he barely had to think before answering, “Tolma.” Armenians say it proudly with a ‘T’, differentiating the dish from dolma found elsewhere in Eastern Europe and the Near East. The etymology is actually different, so when you’re in Armenia, say it with a ‘t’.
At the festival, a woman showed locals and tourists alike the finer points of making tolma as everyone jostled for a closer look. If you ever visit Armenia, be sure to try the iconic dish — whether it’s at the tolma festival in Dvin or at one of the many fantastic restaurants in Yerevan.
Perhaps my favorite part of the festival which didn’t have to do with food was the music and dancing. A number of acts paraded across the stage, setting the crowd’s hands to clapping and feet to tapping. Some were more affected than others, though none more so than the man below, who wriggled and stomped his way around with any lady who would join him. The man was a legend!
Whether it was a group of men and women singing dueling verses at each other or a troupe of dancers, the costumes on display were vibrant and colorful. The pageantry of it all was intriguing and made for a welcome distraction when I couldn’t bear stuffing another bite down my gullet.
Apparently, the flood of festival participants was more than expected, and the vendors ran out of food. Attendance at the tolma festival had dwarfed the previous year’s, and that’s likely to happen again in the future. So, you know… go now?
An Unexpected Treat
We left the festival and wandered up the street to the nearby archaeological site of the ancient city of Dvin, only to be met by a woman and her daughter. They chatted a bit with our leader and invited us over for coffee. Eager to escape the heat and the glaring sun, we accepted and followed them to a nearby village and their mercifully shaded courtyard.
Coffee turned into a lavish affair, with fresh cherries and apricots from the courtyard, chocolates, cookies, and more. A group of neighborhood kids stopped in — they were traveling door to door performing traditional songs and dances in exchange for donations. It reminded me a bit of trick-or-treating.
Needless to say, coffee and cherries after an intense tolma festival experience were, well, the cherry on top for all of us. We left the village of Dvin full and happy, windows rolled down as our driver bumped and swerved his way back to Yerevan.
How about you? What’s a memorable festival experience you’ve had during your travels? What made it so special? Let me know in the comments below!