I hit up Armenia’s capital Yerevan last month for a short and sweet two day adventure. For a variety of reasons my expectations for Yerevan and Armenia were pretty low. These thoughts were augmented by the oncoming illness and fatigue that were plaguing me when I arrived in the country. Whilst I only scratched the surface of this complex little former Soviet state, a couple of days in the capital was enough to find a few gems worth visiting and to loosen up my harsh pre-judgements.
Vernissage had all the obvious orange, red and blue Armenian themed tourist paraphernalia – magnets, flags and snow globes. There were carpets, bags, tablecloths and even oven gloves in traditional Armenian patterns. Many vendors had rolled up in their antique cars and were using the roofs, bonnets and boots to display their wares. Pomegranates were a recurring motif – pomegranate shaped jewelery, incense burners and clay figures all made an appearance. Some plump women sold handcrafted leather products, whilst others seemed to have turned up with whatever it was they had found in their house that day – dusty cameras, ancient telephones and other unidentifiable bits and pieces of technology. It was an eclectic mix to say the least. Of course, the icing on the cake was all the Soviet era paraphernalia. Between the pins, coins, flags and posters this was one of the best selections of original and authentic Soviet items I have ever seen.
I’m not sure my purse liked the Vernissage Market quite as much as I did – I was somewhat liberal with my spending to say the least but this is definitely my top recommendation in Yerevan.
Architecture and Sculpture
Lonely Planet’s opening paragraph about Yerevan waxes lyrical about the city’s architecture. Before arriving, I did wonder if perhaps they were simply clutching at straws of things to praise the city for – I have certainly experienced the
Particularly on my second day, when a bright blue sunny sky brought to life an interesting and vibrant array of colors – a charcoal grey pitched next to a caramel brown stood next to a stoney pink. Arches and columns adorned the fronts of many of the buildings and the lack of tall buildings was a pleasant feature of the city. Dramatic and imposing architectural classics such as the National Opera Theatre and the buildings of Republic Square sat alongside quirky modern installations such as the Cascade. Traditional Armenian churches were dotted in between. Much of the space that was left between and the outskirts of the city were a shanty town of old Soviet apartment blocks. When one got above the city for a view, it was chaotic to say the least but somehow the varying styles seemed to string together to form a coherent and captivating cityscape.
The buildings were complemented by a bounty of different sculptures. For every type of building was a sculpture to match. Classic bronze cast statues and busts of writers, artists and composers, obscure contemporary pieces such as the fat naked Roman centurion with the tiny penis, Armenian khachkars and brutalist pieces such as the Mother Armenia statue were just some of the artworks that could be found throughout the city.
Everything was brought together by the city’s compact size, relative tranquillity and an adequate amount of greenery which made walking round and simply appreciating the architecture one of the most enjoyable things about Yerevan.
If there’s one thing about Yerevan that’s impossible to argue about then it’s just how cheap it is. Were it not for my spending spree at Vernissage Market, my total expenditure for three nights and two days in Yerevan – transport to and from Tbilisi and accommodation included – wouldn’t have exceeded much more than £50. It out does the other Caucasian countries as far as value for money is concerned. I ate at a local fast food type place where I enjoyed a set meal (often referred to as business lunches) of a meat, a carb, a salad and a drink for less than £2.
I was also very happy to see that these bargains extended into Western food. Having subsided on a strictly Georgian diet for the past few months, with only the odd pizza thrown in for variety, my mental capacity and interest in trying new foods was somewhat limited on this trip. As much as I usually like to keep things as authentic as possible, this bitch needed a few days to relax and refuel both mentally and physically. I enjoyed the most delicious burger at a place called Black Angus (my patriotic side may have been somewhat swayed by the name of this place). I could barely finish the juicy, succulent bacon and cheese drenched burger – which only set me back something like £3.50 – it was so large. As well as being dirt cheap all the Western food that I had was pretty much as good as at home – something that was very nice given that I have learned to often set my expectations for Western food very low when traveling!
My first day in Yerevan was tainted by the torrential downpour that cruelly seemed to coincide exactly with my arrival. Also, many of the city’s sights were closed for International Woman’s Day (a holiday that I have found to be taken very seriously in this part of the world). Fortunately, I was saved from wandering the city streets a sodden mess by the plethora of cafes in the city. Every corner you turn seems to host a modern little coffee shop meaning you don’t have to walk far when thirst (or rain) strikes.
I suppose what I actually found the most interesting about the cafe culture of Yerevan though was the stark contrast that it offered to the little glimpse of the country outside of the capital that I got. I thought that I had travelled back in time when I crossed over the border into Armenia. Cyrillic was emblazoned across every sign and poster I saw along the crumbling road to Yerevan. The car was brought to a crawl at many points as it tried to navigate the bounty of potholes on the way. Many of the cars we saw looked like they might have been held together by sellotape and that they could have disintegrated from underneath the driver at any moment. Wooden houses covered in peeling paint with cows and pigs roaming in their front gardens were dotted throughout the countryside. And yet in the capital youngsters sipped away on double espressos whilst tapping away on their smartphones. Even within the capital some of the concrete monstrosities did not match up with the cosmopolitan vibe found in other parts of the city. It was a confusing but certainly interesting contrast.
Would I recommend Yerevan for a place to visit? For sure. There’s certainly enough to keep you entertained here for two or three days. There are plenty of things that I would have liked to have seen that for whatever reason didn’t work out – the Ararat Brandy Company tour, the Armenian Genocide Museum and the Soviet city tour run by Envoy Hostel among others.
Something else that I really appreciated about the city was the anonymity that I felt. The city is far from touristy – not once was I bugged by anyone trying to sell me anything and I didn’t feel overwhelmed by people trying to impose their hospitality on me which can be a common occurrence in this part of the world. Having said that, whilst customer service sometimes left a lot to be desired, the locals who I ended up partying with one night were super caring and friendly. They were constantly looking out for me – worried if I got separated from the group or if I was chatting to someone they thought might be untrustworthy. I was immediately made to feel like a valued member of their friend group.
For anyone who has traveled around a few former Soviet countries before parts of the city will feel familiar but you will quickly realize that this place has its own unique atmosphere too. If you’re after anything more than the whistle-stop tour and really want to get to know the locals and the culture I would definitely try and brush up on your language skills – almost everyone seemed to speak Russian. I am sure there is plenty more to discover here especially if you get out of the city and into the rest of the country!
Tara is a travel blogger, writer and photographer. Having lived, worked, traveled and studied abroad, visiting nearly 50 countries along the way she has fallen in love with experiencing both the obscure and the everyday on her journeys. Her blog, Travels With Tara focuses on sharing stories, insights and tips on travel and culture in a narrative, reflective, informative and often humorous way.
She is particularly interested in countries of the former Soviet Union.
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