Yerevan

  
  - darkometer rating:  3 -
 
Yerevan 19 - possibly the worst city planning in the worldThe capital city of Armenia, and home to the country's premier memorial about the Armenian genocide. The city also has a couple of different dark sides, one of them a general feature, namely a disastrous contemporary city planning characterized by demolition of old architecture and ruthless construction of new faceless modern monstrosities. Yerevan can serve as a good base for explorations and tours to other parts of the country too. 

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>What there is to see

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More background info: With just over 1.1 million inhabitants, Yerevan (or Erivan) is the smallest of the capitals of the three "official" Caucasus countries (those of the "unofficial", break-away provinces, especially Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh, are a lot smaller still). Like the other two, however, it has changed and expanded a lot over the course of its history – and is still changing. One aspect I found all the Caucasian capitals had in common when I visited the region in summer 2010 was the impression of construction work going on everywhere. But only in Yerevan did it involve as much demolition work too.
   
The Soviet era had already brought significant change to the old city, and not for the better. To this day, the main feature of Yerevan is rows and rows of apartment blocks of a distinctly Soviet, i.e. depressingly bleak style. Only in the immediate centre, especially along Abovyan Poghots, some of the grander buildings of the tsarist era were left standing and are still there today, though often not in a particularly well-kept state. But much worse still: in the side streets in the heart of Yerevan, the current city planners seem determined to demolish what even the Soviets had left standing. I found a whole neighbourhood of such old architecture derelict and partly collapsed, with demolition and construction work rapidly encroaching on what was still standing.
   
The stretch between Villa Delenda, which stands like the last inhabited beacon of hope (and is run as a charity and B&B – see below), all the way down to Abovyan Poghots, is one of the most depressing sights I've ever had the misfortune to set eyes on. By the time you read this, most of it will probably be gone altogether. In its stead unspeakably ugly high-rises of offices and apartments are mushrooming.
   
Some of the old buildings had numbers painted on every stone of the facades, suggesting that there were plans afoot to remove them and then reconstruct them somewhere else. But even if that is the case it still hardly compensate for the destruction of the authentic old city-ness. That's irreplaceable and not even the sleekest modern apartment blocks will ever have a chance of making up for it.
   
One major element of the city centre's redevelopment was already as good as finished when I visited: the new Hyusisayin Poghota (North Avenue), which slices diagonally – as if cut by a giant chainsaw –  through the street grid from the opera and Freedom Square all the way down to Abovyan Poghots near Republic Square. The architecture along this pedestrianized new city centre core with shops and apartments for the well-heeled may not be quite as repulsive as some of the other modern structures nearby, but it's not far off. And the shops are a depressing repetition of the same "international brand names" accumulation that all too often brings indistinguishable facelessness to so many places all around the world. But here it can bring you down even more if you've seen what potential for preservation has been lost.
   
The Armenians will hate to hear this (so better don't say it to their faces) but in direct comparison Azerbaijan's capital Baku has done an infinitely better job of developing its old centre. I don't mean the "Old City", but rather the fine fin-de-siecle quarters to the north and east of it that have been so exquisitely refurbished. OK, you can argue that Baku is blessed with oil-boom riches with which they can afford such polishing up and that Armenia lacks this. But then again, what's going on in Yerevan can't be cheap either ... and indeed a lot of development funding is coming from the Armenian Diaspora – which is frequently seen as Armenia's equivalent to the Azeris' petrodollars. In the end it's at least as much down to political decisions as it is to finances. And as far as the politics of city planning go, Yerevan could hardly be any more on the wrong track than it most evidently is at the moment. (By the way, a friend who visited the city more recently, in September 2012, reported back to me that this is unfortunately still the case.)
   
Older readers may remember the name Yerevan especially for those Radio Yerevan jokes (which always revolved around the same stupid-question-plus-witty-answer pattern), but if this new development of the city is supposed to bring a smile to my face, then no, sorry, the joke's lost on me …
 
   
What there is to see: Yerevan has a rather rough "charm", and any first impression is unlikely to be a positive one. The current redevelopment (see above) doesn't at all help to alleviate this – quite on the contrary.
   
Yet you could argue that this very fact makes for a kind of dark sight: the amassed depressing Soviet apartment blocks and the current demolition of older architecture to make room for the construction of modern concrete monstrosities that even beat the Soviet apartment blocks for ugliness.
   
