Fabulous Kebabs and Five-Dollar Opera Tickets in in the World’s Best Preserved Soviet City
I bet you haven’t considered a trip to Armenia. It may be small, but Armenia’s capital city is well worth a visit. Although the tiny country hides in the shadow of neighbouring Turkey, Yerevan is crammed with cultural and culinary delights – with a beautiful backdrop of the Caucasus Mountains. This ancient capital of this Circassian nation and the birthplace of unique artwork, architecture and some unforgettable kebabs
Yerevan is built on the Hrazdan River surrounded by the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains. Decades after the end of Soviet occupation, Russian influence is still visible in Yerevan. It is one of the few places left in the world where you may find Soviet buildings in perfect condition, complete with original fixtures. Armenian architects designed statues and buildings in the Soviet Realist style from local volcanic, rosy pink rock.
Even after Persian, Ottoman and Soviet occupations throughout the last 2000 years, Armenians like to do things their way. They have an ancient culture of which they have preserved by way of a distinctive alphabet and even their own religion. Armenians consider themselves to be the oldest Christian denomination with distinctive churches and beautiful monasteries. Another Jewel in Armenia’s crown is its fine brandy, popular amongst world leaders for hundreds of years.
Two days is plenty of time to get a taste of the city. Here are some ideas of how to get to Yerevan and what to do on a short trip to in this tidy little city.
Yerevan is half a day’s bus ride from neighbouring Georgia and Turkey. Eight hours and $12 from Tbilisi in Georgia, the journey to Armenia through the meandering roads of the Lower Caucasus Mountains on a crowded Marshrutka minibus is picture-perfect ride. Apart from the messy power lines, the mountain villages with their stone cottages and vegetable plots seem to be frozen in time. It’s not easy to fly into Yerevan: the airport is surrounded by mountains and there are limited direct flights to and from major cities. Travelling overland by bus or car the best option.
Republic Square is the cultural heart of Yerevan. This spick-and-span plaza boasts a singing fountain which is the centrepiece for outdoor concerts and firework shows in the evenings. This unique square was built by the Soviet government in 1924 and is constructed from rosy pink Armenian tufa stones.
In Soviet times it was known as Lenin Square – a statue of Soviet hero Vladimir Lenin has now been removed. An oval pavement in the image of an Armenian rug surrounded by the National Gallery; the Ministry of Finance and other notable edifices including Yerevan’s most prestigious hotel, The Mariott Armenia.If you look closely, you will see a bas relief of a hammer and sickle symbol as well as a red star on the exterior of the buildings in Republic Square. Such Communist depictions are illegal in many former Soviet states, with great pains taken to remove any evidence of that period in history.
In Armenia, for better or worse, they are still memories. For now, the Communist relics in Yerevan remain untouched and it is worth seeing such buildings before this part of history disappears from the face of the earth.
One of Yerevan’s most remarkable churches is the Holy Mother of God Katoghike Church on Sayat-Nova Street in Kentron or “Central” District. The magnificent basilica was destroyed to make way for Soviet residences, but one tiny 13th century chapel was preserved at the insistence of historians. The demolished basilica has been rebuilt on the foundations of the old church in 2009 next to the ancient, tiny chapel. Visitors are welcome. It’s nice to see the place in action on a Sunday. Taking photos in churches is allowed, if you stick some money in the donation box on the way in you’ll avoid any disparaging looks. Neat clothing (nothing revealing) is expected in all churches and a head covering for women is recommended.
Taste & Smell:
Armenia’s fine brandy is a point of national pride and was a favourite of Winston Churchill and Russian Tsars. Along the Hrazdan River lies a delicious treat—The Yerevan Brandy Company, an old factory which offers 15-20 minute tours with brandy tasting for a small fee. Armenian still dare to label their brandy as Cognac, or Kanyak for the local and Russian market, although now it is illegal to do so outside of France’s Cognac region. Bottles made for export are simply sold as Armenian brandy. Many liken Kanyak to its French counterpart: it is of exceptional quality. As you can see in the factory, Armenian brandy is double distilled using the French method and matured in oak casks. Bottles of award-winning brandy are available in the shop for $20 per bottle. Armenian brandy is graded as VS, VSOP and XO—just like French Cognac
Yerevan Opera and Ballet Theater shows a world-class line up of performances: opera, traditional dance, ballet, classical music and jazz. Tickets can be obtained for only $5 and Armenian operas such as Anoush are regularly shown. Tickets can be purchased online, remember to choose “National Academic Theater Of Opera and Ballet” as the venue.
For those who aren’t interested in catching a show, the opera house is built on Freedom Square (or Opera Square) which is a lively place with a park and surrounded by local fast food, cafés and bars. Central Yerevan is relatively safe at night, so feel free to explore.
