Yerevan, Armenia – Day 1 of 3

Today I woke up at around 5:00am to catch a 8:00am flight to Yerevan, Armenia. I decided to take a cab since it was only a $10 ride to the airport. My flight was out of Terminal 2 at Dubai, which is the low cost carrier terminal. It reminds me a lot of London Stansted airport, or Terminal 2 at Lisbon. Very basic, and extremely busy. I had my travel fork taken away from me at security, despite it completing dozens of previous trips with me without issue in the past.

After clearing security, I had a delicious three cheese toasted sandwich, and a coffee while waiting for my flight. My flight was on a Fly Dubai Boeing 737 MAX-8. On the flight there was this obnoxious Armenian who started vaping before we even took off. After reaching cruising altitude I went back to tell the flight attendants, who went and asked him to stop, and then he got confrontational with them. Eventually he drank enough and fell asleep. What a great start to my trip to Armenia…

On the descent into Yerevan there were breathtaking views of Mount Ararat, a dormant volcano, which stands at 5137 metres (16854 feet) tall. Fun fact; Mount Ararat actually resides in Turkey.

When I landed at Yerevan I was heavily scrutinized for having gone to Azerbaijan, despite reading online that it wouldn’t be an issue if I did Azerbaijan first, then Armenia. Apparently if it was the other way round I would have been turned away immediately. After being scrutinized for about twenty minutes the customs officer stamped my passport and let me go on my way.

I had downloaded a taxi hailing app called GG prior to entering the country, so that I could grab a taxi and go. While I was waiting for my taxi I was harassed by quite a few Armenians at the airport. This wasn’t giving me good vibes about the country, and I hadn’t even left the airport.

I ended up leaving the airport and walking to the very end of the terminal to get away from people. I noticed a very old brutalism (modernism) airport terminal. It was first opened in 1961 and is a well preserved example of Soviet Brutalism style architecture. The original soviet style terminal was designed by M. Khachikyan, A. Tarkhanyan, S. Qalashyan, L. Cherkezyan, and M. Baghdasaryan. It is a circular building, with the parking located underneath the bridge serving the departures. Alongside the original terminal stands a huge monolithic spaceship-like control tower, which had a luxury restaurant at the top. In the 1980’s a new terminal was built alongside the original terminal to increase with the increased domestic air travel. Cargo traffic increased significantly after Armenia became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, and a new cargo terminal was opened in 1998. In 2006 a new gate area and arrival hall were opened. The airport consists of only one 3850 metre (11630 foot) long runway. While you can’t currently enter the original terminal or control tower, they’re both currently protected from being knocked down. Perhaps one day they can be restored to their former glory?

My taxi driver showed up and drove me to my hotel; Elysium Gallery Hotel, about 15 minutes away, right in the city center.

After checking into my hotel, which was a small simple room, I started exploring Yerevan. Before I dive into Yerevan lets explore a bit of the history of Armenia and the capital city of Yerevan.

Armenia History

Armenia, originally called Hayk, is located in the highlands surrounding the Biblical mountains of Ararat. Human occupation of the area dates back to about 4000 BC. There’s too much history that has occurred in the area for me to go over in detail, however Modern Armenia is comprised of only a small portion of what ancient Armenia, one of the world’s oldest civilizations, once was. During its peak, Armenia extended from the south-central Black Sea coast to the Caspian Sea and from the Mediterranean Sea to Lake Urmia, which is located in present-day Iran. Historic Armenia was constantly invaded over the years and eventually lost its autonomy in the 14th Century. The Ottoman Empire and the Persians ruled the area for hundreds of years, until Russia annexed Eastern Armenia during the 19th Century. Western Armenia remained under Ottoman rule, and in 1894-1896 and 1915-1922 the Ottoman government committed awful acts of genocide by killing millions of Armenians. Eastern Armenia declared independence on May 28th 1918, however was quickly invaded by the Turks and Soviet Russia in 1920. The Soviet Republic of Armenia was established on November 29th 1920, and in 1922 Armenia became part of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, which was dissolved in 1936 to become part of the Soviet Union, where it remained until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. It declared independence on September 23rd 1991.

Yerevan History

Yerevan is the largest city in Armenia, and is also the Capital city. The history of Yerevan dates back to 8th Century BC with the founding of the fortress of Erebuni in 782 BC by King Argishti I of Urartu. Erebuni was designed as an administrative and religious center. Over the later years of the ancient Armenian Kingdom, new capital cities were establish, and Yerevan declined in importance. Under Iranian and Russian ruling it was the center of the Erivan Khanate from 1736 to 1828, and the Erivan Governorate from 1850 to 1917. After World War 1, Yerevan became the capital city of the First Republic of Armenia, and the city rapidly grew when it was under Soviet ruling, and further more in the 1990’s after Armenia declared its independence. Today Yerevan has 1.4 million people and is a popular tourist destination, and is an important industrial sector. Over 40% of Yerevans industrial products are produced in Yerevan, including chemicals, metals, machinery, rubber products, plastics, textiles, clothing, and jewelry. Yerevan was named the 2012 World Book Capital by UNESCO.

