4 DAYS IN YEREVAN, ARMENIA

DAY 1

We took a night train from Tbilisi and arrived early morning to Yerevan pretty tired. Although I love trains it is not a good night sleep.  The trains here are very old and the ride is bumpy and loud.  We went thru the border around midnight and at 6 am they wake you up so they can collect the bedding and the garbage.

The ATM at the train station was not working and the taxi drivers were swarming around the few tourists like crazy bees. So we walked away from the station, found a working ATM and bargained a taxi fare from 20 Dram down to 2.50.  Our hotel, Kantar ($49) is a mix of a hostel with a nice hotel.  We had to wait a while for our room to be ready but they had a nice community room with internet and they also invited us to have a free breakfast.

Once we got the room we were amazed that they call themselves a hostel.  It is a nice hotel with large rooms and a huge bathroom.  After resting a bit we dragged ourselves out of bad to explore the city.

At 5 pm we took a free walking tour (check it out on Facebook, it’s the only free walking tour available), it was a very long, over 2.5 hrs tour and it ended in a nice but smoky pub on Pushkin street.  There we hung out with our guide who was very helpful with suggestions about the rest of our itinerary and an interesting person to talk to.

DAY 2

The next day we had to move out of the hotel because I booked it for one night only and there was no availability thereafter.  It wasn’t at all bad, because our next place, My Yerevan Apartments, was in a much better location.  We had a private studio for 2 nights ($48/night) and a huge one bedroom loft for the last night ($52), plus additional $3 p/p for a full breakfast. We also had our own washing machine of which we took full advantage.

Our second day was a Sunday, a good time to explore the Vernissage, a mix of artisanal and a flea market.  Since we are on a very long trip (and on a budget) we don’t really buy anything but there was a lot of good stuff there: hand crafted souvenirs, handmade jewelry and other local and ethnic goods.

Next we went to the Nationa Gallery occupying top floor of the same building as the History Museum on Republic Square.  Its a very good museum hving Armenian, Russian and Europan art. An amazing collection of Ayvazovsky who I must adnmit didnt know was Armenian.

We grabbed a late lunch in a local chain restaurant called Kavkaskaya Plenitsa (a Prisoner of the Caucuses).  It is a gimmicky restaurant based on a famous Russian comedy from the 60s bearing the same name. Notwithstanding the kitsch element, the food was really good and the price was right.

In the evening we went to the Russian Theater for May 9, Victory Day celebration.  The way I see it, May 9 for the Armenians is both, a day of unity and a day of division.  It is unfortunate, in my opinion that they celebrate two victories on the same day: the first is end of WWII and the second is a victory of the battle of Shushi, which signifies the victory of the war in Nagorno Karabah.

As I mentioned, we went to the Russian State Theater for the May 9 celebration of the end of WWII.  This war in which over 20 million Soviet citizens lost their lives is the biggest national trauma for the former Soviet people for the past present and future generations.  The show consisted of painfully familiar old war songs and poems and it was somewhat amateurish and significantly underfunded. There were barely any stage decorations and the sound system was not working properly: the voices were coming in loud and fading intermittently.  However and notwithstanding all the defects, it was moving and touching and there was not a dry eye in the audience.  I must admit reaching for a tissue couple of times.   As we walked out we had a nice warm and fuzzy feeling that notwithstanding all the ethnic squirms in the post-Soviet era, this day is so significant to all the former Soviet republics that for at least one day a year they can be proud and sad at the same time and put their differences aside commemorating this great day.

As we walked out of the theater we heard loud music and drifted towards the Opera Square.  Hundreds of people gathered on the square there for a live music concert.  We asked someone what’s going on and she explained that this is a concert in honor of the victory of the Nagorno Karabah war.  Between songs the soloist was giving a passionate and animated speech in Armenian.  Again, we asked what he is saying. We were told that he is talking about the war in Karabah and the unity of Armenian nation.  Thereafter, people were dancing national dances on the square and singing national songs.

I couldn’t help but feel the difference between the two events.  They were so very contradictory in my mind.  Both have a place to be celebrated but the fact that they are happening on the same day just didn’t feel right.  One is celebrating cooperation and unity of nations and all the ethnicities who participated in achieving victory in WWII, while the other one is singling out one nationality.

 DAY 3

On our third day we did a lot of walking all over the city.  We climbed up the Cascades.  Unfortunately the museum was closed and from there we walked even higher all the way up to Mother of Armenia. The area at the foot of the Cascades is full of cafes and restaurants and a good place to catch a breath after all the walking.  There is also a nice sculpture garden at the bottom of the Cascades between the two alleys of cafes and  restaurants.

Cascades

Mother Armenia Park

After a short break we walked to the Blue Mosque, the only mosque in Yerevan.  Across the street is a market, but it wasn’t at all interesting, more like a large supermarket.  Our last cultural stop of the day was Sergey Parajanov Museum.  He was a famous movie director during the Soviet Era; made some famous movies and at one point arrested and jailed for homosexuality, a charge which his fans vehemently deny.  Unfortunately sexual orientation is still an issue here. The museum is highly recommended, in addition to making movies Parajanov was also a talented artist and made collages, paintings, dolls and other craft.

At this point our feet were killing us, all together we probably walked about 10 km and were happy to see several massage places near the museum.  However, this was probably not the right area for a real massage.  Everyplace we entered had several girls sitting around and smoking.  The girls were not dressed as “healers’ to say the least: very low cleavage, long painted nails, heavy makeup… Needless to say, I didn’t have much confidence in the quality of their massage and we walked away.

After some rest in the hotel it was time for some nightlife which we didn’t have for a while.  We identified four spots in the city with live music.  So we decided to split the evening and to try at least two of them. The first was Club 12, a cozy place with dark red furniture, padded chairs and dimmed lights.  Live music started around 10 pm. It was a mixture of Armenian and world music, jazz and pop.  The menu is extensive, the food is light to full dinner but you can order just drinks if you wish; absolutely no pressure.  The cover charge is 2,000 Drum, which we thought was minimal for that quality of entertainment. Unfortunately, this place like everywhere in Armenia is smoking.  In addition to regular cigarettes they also offer hookahs which I detest, but overall it wasn’t bad or too smoky.

After Club 12 we went to club Mezzo, also a famous place in Yerevan.  It is a much larger two storied venue.  The furniture is more modern and somewhat austere.  A larger band was playing everything from the 70s to contemporary and ethnic and some people were dancing.  Amazingly enough some families had children even though it was way past midnight.  Between the 2 of them, I liked the first place more, while Roman liked the second better.

DAY 4

Our last full day started with an obligatory visit to the Armenian Genocide Memorial.  It is a bit away from the center and while we were still tired from yesterday we wanted to take a cab.  We asked the first cab driver who stopped if he speaks Russian.  “Of course” he responded.  So we told him we want to go to the Genocide Memorial.  Then it got funny:  He had no idea .. I tried to explain to him that it’s their most important museum – still no reaction.  ”It is very large and out of town, on a hill” I said – no shred of recognition.  Now Roman got involved: “it’s where Azerbaijanis killed Armenians…” he tried to simplify the task – A weak inkling of understanding peeped thru the fog in the driver’s eyes, but not enough to be sure. Luckily, I found the Armenian name of the place in my book and only then we all were in agreement on the place we are going to.

We couldn’t really get into the building because it was a holiday of May 9. We could only walk around it.  It’s a huge building on a hill, looks very much like a Soviet type building and seems a little unkempt.  The fountains were not operational and looked dirty.  The structure itself was not very interesting.

After circling around this huge structure we felt that we did all we could to pay respect to the victims and started to walk towards the Armenian Brandy Company.  There is a slight confusion here.  During the Soviet times there was a famous cognac called Ararat.  Now there are two separate brandy manufacturers both having Ararat in their full name.  Turned out that they have split at one point and there was litigation about who can use that name.  Now one is called Ararat and the other Noy, but the later still uses Ararat in their full name on the website and it’s totally confusing.  We have made reservations to Noy but were not sure till the last moment which one are we going to.  However, when you get there, the buildings are clearly marked; one has a huge Ararat sign and the other has Noy.  A choice of the name Noy is interesting.  Noy is Noah in Russian.  They believe Noah landed on the mount of Ararat after the flood, hence the name Noy instead of Ararat which they lost in litigation.

A guided tour here costs 3,500 ADM/5,000 with tasting.  I do recommend the tour, it’s interesting.  They also let you taste a hundred year old wine, a bottle of which costs $3,000.

yerevan 1

Brandy Company Noy

From there we walked all the way back to town and had lunch in Yerevan Tavern, a touristy pseudo authentic place, but the food was good and there were pictures of the dishes which made it easier to order.  The waiters are helpful in explaining the dishes and the prices are reasonable.

In the evening we planned to check the remaining two music venues.  The first one was famous Malkhes club.  The band was playing on the lower level and it was smoky and crowded.  So we sat at the bar on the main level which had a much fresher air and had some drinks.  From there we could easily hear the music. They didn’t charge us the cover charge which was supposed to be 4,000 ADM p/p.  I guess sitting at the bar doesn’t count as attending the concert; good to know.

The next place we tried was a Grammy Hall which we spotted on a previous day.  As we walked in it seemed very empty and the band sounded kind of boring so we decided to skip it.  However, on the way back their PR manager stopped us and engaged us in conversation. He wanted to know what we didn’t like and it was kind of embarrassing to say that we didn’t like the music.  After few minutes of convincing us to stay and to have a drink on the house we agreed; couldn’t turn down such an offer.  They sat us in a prime spot, treated us to a glass of wine and didn’t charge cover.  The music indeed got better and we stayed till the last break.

The next day we rented a car and began our rural Armenia adventure.

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