For an outstanding view of Mount Ararat, the sacred mountain across the border in Turkey which has become a symbol of Armenia, head to The Mother of Armenia Statue. This landmark in itself unexciting, but it’s worth visiting for the photo opportunity. You will see images of the snow-capped mountain on money, stamps and konyak bottles.
Hotels in Yerevan are good value. The Imperial Palace Hotel Yerevan is conveniently located on Koryun Street, close to the opera house. This is a four-star hotel with comfortable rooms, delightful staff and WiFi for about $90, including an ample buffet breakfast. A cheaper option is the Yerevan Deluxe Hotel, which is 15 minutes outside of the city centre and offers simple, clean rooms with an Armenian breakfast for $45 per night. Taxis and public transport are easily accessible from both hotels.
Armenia also has splendid food: $4 will buy you delicious meal of kebabs or salad in a local restaurant. However, Yerevan isn’t known for it’s fashionable bars and restaurants—many of the popular downtown eateries are enormous dining rooms with a gaudy Rococo interior. An exception to this trend is The Club: a very chic eatery with a modern Armenian menu. The Club is casual and unpretentious with stone walls, relaxing live music and soft lighting; their fine food is beautifully presented. Specialty items include lamb shanks, fried cheeses, Armenian meat dumplings and local Areni red wine. Portions are small, prices are reasonable for such quality: around $50 per couple for two courses including wine.
Local cuisine is a fusion of Turkish, Caucasian, Iranian and Russian dishes. If you ask an Armenian, they may tell you that the dishes actually originated in their country, but regardless of the origin Armenian food is excellent. Lots of fresh vegetables and meat, lots of international flavours.
Staples include thin lavash bread and bulgur wheat pilaf, which is preferred over rice or pasta. Portions are generous and meals are nutritious, served with vegetables, fruit and nuts. Armenian desserts can be elaborate pastries or simple stewed fruit with Armenian paghpaghak ice-cream.
Notable menu items you will find are:
Roejig—A peculiar looking dessert known as a “sweet sausage” made of walnuts and grape juice. It could easily be mistaken for a salami.
Khinkali—Large Georgian dumplings filled with spiced meat and sometimes cheese or potatoes. Apparently introduced to the Caucasus by the Mongol invaders, they are popular in Armenia, many restaurants specialise in this dish. Khinkalis are full of meat soup, so it’s considered wise to take a bite of the dough and drink the liquid before eating it.
Khash—A legendary regional stew made of various animal parts, generally beef feet and tripe which has been boiled for hours and seasoned with chives, salt, peppers and onion. Khash is viewed as a winter warmer, a hangover cure and a nutritious health tonic. There is a certain ritual involved with eating Khash that involves cold weather, lavash bread and good company. The Khash party commences with a toast of “good morning” with vodka. Don’t be put off by the ingredients, this is a delicious, filling meal.Dolma—Minced meat mixed with herbs and rice wrapped in cabbage or vine leaf parcels.
Kebabs—This usually means “khorvats” in Armenia: barbecued meat cooked on shish skewers and wrapped in lavash bread with salad. This style of kebab is ubiquitous, usually lamb, pork or beef.
Schnitzel—Classic shnitsyel has become a popular menu item in the last few decades, usually served with lemon and fries or potato salad.
The drinks menu is extensive—and it’s not all brandy, wine and vodka. Naturally gaseous mineral water from Jermuk is particularly tasty and is sold simply as “Jermuk” in local shops and restaurants. It’s considered to be beneficial for stomach ailments owing to its magnesium content. Armenian coffee, known as soorj, is a muddy, thick variety served in Turkish-style small cups. Coffee eclipses tea in popularity. Tahn is a refreshing chilled yoghurt drink of plain yoghurt with mint and sometimes a little salt. Tahn can be a welcome relief during the hot Armenian summers.
Armenia’s extraordinary looking alphabet, a unique script with 38 characters which appears to be a series of neat, wriggly lines. This alphabet has been in use since 405AD. It was put together by a Mesrop Mashtots, a monk with knowledge of Ancient Greek and Persian alphabets and has mysterious origins in several other Eastern alphabets.
Named in honour of this scholar, the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts on 53 Mashtots Ave, known as the Matenadaran is, filled with ancient, gilded scrolls and books from the medieval ages from Armenia and neighbouring countries. Although many manuscripts were destroyed by invaders over the past 1,000 years, what they still have on display at the Matenadaran is exquisite, a one-off sight exclusive to Yerevan. Nowhere else in the world is there such a diverse collection of ancient texts covering cosmology, philosophy, medicine and other sciences. Admission for such an experience is a mere $1.40. Open 10 a.m. till 4 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday.