A trip to Armenia and its heart - Yerevan: history, places to visit, and travel tips.
February 2020 to August 2020
From the Caucasus and more precisely from Georgia, the only possibility to access Iran by land is to go through Armenia. Initially, my journey to this country was supposed to be an essential but limited stage in time (1 to 2 weeks), to obtain the precious entry visa for ancient Persia at Yerevan's Iranian embassy.
COVID 19 and its repercussions have radically changed my "program." I am writing this post in August 2020, and I am still, after more than five months, in Armenia and, more specifically, in Yerevan, it’s capital.
First Armenian impressions: How to go to Yerevan?
On the map, the journey to Tbilisi (the capital of Georgia) seems relatively short and quick. My travel priorities encourage me always to favor the means of transport that have the least impact on the environment. So I chose the night train (I have always loved it) which leaves Tbilisi around 8:00 p.m. and arrives in Yerevan the next morning, a little before 7:00 a.m. An 11 hours journey for approximately 150 km as the crow flies. (Practical info: ticket price according to the class: from 15 to 30 euro per person).
Even taking into account the necessary and obligatory stops at the border (1 hour in Georgia then 1 hour in Armenia), the duration of this journey may seem excessive. For my point of view , it is an exciting and privileged part of life, and I savor the (somewhat spartan) comfort of my compartment that I share with a woman who granted me with only a few words and only in German. As my level of Goethe's language is minimal, I let myself be lulled by the continual rolling of the wagon and the constant creaking rails. I will learn on arrival, in excellent French of course, that she is Parisian but that, for her peace of mind, she does not want to socialize or even interact with anyone! I believe I'm not easy to get along with, but now I've met the Master of unsociability.
The Yerevan station (or rather "the hall of lost steps"), early in the morning, in extreme cold, surprises me because it is magnificently lit by a gigantic chandelier, a vestige of its Soviet past. It is easy to find taxis at the station (mostly Lada) to go to the city center 2 to 3 kilometers away (Practical info: 2 to 3 euros). But be careful: no exchange office or money changer will be open before 10:00 a.m. in Yerevan. Therefore, you have to use your withdrawal card to get drams (Practical info: August 2020: 1 euro= - / + 530 ADM).
I choose to walk on this cold night to feel the awakening of the city (and, also, to stretch my legs after these 11 hours on the train). No traffic (no pedestrian either) until almost before 9:00 a.m.! The vast avenues and massive apartment buildings represent the usual urbanization of the former Soviet republics, and the charm that emanates from them will exhilarate only the nostalgic.
Mount Ararat is a symbol for every Armenian.
The view of snow-covered Mount Ararat from Yerevan is awe-inspiring and very impressive. (The name "Ararat" actually designates two distinct volcanic cones.) It is easy to understand that the majesty of this volcano (Practical info: stratovolcano last eruption: July 2, 1840), which culminates at 5,137 meters (3,896 meters for the second cone), represents the Armenian identity and the symbol of their ancestral culture. For Christians and according to the Bible, Noah's Ark ended its post-flood journey on the slopes of this mountain. (Several international expeditions organized to find the proof of this belief have not entirely removed the mystery that remains unsolved.)
Paradoxically, this gigantic "emblem," which dominates Armenia, and which makes its pride, is located ... in Turkey, a neighboring Muslim country, hated since at least the beginning of the 20th century.
Yerevan, the heart of Armenia
The capital of Armenia, with its approximately 2,000,000 inhabitants, is home to more than half of its total population. Proud of a past that is spanning several millennia, this city, nestled at an altitude of 1000 meters, brings together all Armenia's economic and political activities. Destroyed and then rebuilt many times since its inception, Yerevan and its urban fabric resemble many cities in the republics of the former USSR. Even if it is nicknamed "The Pink City" (by the color of the materials used for constructing the buildings), the buildings are massive and not very artistic, generating a substantial impression of power and strength.
