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RETURNING TO MY ROOTS
I have been to Yerevan twice. The first time was as a teenager - twenty-three years ago - when Armenia was still part of the USSR. Although the Cold War was entering something of a thaw, the Berlin Wall still separated East from West. The geo-political landscape has changed dramatically in the intervening years, with Armenia joining the community of nations as an independent republic in 1991.
When my sister announced she would be getting married in Yerevan, I jumped at the chance to go back. For the first time, I had the opportunity to see my home country and its capital through mature adult eyes. On my previous trip, as a callow Armenian-American sixteen year old, I saw only what I was permitted during our carefully orchestrated and supervised visit. This time, I travelled solo, leaving my wife and kids behind, which gave me freedom to explore how and when I wanted.
Most visitors to Armenia will arrive at Zvartnots International Airport, which is about a 20 minute (and 12km) drive from the city centre (known as "getron"). This small airport is an odd mixture of the old and new - with 1960's Soviet style monolithic architecture supplemented by an attractive modern terminal. Zvartnots is served by a number of major airlines, but only British Midland fly direct from the UK. If you don't mind changing aircraft, Air France, Austrian Airlines and Czech Airlines all offer flights from Heathrow with layovers in Paris, Salzburg and Prague respectively. For reference, BMI were charging £750 for a direct flight, but I booked Air France with a two hour layover at Charles de Gaulle for £450.
UK visitors will require a visa, which can be obtained electronically in advance from the Armenian Embassy in London (for a premium), or can be paid for immediately before passport control on arrival. It costs 3000 Dram (the equivalent of around £5 depending on exchange rates) but payment is only accepted in the local currency. Helpfully, there are exchange facilities available in the airport (at typically unfavourable rates).
You will need immediate access to cash to pay for your 21 day visa, the luggage trolleys and also your cab fare. There is no train service into the city, so you will need to take a taxi or (if booked) a hotel courtesy bus. Prices vary, but generally, you should not have to pay more than 1000 Dram (£1.50) for a trip into town. Most taxi drivers speak a smattering of basic English, and know the names of the main tourist hotels, but as Armenian and Russian are still the main languages, you may struggle to make yourself understood if you are going off the beaten track. The Armenian language and written script is unique and difficult for foreigners to decipher, but fortunately, since independence, more and more signage is being written in English as well.
Chances are, if your are visiting Yerevan for the first time, especially on a flight/hotel package deal, you will be staying at one of the main tourist hotels in the city centre. At the top of the pile are the Marriott Armenia which fronts on to the expansive Republic Square (which the locals call "hrabarag"), the Best Western Congress Hotel on Italy Street, and the Golden Tulip on Abovian Street. The Hotel Ani Plaza and the Golden Palace are also recommended, but are located a little further a field. These properties are the priciest in Yerevan and will set you back at least US$150 per night. As with any major city, there are mid-price and budget options available, but I have little experience of these. We actually have our own family flat in the heart of town, so my knowledge of the local hotels is limited to information passed on to me by locals and friends who have stayed in them while on holiday.
Yerevan is located in a valley, surrounded on all sides by hills and mountains. The iconic twin mountains of Ararat, around 30km across the closed Armenian/Turkish border, and the four peaks of Mt Aragats, stand sentry over the city. The city is broadly laid out on a grid system and relatively easy to navigate. Provided you have a sensible pair of shoes, eyes in the back of your head and watch approaching traffic like a hawk, Yerevan is an eminently walkable city which has much to offer the observant tourist.
There is an incredibly cheap one-line, ten-stop Metro that is squeaky clean and ultra-reliable that connects the centre of the city with the outer suburbs. It operates from 6:30 to 23:00, and tokens, bought from sullen-faced booth operators, cost a measly 50 Dram (less than 10p) whatever distance you travel. However, it is primarily geared toward getting people to and from work and is not particularly useful for tourists (other than as an attraction in of itself). The stops of most interest will be Hrabarag (Republic Square), Sasuntsi David, which serves the main railway station and is home to the impressive statue of the same name, and Marshall Bagramian, which serves the Parliament and the American University.
Apart from the Metro, the city operates a chaotic tram-bus, traditional bus and mini-bus system which I found far too daunting to use. Once again, it is very much geared to the locals, who all seem to know which of the flotilla of mini-buses (think 12 seater vans with side opening door and 15 people crammed in like sardines...) to get on. There are no clear directions at the bus stops as to which buses go where. You have to rely on the signs (in Armenian, but sometimes English as well) in the front and side windows of each bus - if you are quick enough to catch them.
