April 3 – May 1, 2018 (Spring)
Greeting: Բարև ձեզ (Barev DZez)
Gratitude: Շնորհակալություն (Shnorhakalut’yun, but the French Merci is more popular)
Currency: Dram (֏)
Visa: 180 days
Cost of living: Low
Compared to its neighbor to the north, Armenia doesn’t get a lot of attention as a tourist destination. It deserves much more. Yerevan surprised us as one of the most underrated and charming capital cities of our entire journey. Small and walkable core, surrounded by a network of parks and criss-crossed by wide boulevards? Beautiful setting, cradled in a round basin and set against the backdrop of majestic Mt. Ararat? Low cost of living and surprisingly high quality of life? Checks on all counts.
The country has had a difficult history (even by former Soviet state standards), and there’s still a lot of recovery and reform ahead. But for so many reasons, we could tell this was a country with a bright future. It was our privilege to get to experience it ahead of the curve.
Where we stayed
We chose our Yerevan Airbnb↗ for the bargain price and the spectacular view. From our hilltop perch we could see across the entire city, perfectly framed by the towering figure of Mt. Ararat. The mountain is the spitting image of Washington’s Rainier, which immediately made us feel more at home. We also had front-row seats for the protests in France and Freedom Square. Actually they were a bit too far to make out, but the sounds of honking and the occasional chant drifted up to us easily. Sunrises and sunsets from this height were hard to beat.
The apartment was relatively small but compensated with a spacious porch and a comfy living area. A combined kitchen and den lacked windows, but the bedroom had a wall full of them. Since Kevin spent most of his time bed-resting an injury this month, the knockout view came in extra handy. Thankfully, the high-rise building‘s elevators were reliable, so he never had to navigate our eight flights of stairs on a broken bone.
Our neighborhood was thoroughly residential, packed with current and future apartment towers taking advantage of the prime location and easy road access. We faced away from the busy highway though, and the construction noise was relatively mild by our standards. Nearby Cascade Complex made getting down the hill relatively easy even on foot; their free public escalators ran from 8am to 8pm and saved us most of the incline. The Cascade is now the city’s top tourist attraction, and the sculpture park at its base is usually packed with throngs of sightseers looking for the perfect photo op. At the top of the complex, spacious Victory Park and the Mother of Armenia provide a less-crowded refuge.
What we did
A building on Republic Square offers the chance to knock out two cultural birds with one beige tufa stone. The National History Museum and National Gallery of Armenia are both fantastic attractions in their own right; together, they’re indispensable. Armenia has some incredible history to showcase: altars that predate Christianity, Roman and Sanskrit writings, even wooden wagons that predate the ones in Tbilisi↗. Unfortunately the next section – Middle Ages through the modern era – didn’t have many English explanations, and the museum in general was quite strict about prohibiting photos. The National Gallery had no such restrictions. Three quiet floors of European, Russian, and Armenian works offered plenty to admire. Mt. Ararat showed up frequently, as did classical European subjects like Venice. Works by Vardges Sureniants were especially notable; his painting “Salome” perhaps the most striking in the whole collection.
Two of Armenia’s must-see sights are less than an hour outside of Yerevan: Garni Temple and Gorge and Geghard Monastery. We settled on a van tour (paid for with credit card rewards points) rather than finding our own way on a bumpy marshrutka. The first stop of the day was at an overlook outside the city, where we had an especially unobstructed view of Ararat. Garni Temple was the star of the show. It survived a purge of pre-Christian sites, but shook down in an earthquake and was later rebuilt to its current state. The setting, perched on the edge of an incredible gorge, was even more stunning than the temple. We stopped outside the gates for a lesson on lavash, thin unleavened bread endemic to the area. Finally we were shuttled to Geghard Monastery. The setting was equally scenic, with multiple churches (some constructed, others, like Malta’s Hypogeum↗, carved into the rock itself) and caves in the shadows of mountains. One cave church contains a fresh spring that is claimed to have healing properties. All had remarkable carvings and were a delight to explore. Khachkar (cross-stones) outside were reproductions of some destroyed in Azerbaijan, but if anything, the living history of the site – from ancient times to modern reconstructions – made it even more memorable.
Armenia is incredibly proud to possess a unique alphabet which has been in use since Mesrop Mashtots invented it in 405 CE. Mashtots’s name now appears on landmarks across the city, landmarks like the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts (at the head of Mashtots Avenue, of course). Also known as the Matenadaran, this museum showcases a vast collection of books and historical documents. As the first state in the world to adopt Christianity, Armenia got a head start on illuminated Bibles. Many such texts have birds contorting to form the graceful, arcing letters of the Armenian alphabet; birds were supposed to symbolize a connection between heaven and Earth. A special exhibition of Iranian manuscripts was also on display. Qurans and secular books alike featured stunning examples of fine calligraphy and geometric patterns.