But it will hardly be for this reason alone that anyone would want to travel to Yerevan. For the dark tourist proper, it's rather something very different that forms the main attraction in the city, namely the national Armenian genocide memorial on Tsitsernakaberd hill:
   
   
  
As a kind of counterpart towering above the opposite end of the inner city ring, there's the gigantic statue of Mother Armenia staring grimly over the city from her even taller pedestal, in which there is a military museum (with a focus on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict):
  
  
 
In addition to those major sites there are also a couple of quirky rather than downright dark sights that you may want to see too when in Yerevan:
  
The Cascade is a strange folly of sorts: started in the Soviet days it was left unfinished during Armenia's early years of independence until 2001, when the project was picked up again, as so often with the aid of Armenian Diaspora money. When I visited in August 2010 it was still unfinished at the top. The whole thing is a concrete set of steps going diagonally up a hillside to the north of the city centre with five terraces at different levels. There are flower beds at the bottom and along the way up, and water features are clearly intended to justify the name of the edifice, though when I was there all its fountains were completely dry. There are modern sculptures and an art centre inside, with glass objects a particular focus. Also inside there are escalators going up to all levels in a kind of underground automated cascade of moving stairways. This looks truly bizarre and science-fiction-y. At the very top is a (very) Soviet monument, a tall column erected to celebrate 50 years of Armenia as part of the Soviet Union. It still stands, though the USSR is history, but the place is hardly a popular or busy one. For the dark tourist the added bonus of going up to the top of the Cascade is that from up there you need only to walk a short distance through the rather depressing Victory Park to get to the Mother Armenia statue.
   
Some dark tourists may also get something out of wandering through the old Kond neighbourhood, on the western edge of the city centre. It is the only remaining part of town that predates all the massive redevelopment of the Tsarist, Soviet and contemporary times. Don't expect any quaint pretty ancient buildings here, though, but rather a kind of shantytown. It's a jumble of mostly low, improvised-looking edifices and shacks with no proper streets, only narrow passageways ... and hence very few cars, which somehow must manage to squeeze through. It's not quite a slum though ... so proper slum tourists might be disappointed too. It rather feels like a village in the middle of the city, where people live a very un-metropolitan life-style; some even grow their own wine on the roofs. A few people were greeting me in a friendly way as I sauntered through this labyrinthine maze of little alleys, others just looked a little surprised. In generally un-touristy Yerevan this is apparently especially un-touristy. I never felt threatened, though, only a little uneasy (as I would in any form of "poverty tourism"). But old Kond is surely a quirky, if shabby, little island to go for a wander in as a counterpoint to the rest of Yerevan.
   
All over the former Soviet Union you can find countless so-called "house museums". These are typically the former residences of somebody famous, be it a writer, artist, scientist or what have you. However, these are often not exactly famous on an international scale, so don't be surprised if you've never heard their names before. Most of these house museums are incredibly boring affairs, unless perhaps you happen to be a huge fan of the artist or whoever in question. Yerevan has one exception to this general rule. The Sergei Paradjanov house museum is a fabulously eccentric and fascinating place by any account. I loved it. Paradjanov – in case this name doesn't immediately mean anything to you either – was a visual artist/sculptor and controversial avant-garde film director, a highly acclaimed colleague of the more internationally renowned Andrei Tarkovsky. During the Soviet days several of Paradjanov's films were banned – and the man himself put in prison repeatedly. This was not so much because of political statements as such but for sexual "immorality". It was when he was prevented from doing any film work that he resorted to other forms of visual arts. He regarded these work as static stand-ins for screenplays for the films he had in his head. In 1988, shortly before his death, Paradjanov moved to Yerevan and began setting up this museum. However, it was only finished and opened to the public after Paradjanov passed away in 1990. On display are numerous sculptures, paintings, collages, etc., as well as furniture and all manner of knickknacks. Some of the sculptures have a decidedly grim theme and can thus count as dark in themselves. Moreover, it's the theme of political and cultural repression that makes the place a worthwhile addition to a dark tourist's itinerary in Yerevan. Location: 15/16 Dzoragyugh Poghots on the western edge of the city centre overlooking the Hrazdan gorge; open daily 10:30 a.m. to 17:30 p.m.; admission 700 AMD, guided tour in English 2500 AMD.
  
A guided tour of the brandy factory named after Armenia's "holy mountain" (see under Armenia in general and under Ararat itself) is one of Yerevan's top tourist activities. These start from the main entrance of the unmissable red stone building just across the Hrazdan gorge to the west of the city centre. There's also a surprise dark element included in it: on display in the actual maturation hall that the tour takes in is one "ceremonial" cask of brandy. It is standing in front of the flags of Armenia, France, Russia and the USA on a small stage, supported by a special stand, both of which are covered all over with marker pen signatures. A metal plaque on the cask and a panel on a easel next to it convey the following: apparently this cask was filled in November 2001 on the occasion of a visit by the OSCE Minsk Group and is to be opened on the day that the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh is finally resolved. This is going to be one hell of an extra-mature brandy by the time that happens (if it ever does) – it's already quite mature for a brandy, having entered its second decade of maturation. It could well be that by the time the politics it's been dedicated to have reached a similar level of maturity, the contents of this cask may be too woody to be drinkable …  
   