On the other hand, the urban layout, with numerous public benches, wide sidewalks, and countless flower beds, makes the city walks pleasant and peaceful. During these getaways, it is easy to find a place to relax on the terrace or share the pleasure of a good cup of coffee. (Favorite: "In Vino" 6 Saryan street is my favorite with excellent coffee +/- 1 euro and an incredible choice of wine by the glass at very fair prices; the warm welcome from the staff and his boss guarantees you a pleasant moment).
Parks, gardens, flower beds, and florists
The streets of Yerevan, often lined with trees, are almost systematically completed with flower beds or gardens. Parks and kindergartens are omnipresent and invite calm relaxation and serenity. In summer, they become the main places for socializing, flirting for young people, or resting for older people. In the shade, during the hottest hours, they allow you to forget about the inconveniences of too heavy traffic. The shaded terraces, numerous and pleasant, undoubtedly recall the atmospheres of southern Europe. Multiple flower shops and licensed florists corroborate the manifest interest of the inhabitants of Yerevan for Nature.
Transport and trip inside the city: What to do at Yerevan?
The discovery of the city and its centers of interest can be easily made by foot. The metro only runs on one line, from north to south, and is not functional for visiting Yerevan. On the other hand, the city is traversed by numerous mini-buses, more chaotic and ancestral from each other, and by municipal buses, cheap (often wrecks given free of charge in the name of "soft power" by China) but which do not inspire any confidence.
Several possibilities to rent "city bikes'' with a bank card (Practical info: Yerevan Ride (green) or Mimo (Yellow) +/- 2 euro per hour), but, from my experience, the maintenance of these bikes is not optimal, and the possibilities remain limited. So I decided to buy my mountain bike, which allowed me to expand my knowledge of Yerevan's surroundings greatly. (Practical info: the purchase of a new adult bike in store: between 70 euro and 200 euro. Resale possible, after use, either directly, or online, or at the store, for half the price).
But beware: Yerevan is surrounded by 7 "hills" (except the south and the plain up to the Turkish border), representing challenges for the less experienced. Moreover, motorists (and minibus drivers) do not readily share "their privilege" as the kings of the asphalt. I quickly decided, for my cycling trips, aware of the dangers, to favor the early hours of the day, without traffic. The best recommendation for cycling in the city is to ride on the sidewalks and not on the roadway, cluttered with vehicles and drivers resistant to cyclists. (Sharing the road is not yet in order here)
On the other hand, and unlike Georgian drivers, for example, respect for pedestrian crossings by motorists is systematically applied. Hardly any motorcycles or scooters in the streets, except sometimes for an old sidecar or a model of Brezhnev-era motorcycle.
Taxis, Yandex, and "Lada Land.”
Taxis are plentiful and inexpensive to move around the city. Prefer the Yandex online site, which guarantees you fixed prices and without negotiations with drivers who are always punctual, courteous, and helpful. (Practical information: 1 to 2 euros for a race in the city center)
Many "taxis," which swarm on every street corner, will too often be irritable, cunning, or even downright thieves. It is difficult for non-Armenian visitors to obtain decent services that respect the conditions already negotiated, and each attempt will, unfortunately, often be the pretext for vindictive procrastination or even altercations. (To be avoided absolutely, all the "Opel" drivers who, easily recognizable by their generally sinister looks, are the most "tough" in style "I'm not pleasant, but I'm proud of it!" And locally confirm the lousy reputation of taximen all over the world.)
To find yourself immersed in a very "70s" (Cold War) atmosphere, do not hesitate to choose a taxi driver "driving" a Lada: Car symbolic of the Soviet regime, with spartan and outdated comfort, you will not have not the guarantee of going around the city without breakdowns or punctures, but you will undoubtedly experience an unforgettable "Back to the Past" sensation. (Practical info: +/- 7 euro for 1 hour)
The monuments and places of worship to visit are few and often not worthy of interest (in my opinion) because they are relatively recent (20th century and more of them, since 1960) and without notable features. However, it will be pleasant to visit the places below:
- The Place de la République which concentrates the majority of the ministries of the Republic and its spectacular "musical jets" at 19:00.- Opera, a performance hall, dance, and ballet.
