Yerevan: Covered food market

Markets are great places for getting a sense of what makes a place tick, for grasping both the local agricultural bounty of a place and its culinary inclinations. Yerevan’s covered food market presents no exception to this general principle.

It’s physically a very impressive site, looking for all intents and purposes like an ornate Jugendstil airplane hanger. It is lively and fascinating, a great place for observing life in the capital of Armenia as well as for shopping for fruits, vegetables, and spices.

Stall owners at the covered food market have perfected the art of the medium sell, occupying that fantastic space between insouciance and overbearing intensity. Visitors are invited to inspect and taste products by salespeople, who in turn know how to read cues and back off when appropriate. My half-hour stay resulted in a dozen offers to try samples of nuts, dried fruit, and various spices. One fellow was so rapid-fire with his offerings of dried and candied fruit that I had to bow out. There is, after all, only so much dried stone fruit that a person can eat in 90 seconds. The entrepreneurial instinct turns the market into a hands-on place. At one point, a salesman dipped his finger into a bag of cardamom and brought it to my lips.

Pricing at the market is pretty reasonable, which makes it a great place for picking up food for immediate consumption and gifts alike. My wishlist was short: saffron and honey.Saffron is particularly well represented at the market, with many stands offering the very pricey spice. A small cup of saffron costs 1000 drams (about $2.65); a special rare saffron of identical weight was priced at 5000 drams ($13.20). Iran currently produces most of the world’s saffron, and Iranian saffron can be purchased all over the market. The Iranian saffron on offer is professionally packaged (in distinction to the local variety, which is very informally enclosed in lidded plastic condiment cups) and also considerably more expensive. The ubiquity of Iranian saffron here can be explained by proximity. Armenia’s border with Iran is just five hours by car from Yerevan.

My honey needs were easily met. Several vendors sell the stuff in old soft drink bottles among other repurposed containers. For anyone wanting to purchase a labeled jar of honey, there is a stall under the arcade on the right side of the market (entering from Mesrop Mashtots Avenue) that sells delicious honey by Multi-Agro, a local brand. A small 150 gram jar costs 550 drams ($1.45).

The market’s visitors are mostly residents, with a handful of tourists wandering through. If you don’t look like a local you will probably attract a fair amount of attention from stall operators.

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

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.

Introducing Far Europe and Beyond

Far Europe and Beyond, a Gadling series in partnership with bmi (British Midland International) launches today.

Europe’s eastern borders cannot be defined simply. The western, northern, and southern perimeters are easy: The Atlantic, the Arctic, and the Mediterranean provide those boundaries, respectively. It’s the eastern border that is more difficult to pinpoint. There are two basic definitions of the eastern border of Europe: the Bosphorus, which divides Istanbul; and the Ural Mountains. The problem here is that there is a gap of around 1200 miles between the point where the Ural River hits the Caspian Sea and Istanbul.

The former definition leaves most of Turkey outside of Europe and makes it difficult to draw a continental border from the Bosphorus northward. If one assumes the latter definition, then a piece of western Kazakhstan is in Europe, but the continent’s Eastern flank fails to have a fixed boundary once the Ural river empties into the Caspian Sea. Does Europe’s border then get drawn along Russia’s southern edge or does it include the former Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, along the Iranian border? Increasingly, this is the working definition of Europe, with inclusion of the Caucasian trio; it is the definition, more or less, that the BBC and the Economist endorse.However we define Europe’s eastern borders, there are a number of national capitals that are clearly in the farthest reaches of Europe or just beyond them, all of which are included on bmi’s route map: Tbilisi, Georgia; Yerevan, Armenia; Baku, Azerbaijan; Beirut, Lebanon; Almaty, Kazakhstan (not the capital, admittedly, but the country’s most important city); and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. These capital cities are naturally very interesting to veteran travelers for whom Europe is old hat, but they’re also fascinating places for less seasoned travelers. For the most part, they’re off the beaten path, teeming with local culture and opportunities for many different types of tourism.

This week and next, I’ll write a series of posts on the first two cities on the above list: Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia; and Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. I’ll look at some of these cities’ most captivating characteristics, some culinary highlights, interesting quirks, and the best easy day trips beyond city limits.

[Image: Flickr | sara~]

Five ways to get more European stamps in your passport

Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.

Yesterday, I wrote about the fact that European passport stamps have become harder and harder to get. The expansion of the Schengen zone has reduced the number of times tourists are compelled to show their passports to immigration officials. For most Americans on multi-country European itineraries, a passport will be stamped just twice: upon arrival and upon departure.

Where’s the fun in that?

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying your passport’s stamps. They’re souvenirs. So ignore the haters and treasure them. You won’t be the first to sit at your desk alone, lovingly fingering your stamps while daydreaming of your next adventure. You won’t be the last, either.

And if you are a passport stamp lover with a penchant for European travel, don’t despair. There are plenty of places in Europe where visitors have to submit their travel documents to officials to receive stamps. Some countries, in fact, even require Americans to purchase full-page visas in advance.

