Spoiler: The “regret” is that I did plan a longer stay.
Last month DH mentioned an upcoming work trip to Yerevan. My ears pricked up. Yerevan, a city as old as Babylon? A country without a McDonalds? When do we leave? Naturally, the same day I purchased my flight, DH shared a comment from a colleague: "You're going to Yerevan? Who did you p- - - off?" Meh, I've heard it before. A friend's husband once declared the beautiful city of Sofia a, "sh- -hole," and not worth visiting. I was unfazed by the colleague's travel commentary, and set off with expectations as high as the forecast 34° temperatures.
We flew Austrian Airlines non-stop, Vienna to Yerevan, and in retrospect almost wished we had chosen the Aeroflot flights with a 6 hour layover in Moscow. Neither flight was quite up to Austrian Airlines snuff. The outbound departed at 2020; or, was scheduled to depart at 2020. Didn’t happen. The “meal” had neither pleasant aroma nor appearance, and we were grateful for having run through the McDonald’s drive-thru en route to the airport. (I never thought I would write that statement!) Apparently the cabin crew felt we should all be awake at midnight, so the cabin lights remained on for the flight. So much for sleeping. The only up note was that the kind folks at Passport Control confused us with important people and ushered us to the front of the queue!
FIRST 24 HOURS. "Old" Takes on a New Meaning.
It would be the case throughout our short visit that wrapping our heads around how ancient this part of the world is would prove difficult, though perhaps never more so than on our first morning. Because DH and I only had one day of sightseeing together, I made arrangements for a driver to take us to Khor Virap Monastery on our first morning. The monastery sits on the site where organized Christianity was declared in 301 AD, making Armenia the first Christian nation in the world.
(Another (cultural) adjustment was the sincere friendliness and hospitality of the Armenian people. Our driver presented us with a box of Armenian candy as an apology for being ten minutes late (!) in collecting us for our tour. I think even the crazy-happy Danes would have to adjust to the Armenians, so imagine how we felt coming from Vienna.)
Khor Virap is a short drive southwest from Yerevan and near to Turkey. Once out of Yerevan the landscape becomes rural. Armenia is extending its highway to the Iranian border; in several sections, however, the "road" is incomplete, and our driver Sergei did his best to make us laugh as we bumped along on gravel and dirt. A different kind of Fahrvergnügen.
The monastery is wonderfully un-touristy (the same could be said for all of Armenia, I think), and affords remarkable views of Mount Ararat, where the Bible holds that Noah's Ark came to rest after the Great Flood. So very peaceful. The monastery sits practically atop the closed border with Turkey; that is, unfortunately also visible. If only we could all get along...
Our window for visiting was perfect, Sergei informed us. And he was correct; by the time we departed the area an hour later, clouds and haze had begun to obscure the mountain (which is technically a snow-capped dormant volcano).
Arriving into Yerevan at 0400 and catching a couple of hours sleep before the tour was a good plan to maximize our holiday, but by the time we returned to Yerevan, sleep deprivation and the +2 hour time change was starting to catch up with us. We carried on, asking Sergei to drop us at the stunning Institute of Ancient Manuscripts (Matenadaran), containing the first writing of Armenia's alphabet among its treasures. We both were pleased we had taken the time to visit. No photos permitted, understandably, and the small collection of souvenirs available offered hefty tomes about Armenian manuscripts, but little by way of postcards of said manuscripts.
By now our stomachs informed us that lunch was a required next stop. Sergei had suggested we select from among the garden cafes around France Square and with the Opera House in view, and we sat at one offering light fare and excellent people watching, along with the first of many pitchers of Kompot, the slightly sweet water composed of fresh and cooked berries, and served refreshingly cold - especially on what was an unseasonally warm day. I erred a little in ordering the “Tacos” despite the mouth-watering description, my mind and palate could not reconcile tacos made of Lavash - the staple bread of Armenia - and containing canned peas, and so only enjoyed half of my lunch.
A short nap followed, then a little wandering before sitting for dinner at a restaurant recommended by DH’s colleague, offering not only what turned out to be ambrosial lamb ribs and grilled beef, but live, traditional music, as well. And once again we were confused with important people; though the restaurant was full, we were offered a small table for two in full view of everything!
SECOND 24 HOURS. The Regrets Keep Piling Up.
I selected the hotel coincidentally close to where DH’s meetings would occur. With a 1000 start for DH, we were able to sleep in a bit and enjoy breakfast on the hotel’s rooftop terrace, with Mount Ararat for scenery. Soon enough we parted ways for the day.
