Window on Armenia

A country with a tragic past faces a brighter future

This chap, dressed in local garb, resembles the grandpa of almost any of the locals passing by.

But, where are we? 

We are visiting Yerevan, Armenia's capital, at the famous Vernissage markets, and experiencing first-hand the Armenian sense of self-deprecatory fun.

And then there are the noses. 

In this part of the world, noses are distinctive and dramatic. Far from being self-conscious, the Armenians celebrate them. On this stall at the markets, someone has even created an excellent and artistic use for them!  

~~~

Last autumn, in October, we visited Armenia after travelling through Georgia to the north. By then, the fiery summer sun had given way to gentle sunshine, sometimes chilly days and cloudless skies.  

If you have always wondered what Armenia is like, please come along with us, now, as we discover this magical place.

****

Before we continue: here's some basic info

  • The Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) are lodged firmly between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Russia and Georgia are in the north, Turkey on the western border, and Iran is to the south. 
  • Armenia is about the size of Belgium and has a population of three million. It achieved independence in 1991.
  • Armenian is spoken and has its own distinct alphabet and script. North of the city, in Alphabet Alley, you can see huge stone sculptures depicting each letter. Above, at the markets, this lady was happy to display her version, beautifully embroidered.
  • The currency is a dram and the rate of exchange is around 500 dram to the US dollar. 
  • When travelling, I always like to learn the word for 'thank you'. In Armenia, you should say shnorhakalut’yun.

~~~

 

Heart of the people

Two things are inextricably woven into the fabric of Armenian life - Christianity, which dates back to the first-century AD....

... and a history that is even longer, pre-dating the Bronze Age, from before 4000BC. 

Our trip south from Georgia took us through high and arid country, with time to explore the 10-13C Haghpat monastery complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The remote position was chosen to protect the peace and seclusion of those early monks.

We passed through quiet villages. This part of northern Armenia, en-route to Yerevan, is referred to as Little Switzerland, but these 'chalets' in Dilijan turned out to be intimate dining rooms attached to a hotel. 

Finally reaching Yerevan, on the outskirts of the city, we spent a fascinating hour seeing carpets hand-made in much the same way as they have been for many centuries. The Megerian Carpet factory spans four generations of the family. In 1917, the Megerian family fled to the US because of the genocide establishing their carpet-making business there, before ultimately returning to Yerevan.

To create the desired colour for each carpet, hanks of wool are dipped in vats coloured by herbs, flowers, the bark of local trees, or even, in previous times, cochineal beetles costing more than gold. These unique carpets were believed to protect homes from the 'evil eye'.

So many of the carpets have a story to tell...

This one is called The Shield Carpet - you must watch the VIDEO to see the touching story of loss and reunion after the genocide.

 

 

 

These carpets are made carefully and meant to last, as this worker's T-shirt says.

It is intricate and careful work as the carpet maker follows a pattern that is just above her.

Our first stop in Yerevan itself is at one of the world's most tragic memorials on a cliff overlooking the Hrazdan river, with the city beyond.

The Armenian Genocide carried out by the Ottoman government was intense and disastrous for the Armenian people, and it has been covered up or forgotten by the rest of the world. During the later Soviet period it was impossible to mention it, and Turkey has denied that at least 1.5 million people perished or had been expelled during 1915-16. As it occurred during WWI, many things were concealed or passed off as simply being collateral from the war.

This simple yet poignant edifice includes a 40 metre-high 'needle'. In the centre is an eternal flame to honour the dead, while the centre is designed to replicate a flower opening up with new life. There is also a museum on this site, but it was closed when we visited.

No Armenian could forget this terrible and cruel and calculated attack on their culture and history, so fresh wreaths and flowers are always here.

Many of those who were able to escape, became refugees, settling in the USA, France and Britain, among other places. These people worked hard to assimilate in a new country, and many became very wealthy. 

Nevertheless, those in the worldwide diasporas never forgot their homeland and continued to send money back to help rehabilitate their country. We were to see evidence of this as we explored the city.

READ MORE...

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Let's move on to the table...

Perhaps the signature offering in an Armenian household or restaurant is the flatbread.

These lavash are made all day in bakeries, in private homes, and at almost any dining place, even (as we discovered here) in the food hall of a supermarket! It's hot and energetic work as the cooks have to reach into the chimney-shaped brick oven and slap a piece of thin dough on its wall, and then in a minute or two when it is cooked, lift it out. Over and over again ...

