WALES AWAY BLOG: Armenia Calling Part Four – Sussing Out The Hood – Again (14/11/23)

A second attempt to get our heads around Yerevan.  This time with a local guide.

Our first attempt to get our bearings in Yerevan descended into a pub crawl, so today we decided to put ourselves in the hands of a local guide. With drinks.

After years of looking down at geeks on walking tours, I have long since realised that they are actually a very useful way of finding your way around a city. Although when looking up what tours are available in Yerevan we happened upon a tour in a Soviet era classic car, with drinks thrown in!

The tour is booked for a civilised 2pm start, meaning after several hectic days, we can have a leisurely start. Megan, the Galavanting Gourmet, makes breakfast and we listen to some old ‘Desert Island Discs’ on BBC Sounds, and listen to some of me latest purchases on Bandcamp.

Ye olde interweb tells me that Yerevan is the oldest continuously inhabited city on the planet, having first been settled in in  3,300BC. Wikipedia is unclear on whether it was a Friday or Saturday.

Technically we are in Asia, but it feels more Eastern Europe. Hey, Asia covers 30% of the world’s land mass,  so covers a multitude of cultures.

A WhatsApp message pings through to say our car has arrived. We head downstairs to be greeted by a mint green Mark 1 1961 Volga. Whilst there are many old cars on the road in Yerevan,  most of them are simply dodging the inevitable scrap yard. This little beauty though, is an absolute classic, immaculately restored and fully functional. Well, I say fully functional, but it soon becomes clear it doesn’t have reversing sensors or power steering, as getting out of our little driveway takes some patience.

When we are out in the city traffic our tour guide, Arto Sarkisian, tells us that the car was built for luxury in Russia, but during the Soviet Union the only people who could experience luxury were the state officials. As George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm, ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’. The car had been brought over from Russia and restored by the father of our driver, Eduard.

The roads are incredibly busy and from the backseat it is difficult to work out what the rules are. I’m glad we haven’t chosen to hire a car. It’s like being in a Demolition Derby.

Whilst this is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, it hasn’t always been a city. Prior to the twentieth century it was a provincial town but was expanded rapidly in the early years of the Soviet Union to deliberately bring it up to city status. Many Armenians were enticed to live here, including the Armenian diaspora that had migrated all over the world. The result of this rapid expansion is that there are very few buildings that predate the Soviet Union, almost the entire city is less than one hundred years old.

Our first stop is Victory Park, which sits on a mountain overlooking the city. Originally opened in the 1930s it was renamed Victory Park after the Great Patriotic War, or World War Two as we know it in the West.

In 1950, to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Sovietisation of Armenia,  a seventeen meter tall bronze statue of Joseph Stalin was erected on top of a large stone pedestal. In 1962 Stalin’s statue was taken down, as indeed it was in many Eastern Bloc countries. In 1967 a new statue was erected of The Mother of Armenia. An impressive female figure holding a sword.

Inside the pedestal a museum was opened in 1970, dedicated to the Great Patriotic War. If you go by Western history, America won the war almost single handedly, with help from plucky old Winston Churchill. But what is often overlooked is the fact that without the Soviet Union and the Eastern front, the defeat of Germany might have taken a lot longer, or might not have happened at all. Armenia was not touched by the war, as in no fighting took place in Armenia, but they did send troops as part of the Soviet army.

In 1995 the Great Patriotic War exhibition moved downstairs and the main exhibition now looks at the wars with Azerbaijan. There is a long standing dispute over the border area, known as the Nagorno-Karabakh, where ethnic Armenians are living in what Azerbaijan claims is their land. I’m not qualified to give the full history the justice it deserves in this travel blog, but suffice to say, the tensions have flared up again this year.

