In the latest of a series of city guides on the Caucasus, Stuart Wadsworth reports on Armenia’s cognac capital, Yerevan.
In the shadow of the fabled Mount Ararat, Yerevan stands at a crossroads between Asian and European civilization, and for centuries has been a battleground between Christians and Muslims. Armenia was once a vast empire stretching from the Black Sea to the Caspian, but now it’s a slice of land not much bigger than Belgium, hemmed in by Turkey, Georgia – and Azerbaijan, its sworn enemy. Under the yoke of Soviet control for seventy years, Armenia stumbled through one crisis after another during the 90s, but finally the country is starting to look confidently to the future with genuine economic growth and a developing tourist industry.
Yerevan, with a population of around one million, is a relaxed and friendly capital, with a strong European café culture and lively nightlife scene. A mainly Soviet-era city, its architecture is not always photogenic, but does provide a sense of grandeur, whilst the central core possesses some lovely 19th-century edifices. It may not immediately impress, but Yerevan grows on you as you peel away its layers and begin to understand its expressive, passionate people. Engaging, friendly and very hospitable, Armenians, like their Georgian neighbours, have a reputation for enjoying life – and especially their most famous export, cognac…
Best of the Beaten Track
…and where better to start your sightseeing in the capital than in the premises of its celebrated tipple: at the Yerevan Brandy Company. The company runs English-language tours which are a lot of fun and very informative, taking you through the whole distilling process, from grape to glass. There are cellars dating back to the 19th century, and barrels with the names of countless famous foreign dignitaries who have visited. The best part of the trip is of course the tasting at the end, and you get to sample three delicious blends, ranging from 5 to 30 years in age. The tour lasts about 90 minutes and costs $30.
For a more serious and moving experience, and one which no visitor to Yerevan should miss, go to the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum on a hill above the city, which documents the agony of the 1915-22 genocide of the Armenians during the death throes of the Ottoman Empire. There is no attempt to demonise the Turkish authorities here; just facts and photographs, starkly presented, of the first documented holocaust – which, to this day, is denied by Turkey, and not officially recognized by the U.S or U.K.
For great views of the city, climb the soviet-era Cascade – a vast flight of steps and flower beds at the north of the city centre. From here you can walk through Haghtanak Park to the Statue of Mother Armenia – defiantly facing south to Turkey, sword in hand. For culture-vultures, Matenadaran – Armenia’s ancient manuscripts library – sits just below this hill. Preserving more than 17,000 Armenian manuscripts and 100,000 medieval documents, this is a good place to get a good feel of the history of the country. A few blocks south west is the Opera House – the landmark of this part of the city. Surrounded by parks, nightclubs, outdoor cafes and shops, this is the perfect place to sit and people-watch. And if you’re feeling up for it, perhaps catch a show; frequent orchestras, ballets and performances take place here.
For art enthusiasts, a trip to the Sergei Paradjanov Museum should be rewarding. Not your run-of-the-mill artist, Paradjanov spent his life flitting in and out of prison during soviet times, still producing some of the most brilliant, inventive and amusing avant-garde collages, sculptures and films to have come out of this grim period. There’s real flair and originality to his work, and a visit to the slightly out of town house-museum is well worth it. The Vernissage art market, showcases both local avant-garde and traditional talent.
A second place you really need to go to understand the Armenian soul is a half-hour taxi drive from the city. Echmiadzin, 20km west, is something akin to the Vatican, or spiritual centre, of the Armenian Apostolic Church. You can admire two important religious artifacts here: a piece of wood from Noah’s Ark (which is said to have come to rest on nearby Ararat) and a piece of the lance used by a Roman soldier to stab Jesus’ side as he was hung from the Cross. Also, if you go on a Sunday, you get to see an Armenian service in action, a rare treat with lots of men in hoods, swinging thuribles, incense, candles and beautiful chanting.
If you’re up for a little more day-tripping it’s well worth taking the bus to Lake Sevan. Lying 60km north of Yerevan, and a few hundred metres higher up, this is the perfect place to escape the intense summer heat. With stunning churches lining its banks, watersports, pristine beaches and plenty of bar life for party-goers, there is something for everyone here. Hiring a car is a good idea, as you can easily escape crowds this way and get to some hidden spots where public transport is not available. Garni Temple, a Hellenic construction dating back to the 8th century, and Geghard Monastery, in a stunning gorge north east of the city, are also well worth seeing.
Experience & Events
While it would be disingenuous to say that Yerevan is a major European rock capital, in 2010 it has hosted Ian Gillian of Deep Purple, Joe Cocker and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, and local band Bambir are starting to make big waves internationally, recently coming 3rd in an international new talent rock event in Athens. The main cultural events in Yerevan take place in the Opera House, and autumn to spring sees a host of musicals, operas and ballets taking place. The International Music Festival at Armenia’s National Gallery, is a showcase for well-known as well as lesser known international and Armenian classical musicians.