Exploring Yerevan

My first spot to visit was supposed to be Freedom Square, but guess what? There was a massive protest there, so I quickly turned around and walked the other way. There was probably about 100 police officers there from my estimate. I presume they were protesting about the Azerbaijan conflict that’s ongoing, and got significantly worse within the last few days. Apparently they also annoyed Russia the morning I arrived by notifying them that they’re not allowed to practice military drills at their military base, which is located just outside Yerevan, this year, because its not tasteful with the current issues ongoing in the Ukraine.

Skipping to the next place to visit was the The Aram Khachatryan Concert Hall, also known as Yerevan Opera Theatre, was built in 1939. It was designed by Armenian architect Alexander Tamanian in 1933, and was designed to have over 3000 seats between two concert halls; an Opera Hall, and a Ballet Theatre. Construction had begun, and Alexander even had designed a miniature model to be presented at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1937, however he died in 1936 before he could present his plan. The main theatre was finished in 1939 under the supervision of his son, however overall construction lasted until 1953! The final capacity of the the Opera Hall was 1400 seats, and the Ballet Theatre had 1200 seats.

Nearby was Komitas Statue. Komitas Statue is dedicated to Soghomon Soghomonian, also known as Komitas. He was an Armenian priest, musicologist, composer, arranger, singer, and choirmaster, and is considered the founding father of the Armenian National School of Music.

Also nearby is the Alexander Tamanyan Statue, which is dedicated to the Russian-born Armenian neoclassical architect, who is well known for his work in Yerevan. The statue was built in 1974.

Immediately behind is the enormous Cascade Complex. The Yerevan Cascade Complex is a giant staircase made of limestone. It links the downtown Kentron area with the Monument neighbourhoods of Arabkir and Kanaker-Zeytun. It was designed by architects Jim Torosyan, Aslan Mkhitaryan, and Sargis Gurzadyan. Construction started in 1971, and was only partially completed by the time construction stopped in 1980. There are several elevators underneath the steps, as well as exhibit halls connected to some of the landings. Construction of the final phase began again in 2002, and lasted until 2009. The project is still technically incomplete, as there is a large museum complex proposed, but construction has yet to begin. You really have to see this place to experience how large it is. I’ve never seen anything like this! While I was here I could see and hear fighter jets overhead, which made me feel more unsettled than I already was. I tried to use my VPN and google what was going on, but guess what? VPN was blocked. Never had that before… what’s going on here? I eventually found out later on that Russia was buzzing Yerevan because they were upset that Armenia announced earlier that day that they were no longer going to allow Russia to do wargame training because of the ongoing Ukraine war.

I continued exploring Yerevan, but felt on edge and was rushing through things. I would say that my photography wasn’t the best in this city because of that. Next stop was the Eternal Alphabet Wall, which is an art relief project showcasing the Armenian alphabet in beautifully cut out metal forms. The art project was designed by Bahan Balasanyan, and installed in 2015 in recognition of the 100 year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. The Armenian alphabet, which contains 38 letters (31 consonants and 7 vowels), was developed around 405 AD by Mesrop Mashtots, an Armenian linguist. The alphabet originally had 36 letters, however three more were eventually adopted. The alphabet was also widely used in the Ottoman Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries.

From here I could see two unique buildings; the Museum of Manuscripts, and the NPUA 9th Building.

The Museum of Manuscripts, also known as Matenadaran, is a repository of manuscripts and a research institute. The building was built between 1945 and 1958 out of gray basalt. The reason why it took so long to build was because there was a lack of labour between 1947 and 1953. It was designed by Mark Grigorian, and is influenced by medieval Armenian architecture.

The NPUA 9th Building is a university building that was built in the 1980’s. The building, designed by Armen Aghalyan, is an excellent example of brutalism (modernism).

A short walk away is the National Library of Armenia. The building was built in 1939 and designed by architect Alexander Tamanyan. I ended up just snapping a photo of the exterior, because I didn’t feel like going inside.

Just up the street from the library is The Yerevan State University of Architecture and Construction, which was founded in 1921. I couldn’t find much history on the building that it resides in, however you can see some beautiful Soviet era motifs, so I have to believe that this building was built in the 1920’s, or as late as the early 1930’s.

A short walk away is the Yeritasarddaken metro station, which is a great example of brutalism (modernism). Yerevan Metro is the eight metro system that the former Soviet Union built. Unlike most of the former soviet metro systems, its stations are not very deep. The metro stations are also fairly basic on the inside.