Similar to the Georgian boat bread, but this one has the addition of ham.

The supermarket had a wide variety of chocolate - and I chose this one. Russian products show up frequently in Armenia because of the long history between the two countries. Note to self: never buy 100 percent chocolate. It was very strong and bitter.

Appetisers may be simple, but when you have some oven-fresh bread to mop up a hummus and oil dip like this, it hardly gets any better.

These appear on most menus, called khinkali, and very much like dim sum dumplings, but fried rather than steamed. They may be filled with meat or vegetables.

A brief break in her never-ending work, and this lady behind her glass window at Tavern Yerevan, gives us a wave. This restaurant is well-known for its folk songs and dances.

Not all food comes from a restaurant. 

These fast-food buses are very popular too.

Another night, seated on the terrace, we dined at the trendy Lavash restaurant.

Here a flat bread wraps a savoury chicken and vegetable bake.

It was a wonderful meal and we had eaten too much ... but then we saw this! It seems that those in the know had pre-ordered slices of an immense millefeuille, a specialty of the restaurant.

We begged for just a little to share and fortunately were served the last slice. It was even better than it looks.

BTW, while you are here - check out that wine label. Winemaking has been carried out in Armenia for thousands of years.

Highly recommended, another evening we visited Mamoor. Many of Yerevan's better restaurants suggest booking a table.

Of special fascination was Mamoor's 'Live Kitchen' and, as we had been seated at a table with a direct view of it, we could watch our meal coming together.

After a week of eating and wine-tasting in Yerevan, even though we walked for hours each day around the city, it's surprising we didn't end up looking like this sculpture in the gardens in front of the Cafesjian Center for the Arts!

 

...which leads us to the jewel in Yeravan's crown

It's not difficult to see why this immense creation is called the Cascade. 

Flight after flight of steps leads visitors to the top, but as it was a hot day, we opted for the alternative...

...entering the building (for that is what it is) and using the seven sets of escalators. At each level there are artworks and installations and access to terraces with increasingly long views over the city and towards the mountains beyond.

The gardens are decorated with a range of exhibits - sculptures and other works.

In the outdoor installations, water is a theme.

One level has these fountains,....

...and other artistic displays ...

...plus more permanent ones like these divers, a sculpture by David Martin.

The gardens are equally captivating, and these installations may not still be here when you visit, as they are often replaced or exchanged with other countries.

Some sculptures travel a long way to add interest to the gardens. Can you guess where this one has come from?

~~~

 

A quick look at the rest of the city

The Opera House and Music Hall are in Azatutyan Square, a short walk from the Cascade.

It quickly became obvious to us that Yerevan is a stylish and artistic city. Its residents are assured and at times alternative. In fact, there is a hint of French here, which is probably due to the influence of Armenians who settled in France after the genocide and, like those from the US and British diasporas continue to pour monetary assistance into Armenia.

Yeravan's street plan also follows the spoke-like layout of French cities, and we even found a couple of lovely boulangeries.

Artwork makes a great souvenir. Many parts of the city are very hip, with bars and cafes, and smartly dressed younger people add a vibrant and colourful accent.

Of course, taking a quick circuit of the city in a bus like this is always helpful, as in an hour or so you understand it a little more. This is also a way to see how the locals use the roads. Many are narrow and cobbled and are not always vehicle friendly. Tempers can get frayed, too, with plenty of horn-tooting.

Similar to Maman, the huge spider in Ottowa, this one in Charles Aznavour Square is smaller, and made by the Armenian sculptor, Ara Alekyan.

The architecture of Yerevan changes as you move from district to district. As we had a week to wander freely wherever we wanted to, we could absorb the various areas - like this one, becoming upmarket with boutiques and jewellers.

Another block and it was small shops - and pomegranates, which must be the local's favourite fruit, it seems.

On the western side of the city, you will find the elegant Blue Mosque...

...an 18th-century Iranian place of worship. This is the entrance from the street, which takes you to the mosque itself in a secluded courtyard.

Older houses are kept proudly maintained...

...and there are still remnants of Soviet apartment buildings.

Parking can be at a premium in some streets!

This was the view from our very simple (and affordable) apartment that dated from the Soviet era. We didn't wait long enough to see how these cars sorted out this puzzle.

Directly across the street from our apartment was Impresso Cafe...

...serving great coffee, so we immediately labelled it as 'ours'.

Yerevan has been laid out with semicircular roads on the eastern side of the city and one day we strolled through the appropriately-named Ring Park. It is a wonderful green belt with places for children - as well as adults - to play.

At another point, these splendid fountains were an encouragement to rest for a moment in the shade with a cool drink.

