The past and present collide in Yerevan, Armenia
There are two things that you should know before visiting Yerevan: don’t ask for a Turkish coffee or about Kim Kardashian.
No one is very impressed with the reality-show star, or the rest of her attention-seeking family, no matter how much they proudly proclaim their Armenian roots. And Armenians have their own, slightly lighter yet just as delicious version of the silty brew, called soorj, so there’s no reason to insult anyone by bringing up an ever-present and painful subject in such an insensitive manner.
Any visit to this capital or its environs will be steeped in the unpleasant and enduring memory of the genocide at the hands of the Turks circa the First World War, which included the loss of more than a million people, as well as top intellectuals and creative minds, and launched a vast and dedicated diaspora from those who fled the violence.
At the moment, it seems all of Yerevan is gearing up for the 100th anniversary of this heartache next April, when an expanded and refurbished Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute will open and a crush of visitors are expected for a series of ceremonies marking the loss – which, as you will hear repeatedly upon visiting, Turkey has yet to officially acknowledge.
The Armenian capital is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, originally a fortress dating back to the eighth century. It’s rich in history and a monument to survival, at the heart of a land consistently fought over through the centuries and variously subjected to harsh and violent Turkish, Persian and Russian rule.
All that is barely perceptible today, with Yerevan’s many public spaces and parks teeming with life, creating the sort of quirky, accessible and walkable urban space that true travellers will love.
While making my way through the tree-lined downtown neighbourhood of Kentron one morning, I pass small parks full of people out enjoying the sunshine, getting the feeling from all the warm greetings I witness that everyone seems to be running into old friends. When the famous Armenian poet and singer-songwriter Ruben Hakhverdyan stops to say hello to a street musician playing some mellow blues on his electric guitar, it becomes apparent why there’s little tolerance for Kardashian-style attention-seeking in these parts. Although Hakhverdyan, who’s a stocky singer with a gravelly voice, is revered by Armenians, no one paid him any mind. When I later see him perform in a mesmerising show at the funky underground club Calumet, located at Pushkin 56, he’s equally unassuming.
Elsewhere, stark, Soviet-style cinder-block apartments stand beside small wonders, such as the tiny medieval Holy Mother of God Kathoghike church dating back to the 13th century that somehow survived Ottoman rule. Keeping one’s eyes open is constantly rewarding: whether it’s spotting a gorgeous mural of Edgar Allen Poe painted in an alley off a main street or some stuffed roosters announcing a restaurant below street level.
Even better, Yerevan has been mostly unspoilt by western consumerism. I spy just one KFC, no giant Zara or Nike stores and nary a Starbucks (although several cafes do proudly proclaim serving their brews, the first sign that the American behemoth is on its way). Instead, the tree-lined streets feature charming little outdoor coffee shops and stalls selling beautifully stacked roses.
The city is so compact, it’s possible to stroll around to many of the main attractions, and it’s easy to hop into one of the reasonably priced metered taxis if your feet get sore or you need to go a little farther.
Much of the neoclassical architecture in Yerevan is the work of the St Petersburg-born Alexander Tamanyan, who spent a decade designing and modernising the city after Armenia gained its independence in 1918. While his work and legacy permeate much of the core, the most dramatic and unusual evidence has to be the Cascade, which is essentially a giant staircase and garden linking the city’s cultural centre up a mountain to the northern, residential neighbourhood of Monument.
Tamanyan’s vision, however, proceeded in fits and starts that continue to this day. The project was largely abandoned until the 1970s, when much of the staircase was constructed, then left again for decades. It appears to have been renewed, because near the top of the mountain there’s a giant construction pit where work has been recently under way. It’s utterly worthwhile, however, even while breathless from the climb, to keep walking around the pit to the left for several minutes. The trip is not for the tall, ugly monument to the Soviet Union at the top, but to turn around and gaze at the city spread out down below. Lucky visitors, on a clear day, will get a glimpse of the majestic Mount Ararat, once such a vital part of Armenia, but for decades now just out of reach in Turkey.
The trip down can be made via an escalator inside the mountain, which houses the Cafesjian Centre for the Arts, a gallery where most of the work is from the private collection of the late Gerard Cafesjian, a United States-born member of the Armenian diaspora. Even if you don’t have time to stop and see the exhibits, take the escalator down to street level. It’s free, and you can glimpse some truly eclectic pieces, including a giant tube of lipstick and a silver-plated car.
A lovely place to visit during the evening is Republic Square, another Tamanyan project and a buzzing public space, where the post office is beautifully illuminated and each night the fountains feature a two-hour musical show. Swan Lake, so named for its proximity to the Tamanyan-designed opera-and-ballet house, is another gathering area nearby, notable for the flamboyant statue of the Armenian composer Arno Babajanyan. In the winter, the lake becomes an ice rink.
Eating in Yerevan is faintly exotic but mostly familiar, because of Arab and Turkish influences. Lavash, a thin bread, is a staple, while Armenians favour bulghur over rice. Our guide explains that a very special ritual meal for Armenians is khash, in which the belly and leg of cow are boiled all night in garlic and water; lavash is added to the mix and the entire thing is consumed with chasers at 7am, before everyone goes to sleep. It’s worth a visit to a local market to marvel at rows of plump, enticing dried apricots, peaches, berries, figs and dates. The most peculiar to an outsider, but a common sight, are long strands of walnuts wrapped in a glutinous sheath made from grapes. The vendors are generous with their free samples, so watch out: it’s easy to get excited and overindulge.
The Matenadaran, or the Institute of Ancient Manuscripts, is marked at the entrance by a sculpture of Mesrop Mashtots, who is revered for creating the sophisticated Armenian alphabet. It houses 22,000 documents and books dating back centuries – many that have been restored and others that have become petrified over time. The largest, at 604 pages and weighing 28 kilograms, is in two pieces because it was torn in half and carried to safety by two women during the genocide. Among the smallest is a tiny calendar dating back to 1436. The pieces are safe beneath glass display cases centuries later, still bound by glue made from garlic juice, while rich browns and brilliant reds, inks made from walnut and cochineal insects, remain unfaded.
There’s still time to plan a trip to this quirky, unspoilt cosmopolitan capital before snow falls, when the air is more crisp than cold. Though it’s less than a three-hour flight from Sharjah, this ancient city feels a world away from the UAE.
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