The stronger-thighed traveller might want to combine a city break in Yerevan with a bike tour of Armenia’s monasteries. (Follow the link to read about one Urban Travel Blogger’s cycling experience when he did just that!).
Yerevan’s budget options are limited. But the good news is that it’s not over-run with backpackers, so you should still just be able to turn up and get a bed should you wish. The only bona-fide hostel is Envoy, weighing in at about $20 a night, and it packs 70 beds into its ten rooms. A bit cheaper still (at around $15 a night) are the homestay options near to the Opera house. By far the most popular is Anahit Stepayan’s. A somewhat over-bearing host to some, she is motherly and sweet according to others – she will certainly make you feel at home. Moving upscale quite rapidly (there are few mid-range options here), there are the soviet-era hotels Shirak and Erebuni – both of which charge around $60 per person. Other than the Soviet chic on offer, the only advantage to staying in either of these places is that you get your own room and breakfast and a central location. At the top end, the Golden Tulip is by far the most comfortable option in town, with all the usual mod-cons, and a swimming pool on its roof – a real bonus in the summer heat in a town where getting a swim can be difficult and expensive.
Yerevan is famous for its khorovats (grills) and, come dusk, you can see the smoke rising over the city as a thousand roadside vendors and restaurants singe their kebabs to a crisp. Hit Paronyan Poghots (Barbecue Street) for a host of smokin’ options. However, there is more to food here than barbecues. The fresh fruit and vegetables grown locally are delicious, as is dairy produce, fish, wine and of course brandy (check out Central Bazaar if you’re self catering!). For excellent traditional fare, why not try Our Village, handily placed under Anahit’s place if you’re staying there. Dishing up hearty traditional Armenian dishes in ethnic surrounds and with live music, this is an excellent introduction to local cuisine. Khashlama – lamb stew cooked in beer – is delicious here. Another great traditional place, though a bit less cosy, is Old Erivan. On the eastern edge of the centre is Kaukas, which serves similar local staples in rustic surrounds; it can get very busy here, so book ahead.
The bar scene in Yerevan is a bit more exciting and inventive than in fellow Caucasian capital, Tbilisi. An evening in Kalamat, just down from Envoy hostel, is a great way of meeting friendly, hip and knowledgeable young locals. The dress code is strictly informal, and the atmosphere eastern and ethnic. You get a fair few Diaspora Armenians here too, so it’s a good place to get an insight into that scene. Nearby, the Beatles Bar offers English music – not easy in Armenia, where Russian pop rules – and some fun memorabilia. Slightly underground and off most tourists’ radars is The Club, which multi-tasks as a bookshop, restaurant and bar in one. Great for a quiet pint, you can sit on bean bags and chill out, and if you ask the owner nicely you can go to a secret hidden bar behind the kitchen and listen to his smuggled record collection from soviet times. A few Irish bars cater to the smattering of expats here, the pick of which is Shamrock (1A Saryan Street), which has a great welcoming vibe and typically grungy feel. If you’re in your glad rags, head for Stoyka for a guaranteed fun night out. Open ’til 5am at the weekends, it caters to expats, tourists, local and Diasporan Armenians, and offers a wide range of beers.
Much like Georgia, Armenia is somewhat hemmed in and difficult to access by land and, as it’s landlocked, you can’t get there by sea either. The only land borders you can come in by are via Iran or Georgia – which pretty much means that if you’re coming here, you’re flying. Some find cheaper flights to Tbilisi and come overland from there, but Yerevan is well-connected to western Europe. BMI fly from Heathrow and LOT fly from Warsaw’s Chopin Airport.
Lonely Planet’s Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan is a solid, if unspectacular, guidebook and good on cheap accommodation; whilst the other alternative, Bradt’s Guide to Armenia , is dull, dry, and only of use if you are obsessed with every last dusty detail of monasteries and churches. Thankfully there’s some great travel literature in the form of Kapuscinski’s Imperium, which includes a memorable, poetic chapter on the wonder and magic of Armenian cognac. For background info on the genocide, read Children of Armenia: A Forgotten Genocide and the Century-long Struggle for Justice (Michael Bobelian), a moving account (at times unbearably so) of the 1915-22 tragedy. It reads almost like a thriller, and provides damning evidence of a crime the U.K and U.S still deny happened. The Crossing Place by Philip Marsden is a haunting evocation of the Armenian spirit, from the forced marches into Syria through to the old communities of the Middle East and Eastern Europe to a frontier village in the middle of the Karabach War. Visions of Ararat by Christopher Walker is a collection of writings on Armenia by visitors over the centuries.
Soundtrack to the City
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