All of which leaves the ubiquitous Soviet-era Lada and Volga taxis, which you simply flag down, as the most efficient and cost effective way of getting around. Most journeys within the city will cost around 600 Dram (£1), but drivers will always profess to having no change. With the smallest value note being 1000 Dram, it pays to carry the right change if you are particularly cost conscious. There is no need to tip drivers.
If you are looking to go further afield to visit some of the sites within a short drive of Yerevan, your best bet is an organised tour, which can be booked from any of the major hotels. In my case, I had the luxury of friends with cars who were willing to take days off to drive us around. In the absence of local connections, you could try booking a taxi for the day at a fixed price. This can often work out cheaper, but the language barrier can present a significant challenge. If you are intending to hire a car, I would recommend that you spend a day in Yerevan first - I guarantee you will change your mind.
SOME OF THE MAIN SIGHTS
> Opera & Environs
Opera and its immediate surroundings provide the focal point for the Yerevan social scene. The area, which is roughly bounded by Mashdots, Terian, Sayat Nova and Tumanian Street is dominated by the squat, circular Opera house with its bas-relief Doric columns. The building houses two concert halls and has been providing world class performances since opening its doors in 1932. There is something on stage almost every night, and tickets are still relatively inexpensive and easy to come by.
The area around Opera is packed with attractive outdoor cafes and bars, which both tourists and locals flock to day and night. It is the only central city location I have ever been to where you can get a coffee for less than 50p, or a beer for less than £1. It has yet to be infected by the naked profiteering that sites like this the world over seem to suffer from, but the locals are catching on - one establishment with cool looking comfy sofas tried to charge us a 4000 Dram (£6) cover charge just for sitting down - whether they were trying it on because we were obviously tourists or they charged it as standard we'll never know - we voted with our feet and moved on.
There are two small parks around Opera that have survived the invasion of the café culture. One is the so-called Swan Lake, which converts into an ice-rink in winter. It's most notable and arresting feature is the evocative statue of Soviet-Armenian composer Arno Babajanian at his piano, which is well worth a visit by itself. The other park hosts a daily artists fair, where local painters and sculptors peddle their wares.
> Republic Square
"Hrabarag", which used to be Lenin Square, is the off-centre focal point in the southern part of Yerevan. Arranged in a rough circle, its constituent buildings show the nuance, detail and style of Armenian Soviet architecture at its best. The main building material is local tufa stone, a porous, volcanic rock that comes in various colours, of which the most prized are the orange-pink shades.
The Square now hosts the Marriot Hotel, a couple of Russian banks, government offices, the main post office, and, at its north end, a museum complex housing Armenia's National Gallery and Natural History Museum. The main feature of the Square are the fountains in front of the museum, which offer colourful nightly displays set to classical and popular music. Not quite on the scale of the Bellagio, but worth watching nonetheless. Proceedings kick off around 8:30pm and last around twenty minutes.
> Northern (Husissayin) Street
Northern Street is a controversial new development that runs diagonally across the grid system of Yerevan's central streets providing a more or less direct connection between Hrabarag and Opera. Rows upon rows of historic, classically built homes and townhouses were demolished to make way for the Armenian equivalent of Fifth Avenue. When I visited, it was still in the final stages of construction. The ground level will house shops - some of them now open - with high end names such as Gucci, Armani, and various other international designer outlets and restaurants. The upper levels will be prime residential real estate with concierge, underground parking and all mod-cons.
Unfortunately, as in many ex-Soviet republics, the rich are über-rich, and everyone else struggles to make ends meet. For the tourist, stripped of its political and social luggage, Northern Street is like any other posh shopping street in the world, with little aesthetic or artistic merit other than the local tufa stone used in its monolithic construction. Northern Street, when completed, will take over from Abovian Street as the "main" street in Yerevan, but for now, Abovian is still the place to go for slightly more "realistic" shopping.
At the top end of Mashdots Street, built into the side of a hill, and overlooked by the giant statue of "Mother Armenia", is the Madenataran - a museum and research institute which houses Armenia's vast collection of historic illuminated manuscripts, books and documents. The display area of the museum is surprisingly small, with two, well illuminated main halls showing perhaps one percent of the treasures stored within it. The rest are stored in a secure vault bored deep into the side of the hill and are not accessible to the public.
Guides are readily available to talk through the display items in a number of different languages (I heard Russian, English, Persian, French, Armenian and Italian when I visited), many of which are covered with retractable blinds to prevent unnecessary exposure to the sun. The main hall, given its elevation, provides excellent views down Mashdots Street. Like most museums in Yerevan, it is closed on Mondays and has a modest entrance fee (2000 Dram (£3) when I visited).
