Given I left home five months ago, this blog is well overdue. So where better to start than the city I've just spent over a week in.
I must say I generally don't have huge expectations when it comes to Soviet-era cities. Tbilisi was nice enough but my impression was that they talked up the old town a little much. So I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived in Yerevan. Soviet-era rebuilding took care of most the historical structures but what exists now is a modern and thoroughly enjoyable city that rewards aimless wandering and good old people-watching from a cafe.
Orientation is simple. Republic Square and Freedom Square (often called Opera Square due to the presence of the Opera House) are the two main public spaces, they are linked (almost) by the modern (and slightly sterile) pedestrianised Northern Avenue shopping street. Just west of these is Mashtots Avenue; running in a north-south direction, it the main thoroughfare of the central city and many of the useful buses and marshrutkas (shared minivan) run along it.
So what did I do while i was there?
Erebuni-Yerevan 2799 Festival
I’ve had a bad run this trip with narrowly missing festivals (Nišville in Serbia and Dokufest in Kosovo spring to mind) so I was suitably happy to find on arrival that the Erebuni-Yerevan 2799 festival was on that day! The 2799 refers to the age of the city based on the founding of the Urartu city of Erebuni in 782BC, the ruins of which can still be seen within the city limits. It certainly provided a positive introduction to both Yerevan and the Armenian people. Every city square had stages, with performances ranging from local dance, jazz, schoolkid performances and traditional music. It was amazing to see so many people out enjoying the festivities, everyone with a smile on their face and phone/camera in hand. Later that evening, Freedom Square put on a rock concert featuring local bands, again the crowds were out in force.
Free Walking Tour
A great way to start your sightseeing and orientate yourself with the city via with a history lesson on Yerevan via Yerevan Free Walking Tour. Local artist Vako shares his extensive knowledge of the city in a relaxed yet informative manner. Among the many stops you’ll learn about the building and renaming of Republic Square, get a rundown on local architecture and find out why Yerevan doesn’t have much of an “old town”. The 3 hour duration flies by; after the tour Vako will usually offer to take you to Calumet bar (see further down the page for more). Check their Facebook page for details.
There’s no denying (unless you’re Turkish) that the 1915 genocide was the darkest period of Armenian history. Around half the Armenian population were exterminated and large parts of their western territory stolen. While I was aware of the overall picture of what had occurred, I was a little light on the details of what led to the Genocide, how it happened, how the international community reacted and what happened in the aftermath. The museum answered all my questions and more. The exhibition is very well done, pictures are extensive and almost all sections have a detailed English translation. Several rooms have videos showcasing certain aspects of the genocide.
Take note of the unusual hours – 1000-1600 Tuesday to Sunday, closed Mondays and public holidays. Admission is free.
Just 20km from the centre of Yerevan you’ll find the centre of Armenia’s Christian community, the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin. Dating back to 301AD, it is claimed to be the first (and therefore oldest) cathedral in the world. Having said that, the cathedral has been almost completely rebuilt over the centuries; the only part remaining from the original structure is located under the altar and is currently off limits. However, there’s no denying what this cathedral means to the Armenian people – as the Armenian Apostolic Church doesn’t report to the Vatican City, this is the principal place of worship for the entire country.
Probably the highlight of the cathedral is its museum, located via a door to the right of the altar. Amongst its treasures are a fragment of Noah’s Ark, the spear that pierced the side of Jesus prior to his crucifixion (as well as part of his cross), and relics of John the Baptist. While there are few explanations in English besides a basic description, staff are happy to answer questions.
The 4th century monastery at Geghard is one of the highlights of a trip to Yerevan. Located 40km west of the city in a spectacular gorge, it is a beautiful and historic monastery that is partially carved out of the surrounding hill. In an annex off the main chapel, you’ll see a natural spring used by worshippers to cleanse before prayer. The monastery was formerly home to the spear allegedly used to wound Jesus prior to his death, you’ll now find this at Etchmiadzin.
It’s easy to pair up Geghard with the historic town of Garni, home to an impressive (but reconstructed) temple that dates back nearly 2000 years. Like Geghard, Garni is located in an amazing gorge; the views from the temple are striking. If you have time, you can wander down into the gorge, here you’ll find the Symphony of the Stones, a series of basalt columns that somewhat resemble a church organ (hence the name).
From Yerevan you’ll find many tour companies offering combined trips to Geghard and Garni. Getting to Garni under your own steam (no public transport direct to Geghard exists) is reasonably straight-forward but time-consuming. The #5 marshrutka (shared mini-van) runs north along Mashtots avenue and will take you to the Gai station (really just a collection of marshrutkas); ask which will take you to Garni. From Garni to Geghard you have 2 options, hitchhike or taxi. I was about to take a short stroll to the highway to catch a lift when I was approached by an old man with a walking stick. 2000 dram (less than 4 Euro) to go to Geghard with an hour at the monastery? Seemed a fair enough price, although to be honest here the real attraction of his offer was a ride in his rusting 70s era Lada.
One thing Yerevan is not short of is bars and cafes. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to sample them all so the best I can do is share my recommendations. Dargett (72 Aram St) is the place to head if you’re after a microbrew. With an amazing 16 beers currently on their menu (and I can vouch for the quality of them all), ranging from pilsners and lagers through to an imperial Russian stout via several hoppy IPA’s, there is something for everyone. If you’re unsure of what to order, try one of their tasting paddles - 5 x 100ml glasses of crafty goodness for 1900 dram. Staff are friendly and helpful, most speak good English so they’ll help with recommendations. They also have an extensive menu of tasty-looking food (advice – avoid the nachos, they’re just tortilla chips covered in liquid cheese with a few spicy peppers. The onion rings are good though).
Calumet Ethnic Lounge Bar (56a Pushkin St) does what the name suggests – an atmospheric bar with great décor and an eclectic playlist. The focus is Armenian/foreign beers and a decent cocktail list. The menu is less extensive than Dargett, largely just tasty pizzas and snacks. A fantastic place to relax after a hard day's sightseeing. A word of warning - like most of Armenia's bars, smoking is allowed inside.
You’ll see a lot of places advertising lunch deals, generally a main/soup or salad/side/drink. Some offerings are not up to par (a single chicken wing as a main? Plain spaghetti as a side?) but one place with a great lunch menu is Pub 37 (37 Mashtots Ave). For a low 1500 dram you’ll have plenty to choose from, I was happy with my choice of chicken schnitzel/Bulgarian salad/fries/tan (a salted yoghurt drink similar to Turkish aryan).
Hints and Tips
Drinking fountains are found everywhere! As part of the Yerevan’s 2750th birthday, the city installed 2750 drinking fountains, meaning clean, cool and great tasting water is easy to find
Don’t miss the sound and light show in Republic Square every evening. Popular with locals and tourists alike, the fountains are synchronized to classical, pop and rock music. Times vary throughout the year, it was on 8-11pm when I was there in October.
Marshrutka are a cheap way (100 dram for most rides) to get around the city but it can be a little daunting working out which goes where. Asking staff at your accommodation (or a friendly local at the bus stop) will usually sort matters out. While taxis are cheap (around 800-1000 dram for short ride in the city), you'll feel you've accomplished more taking a ride with the locals
Got a few hours to kill? Head up to the Mother Armenia statue for a great view of the city (and to see some ex-Soviet military hardware), then wander west through Victory Park then back to the city via the Cascade Steps and its numerous sculptures