Wednesday – sightseeing, retail therapy and Armenian culture

A walking tour of Yerevan had been booked for us and we set off with a beautiful young Armenian woman whose name I will not even start to pronounce. She gave us a most informative tour of the city, together with a useful history of Armenia’s struggles explained patriotically but with a wry humour, something we have rarely experienced from our guides to date. Bless her. She said that in her view Yerevan was the most beautiful city in the world. Keith and I could not help but think of Florence and Venice and how lucky we are to have seen these wonders….

There is evidence of a settlement in the Yerevan area 2,750 years ago, but the current city is mainly modern having suffered the ravages of first the Persians and more recently the Russians in addition to occasional earthquakes. Although previously Islamic, it now has only one mosque that was not destroyed because of a last minute intervention of one brave soul when the Russians were attempting to wipe out all religions.

Half of Armenia became part of Persia, modern day Iran, and Mount Ararat (of Noah’s Ark fame) used to be in Armenia and can be seen from Yerevan but is now part of Turkey, much to the Armenians frustration. A lot of the buildings, although of Russian origin, look different because they are built in the local rose coloured stone, rather than the usual ugly Russian grey concrete.

Armenian Christianity, the state religion, sounds pretty strict with a requirement for the whole congregation to stand throughout a two and a half hour service that is carried our in ancient Armenian, which few but the old can understand. By all accounts there is little interaction with the congregation. It sounds a long way from the happy, ‘clappy’, hand shaking trends of the Church of England. Despite all this, the numbers of young people taking up religion is increasing, although our young informant said she was not sure whether this was ‘out of habit or belief’. Nothing if not honest.

Yerevan is also the home of Ararat Brandy that was apparently Sir Winston Churchill’s brandy of choice. Apparently they shipped it over to him in vast quantities. He is said to have noticed when its taste changed at one stage, due to Stalin sending the brandy maker to Siberia for his political activities. Stalin was pressed to authorise the man’s release in order that the Ararat Brandy, factory which was nationalised, could retain Churchill’s custom. The brandy factory is built on the site of an old fort.

The majority of Armenians live outside of Armenia in the United States, Russia and France. Some live in England. Most of the wealth of Yerevan comes either from people living abroad sending money back or is held by the few oligarchs who live in the city.

There is a huge statue called ‘Mother of Armenia’ high up on the hill, looking down on the City. She is on the site where Stalin’s statue used to stand.

The central area of the city around the Republic Square is dedicated to cafe street life. Controversially the old centre has been demolished except for one road where the people are refusing to move to make way for a new, marble pavemented, pedestrian walkway, already lined with international designer shops, although they are still laying the pavements. Walking down through this area proved quite hazardous as we tried to avoid men drilling the pavement tiles and laying cement.

The huge opera house dominates the end of this street. This huge building, ‘Stalinesque’ Russian dark gray, dourly peers down on the glass covered shop fronts of Armani and Burberry, seeming to exude an utter condemnation of the excesses brought about by a hedonistic and frivolous age.

The final place on the tour was what I can only describe as the Yerevan, much larger and not yet finished, equivalent of the Spanish steps in Rome. Called ‘the Cascade’ it is a central marble fountain that goes right up to the top of a not insignificant hill with steps on either side. There are terraces at various levels where pieces of art – the collection of an extremely wealthy benefactor – are displayed.

The tour finished, we set off to a well deserved lunch and then a bit of a spend as I purchased not one, but two sweaters. The ease with which one can get back into the saddle of spending money does not cease to amaze me!

Keith and I then went back to look more thoroughly at the art gallery around and within the Cascade and then walked back to our hotel on the outskirts of the city – no mean feat as it took about an hour, mainly uphill!

Our supper was a group meal of typical Armenian food. It was served Russian style – always a danger as you consume vast quantities of the plates laid out and then an equally vast number of additional dishes arrive! So it was on this occasion, but we had a jolly meal washed down by Armenian wine served in stone jugs.

Then home to bed. Very full, but happy and finding it difficult to believe there is only just over two weeks of trucking left.

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