We finally know where to go, what to see, and, more importantly, how to get there.
Getting to know a city is half the fun of a trip, but for some reason it feels like it has taken longer than usual on this trip. Getting lost in a new city can be an adventure, but that first night when we couldn’t find the apartment was a nightmare – although bursting for a pee probably had a lot to do with it.
Today we are both feeling fit and healthy (well, I’m as fit and healthy as an unfit, out of condition fat bloke in his sixties can be). And we know where we want to go. First stop, The Cascade. Again. But this time we are going to climb it.
Well, when I say ‘climb’, I mean use the secret escalator inside the steps. And when I say ‘first stop’, I mean first stop after stopping for breakfast.
When I say ‘breakfast’ I mean the first meal of the day. Mine is some sort of grain based salady thing, Megan opts for something that looked like two fried eggs on the menu, but looks like two raw eggs floating in soup when it arrives. I can’t even look at it, let alone eat it, but Megan struggles on bravely and apparently it was a lot nicer than it looked. Which, to be honest, wouldn’t be difficult.
Anyway, before we know it, we are back at the steppy thing that we briefly visited on Monday during our tour by car.
Sleeping at the foot of the steps is a stray dog. Time to wedge in a fun fact that I’ve held back till now.
Stray cats and dogs are something of a problem in Armenia. For years the solution was to simply kill them. However, attitudes have changed.
In the past few years, the municipal government of Yerevan, along with that of other Armenian cities, decided to transition from killing street animals to working with animal welfare organizations to develop compassionate, long-lasting solutions instead. Significant efforts to spay and neuter a growing percentage of strays have helped to manage the high populations. The fact that they cannot breed means that, technically they are eventually going to die out. If you see a dog with a tag on its ear, you know it has been neutered and vaccinated. They are reliant on locals to feed them, but apparently the locals are quite happy to do this. The dogs even have their own Facebook page (although presumably it has been set up by someone with opposable thumbs).
So, onward, and literally, upward. We decided laziness is the better part of valour, and walk inside the steps to find the escalator.
On each level there is an exhibition of art. In the indoory bit the art is of the slightly delicate variety, whilst on the outdoory bit, you have more weatherproof art, like statues and shit. Each level also has fountains, but as with the ones in town, they were switched off for the winter two weeks ago. I must write to UEFA to get them to plan fixtures better.
When you get near the top, the final escalator is not in use, so you have to go out and climb the steps. We bump into Rhys Hartley, who has been in the country even longer than us, with his Mam and Dad driving around Armenia checking out churches and shit.
After a quick chat we head up to the zenith of the Cascade. Or at least what will be the zenith when they finish it. Wikipedia tells me there’s going to be a museum at the top eventually. My eyes tell me they downed tools and went home when the money ran out.
In amongst the reinforcing cages and piles of rubble we spy a little pack of wild pups with no tags on their ears. Clearly the stray dog policy ain’t perfect.
Looking back towards the city you can see Mount Ararat on a clear day. It’s not a clear day. Again.
Armenians have a thing about Ararat. It used to be part of Armenia but in one of the many upheavals it has found itself in Turkey now, which Armenians don’t like. I’m not sure why they are so proud of the mountain, but it might be something to do with the fact that, acording to the Bible, when the Great Flood subsided Noah’s Ark ran aground on Ararat.
When I say ‘fact’…..
Ararat appeared on the coat of arms for the Soviet Republic of Armenia. Legend has it that the Turks were pissed off with this and said “Why is Ararat on the coat of arms? Does Armenia intend to invade and take it back?’ A quick witted Armenian official retorted, ‘Is Turkey planning on invading the moon? Because you have the moon on your flag’. And that was the end of that. Sarcasm might be the lowest form of wit, but it can also prevent wars.
As we head back to the escalator we see more of the Red Wall posing at the zenith with a Wales flag. For some reason, the security do not like this and run up the stairs to remonstrate with them. I’m not sure why, it’s not as if they were blocking anyone’s view of Ararat.
We stroll back down the escalators and fall into the Black Cat, the first pub we see. After rehydration we head down to Abyonan 12, the restaurant we quickly looked around in the walking tour. This time we sit down, take in the ambience and order two authentic Armenian dishes. They are stunning, the best food we have found all week.
There’s a little stage mounted on the back of a rusty old truck, lots of artwork and pottery and a little aviary full of doves. The restaurant includes an extensive wine cellar and an area set aside for wine tasting. We decide to not tell anyone else about it, we don’t want the Red Hordes piling in here and spoiling the bohemian vibe.
Then a dove shat on my head. To hell with it, let’s get the Wonky Sheep Massive in here.
We walk on down to the Vernissage, which is an open-air exhibition-markety thing, which is open seven days a week. It was started as a flea market the 1980s by Armenian artists who wanted to display their works. Over the years it has expanded and now sells a wide variety of items from paintings and pottery, to Russian dolls and flick knives.
There are several stalls selling beautifully crafted chess boards and chess peices. Another fun fact I’ve kept back for you: Armenia is the only country in the world where chess is taught as a core subject in school. As a result, over the years, it has had a higher proportion of Grand Masters per head of population than any other country in the world.
We pause for a coffee as we walk through the market. But as we sit down we notice they do Piña coladas. Do I really need to tell you what happens next?
After a long siesta, we take a leisurely walk down to The Hive restaurant. It’s only been open two months, but has been getting rave reviews. When I say rave reviews, I mean yesterday’s tour guide said it is tidy. The owner is incredibly friendly and speaks perfect English. We chat about what we want, he gives some guidance, and soon we are sat in front of the most amazing authentic Armenian food. Stuffed vine leaves, vegetarian lentil meatballs and an Armenian sour salad. It is not long before we are sat in front of some very empty plates.
We can see from the Book of Faces that a few of the Wonky Sheep Travel Possee are having light refreshments in The Beatles Pub which, as luck would have it, is next door to where we are eating.
We buckle up our seat belts, gird our loins, and descend in to the cellar that is the Beatles Pub. Before we were half way down the stairs we could hear that our romantic evening was over.
Pushing the door open we immediately spot familiar faces and after a few hugs we quickly grab what were probably the last two free seats in the pub. Conversations are restricted to short shouty sentences because there is a huge TV with YouTube blasting out a selection of tunes. We get a strange selection, from old classics that have turned into terrace chants, by the likes of Frankie Valley and the Four Seasons and Andy Williams through terrace dancealongs like ‘Zombie Nation’ to Armenieas biggest stars, System of a Down. Oh, and lots of Beatles.
There isn’t a dry eye in the house when Dafydd Iwan’s ‘Yma o Hyd’ blasts out, and there isn’t a dry pair of pants in the house when people see the queue for the toilet.
Everyone rises, as is to be expected, for the Welsh National Anthem. It is closely followed by the Armenian National Anthem, which brings all the Armenians to their feet, which was unexpected because we were starting to forget we were not in Wales.
A few pub regulars walk in: some look around and walk straight back out, whilst others smile, roll up their sleeves and join in the fun.
The place is rammed. You have to push your way through the crowd to get anywhere. However, given the number of drinkers squeezed in here, the bar staff are among the most efficient I have ever seen anywhere. Service at the bar is quick and the guys doing table service glide effortlessly through the crowd with trays of ten beers above their heads.
Eventually the evening has to come to an end and we slip out into the darkness to find that this morning is not one of those three hundred rain free nights. But hey, you can’t have everything.