> Blue Mosque/Fruit Market
Yerevan (and indeed Armenia) is one of the most homogeneous of the ex-Soviet republics. The conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh resulted in the mass exodus of people on both sides to their respective "mother" countries. As a result, apart from itinerant workers, the vast majority of Armenia is ethnically Armenian and Christian. However, up until the conflict, there was a thriving Muslim community in Yerevan, centred around the beautiful 18th century Blue Mosque just off the lower end of Mashdots Street. In keeping with Soviet policy toward religion, the mosque was shut down as a place of worship in the 1930's. Instead, it was used to house the Museum of the City of Yerevan. After extensive renovation funded almost entirely by Iran in the 1990's, the mosque was restored as a place of worship and is the only functional mosque in Yerevan, now primarily serving Iranian embassy staff and tourists.
Almost directly across the street from the mosque is a covered fruit and vegetable market which is best visited early in the day (at least before noon) to catch the colourful displays of dried fruit, herbs and spice, and traditional Armenian produce such as cherries, apricots, grapes and pomegranates. Given the vibrant, chaotic atmosphere inside at its busiest, it is easy to overlook the uninspiring, dilapidated and crumbling interior. Armenian stall owners can haggle and hawk with the best of them, so it's not an environment for the shy or easily intimidated.
Directly north of the Opera is a complex of planted terraces and fountains built like set of giant steps into the hillside and called "the Cascade". You can walk up the exterior steps (it's quite a long and tiring walk), stopping periodically to take in the ever expansive views of the city and Mt Ararat - or there is a series of escalators that run underneath the complex which run all the way to the top. The escalators break at a number of landings, each of which allows you access to the gardens and fountains on that level, as well as a couple of art galleries and studios. Like many tourists, I didn't discover the escalators until I had done the hard work, so took them on the way down instead. The final stage of the complex is still being built, and will house a collection of modern and contemporary art. The area at the bottom has a small park with various statuary on display and also hosts open air concerts in the summer.
The "Fortress of Swallows" is the name given to the hilltop area to the south of the centre which houses the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum. I won't go into too much detail on the history of the Armenian Genocide itself (see my "Spring Flowers" review if you are interested in the detail). Suffice it to say that this evocative memorial commemorates the million and a half Armenians slaughtered by the Young Turk regime between 1915 and 1918 in the first genocide of a bloody twentieth century. The memorial, built in the late 1960's - shortly after the 50th anniversary of the genocide - consists of an arrow-shaped granite stele and twelve inward leaning granite slabs which shelter an eternal flame. Armenian church hymns are played over well concealed speakers, creating a solemn and sombre atmosphere. Next to the memorial is a long wall, into which are carved the names of the towns, villages, and cities in Western Armenia (or Eastern Turkey, depending on your perspective) from which the Armenian population was massacred or deported. The underground museum is a relatively recent and very welcome addition, built into the hill to ensure that the focus remained on the imposing main monument. Near the entrance to the museum is a garden of trees, each planted by visiting dignitaries and delegations as a memorial to the victims. This place is a must visit if you want to understand something of the Armenian spirit.
> The Vernissage
The oddly named Vernissage is a weekend open air flea market, just off Republic Square on a natty bit of parkland adjacent to the Metro station. It only operates on Saturday and Sunday and is a must visit for souvenirs, art, rugs, handicrafts and pretty much anything and everything under the sun. If you approach from the Republic Square end, just off Nalbandyan Street you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled on the wreckage of a battle between Megatron and Optimus Prime. The ground is littered with tarps, blankets and sheets of plastic covered with hundreds of computer, electronic and mechanical parts of every description, all being optimistically touted by grizzled old men. Given the lack of evident trade, the enthusiastic conversations and the games of backgammon, chess and cards, it looks more like a social club than a market, but fear not - the real treasure lies further ahead.
Once you hit the main section you are treated to an almost endless market seemingly full of the entire collected bric-a-brac of the good citizens of Yerevan. The market is broadly divided into sections for clothing, souvenirs, jewellery, china, household goods, militaria, books, crafts and art. If you can't find it here it probably doesn't exist in Armenia. As with the fruit market, be prepared to haggle - it's not unusual to pay a third of the initial asking price - which tends to start higher or lower depending on how (a) rich; (b) foreign and (c) gullible you look, in no particular order. I managed to emerge with a new, handcrafted backgammon board, some silver, hand-made jewellery and a tatty but authentic Soviet tank commander's helmet.