- The Cascade, a gigantic staircase of 480 steps, with a waterfall and the contemporary museum.
- The Sourp Krikor Lusavorich Cathedral has 1,700 seats to commemorate Christianity's adoption as the state religion 1,700 years ago.
- The Blue Mosque, the last mosque in Yerevan
- Mother Armenia, a gigantic statue that overlooks Victory Park as well as the entire city.
- The Tsitsemakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial, the most massive of the many sites relating the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
In addition to being a wooded park with old-fashioned charm, it is supposed to be an Amusement Park. Deserted during my multiple visits, the atmosphere reminds me in winter of Chernobyl (Pripyat with its abandoned amusement park) and in summer, the novels of Stephen King (where we can expect to see The Clown, see the book It, arise at any time). Your idea of bringing your children to this place can only be a discipline measure with the assurance of lifelong psychological trauma from the pervasive “end-of-the-world” atmosphere!As an adult, I like this place because I catch a mental glimpse of the ghosts of the hypothetical visitors of yesteryear, even if it is still hard to believe that children have ever really enjoyed themselves there.
I strongly recommend a walk, several kilometers, along the Harzdan River, at the bottom of a gorge surrounded by cliffs. Your hike will be punctuated, between April and July, with frequent stops to enjoy tasty and sweet cherries, apricots and blackberries right on the trees. It is a haven of peace in the heart of the city, ideal for a picnic, which enchants both anglers and sportspeople.
My favorite: The History Museum of Armenia
Those who know me personally, know my passions for volcanoes and geology, as well as ancient history and especially archeology. Celtic, Roman, (Gallo-Roman) and Greek cultures are my favorites, even if Egyptology is catching my attention more and more. I can devote many days to discovering the countless archaeological discoveries on the sites but also the museums (among my favorites of recent years, the Ephesus Museum in Selcuk (Turkey), and the Old Cairo Museum (Egypt).
In Yerevan, I was far from thinking that I was going to be stunned by the Museum of the History of Armenia (Republic Square). It is a breathtaking place for the number of extraordinary objects from periods much older than my usual favorite periods (- 7,000 years before J-C to +400 years after J-C).
The objects from the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age are endless and amazingly attractive. I stayed for hours admiring there, a glaring statuette of truth from the 12th century BC, here a magnificent silver goblet from the XXII century BC and many other pottery, utensils, and coins from the centuries preceding the years of Roman occupation then Persian and Ottomans. The visit will be fabulous, despite the ban on taking photos inside the museum (my only regret), a ban permanently monitored and in each room, by an attentive caretaker who will answer each of your questions pleasantly, but only in the Armenian language! (Practical information: closed on Mondays and public holidays; the price per person +/- 4 euro)
Where to sleep and eat in Yerevan?
Hotels in Yerevan are few and, except for two or 3, expensive and overly pretentious. I advocate the solution of renting apartments (AirBnB and Booking.com), especially as the choice is numerous and, generally, of good quality. (Practical info: between 15 and 30 euro per night for an apartment of +/- 40 m2, renovated, in the city center)
The restaurants are inexpensive and offer fresh food cooked, for the most part, directly on-site and often in front of you. Mainly based on meat or fish and always embellished with herbs or spices, the most common specialties are grilled meat skewers (Khorovadz), skinny pizzas (Lahmajo), potato soup and beef (Khashlama) and pumpkin stew (ghapama). The desserts (baklava, tcheureg, gata, and other kadaif) will delight palates eager for sweets.
There are only a few rare vegetarian restaurants (Eat & fit Cafe 80, Aram Street Yerevan) but, be sure, each restaurant will offer one or more vegetarian dishes: Armenian tabbouleh, or a salad of raw vegetables (radishes, tomatoes, lettuces and especially cucumbers), or even Madzoon (fermented milk flavored with parsley, cucumber, and herbs).
For vegans and even more for "raw vegans", the only option will be to prepare your dishes personally by getting supplies from the many stores (SAS, City, Spar) present at every corner.