Yerevan offers visitors a two-hour* (*or longer, depending on traffic) bus tour of the city. The notion of trying to experience an almost 3.000 year old city in two hours is impossible, of course, but I have to write that the mere 3000 Dram (€6) ticket was money well spent. The bus was driven by a charming elderly man who went above and beyond to make certain each and every passenger was comfortable and had an optimal viewing spot on the double-decker bus. He escorted me to the upper level, offered to hold my tote while I got seated, and then set up my audio guide...in Russian. Once he discovered that I spoke English, he pulled out a fabulous city map and outlined the route with his finger, then motioned for me to put the map in my tote. I noted that he did not offer the other passengers maps. Must be my Russian charm.
Promptly the tour set off. In between narratives Armenian music played; since this was my first ever city bus tour (we're not Hop-On Hop-Off fans) I do not know if music is common, though I really liked it. Our first stop was the Armenian Genocide Memorial. The downside of the tour was that we did not stop here for close-up photos, and before I knew it the remainder of the day had escaped me and I did not return.
Much attention on the tour was given to memorials and sights of great Armenian pride, including Erebuni Fortress. The fortress dates to 782 BC, and is considered to be the birthplace of Yerevan. The fortress and site was opened in 1968, in time to wish Yerevan a, "Happy 2750th Birthday!" Again, the downside of a bus tour was the inability to stop and visit; and the fortress location outside of the city center meant I have only the fleeting photos from the bus as memories.
The bus driver may have been charming, but his driving style and the hills we climbed up and down had me feeling a little woozy on the top deck, so I moved to the lower level. The tour assistant asked me if there was an issue and, not wanting to hurt the driver's feelings, I only said that riding on top was "too breezy" for me. At our first designated rest stop the driver offered me his jacket, thinking I was cold. Too sweet.
Though a slightly erratic driver, he was very respectful of the zebras. I laughed aloud when opened his window to shout at an adjacent vehicle who seemed to be impatient with a woman crossing the street. (I had read that stepping into an Yerevan crosswalk didn't guarantee that vehicles would stop, and found this to be mostly true.)
Naturally, Mother Armenia keeps a watchful eye over her country, high atop Victory Park. Once upon a time Stalin's statue stared at Yerevan, but he was, according to the audio guide, "dismembered" in 1962. Sometimes English-language translations can be funny.
Our first of two 10 minute stops was at the monument to General Andranik, Armenia's national hero, defeating the Ottoman Empire and protecting the capital city. Streets and squares are named for him; and songs and plays have been written about him. As I learned on the tour, a similar level of awe and respect is afforded Armenian Chess Masters, too.
The tour wound along the outskirts of Kond, one of the oldest quarters of Yerevan. Behind the main streets one could glimpse the homes influenced by Ottomans, Persians, and Muslims. What I would have given to have had the time to wander this neighborhood. On our way to dinner this evening, DH and I passed many little neighborhoods hidden behind the main boulevard, but once again the constraints of time kept from exploring.
All good things must come to an end, and with the tour this happened sooner than I had wished. The driver and the tour assistant thanked each us individually, and bid us a lovely time in Yerevan. I hurried off to find lunch, and to strategize as to how I was going to cram about two days' of things I now wanted to do into the remaining six hours I had left. Lunch was a quick stop at Yerevan’s equivalent of a fast-food chain (where I was initially offered the Russian-language menu), a summer salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and spices so fresh that my mouth is watering again as I write, and of course a small pitcher of Kompot. My lunch tab came to €1.67 equivalent!
Our hotel was but a block from the Republic Square, though on this solo sightseeing afternoon I had wandered afar and thought it would be fun to take Metro back toward the square. (Plus, my iPhone was registering a blistering 35° and I was rather wilted.) A ride on Yerevan's Metro costs 100 Dram (€0,20) so I walked up to the ticket counter, held up two fingers, handed the clerk a 1000 Dram note and said, "Сласиьо" ("Thank you," in Russian). She handed me two pink tokens and my change, with the same epic eye roll that DD and I experienced at Moscow Airport's Passport Control on a previous holiday, when the officer realized we did not speak Russian. Darn. Having twice been mistaken for a Russian Frau I thought I could pull the token request off. Ticket Lady had hurt my feelings.
There had to be English signs somewhere on the Metro platform (right?); I must have overlooked them. Thankfully that A+ I earned a hundred years ago in my Freshman year Russian class paid off; I could identify the Russian word for "Republic" on the directional signs! The two subway stations through which I transited were in the classic Soviet style, but more on the "classic" and not so much on the "Soviet." Station names were in Armenian and Russian, as to be expected. Elegant, I thought, and wished I had time to ride the entire short Metro.