The Western Balkans remain almost entirely outside of Schengen. Russia, Belarus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan all require visas for Americans, while Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia do not. Immigration officers at the borders of all of these countries, however, will stamp your passport when you enter and when you leave. Turkey provides visas on arrival. These cost €15. Among EU countries, the UK, Ireland, and Cyprus remain outside of Schengen for the time being, while Romania and Bulgaria will soon join it.

Pristina, Kosovo.

Ok then. How to maximize the number of stamps in your passport during a European jaunt? Here are five ideas.

1. Fly into the UK or Ireland and then travel from either of these countries to a Schengen zone country. You’ll obtain an arrival stamp in the UK or Ireland and then be processed when entering and leaving the Schengen zone.

2. Plan an itinerary through the former Yugoslavia plus Albania by car, bus, or train. Slovenia is part of the Schengen zone but the rest of the former country is not. Traveling across the borders of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania will yield all sorts of passport stamp action.

3. Visit the following eastern European countries: Turkey, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and/or Azerbaijan. Unavoidable passport stamp madness will transpire.

4. Visit San Marino and pay the tourist office for a passport stamp. The miniscule republic charges €5 to stamp passports. The bus fare from Rimini on Italy’s Adriatic coast is worth it for the bragging rights alone.

5. Visit the EU’s three Schengen stragglers, Cyprus, Romania, and Bulgaria. In the case of the latter two, visit soon.

Travel then and now: Travel to the USSR and GDR

This year is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union and 21 years since the reunification of Germany. While citizens of the USSR and GDR were unable to travel abroad and restricted in domestic travel, foreign travelers were permitted under a controlled environment. In the early nineties, if you were a foreigner looking to go abroad to the Eastern Europe or Central Asia, you called your travel agent and hoped to get approved for a visa and an escorted tour. After your trip, you’d brag about the passport stamps and complain about the food. Here’s a look back at travel as it was for foreigners twenty years ago and today visiting the biggies of the former Eastern Bloc: the United Socialist Soviet Republic (USSR) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

Soviet Union/USSR (now: independent states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldovia, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.)

Travel then: Before 1992, most tourists were only able to enter the Soviet Union with visas and travel itineraries provided by the state travel agency, Intourist. Intourist was founded by Joseph Stalin and also managed many of the USSR’s accommodations. Like North Korea today, visitors’ experiences were tightly controlled, peppered with propaganda, and anything but independent, with some travelers’ conversations and actions recorded and reported. Read this fascinating trip report from a Fodor’s community member who visited Russia in 1984 and a Chicago Tribune story with an Intourist guide after the glasnost policy was introduced.Travel now: UK travel agency Thomas Cook bought a majority stake in Intourist last year, gaining control of their tourist agencies, and many of the old Intourist hotels can still be booked, though standards may not be a huge improvement over the Soviet era. In general, the former Soviet Union now welcomes foreign and independant visitors with open arms. Even Stalinist Turkmenistan is softer on foreigners since the death of dictator Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006. Russia now receives as many visitors as the United Kingdom, the Baltic and Eastern European states are growing in popularity for nightlife and culture, and Central Asian states have a lot to offer adventurous travelers (including Azerbaijan’s contender for New 7 Wonders, the Mud Volcanoes). This year, Estonia’s Tallinn is one of the European Capitals of Culture. While a few FSU countries are now EU members, several still require advance visas, letters of invitation, or even guides; check the latest rules for Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan before you make plans.

German Democratic Republic/East Germany/DDR (now: unified state of Germany)

Travel then: After 40 years apart, East and West Germany were reunited in 1990. Like the USSR, travelers to the GDR had to deal with visas and an official state travel agency, the Reisebüro. Western tourists in West Germany could apply for day visas to “tour” the Eastern side but were very limited in gifts they could bring or aid they could provide (tipping was considered bourgeois and thus officially discouraged). Read this Spiegel article about the East German adventure travelers who snuck into the USSR to see how travel to inaccessable is often the most exciting, no matter where you are coming from.

Travel now: November 2009 marked the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and Berlin is now consistently lauded as one of the world’s hippest and most vibrant cities. The city is full of museums, monuments, and memorials to document the time East Germany was walled off from the rest of the world, from the sobering Berlin Wall Memorial to the tongue-in-cheek DDR Hotel. Outside of Berlin, Leipzig’s Stasi Museum documents the gadgets and horrors of the Stasi, the GDR’s secret police. For more on life in the GDR, Michael Mirolla’s novel Berlin deals with cross-border Germany travel and the fall of the republic, and film Goodbye Lenin! is a bittersweet look at life just before and after the fall of the wall.

Gadling readers: have you traveled to the USSR or GDR? Have you been recently? Leave us your comments and experiences below.

[Photo credit: USSR flags and GDR ferry postcards from Flickr user sludgeulper, Berlin Wall by Meg Nesterov]