Let yourself be seduced (if like me, you find it amusing to negotiate without knowing the language) by the street vendors who offer you fresh products (fruits and vegetables), but also honey and even dairy products (mainly cucumber fermented milk). From my experience, vendors in the streets or markets only moderately appreciate your bargaining. Unlike other surrounding countries, Azerbaijan, Turkey, or even Georgia, they may show you annoyance at each of your attempts to reduce the initial price (naturally inflated as soon as you are identified as "foreign"). These haggling will often take a surreal turn because failing to understand each other, each will argue in their native language (embellished with some notions of English, Russian, and even French), and the tone of the conversation will undoubtedly increase. However, the mood will calm down quickly, and the initial clamors will give way to smiles devoid of resentment.
It is noteworthy that a few Russian words (more than English) simplify communication with Armenians over 40, but little with younger ones!
The Gumi Shuka market (covered market with typical Soviet architecture, Movses Khorenatsi street) is famous, but it is a market with very few customers and mostly tourists. The products are mainly souvenirs in the form of baskets of dried fruits and delicacies.
The Pak Shuka market (covered market, Mesrop Mashtots avenue, opposite the Blue Mosque) has become a mini-market and is definitively no longer a traditional market.
Choose the fruit and vegetable markets of Mergelyan Shuka (Hakob Hakobyan street) or Komitas Shuka (Komitas Avenue, near Arabkir Supermarket). In season, all the farm products are sold in small traditional stalls, where the atmosphere is popularly Armenian. (Practical info: depending on the season: Price per kilo (August 2020) tomato +/- 0.40 euro; cucumber +/- 0.30 euro; cherries +/- 1.10 euro; apricots +/- 0.90 euro ; wild blackberries +/- 2 euro; watermelon +/- 0.20 euro; melon +/- 0.30 euro; broccoli +/- 0.80 euro.Price per piece (August 2020) avocado +/- 1 eur; green salad +/- 0.20 eur; egg +/- 0.10 euro.Lentils, pasta, and rice, buckwheat, in bulk and retail per kilo +/- 1 euro)Traditional bread (lavash) and pita (price per piece): +/- 0.20 euro.)
Tan, a fermented milk drink, usually accompanies all meals (often flavored with cucumber cut into pieces).
Armenian wines (Taras, Tarak, or Tariri) are famous (especially in Armenia) and become a national source of pride (Practical information: depending on the year and the vintage between 10 and 20 euro per bottle). The local cognac (brandy) (Ararat, Grand Yerevan, or Noy) is also very popular. (Practical info: depending on the vintage between 25 and 80 euro for 700ml). Even if the consumption of beer is prevalent (Practical info: Local beers: Gyumri 50cl +/- 1.20 euro; Kilikia 50cl +/- 0.75 euro), vodka remains the safe bet for keen alcohol lovers (Practical info: Local vodka: Oghi 75cl +/- 2.30 euro)
Note that the tap water is excellent (In the words of a young Armenian "the best in the world, it has been proven by numerous international studies!"). The city of Yerevan is dotted with fountains of water (from the snows of the surrounding mountains), which allow, all year round, to quench your thirst with very fresh, pleasant water very popular with city dwellers. My initial reluctance passed (especially during a viral epidemic), I became an unconditional follower and, with each of my city wanderings, I indulge in it with great pleasure! (Some elders claim that it cures all diseases. But I suspect that their additional daily consumption of vodka reinforces the effectiveness of this water (Practical info: Aqua Armenia bottled water 1.5 l +/- 0.50 euro)
Many coffee kiosks (café trucks) that pop up all over the city sidewalks, open from 9:00 a.m. while the majority of cafes and brasseries only open from 10:00 or 11:00 a.m. and, so, breakfast is only available from 11:30 a.m. and never before 10:00 a.m.!
For me who likes to start my day as early as possible (+/- 5:00 a.m.) with several proper doses of coffee, the only solution is, therefore, to prepare myself, every morning, a tasty traditional Armenian coffee (sourdj: Սուրճ) (strictly comparable to the Turkish or Georgian coffee).