Coming above ground, I found myself near Yerevan's open-air market, Vernissage. Most active on Saturdays, but an enjoyable way to pass an hour or so on a weekday, as well. Handmade items were gorgeous, and so different from goods I've seen in other markets. I was admiring the hand embroidery on the table linens at the market, and asked the woman (with hand signals; she spoke as much English as I spoke Armenian) if she had either a table runner or placemats in my pattern of interest. She did not, and immediately grabbed her notebook to take my order! I thanked her, and tried to hand-signal that I was only visiting. I did manage to find another piece that I liked, though, and opened my pocketbook to realize that I did not have enough Dram to pay for the item; I guess I had purchased more handmade items than I thought. Of course, the nearby Bankomat was Kaput, too. I went back to the woman to hand-signal an apology when she said, “Rubles? Euros?” And what do you know, I had enough Euros in my pocketbook to pay for my tablecloth!
DH messaged that his meeting was wrapping up, and by this time I “needed” another cool pitcher of Kompot anyway, so I returned to the hotel to enjoy said beverage on the roof-top terrace while awaiting his return. We relaxed for a little bit, then walked over to the Blue Mosque before dinner.
The Blue Mosque is a lovely Shia mosque, almost invisible to the average person walking along one of Yerevan's busy boulevards. The grounds are cool and shaded, and in the late afternoon sun the tiles on the minaret, dome and auxiliary buildings sparkled. Under Soviet occupation the mosque became the City Museum; restoration and the resumption of religious services resumed in 1999, and ownership was given to Iran in 2015, for a period of 99 years.
Though the lovely pink sandstone architecture characteristic of Yerevan was abundant, especially toward dusk, so, too, were the leftovers from Armenia's days as part of the Soviet Union. While there is just not enough gussying up possible to fix some of that ugly, the modern additions of satellite dishes and the colorful laundry dangling from balconies do add a little bit of spirit to the structures.
Wherever we walked in Yerevan, produce vendors throughout ranged from a single person selling their bounty of tomatoes from a basket on the sidewalk to the slightly more elaborate folding table. No matter the size of the stand we passed, the fruits and vegetables were so beautiful as to appear artificial! The little pop-up stands were terribly popular with locals; in a matter of minutes of setting up a, “banana stand,” one vendor sold at least ten bunches!
Because we had enjoyed the previous night’s dinner so much, and not wanting to tempt our luck as being mistaken for important people, we had made reservations to return to the same restaurant. We were not jet-lagged on this evening and so could take time to peruse the menu. One of the funniest of English-language translations we read was for Tjyvik, “A masterpiece of the national cuisine, very nutritious, rich in microelements meat dish made from sliced beef heart and lungs...” Though we are adventurous eaters, I would never think to pair, "Masterpiece" with "Sliced beef heart and lungs." We opted for a shared plate of lamb kebab; hummus; Than (a national drink of thin yogurt with cucumbers and mint) and Shepherds Pilaf, the savory-ness of which I must recreate in my own kitchen. We lingered over dinner, Kompot, and wine, enjoying the music and letting the whirlwind of the last two days settle in.
My inbound flight (DH stayed longer), departing at 0425 the next morning was 30 minutes delayed. Obviously the plane just flies back and forth, but an 0425 departure meant my airport driver was ready to go at 0230, and a 30 minute flight delay in the middle of the night seems offensive to me. On this flight the crew at least turned the cabin lights off. The "meals" on both segments were atrocious; while I am a morning person, I can switch from cheery to "hangry" in an instant, and the slop of lukewarm mushrooms, scrambled eggs (to which I am allergic and can not eat) and something that could have been a French Toast stick in another life found me borderline crazy with “hangry.”
To me, Yerevan had glimpses of Kiev; not surprising, as both were part of the Soviet Union, and I saw hints of Belgrade in the city, too. Turkish and Balkan influences are noticeable, as well, but Armenia overall was uniquely different. With the temperature being so warm, I paused more frequently than usual on shady benches that offered my favorite sport of people watching. No matter where I sat, passersby were smiling. Of course, two sunny days in a country does not tell the entire story, but the friendliness and overall sense of happiness was infectious.
So, that's it. I regret not taking at least one more day, as a couple of museums sounded interesting; I missed my usual market wandering for lack of time (no rugs, no food, no wine came home with me, alas); and another half-day outing from the capital would have rounded out the trip. Next time, as of course my appetite to explore more of South and Central Asia has now been whetted...
Thank you for reading.
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Spoiler: The “regret” is that I did plan a longer stay.