~~~

 

The country's soul

Despite political ruptures, wars and genocide, the Christian faith of Armenians has remained strong. 

The most imposing church in Yerevan is Saint Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral, consecrated in 2001.

While from the outside its architectural style may appear heavy and plain, resembling a fortress....

...there has been very clever use of windows to allow sunlight to shine through strategically, giving a sense of safety and serenity.

The Armenian cross is often paired with floral elements or other shapes from nature, as you may have already noticed on this page.

Intrinsic to worship in Armenian churches is the censer - a metal container which burns incense during services. Its correct name in Armenian worship is a thurible.

On the corner of Abovyan Street and Sayat-Nova Avenue, is a place of interest that visitors may miss. Yerevan's oldest church, Katoghike Holy Mother of God Church was once almost demolished.

For centuries, this small church had been hidden inside a 17th-century basilica that had been constructed around it. It was only in 1936, when the Soviets demolished the basilica to make space for residential buildings, that this tiny old church was rediscovered.

The Soviets wanted to destroy it too but, fortunately, intervention from a group of archaeologists spared the 13th-century building. 

If you wish to see even more Armenian churches....

~~~

 

The markets

If there is one place that most people enjoy visiting in other countries, it is a market, Vernissage Markets open daily, but they are by far the busiest at weekends. This is an extensive open-air venue, offering almost anything you could wish for, much of it made by local crafts-people.

Of course it is the ideal place to stock up on souvenirs to bring home, and Armenia's bold red favourite fruit - pomegranates - feature in many items. You will probably never again see more of them in one place.

There are some unique buys, too - such as these leather brooches and earrings.

And here is Alla Sargsyan who made the Armenian character at the top of this page, holding another of her hand-made creations.

Take a stroll with us through some of the many alleys of this fascinating market....

 

 

 

 

 

The talent and creativity of these people is overwhelming. Make sure you bring plenty of dram as you will find yourself unable to resist the many exquisite offerings.

++++

 

The old and the new

Just south of the Vernissage markets, ancient stones from monasteries around the country have been saved and restored and placed prominently so that all can enjoy them.

Even further along is a beautifully tended walkway and park, filled with huge statues.

They have been provided by the Vardanyan Family Charity Foundation. Read the brass plaque with the amazing promise that this family charity will generously 'cover the expenses of care and maintenance of the park for a period of 99 years'.

Also donated to the this park by the same family are these brilliantly coloured fountains that leap and glow, an exquisite watery ballet that draws the crowds to watch and enjoy them each evening.

Nightime in Yerevan is a time to wander and enjoy the bars and restaurants, or simply drop by a truck like this and (you guessed it!) sample some pomegranate juice.

One of the city's finest events takes place every evening in Republic Square outside the State Museum of History.

These colourful fountains are choreographed to classical music and move in perfect rhythm, rising in crescendos, dropping down for quieter passages, as if some unseen conductor is leading this graceful and illuminated orchestra. 

It certainly is a performance that no one should miss!

++++

Finally the time had come to leave Yerevan, yet we had one niggling disappointment. Mount Ararat is across the nearby border in Turkey, but can be seen from the city - if the weather cooperates. Until now, on each day of our visit, the mountain had stayed shyly covered in cloud.

On our last day we were told that Ararat was showing and we hurried to the highest point we knew - the top of Cafesjian - and there it was, snow-topped and glorious.

Armenia had delivered everything we had hoped for and so much more. 

We had been thrilled by the elegance of its public gardens and public buildings, and heartbroken when our local guide told us the true story of the genocide. We'd become fans of the cuisine, unable to believe the patience of the 'lavash ladies', and hugely impressed by the local wines.

But, above all, we had fallen for the friendly Armenian people themselves. The past has been tough, but they are tougher and, as a nation, they have taken on the rebuilding of this beautiful city and the patching and renewing of their culture. 

 

Armenia ~ shnorhakalut’yun ~ thank you!

 


Sally and Gordon travelled independently in Armenia with Advantours

Images and words: ©Sally Hammond

Video: ©Gordon Hammond

 

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