The peaks of Mt Ararat are theoretically visible from the city of Yerevan, at least on a clear day, though these are rare in the summer haze, unless after an air-cleansing downpour of rain. If visible, the city has the constant reminder on its doorstep that the country's other age-old feud, that with its western neighbour Turkey, hasn't been overcome yet either. To make up for the painful fact to the Armenian soul that the mountain stands on territory that is now part of Turkey, Armenians claim that at least it looks more majestic from the Armenian side of the border – mainly because the Ararat plains lie lower on this side than on the Anatolian side to the west of the mountain, so it looks bigger from the east. Having been on both sides of Ararat, I can neither confirm nor deny this assertion. I find it equally impressive viewed from any angle … but then again, I'm neutral in this conflict, so what can I say …
 
   
Location: Almost in the centre of Armenia, a bit to the north of half-way between it's north-western end and the south-eastern borders with Nagorno-Karabakh and Iran. To the north-east of the city is the large high-altitude body of water that is Lake Sevan, and just to the south, only a couple dozen miles away, beyond the border with Turkey are the slopes of Mt Ararat, the Armenian "holy mountain" now located on the other, "wrong" side of this (closed) border.
   
Google maps locator: [40.178,44.513]
 
   
Access and costs: quite easy to get to from almost anywhere in the country (or from Georgia); not too expensive.
   
Details: Getting to Yerevan is easy enough from most parts of the country, as it serves as THE transport hub of Armenia, so there's plenty of marshrutka (minibus taxi) or bus connections and also a train station, with a few local trains as well as an overnight train to Tbilisi in Georgia, which goes via Gyumri and Vanadzor in such a roundabout route and such slow speed that it's not the most convenient way of travelling. It departs every other day and takes 16 hours, or more if delayed, which frequently happens. It's also easy to get taxis to virtually anywhere in the country and beyond (see under Armenia).
   
Yerevan also has Armenia's only international airport with various connections to other parts of the world, except to the other Caucasus countries or Turkey.
   
For getting around in Yerevan it's mostly best to just rely on one's own two feet. The centre is so small that everything is within walking distance. Only Tsitsernakaberd may require a short taxi ride if you want to spare yourself the hike up the hill. The same can apply to the Mother Armenia statue/war museum, although this can also be reached on foot from the top of the Cascade and a short stroll through the (rather depressing) Haghtanak park. When crossing streets in Yerevan, note that the green phase at pedestrian crossings, which is typically indicated by seconds ticking away backwards, is often rather short. Apparently there's a rule rule that the wider the street, the shorter the time given to pedestrians to cross has to be. So don't dawdle – nor should you ever rely on Armenian drivers to stop for pedestrians …
   
Yerevan does also have a public transport system of buses, marshrutkas (minibus taxis), trolleybuses and even a metro, but unless your accommodation is far out of the centre you will be unlikely to need any of this.
   
Accommodation prices in Yerevan can be more affordable than in Tbilisi (and much cheaper than Baku), and there's a good range, from the luxurious top end down to various budget inns, hostels and guesthouses.
   
A good insider's tip is the B&B at Villa Delenda, which is in the lower mid-range price bracket, but excellent value and full of charm. It's in one of the few remaining historic buildings left in Yerevan and thus a unique chance for staying in one. It's located on Yeznik Koghabatsi Street, which runs parallel to Mesrop Mashots Poghota, between Amiryan Street to the south and Tumanyan Street to the north. Villa Delenda is part of a charity, and income from the B&B supports an art school in Spitak, which was devastated by the earthquake of 1988 (see Gyumri and Spitak). So staying there does some good too. In the showroom in the basement you can also purchase ceramics and other arts & crafts made in Spitak. Villa Delenda offers tourists various tours as well. For more info check out their own website (http://villaayghedzor.com/lodging_delenda_en.asp).
   
With regard to food & drink, Yerevan certainly offers the best choice anywhere in Armenia, though here too you'd find it somewhat difficult to discover proper traditional Armenian food that goes beyond the usual gristly khoravats. One quite decent exception I found was a place called Ararat Hall, hidden in a side street (Yeznik Koghabatsi – a few blocks up from Villa Delenda), which does a wide range of dishes with a certain emphasis on the Karabakh region. I also had some of the best Georgian food actually in Yerevan (it's popular across the region anyway). Otherwise, Yerevan is a good place to get some relief from the regional food and e.g. go for a curry! Prices are predictably higher than almost anywhere in the provinces, but still quite reasonable.
 