Dotted around the statue are relics from the Soviet Union military machine, such as an old MIG Jet Fighter,  rocket launchers, cannons and tanks. We take a few photos,  posing with the Volga next to the Mig, swig a few shots of Armenian Apple Brandy, then wander around the site. On a clear day you can see Mount Ararat. Today is not a clear day. We take a look in the museum before a quick stroll into a rather dated looking funfair next to the statue. It opened in 1958 and was refurbished in 1985. It looks how you would expect a Soviet funfair to look. In the UK these places shut down for the winter. This place stays open, despite the fact it has no customers.

Next we drive down into a valley with steep dodgy looking cliffs. They look like they could crumble at any moment, but that hasn’t  stopped people building on top of them. Some of the buildings poke bravely,  or maybe stupidly, over the edge. Some are quite old and ramshackle,  but several are brand new shiny structures.

Our destination is an old Children’s Railway.  It is an old narrow gauge railway that used to run in a loop. Originally built in 1937 it was one of many throughout the USSR  that were designed to give select Soviet children experience in work. Children ran the railway on their own, selling tickets,  driving the trains etc. It continued to be used after the fall of the Soviet Union but now lies derelict.  Much, although not all, of the line is intact and appears to be a popular spot for walking.  There are trains left to rot next to the old station. There are carriages that have been covered in graffiti,  like the old New York Subways in the seventies,  but other than that both the trains and the station are mostly free of vandalism.  The place has a haunting beauty, especially as the ground is covered with autumn leaves.

After a stroll we head back into the carnage that is city centre traffic.  We are soon squeezing this amazing car through a gap that looks smaller than the width of the car, but thankfully wasn’t, and parking up next to The Cascade.

This is one of the major landmarks of the city. It is a huge flight of steps linking downtown Yerevan with the monument area. Built within the steps are several museums and exhibition areas.

Originally started during the Soviet era, in 1971, it was partially completed in 1980, but money ran out. Work began again in 2000 and was completed in 2009. To the front of the steps there is a long park full of sculptures and statues, including horses made out of horse shoes, a lion made out of recycled tyre rubber and a statue of the architect that designed it all, but sadly died before it was finally completed.

The top platform of the Cascade houses an obelisk to commemorate 50 years of the Armenian socialist republic, and the Cascade Memorial to the Victims of Soviet Repression, a major memorial dedicated to the remembrance of those that perished in the 1936-8 purges and also to the Armenians deported to Siberia in the late 1940s.

After a wander around the park it is time for Arto and Eduard to take us home. When you book this trip they will come anywhere you want to pick you up and drop you off. They are very friendly. Well,  Arto was incredibly friendly and knowledgeable. Eduard might be as well, but he doesn’t speak English.  Although he did make himself understood when Megan went to lean on the paintwork of his car for a photo! We booked through TripAdvisor,  although I’m sure there are other ways to book them, but it was an afternoon well spent.

I started this blog by saying we were planning on getting to know the city with a local, so we could wander around the rest of the week knowing where we are going. Well, that’s not quite how it turned out. We got to see some fascinating and eclectic sites that are a little beyond walking distance from our apartment (although we will probably walk up to the Cascade again before the week is out)

We still haven’t properly explored the area near us, but we do know where to find somewhere that sells cider. So after freshening up and a bite to eat we head up to the Vertigo Craft Beer and Bottleshop. We were already drunk last time we popped in, but today we have time to take it all in. They have several large fridges filled with bottles and cans from all over the world. We are only interested in cider and the barman was happy to talk us through what they had. We had a nice Italian cider to start, then went on to Russian Cyser, a new one on me. It’s a blend of cider and meade, rocking in at 13%, so he gave us a bottle between us. It was quite frankly stunning.  We opted to try raspberry flavour Cyser next, which was less delicious,  although at 14% my taste buds were less fussy at the end of it. Better the devil you know, as they say, so we returned to the Italian cider we started on until the polite body language of the manager indicated they might not serve us another round.

Then home to the ranch to get some kip so that we would be rested and finally, after three days in the city, finally suss out the lay of the land.