WALES AWAY BLOG: Armenia Calling Part 5 – Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Yerevan But Were Too Afraid To Ask (15/11/23)

We have been here half a week and still have not worked out the lay of the bloody land. Today we were determined to put that right, and we half did.

It started off well. A leisurely start, getting up at the crack if noon and finding ourselves a free walking tour online. We then head out for food. The thing is with being vegetarian abroad,  you really need to be able to communicate with the restaurant staff. Everywhere we have been so far on this trip, we have sat in a restaurant,  surveyed the menu, and if in doubt ask the waitress. Today we called in a cafe that had a buffet thing going on, where you picked your food on sight only, no labels, then went to pay for it. However,  no one in the cafe spoke English. After choosing what we wanted and trying to confirm it’s vegetarian credentials, we still weren’t quite sure what was on our plates.

Long story short, Megan is soon heading back to the apartment for a lie down with, let’s just say, digestive issues.

After some deliberation we decide that I’ll carry on and do the walking tour, so at least one of us knows what’s what.

I rock up to the Mariot Hotel and find we are no longer the only Welsh in town. A group of five Welsh and one Belgian lady are gathered ready for the walk.

Our tour guide from Yerevan Free Walking Tours arrives and embarks on a dialogue that is pretty damned impressive. His knowledge of the history of Armenia, and Yerevan in particular, is comprehensive and impossible to completely digest. But a few facts stick. Ish.

We are stood in Republic Square, which is framed by several magnificent buildings, including The Museum of Armenia and several government buildings.  They are all built in a neoclassical style in the 1920s. As we are talking they are starting to erect the city’s Christmas Tree, which is the biggest in the world. Or it might be biggest in Europe. I did say there was too much to absord. It takes a month to erect.

There is a fountain in the middle of the square that is quite spectacular in the summer, known as the Singing and Dancing Fountain (yay), but is turned off in the winter because it freezes. It was turned off last week (boo).

We get 3,000 years of history in 30 minutes. Blimey,  they’ve had a bit of a time of it in Armenia. They have been the rope in a tug of war between Persia, Turkey, The Ottomans, The Greeks, The Romans,  The Soviet Union and Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijan thing is still going on, with fighting over territory in recent weeks.

Our tour yesterday had left us with the impression that the whole city was less than one hundred years old. Today’s tour guide disproves that by showing us the old town. In fairness to yesterday’s guide, there’s not a lot of old town left, and what there is, is either crumbling to the point of being dangerous, or reconstructed to the point of not being very authentic. But I suppose most old towns like Bruge, Prague and Talin must have had a lot of work done to stop them falling down but still look old. The tour guide was quite keen for us to know there is an old town, although he did refer to the lamps on one of the old buildings as ‘probably bought from’.

We walk down to what was originally a large flea market selling art, but has now morphed into more general market selling arts, crafts, carpets and fridge magnets.

Next to the market is a long garden displaying replicas of Armenian crosses that have been destroyed by other cultures. The Soviets were anti-religion, so destroyed many churches, and Azerbaijan just want to destroy anything from Armenian culture.

We then stop at a Metro station.  One of the reasons Yerevan is so big is because of the Metro.  In the Soviet era you could only have a Metro if the population was over a million. So the Mayor put out a call, “Come on lads, pile in, let’s qualify for a Metro”, or words to that effect.  Hundreds of thousands came, boosting the population to over a million,  and the Metro was built. Job done. It only has eight stops and one line, so it doesn’t really do much. Apparently it is pretty much the same now as when built, so we might pop down sometime to check out this living museum piece.

Opposite the Hard Rock Cafe we are taken into a semi-derelict courtyard that is occupied by a number of artists.  They have a small gallery, a café and a small shop selling some of their art. In the corner there is an area for a stage, where they have gigs in the summer.

We stop briefly outside the Beer Academy where we talk about local beers, then call into a restaurant that specialises in Armenian food. From the front it looks like a shop, but as we walk through there is a room for wine tasting then an amazing garden area lined with art and a small stage at the back.

Our tour then goes up to the Opera House, which is surrounded by lots of cafes and bars, then down to an amazing church. I’ll put my hand up and say that after three hours of walking and talking,  my brain was too full of facts and my bladder too full of wee for me to take in what he said about the church. But it was pretty.

We finish off in a street full of pubs which we have somehow missed in our first three days. All the more impressive because it is the street we are staying in.

Our guide shows us which is his favourite pub before telling us now would be the perfect opportunity to tip him if we are so inclined. I like this set up, it first started about twenty years ago when an American tour guide in Germany was sacked by his tour company and decided to do free tours as revenge on his former employer.  But he soon found that he got more in tips than he had previously been paid, so started encouraging others to do the same. It has become a world-wide phenomenon and I’ve been on many such tours throughout Europe.

I thoroughly recommend Yerevan Free Walking Tours. They do different walks, some focusing on specific aspects and some at night.

Then, totally unprompted,  we pile into the pub and buy our guide a beer. Actually,  I got a free beer out of it, cos I didn’t stay long enough to get a round in. Cheers if you are reading.

I then went back to keep Megan company, with a head full of knowledge that will make tomorrow’s exploring a bit more focused.