   
Time required: Yerevan's dark sites can be done in a single day, but if you want to go a bit deeper, and/or use Yerevan as a day for day return excursions, then a few more nights should be planned in.
 
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: Within an easy day trip reach are Sardarapat and Metsamor, best combined in a single excursion. These are offered by various tourism agencies in Yerevan.
    
Rather out of day return trip reach, but easy to get to from Yerevan are Gyumri (and surrounding places) or Sisian – and you can also get to Tbilisi in Georgia in a couple of hours on the road. The overnight train, on the other hand, takes a ludicrous ca. 16 hours.
   
By car you could also get as far as Nagorno-Karabakh, which you can only enter via Armenia in any case. If you'd rather break the journey you could plan a stop-over in either Sisian or Goris.
 
   
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Yerevan is anything but touristy, and it doesn't make it easy for foreign travellers to fall in love with the place. That said, and the ugly Soviet and current city planning aside (see above), there are still a few hidden, and not so hidden, gems to check out when spending a few days in Yerevan.
   
A landmark building is the opera in the northern part of the inner city, close to the Cascade. At the other end, the architecturally least spoiled spot in the city is Republic Square in the southern part, with its very Armenian-style red stone government buildings and the History Museum and National Art Gallery.
   
As art is generally held in high esteem in Armenia and especially in Yerevan you can also see many a public sculpture just walking around, some of them strikingly modern – the most remarkable I found was the scarily giant iron spider on a Aznavour Square, off Abovyan Poghots, in front of the Moskva cinema.
   
A largely hidden gem is the pretty Blue Mosque off 12 Mesrop Mashtots Poghota, opposite the covered food market. From the road you can only see the tiled gate and the top of the minaret – but beyond lies a garden surrounded by low buildings (a madrasah) and the mosque itself. It's run by an Iranian organization, who were also undertaking some further restoration work when I visited I spoke with a very approachable Iranian – whose English was remarkably fluent – who was eager to provide some information … without trying to push me towards Islam ;-)).
   
The market hall opposite is also well worth a look. Check out the big bunches of herbs and the piles of cheeses!
   
The main pleasure of Yerevan, however, is its street café culture – and the tree-shaded stretch of park-like avenue leading west from Republic Square is possibly the most pleasant, especially on a hot summer day, when the shade and the water fountains provide a bit of cooling relaxation.
   

 

  • Yerevan 01 - Republic SquareYerevan 01 - Republic Square
  • Yerevan 02 - pretty government buildingYerevan 02 - pretty government building
  • Yerevan 03 - detailYerevan 03 - detail
  • Yerevan 04 - operaYerevan 04 - opera
  • Yerevan 05 - depressing architecture, weeping willows, black swansYerevan 05 - depressing architecture, weeping willows, black swans
  • Yerevan 06 - scary spider sculptureYerevan 06 - scary spider sculpture
  • Yerevan 07 - street cafe at fountainYerevan 07 - street cafe at fountain
  • Yerevan 08 - CascadeYerevan 08 - Cascade
  • Yerevan 09 - inside CascadeYerevan 09 - inside Cascade
  • Yerevan 10 - view from top of Cascade with Ararat in the distanceYerevan 10 - view from top of Cascade with Ararat in the distance
  • Yerevan 11 - old Kond shanty town neighbourhoodYerevan 11 - old Kond shanty town neighbourhood
  • Yerevan 12 - stadium and Tsitsernakaberd in the backgroundYerevan 12 - stadium and Tsitsernakaberd in the background
  • Yerevan 13 - Hrazdan gorgeYerevan 13 - Hrazdan gorge
  • Yerevan 14 - market hallYerevan 14 - market hall
  • Yerevan 15 - trolley bus in front of Blue Mosque gateYerevan 15 - trolley bus in front of Blue Mosque gate
  • Yerevan 16 - Villa Delenda threatened by brutalist modernismYerevan 16 - Villa Delenda threatened by brutalist modernism
  • Yerevan 17 - new and doomed oldYerevan 17 - new and doomed old
  • Yerevan 18 - fate of tsarist era architectureYerevan 18 - fate of tsarist era architecture
  • Yerevan 19 - possibly the worst city planning in the worldYerevan 19 - possibly the worst city planning in the world
  • Yerevan 20 - no regard for architecture but big motorsYerevan 20 - no regard for architecture but big motors
  • Yerevan 21 - home of high-class spiritsYerevan 21 - home of high-class spirits
  • Yerevan 22 - maturationYerevan 22 - maturation
  • Yerevan 23 - stackedYerevan 23 - stacked
  • Yerevan 24 - Nagorno-Karabakh caskYerevan 24 - Nagorno-Karabakh cask

 

  

  

  

  

  

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