Yerevan is scenic and full of history

MARIE-LOUISE GUMUCHIAN
Last updated 05:05 11/11/2013
Ararat Landscape
Roger Zenner via Wikimedia Commons

STUNNING SCENERY: An overview over Yerewan in Armenia, with Mount Ararat in background.

Ararat Std
Reuters
NOAH'S ARK: The modern day version of the legendary Noah's Ark built by Greenpeace volunteers from Turkey and Germany rests on Mount Ararat at dawn.

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Steeped in history and surrounded by mountains, Armenia's capital Yerevan offers lively cafes, a bustling weekend market, stunning scenery and a rich religious heritage as one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities.

Here are tips about getting the most out of a trip to Yerevan.

Founded in 782 BC, the city of about 1.1 million people is nestled in the shadow of Mount Ararat, which is just across the border in Turkey.

The mountain features prominently on Armenia's coat of arms and in Judeo-Christian tradition as the place where Noah's ark landed.

The country has been modernising since independence in 1991 but still shows its past as a distant fencepost of the Soviet Union. In Yerevan, Soviet-era buildings contrast with glamorous new apartment blocks and the designer shops and eateries that line Northern Avenue and other thoroughfares.

Yerevan has a variety of luxury and standard hotels but a growing trend - and cheaper option - is to rent an apartment during your stay. Numerous websites offer this service.

Listings in English of shows, concerts and events can be found at visitarm.com.

HISTORY & CULTURE

With a collection spanning Stone Age cave dwellers to the modern day, the State Museum of Armenian History at 4 Republic Square is the place to start learning about the country.

Artefacts from various periods include costumes, jewellery, pots and wooden funeral chariots but the highlight is the world's oldest leather shoe, found in 2008 under sheep dung in a cave in the southeastern Vayots Dzor region.

Dating from 3,500 BC, the moccasin-like shoe is a woman's US size 7, was worn on the right foot and is 1,000 years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.

The museum also has a section dedicated to the 1915 mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks. Armenia, backed by many historians, says about 1.5 million Christian Armenians were killed in what is now eastern Turkey during World War One in a deliberate policy of genocide.

Turkey says there was heavy loss of life on both sides during the fighting in which Armenian partisans supported invading Russian forces.

For more on this dark time in history, take a short taxi ride to Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum that pays tribute to those killed.

A short stroll west from the history museum takes you to Mashtots Avenue, a busy tree-lined boulevard that was known as Lenin Avenue until 1990.

Up Mashtots Avenue is Opera Square, a leafy area with outdoor cafes, nightclubs and shops. The Opera and Ballet Theatre hosts performances by Armenian, Russian and Western European composers and companies.

Further up Mashtots Avenue is Matenadaran, Armenia's manuscript museum with thousands of ancient items that include gospels, bibles, scientific documents and song books.

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Bound in leather, silver and ivory, their colourful swirls of red, gold and lapis lazuli still shine brightly after hundreds of years.

Behind the museum, the statue of Mother Armenia stands tall. The female warrior, with a sword, faces towards Turkey.

BREAKFAST, LUNCH & DINNER

Armenian cuisine mixes fresh salads, spiced meats and lots of lavash, a chewy flat bread. Other favourites include soups, stews and dolma - rice mixed with meat wrapped in vine leaves.

Food in the western part of the country is similar to Lebanese and Turkish cuisine. In the east, the cooking has more Russian and Georgian influences.

Start the day at a cafe on central Abovyan Street with some freshly ground Armenian coffee called soorj. Popular spots include Jazzve, which has several branches around the city.

For lunch, try Afrikyanneri Pandok at 39 Sayat Nova Street. This tavern features timbered walls, rustic furniture and a menu of traditional fare plus what it calls "Tsarist Russia" cuisine. Try the harissa, a national dish of chicken coarsely coated in soaked wheat.

For dinner, Kapela at 13/1 Leo Street has many Armenian favourites with traditional music in the background. Dig into khorovats, barbecued meat similar to kebabs, and finish off with sweet, nutty and flaky baklava.