> Other Sights
There are many other places to visit in Yerevan, but I have only described the sites I actually managed to get to during my trip. Other attractions recommended to me were the Erebuni Museum complex - an archaeological site which explores the origins of the city, Victory Park (which hosts the Mother Armenia statue), the Museum of the City of Yerevan at City Hall, and the Ararat Brandy factory, which offers guided tours on the making of Armenian cognac.
If you have time for some day trips out of town, there are several excellent sites within a short driving distance. I would highly recommend the half day trip to Geghard Monastery and the Garni Temple complex. Also, the cathedral of Etchmiadzin, which is about 30 minutes from Yerevan, is to the Armenian Orthodox Church what St Peter's is to Roman Catholics, and can easily be combined with stops at the ancient churches of St Hripsime, St Gayaneh and the ruins of Zvartnots - a unique church of circular construction. Most of Yerevan and Armenia's ancient churches still host regular services, and as such are free to visit. There are small charges (around £1) for ancient monuments and maintained ruins.
FOOD & DRINK
Eating and drinking seems to be a national pastime. Armenian food is generally meat based, with pork, lamb and chicken khorovadz (barbecue) a speciality. My favourites are dolma (vine leaves and vegetables stuffed with rice and mince), tahnabour (a yoghurt and barley based soup served either hot or cold) and stuffed aubergines. For good, filling and cheap fast food, any number of "shawarma" (barbecued meat served in flatbread - think doner/gyro) and/or lahmajun (Armenian meat pizza) places are a great option. There are a string of these places on Toumanian Street, but Mer Tagh (Our Town), which is run by Lebanese Armenians, is especially good for lahmajun. A sandwich and a drink should set you back no more than 1000 dram (£1.40).
For a sit down meal at a café or full service restaurant, with drinks, expect to pay around 10,000 Dram a head (£15), more if live music is being played. From experience, if you are looking for authentic, good value Armenian food, cooked to a very good standard with friendly service, I can recommend Our Village (5 Sayat Nova Street - near the Opera) and Agoump (The Club - 40 Toumanian Street - http://www.theclub.am/). Local wine is pretty good and is much cheaper than imported (I stuck to the pleasantly quaffable Areni Dry Red) and the local beers - Kilikia, Kotayk and Erebuni - are light and refreshing and relatively inexpensive.
Yerevan is a busy, bustling city full of contrasts and still searching for a modern identity. Street vendors, with fruits, vegetables and crafts laid out on homely blankets peddle their wares in front of garishly illuminated 24 hour supermarkets, electronics shops and cigarette kiosks. Monolithic and featureless Soviet style housing blocks stand alongside ancient churches and evocative ruins, and tastefully dressed women jostle at street crossings with almost universally badly kitted out and unkempt men. You are just as likely to receive a warm and friendly welcome as a sullen and disinterested one. The biggest problem in Yerevan, and Armenia generally, is that no one really thinks of the future - the attitude is very much "live for today and worry about tomorrow if it happens" which is hardly a philosophy that encourages forward planning. Take the Opera house for example - this impressive building has sprouted a veritable forest of mobile phone masts that look completely out of place and would have its venerable architects turning in their graves.
However, it's this very insistence on living for the moment that makes Yerevan such a vibrant city - evidenced by an energetic nightlife that lasts well into the wee hours, especially in the summer months. It is very safe - street crime is almost unheard of and although tourists should take the usual precautions when out and about, you are more likely to be assisted than assaulted if lost. In fact, the greatest threat to your safety is likely to be the Armenian driver, who tends to treat the highway code as an optional set of instructions to be obeyed at their convenience. In the last few years, traffic cops have been vigorously enforcing the new traffic light system (which has a countdown both on the driver side and pedestrian side to tell you how long before the light changes) resulting in much better behaviour. That said, be cautious!
There is enough to see and do in Yerevan to keep you well occupied for a whole week, but those short on time can see and do most of the major sights in around three days. The best time to go is Mid April to Late June, and then September and October. The summer gets unbearably hot with temperatures reaching 40C. The place closes down for the winter, as it gets bitterly cold, rendering the outdoor facilities that create much of the city's atmosphere unusable.
I would thoroughly recommend trips out of town to get a taste of "real" Armenia as, like most cities, Yerevan is not particularly representative of the rest of the country. So, if you are looking for an interesting destination off the beaten track, if you have a love of culture, history, music and strong coffee, I would strongly recommend a trip to Yerevan.
You'll be pleasantly surprised.
© Hishyeness 2010