Other useful and various information
For digital nomads, Yerevan probably won't be your first choice: winter (from October to April) is freezing (can go down to -15C), and summer (June to September) is generally very hot with weeks with more than +40 C on average. Specific cafes and places dedicated to the digital community, do not exist (August 2020). However, all cafes and restaurants (as well as online accommodation) offer free Wi-Fi, usually of good quality.
For your SIM card, favor VivaCell MTS (Practical information: purchase of the Sim card including 8GB: +/- 5 euro), which will remain active in Georgia, Russia, and Ukraine. The monthly refill (of 4GB minimum) will be done quickly. (Thanks to the many automatic and connected payment terminals, throughout the city). Please note: SMS information, coming from your ISP, will arrive on your phone, only in Armenian (no option in English). The Beeline provider has the advantage of being operational in Georgia (but I did not adopt it in Armenia). From experience, the Rostelecom provider seems to be avoided (both with Wi-Fi and with the SIM card) because the connections are slow and unreliable.
Money change will be possible only in Yerevan, and I advise you to choose the banks, which are safer and more reliable. Cash machines (ATMs) are numerous and usually have an option to read in English or even Russian.
Numerous modern and easy-to-find pharmacies offer Western as well as Russian medicines as well as generic medicines. The employees will often answer you in English and will, in any case, try to help you as best they can.
Yerevan is safe to travel to everyone. It’s safe too for solo travelers’ males or females.
Yerevan is worth visiting and also a great base camp for visiting the rest of Armenia.
Yerevan is known as an old, historical, and strategic city (Silk road)
In Yerevan, you can purchase some specialties of dried fruits, amazing pomegranates, and some brandies.
In Yerevan, you need only a few days, a maximum of a week.
In Yerevan, the best outdoor activities are: to spend time at parks and gardens and to climb the 485 steps at the Cascade.
These answers are only my own opinions based on my own experiences during my stay in Yerevan.
The Diaspora and Armenia in the World
The world Armenian population is estimated, in 2020, at around 12,000,000 people but with only +/- 3,000,000 residents in Armenia itself, (+/- 2,000,000 in Yerevan and its suburbs). It is therefore clear that with only 1 in 4 Armenians residing in their country of origin, the "outside" influence of the diaspora is essential if not paramount.
Russia (+/- 2,300,000 people),
USA (+/- 1,300,000 people),
Iran (+/- 600,000 people) and
France (+/- 500,000 people) are the countries comprising the most expatriate Armenians in the World.
Still, the presence of Armenians is recorded in many other countries and on all continents. (In Indonesia, in Jakarta, several storefronts in the city center bear witness to the Armenian presence).
This international diaspora is very active: through its lobbying, both at the political level (conflicts and wars with its neighbors), and economically (multiple financial supports by the community, request for help and support from global and national organizations, etc.) it considerably helps the original country, which certainly has a much lower standard of living. This "permanent economic infusion" is essential, and the majority of the inhabitants consider it necessary but radically insufficient. It has become like "a natural right," and I am not far from thinking that it could be a psychological break for individual local initiatives (necessarily risky): more comfortable (and faster) to hope for a donation from abroad rather than seeking national solutions. Several people we met during this period of COVID 19 demanded, as a legitimate due, help from other countries, despite the very significant support from the world community (several hundred million dollars).
Garry Kasparov (Chess Master), André Agassi (Tennis Player), Aram Khachaturian (Composer and conductor), Kim Kardashian (media personality), are among the most celebrities of Armenian origin around the World.
Still, the most popular is undoubtedly Charles Aznavour (Shahnour Vaghinag Aznavourian by his original name: Armenian: Շահնուր Վաղինակ Ազնավուրեան). Frenchman, Charles Aznavour is the famous singer we all know. He is also a composer, actor, and even a diplomat. Omnipresent in the hearts of Armenians and Yerevanians, many sculptures, squares, and streets (and even a museum!) pay homage to him, and for many cafes and restaurants, "La Bohème" and "Emmenez moi"(Take me along) will be the most popular titles and religiously listened.
From the lenses
End of part 1: Erevan (Yerevan)
Next part 2: The rest of Armenia