Just up the road is the Holy Mother of God Kathoghike Church, which is a small medieval style Armenian Apostolic Church that was constructed in 1264. The complex was larger once upon a time; a large basilica named after the Holy Mother of God was built between 1693 and 1695, however it was demolished under Soviet rule to make way for residential buildings and a linguistic institute. The only remaining building is Katoghike, which measures only 5.4 metres by 7.5 metres. Due to its small size, it only serves as a prayer house.

A few blocks away was Cinema Rossia, a former soviet cinema that was built in 1975. It was designed by Spartak Khachikyan, Hrachik Poghosyan, and Artur Tarkhanyan.

I was starting to get hungry, so I decided to eat at a restaurant called Lavash, where I had a local delicacy called Lavash. I figured the restaurant probably knew how to cook that dish properly considering its name. Lavash is a thin flatbread, however this restaurant did a bit of a twist. My meal included a delicious steak with melted cheese cooked inside lavash, cut open, and then spread over my steak. It was absolutely incredible!

After enjoying my delicious meal I walked to the Hard Rock Café, where I purchased another pin. I also found the building looked pretty neat.

I then walked to the former Ministry of Labour and Social building, which is another excellent example of soviet brutalism, and was built in 1972. It is located next to Republic Square and Republic Square metro station. The building was designed by architects T. Gevorkyan and V. Gusyan.

Speaking of Republic Square, check out the neat look of Republic Square Metro station.

Turning around 180 degrees you’re presented with the jaw dropping Republic Square. Republic Square, formerly known as Lenin Square, is the central town square in Yerevan. It consists of two sections; an oval roundabout, and a trapezoidal shaped section, which contains a pool with musical fountains. The square is surrounded by five major buildings (Government House, History Museum, National Gallery, Armenia Marriott Hotel, and two other government buildings, which were all built in pink and yellow volcanic rock in neoclassical style. The square was renamed to Republic Square when Armenia gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

It was starting to get dark, but there were a few more places I wanted to visit before calling it a day. A 15 minute walk away was the Yerevan History Museum. I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside, however I did snap a photo from the outside. The Yerevan History Museum was founded in 1931 as the Communal Museum. The museum is located in a building designed by Jim Torosyan, and is attached to the Yerevan City Hall. The museum as originally located on the second floor of the Yerevan Fire Department building until 1936, then was moved to the Blue Mosque until 1994. From 1994 to 1997 the museum was located in a former gymnasium, until it moved to its current location in 2005. The main façade of the museum showcases what the original city core looked like.

Across the street is the Noy Brandy Company. There’s a bit of history with how Noy came to be. Original Noy started life as the Yerevan Brandy Company, also known as ArArAt, which was established in 1887 within the territories of the Erivan Fortess. It was started by a wealthy guild merchant named Nerses Tairyan, with the help of his cousin Vasily Tairov. In 1899 it was leased to Russian businessman Nikolay Shustov, who was well-known for his vodka and liqueur production. In 1900, Shustov fully acquired the factory and renamed it to Shustov and Sons. The company ended up becoming the main supplier of the Imperial Majesty’s court of Russia. Here’s a fun fact; In 1900, Shustov’s Armenian brandy received the Grand-Prix and the legal right to be called “cognac”, which is usually only reserved for Brandy that is produced in the Cognac region of France. In 1948, the factory was separated into 2 entities; the Yerevan Ararat Brandy Factory, and the Yerevan Brandy Factory. In 1953 the Yerevan Brandy Factory was transferred to a new building, designed by architect Hovhannes Margaryan, in 1953. The new building stands on a high plateau at the western end of the Victory Bridge, opposite the Yerevan Ararat Brandy Factory. It has a long flight of steps leading up to nine austere arches. Between 1953 and 1991, the Yerevan Brandy Factory was granted the rights to produce Armenian cognac within the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Yerevan Brandy Factory was sold by the Government of Armenia to French distiller Pernod Ricard for $30 million in June 1998, after a competitive bidding process. The other building entered a period of abandonment until 2002, when it was privatized and sold to Multi Group Holding led by businessman Gagik Tsarukyan. The building was completely restored and rebranded as “NOY”, after Noah’s Ark, because apparently it rested on the Mountains of Ararat according to biblical scriptures. Anyways so I ended up doing a tour here alongside a young Russian couple who were celebrating their 11th year anniversary together. They were absolutely wonderful and we had some great conversations. During the tour we got to taste delicious port from 1913 and 1924, and some 10 and 20 year brandy’s. The bottle from 1913 goes for a few thousand dollars!

After the tour I was decided to take some night photos, and get some dinner on my way back to the hotel. I stopped at the Dargett Craft Beer brewery for a delicious pizza. This is apparently one of the top destinations in all of Yerevan for food and beverages. It certainly didn’t disappoint.

One I finished dinner, I walked back to my hotel and did some blog writing for the remainder of the evening.

