Far Europe and Beyond: Introducing Yerevan

It took around five hours to get from Tbilisi to Yerevan, in a taxi organized along a rather mysterious logic. I made it first to Ortachala bus station, the appointed place in Tbilisi for hiring long-distance taxis for Yerevan, and was introduced to a portly gentleman who moved like a head honcho. He ushered me into his minivan to wait. He paced, smoking furiously, occasionally asking question of the other idle drivers. Everything seemed to move in slow motion for a few minutes. I looked around his vehicle. A single syringe rested on his dashboard. Diabetic or addict? I wasn’t crazy to find out.

After about ten minutes the macher of Ortachala found me a driver, a sullen one-legged fellow wearing an ill-fitting suit. He didn’t talk to me at all at first, and never smiled. He did shout “money money money” as we were approaching the Georgia-Armenia border. I was charmed, but if he thought I was turning over a single lari before he dropped me off in Yerevan he was sorely mistaken.

Still, it was a beautiful drive. After crossing from Georgia into Armenia, we skirted the border with Azerbaijan and motored through the densely forested mountains of Tavush Province, already in an autumnal state in early October. It was a cinematic few hours. The skies were full of dramatic clouds and it rained intermittently.

At the end of what seemed like a never-ending journey was Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. London’s Georgian establishment paved the way for me in Tbilisi; in Yerevan, by way of contrast, I knew nobody at all. I’d received no tips and neither was I furnished with the email addresses of friends of friends. I would be forced to revert to old school urban exploration, as if Twitter had never happened.Yerevan is ordered and calm. There are no twisting alleyways or hilly warrens in the city’s center. The city was established on a true Soviet blueprint, with one central ring road more or less encircling the city and a few outer roads following this arch around the city’s inner core. Yerevan feels Soviet in lots of ways. There are ambitious monuments commemorating the Ottoman genocide of ethnic Armenians and the 50th anniversary of Soviet Armenia, both massive and dramatically modern. Leading up to the latter is a broad stairway called the Cascade, with neatly tended shrubs and flowers.

These features of central Yerevan are impressive for their sheer ambition. They make dramatic modernist marks on the urban setting and fit the post-Soviet context perfectly. Planned Soviet cities are often good for parks and pedestrian zones as well as monuments, and Yerevan doesn’t disappoint here, either. Areas for strolling and relaxing are plentiful. Yerevan is so pleasant that one wonders why post-Soviet cities have such uniformly bad reputations and why the planned Soviet cities are so seldom positively catalogued.

Though the charms of Yerevan might not be immediately obvious to attraction-focused visitors, there are lots of interesting things to do and see. A very appealing chaos (along with many delicious things) can be found in the city’s covered food market, and there are other surprises nestled here and there, too: the explosively baroque aesthetic of filmmaker Sergei Paradjanov, which reigns at his former house, now a museum; the National Gallery of Armenia, packed with an outstanding and wide-ranging collection; and amazing Syrian-Armenian cuisine, which can be sampled at Lagonid Bistro-Cafe. Many of the city’s churches are worth a visit, as well. Other sites of interest include the ornately tiled Blue Mosque and the central Republic Square.

Check out other blog posts in the Far Europe and Beyond series.