Once again we happened to be around for a national holiday, though this one was far more somber than most. April 24 is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day↗. We watched a live video feed as untold thousands of people gathered to lay flowers at the eternal flame on Tsitsernakaberd hill. A few days later, we paid our own visit to the Genocide Memorial. The massive wall of flowers was only just being removed, and it was poignant to see how many were still being left. More visitors filtered in to add their own contributions even as we stopped by. The complex also houses a museum which paints a harrowing picture of the atrocities. Decades of intermittent persecution were followed by a campaign of mass expulsion and murder under the cover of World War I. In the end, the gruesome town-to-town massacres, forced labor, and death marches claimed a one and a half million lives. The scale and intent of the execution was so unprecedented as to inspire Raphael Lemkin to coin an entirely new term for it: genocide.
Massive nation-wide protests dominated the news (and our experience in Yerevan) for practically the entire month. Hundreds of people, then tens of thousands, challenged Parliament’s election of ex-President Serzh Sargsyan to the recently-empowered post of Prime Minister, effectively extending his tenure indefinitely. Opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan was the public face of the protests, but the movement was impressively grassroots. The messaging was simple and clear – Sargsyan’s appointment was a power grab that could not stand. All true patriots and lovers of country, regardless of party affiliation, had to rise up now and demand new leadership. As the demonstrations grew from simple sit-ins blocking traffic to thousands-strong rallies and concerts we followed the developments, enraptured. Throughout it all, the protesters (though not always the police►) remained incredibly peaceful and nonviolent.
On April 23, after eleven days of protests, Serzh Sargsyan resigned. The city collapsed into celebration. Streets and squares flooded with people of all ages. Music and car horns alike blared, people danced in the streets, and everywhere the Armenian flag waved proudly. It was an uproarious and joyful victory. But it was only the first step. A new PM needed to be elected, and Sargsyan’s party still controlled Parliament. Rallies continued in support of Nikol Pashinyan ahead of the May 1 election, the same day we left Armenia. On our way out of Yerevan, hundreds of cars streamed in the opposite direction, flags flying, to join the demonstrations. But Pashinyan failed to garner enough votes to claim the title… until the second vote one week later!
Food & Drink
Like Georgia, Armenian cuisine offers an abundance of grilled meats and carbs. Brick ovens and roadside grills lined the route between Tbilisi and Yerevan. Protesters used portable grills to block intersections, keeping morale high and hunger at bay. We found Grade-A pork (and quails?!) at our local grocery for home-cooking. But with the family cook incapacitated, we ate out a bit more than usual, too. Yerevani Shuarma was our favorite for cheap, fast food. Kebab and shawarma pair well with tan, a salted drinking yogurt mixed with diced cucumber and herbs. It’s Armenia’s most bewilderingly popular beverage, but we were pleasantly surprised by the taste. Another local specialty is dolma, grape leaves stuffed with meat and vegetables.
Carbonized meats also go with carbs, like local specialty lavash. Stone and brick ovens are used to make this Armenian bread, which is pounded flat and baked on the hot stones for just a few seconds. Of course it makes a great base for wraps. But it can also be enjoyed on its own, topped with cheese and greens and rolled up for a portable snack. Sweet breads are popular, too. Baklava can be bought almost anywhere. A sweet bread called gata, meanwhile, is an especially Armenian delicacy. It’s a little like a stiff coffee cake biscuit. The recipe varies by town, or by grandmother.
Our residential trappings left us at least fifteen minutes from the nearest grocery store (close in any normal month, but distressingly far this one). City Supermarket in the Rio Mall had a good selection and value. Parma was a bit further, fancier but at a price. This was where we found the first American (read: good) peanut butter we’d had in months. Sure, one jar of JIF was about $8, but after years without it was worth every penny. SAS was ubiquitous in the city center, but rarely worth the trek down the Cascade. But our favorite feature of any supermarket in Armenia (or Georgia, for that matter) is that spices and dry goods are frequently displayed piled high in barrels. These colorful and tantalizing displays seemed more in place at a bazaar than a chain store. We loved them.
Armenia currently claims the world’s oldest winery, with evidence of a 6000-year-old set of fermenting jars found in a cave. Their wine industry is still going strong. Like Georgia, just a few grape varietals make up most of the production. Areni is the most common red by an order of magnitude, though we also sampled Tigrani. For the most part, the dry reds were dry and red and that’s about it. Fruit wines, especially pomegranate, are locally popular but even less to our taste.
The most well-known alcoholic export might be brandy. Winston Churchill was famously (possibly apocryphally) presented a bottle of ArArAt by Stalin at the Yalta Conference. We sampled a tiny amount of their lineup, but never managed to tour their Yerevan distillery. It was decent stuff, though we’re sad to say we enjoyed Georgia’s version a bit better?
Armenian beer, meanwhile, is a complete afterthought. Brews like Kilikia and Gyumri were among the worst we’ve ever tasted. Thankfully, Yerevan has a fledgling craft scene with some far superior options. Dargett Brewery claims the title of “first craft brewery” in Armenia and brews an extensive and impressive lineup. We tried a sampler flight with everything from an apricot ale to a Baltic porter. Beer Academy produces microbrews primarily in German styles, like Weizenbock, Dunkel, and Pils. They also have a few more esoteric offerings, like a warm Dunkel spiked with honey and cinnamon!
Though Uber↗ isn’t currently available in Armenia, the Yandex taxi app is a fantastic substitute. It has many of the same features, including smartphone-based ordering, route tracking, driver ratings, and the ability to pay by credit card (though we stuck to cash). The drivers were generally reliable and above-board, and rides were affordably priced between ֏600-1200 ($1.50-3.00). Protests did make it much harder to find rides though, and prices during those extenuating circumstances could more than double. But only one driver overcharged us, switching off the app to erase the “paper” trail when he had to reroute around a protest-closed street. We didn’t mind the higher price, just the dishonesty about it.
Public transit is an even cheaper option. Yerevan has one metro line and buses and marshrutkas criss-cross the city (and in some cases, country). The signage is almost exclusively in Armenian, so it helps to have a good idea of the correct route first. But if you must drive, parking is at least is plenty affordable.
Yerevan has multiple bus stations, but we arrived from and left for Tbilisi at Kilikia. A marshrutka to Tbilisi’s Avlabari Station took around 5-6 hours and cost ֏7000 each. Just like in Georgia, the signs were illegible to us but a handler happily pointed us to the correct driver.
Be wary of the pushy cab drivers at Kilikia. We got talked into splitting a cab with another couple when we first arrived and didn’t yet have cell service. That driver charged three thousand dram for just a few minutes’ ride!
Many of Armenia’s roads are in severe disrepair. Potholes, missing asphalt, and wandering cattle all slow the drive. The best highway seems to be from Yerevan to Sevan. Outside of that stretch the ride was rough. Drivers also showed a disturbingly-common tendency to pass in the center of two-lane roads, even into oncoming traffic. At least the ride north was every bit as scenic as the one down had been, especially around the border with Azerbaijan.
Stuff of interest
Our host had a pair of VivaCell MTS SIM cards↗ for us to borrow this month. We still had to top them up ourselves though. For ֏1500 (about $3.10) we got a gig of data and the ability to call and text locally.
Armenia isn’t Armenia in Armenian, it’s Hayastan (a fact we picked up on by listening to protester chants even before our Garni tour guide told us outright). The name derives from Hayk the Great, legendary patriarch of the Armenian nation.
The huge diaspora (there are more Armenians living outside of Armenia than inside of it) meant it was relatively easy to find local news in English, especially about the protests. Twitter provided a good starting point and Civilnet.am↗ even broadcasted some of the speeches live with English translation!
Pharmacies are only too happy to sell the exact amount of medication you need, even for prepackaged over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen. They simply cut up the blister packs out of the box. Pretty handy system. On the other hand, medical care was generally lacking. Hospitals were overwhelmed and disorganized, had almost no English-speakers available, and were ultimately more interested in getting rid of us than helping us. Not an ideal situation to be in when dealing with an injury.
Armenia is in a tough spot, geopolitically speaking. It doesn’t get along with two of its four immediate neighbors; the borders with Turkey closed in 1993, and the country remains at war with Azerbaijan (mostly regarding the status of the breakaway region of Artsakh). Relations with Iran and Georgia are generally good, though the latter has cooled slightly after the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Armenia maintains strong ties to Russia, mostly because it keeps things relatively safe and stable. In any event, a passport stamp from Azerbaijan is going to get a whole lot of negative attention from border guards here (and vice versa).
What we learned
We could definitely see ourselves coming back to Yerevan. The city enchanted us almost immediately with its walkable streets and relaxed vibe. Hopefully next time will be less “relax” and more “walk.”