Another good option is Dolmama at 10 Pushkin Street, an upmarket but homey restaurant that takes its name from dolma. While that dish is certainly on the menu, mountain lamb stew - cooked in sweet wine and creme freche - is also a highlight.

NIGHTLIFE

The cafes and bars around Republic Square are popular places to relax on warm evenings, when fountains dance to music and lights.

Dive straight in with some local brandy, reputed to have been a favourite of British leader Winston Churchill.

From Republic Square, take a short walk up Abovyan Street to Northern Avenue, a modern pedestrian laneway with coffee shops, restaurants and clubs.

For live music, check out Malkhas Jazz Club at 52/1 Pushkin Street, an upscale spot that offers food and jazz, including cameos by the piano-playing owner.

Music Factory at 1/1 Marshal Baghramyan Avenue features live shows by bands that range from rock to salsa to reggae, while UPtown at 19A Koryun Street is a new bar that doubles as a music and arts venue.

Other options include Stop Music Club at 37 Moskovyan Street and Bobs Pub at 26A Tumanyan Street.

SHOPPING

The main weekend market is Vernissage, stretching out along Aram and Buzand streets, where you can browse for handicrafts, chess sets, jewellery, books, paintings and Soviet memorabilia. Carpet sellers line one side of the market, along with women selling lace tablecloths.

Brandy is a popular item to take home and there are many liquor stores on Yerevan's main streets. Among the best-known is the Ararat brand, produced by the Yerevan Brandy Company.

Shops with well-known luxury goods and fashion brands are clustered in central Yerevan.

SHORT TRIPS

Armenia has plenty of history centred around Yerevan but the countryside is a virtual museum of religious sites. Armenia adopted Christianity as its official religion in 301 AD, about a decade before Rome. Here are some options for short trips:

1. ECHMIADZIN

About 20 km west of the capital, Echmiadzin is the heart of Armenian Christianity and the headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

As the faithful tell it, the site is where St Gregory the Illuminator, patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, had a vision in which Jesus Christ descended from heaven to show where the cathedral should be built. The name of the church and the city means "Descent of the Only Begotten Son of God".

The main cathedral, known as Mayr Tachar, and its environs are a UNESCO World Heritage site.

A short drive away, the smaller church of Surp Hripsime was built in 618 AD on the foundation of a pagan temple. The site is where Hripsime, a nun who fled marriage from the Roman emperor Diocletian, was killed after she refused to marry King Trdat III, choosing instead to remain true to her faith.

The ruins at the nearby Zvartnots archaeological site were once a cathedral built when much of Armenia was under Byzantine control. Circular and three-tiered, Zvartnots exerted a major influence on the architecture of its own and later times.

2. GEGHARD MONASTERY

This spectacular cave church stands deep in a steep, scenic canyon about 40 km east of Yerevan.

Named after the holy lance that pierced Christ's side at the crucifixion, Geghard was gouged out of the mountain and some of its chapels are said to date from the 4th century.

Ancient carved stone crosses - or khatchkars - surround the monastery. Sunbeams shoot through narrow windows and the acoustics are excellent.

About 10 km on the road back towards Yerevan is Garni Temple, built in the 1st century to honour the pagan sun god Mitra. It eventually became a summer house for Armenian royalty after the Christian conversion.

A Roman bathhouse nearby features an intricate mosaic but the views around the temple - a deep valley with rock cliffs - are what get tourists taking the most pictures.

In Garni, head for lunch at Sergey's, run by a resident who has opened up his garden to the public. Served on tables set up under vines and fruit trees, the home cooking features lavash, cheese, barbecued meat, potatoes, salads and plates of herbs.

3. KHOR VIRAP MONASTERY

At the foot of Mount Ararat, about 45 km south of Yerevan, Khor Virap is an important pilgrimage site and a destination for many families to baptise their children.

Overlooking pastures and vineyards, the monastery is where pagan King Trdat III imprisoned St Gregory the Illuminator in a well for 12 years. Visitors can climb down into the well, where Christian women secretly threw food to St Gregory.

The king was later cursed with madness but cured by St Gregory. He converted to Christianity and St Gregory became the first Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church

- Reuters

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