Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, is an incredibly friendly, relaxed, and vibrant city. The centre is relatively compact, thus it’s easy to walk everywhere; although taxis are cheap enough for any longer journeys you need to make. Whilst the population of Armenia is around three million, there are estimated to be a further eight million Armenians living in various countries throughout the world, referred to as the Armenia diaspora, with many regularly visit Armenia and make significant financial contributions.
One of the advantages of following the Scottish national football team is the opportunity to visit places that not particularly touristy or easy to get to. Whilst our game this time was in Georgia, it made sense to make the detour to Armenia and spend a few days in Yerevan. There are very few flights to Zvartnots International Airport, the land borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed, thus the most accessible method to enter the country is from Georgia (although Iran is another option). Our marshrutka journey to Yerevan from Akhaltsikhe in Georgia was just over six hours in total; this included around 45 minutes at the border crossing (EU citizens are exempt from requiring a visa) and a 20 minute break not long after the border. The landscape was primarily arid for the majority of the journey, although there were the occasional greener areas. As we arrived in Yerevan, the first impressions were that it was busy and chaotic – although this is fairly common when travelling by road and arriving at a busy bus station.
For accommodation, I highly recommend the Envoy Hostel – certainly one of the best hostels that I’ve stayed in. It was centrally located, only a five minute walk from Freedom Square (ten minute from Republic Square), as well as reasonably cheap and very clean. There was a good wifi connection, free breakfast, and laundry service. The staff were very friendly and helpful, and arranged taxis to take us to Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery, and also Khor Virap. Certainly nothing to complain about.
The Envoy Hostel also organise several tours and excursions; including daily walking tours (free for those staying in the hostel), day trips and multi-day trips. Given our limited time, we opted for the morning walking tour. Our guide was both knowledgeable and funny, providing us with an insight into Armenian history and culture. The tour took us past the major sites that included the Blue mosque (the only active mosque in Armenia), the Ararat Brandy factory, the City Hall, and into Republic Square; the grand buildings found here include the Armenian Government building, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the National Gallery of Armenia. However, it’s best experienced in the evening when the many locals and tourists await the dancing fountains – unfortunately when we returned that evening the fountains were off for weekly maintenance. Typical.
As we continued our walking tour passed the Opera House at Freedom Square, our guide continued pointing out significant landmarks, and continued with various anecdotes, before finally ending at the Cascade complex. I highly recommend this excellent tour to anyone visiting Yerevan. The Cascade is an important feature in Yerevan, and links central Yerevan with Haghtanak Park (Victory Park) and the Monument Neighborhood. Construction began in 1971, and it’s a very much a work in progress. The four completed exterior levels of the Cascade contain numerous sculptures and fountains; the fifth and final level remains a construction site. The inner levels of the Cascade comprise the Cafesjian Museum of Art. Immediately at the top of Cascade is a Monument dedicated to the 50th Anniversary of Soviet Armenia, which provides excellent views of both central Yerevan and Mount Ararat, especially on a clear day.
Victory Park was once home to a statue of Joseph Stalin, although this was replaced in 1962 with the Mother Armenia statue. The statue wields a sword at a 90 degree angle to the body, making a ‘cross’ shape, thus reflecting Armenian Christianity and symbolising peace through strength. Within the enormous plinth is a war museum focusing on both the Second World War and the more recent Nagorno-Karabakh war. Outdoor exhibits include various Soviet tanks, anti-aircraft missiles, and an old battered fighter jet.
There is no shortage of places to eat and drink in Yerevan either; the numerous outdoor cafes and bars, especially around main streets and Freedom Square, are popular with locals and tourists alike. The addition of live music and busy streets generates a vibrant atmosphere. Whilst table service in Armenia can be frustratingly slow, it’s just something you have to accept – no one really seems in a particular rush. I can highly recommend Tavern Mtskheta in Missak Manouchian Park – they serve excellent Armenian and Georgian food, in addition to homemade wine.
We had gone to train station the day before travelling to Tbilisi to buy our tickets, although the only ones remaining were in 1st class. Initially, the woman seemed reluctant to sell us those tickets given we were only going as far as Tbilisi, although after around 15 minutes we had our tickets (passports are needed when booking). We boarded our train around 30 minutes before departure – the carriages had been renovated, but still had that Soviet era feel to them, although it was incredibly warm. Not ideal given the temperature was around 30 °C. The train departed on time at 15:30; although the air conditioning took a little while to kick in – this was certainly one of the perks of being in 1st class (the other being the WIFI connection). The journey was pleasant enough; the urban areas of Yerevan quickly gave way to barren landscapes, although Mount Ararat was visible for around one hour after departure. Occasional towns and factories, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, passed by as we relaxed with a few beers. Fortunately there was a restaurant carriage selling basic food and drink, which also allowed us to meet with both other Scotland fans and local travelers. We arrived in Tbilisi shortly after our scheduled time of 00:20 (the train continues to Makhindjauri/Batumi). Whilst it’s not the quickest method of travel between these two cities, it was certainly more relaxing than taking a marshrutka or a taxi. The train times and frequencies depend on the season – for up to date information see Georgian Rail or The Man in Seat 61.