Eastern Europe Trip – Day 17 – Tallinn, Estonia

Today I woke up at 530am to catch the train to Vienna International Airport to board a flight to Tallinn, Estonia. I flew on a Lauda Europe (on behalf of Ryanair) Airbus A320. Lauda Europe was having financial difficulties a few years ago, so Ryanair purchased them. It’s interesting because the plane is still painting in the Lauda Europe livery, and the staff still wear Lauda Europe uniforms.

It was raining when I arrived in Tallinn. The airport is very close to the city center, and just a 10 minute tram ride away. I boarded the tram and took it to my hotel; Hotel Metropol, where I checked in around 11:00am. I dropped off my bags and went out to explore the sleepy city of Talllinn.

It was approaching lunch time so I stopped in at Pizza Grande for pizza and a diet coke. Food in Estonia is very inexpensive; I believe the pizza and coke were only about $10.

Close to the Pizza Grande is Viru Gate, two ivy-covered watchtowers, built in the 1300’s, that mark the entrance to Tallinn’s Old Town. The main road that enters the Old Town is also quite stunning!

After a short walk through the Old Town I arrived at Freedom Square, a plaza on the South end of the Old Town. It was created by Tiit Trummal, Veljo Kaasik, and Andres Alver. It was a parking lot prior to 2010. The War of Independence Victory Column is located in the square. The column, which stands 24 metres high and consists of 143 glass plates, commemorates all those who had fought for freedom and independence during the Estonian War of Independence (1918-1920).

Nearby is Kiek in de Kök Museum and the Tallinn Bastion Tunnels. The artillery tower was built in 1475 and stands 38 metres (125 feet) high, with walls 4 metres (13 feet thick). Over the years the tower was renovated multiple times, until it became obsolete in 1760. It is now home to archives, and some floors were even converted to apartments. The Bastion Tunnels date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. The town was constantly worried that it was going to be attacked, so they constructed high bastion walls around the outside of the city, as well as tunnels under the base of the walls so they could safely move around soldiers and ammunition. The tunnels eventually became forgotten, and were not found again until 2003 when workers digging a foundation near the Vabamu Meseum of Occupations and Freedom found them. During World War 2 some of the tunnel were used as bomb shelters. During the Soviet occupation the tunnels were modernized by adding electricity, running water, ventilation and phone lines.

Close by is Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral that was built in Neo-Byzantine style. Construction started in 1882, and was completed in 1912. The church has the capacity for 5000 people!

Next to the cathedral is Toompea, also known as Cathedral Hill. Toompea Castle is situated on the hill, and is topped by Tall Hermann tower. Toompea is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I then walked about 15 minutes to Telliskivi Creative City, an art focused venue that features studios, cafes, bars, and restaurants. There were some buses and trains close by at a place called DEPOO, that were converted to restaurants.

After visiting Telliskivi Creative City I walked to Towers Square, which gets its name from the Town Wall towers that border one of its sides, and the fact that numerous church spires can be seen from there.

One of those churches is St Olaf’s church, which was was originally built sometime in the 12th century. It was believed that it was the town center for old Tallinn’s Scandinavian community before Denmark captured the town in 1219. The church was originally Roman Catholic, then became Lutheran during the European Reformation, before becoming Baptist in the 1950’s. From 1944 until 1991 the Soviet KGB used St. Olaf’s spire as a radio tower and surveillance point. You’ll learn a lot more about the KGB in my next blog post.

Final stop before heading back to the hotel was Linnahall, also known as Tallinn City Hall, or originally Lenin Palace of Culture and Sports. The building is situated in the harbour, just beyond the walls of the Old Town, and was completed in 1980. The 1980 Summer Olympics were held in Moscow, however since Moscow wasn’t by the ocean and didn’t have a suitable venue to stage the sailing event, it was decided that Tallinn, the capital of the then Estonian SSR, would be the perfect place to host it. The building was built to host the event, along with the Pirita Yachting Center, and a few other sports and entertainment facilities. Unfortunately the building has now fallen into disarray. The skating ring was closed in 2009, and the concert hall in 2010.

When I arrived back at my hotel I decided to go into the hotel spa for 1.5 hours. The hotel had a swimming pool, four hot tubs, a steam room, and three sauna’s of various temperatures. It was a very delightful experience, for only $14! You can stay for a maximum of three hours.

It was time to have some dinner at Restaurant Olde Hansa, which was recommended to me. The restaurant gives an authentic medieval experience with dishes that are cooked according to recipe’s over 700 years old, as well as live music. I had three different kinds of game sausages (bear, wild boar, and elk), served with mashed turnip, cranberries, and something else I couldn’t recognize that was quite delicious. Desert was oven-baked herb and juniper cheese. Overall the total cost of my meal was a bit pricier, but not too bad, about $60.

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