"On your first day in Armenia, you are a guest. The second day, you are a friend. The third day you are a relative." Old Armenian adage.
So much to say about Yerevan, the capital of the Republic of Armenia in the South Caucasus. The feeling here is young, hip and energetic, with a hint of the Middle East (Iran is about 200 miles away), in a former Soviet republic coming of age. As usual, one of the best parts about being here, apart from the food, is the
friendliness of the people. Armenia's shared border with Iran plus its history of being ruled over the years by Persia (present-day Iran), the Ottoman Turks and Soviet Russia, makes for an interesting mix of people and cultures.
The woman above, who asked Tom to take her picture, is the second Iranian tourist with whom we've had a chance to chat. She came to Yerevan to apply at the U.S. embassy for a visa to visit the United States, but said she was turned down because she was single. She was disappointed, but all was not lost: She was enjoying her time in Yerevan where she didn't have to worry about wearing a head scarf or covering her arms.
Unlike Tbilisi, which had more of a village feel, at least in the old town, Yerevan is more spread out, with wide boulevards, parks and public squares filled with larger-than-life statues. Architect Alexander Tamanyan developed a grid plan for the city in the 1920s when the Soviets we're flush with cash.The main avenues point in the direction of Mt. Ararat, where Noah's Ark is said to have landed after the floods. Armenians claim the mountain as their own and treasure the views from here, even though Ararat lies in what now is Turkey. Surrounding elegant rose-colored museums and government buildings constructed in the late 19th and early 20th century, are lighted fountains and sidewalk cafes decorated like outdoor living roooms.
No MacDonald's or Starbucks yet, but I did spot a Cinnabon on National Street, a new pedestrian promenade, linking Republic Square (formerly Lenin Square) to the Opera House, and onto a development called the Cascades, filled with parks, gardens and hundreds of steps with fountains, galleries and sculptures donated by an Armenian-American philantropist and art collector.
I expected more of a language barrier, but nearly everything is written out in both Armenian script and Roman letters, and most young people speak fluent English. We arrived at the bus station after a five-hour minivan ride from Tbilisi (18 people plus luggage, but not as uncomfortable as it sounds), realizing we had no Dram, the Armenian currency. There was no exchange office or ATM nearby, so we knocked on the half-opened door of a dusty office that said "Tours,'' and woke the office manager who was napping on the couch. She opened her wallet and exchanged $20 U.S. dollars for us, shaving a few cents off the official rate for her trouble; then offered us candy, coffee and water before calling us a taxi.
First impressions: Everything is inexpensive here, even less than in Georgia. A taxi ride most anywhere in town is no more than $2. Most museum entrances are around $2.50. A beer or glass of wine is about $2, or slightly more on a cafe "VIP" couch. Our dinners are ranging between $12 and $20, including drinks. Tickets for a ballet performance at the Opera House were $15 for the best seats.
Hotels tend to be higher priced. Still, ours, the Hotel Town Palace, opened a few months ago by Lebanese owners in a little residential area near the university, is a reasonable $87 per night, including a breakfast buffet. The decor is a little strange - big leather sofas in the hallways that look as if they were imported from the Middle East - and no artwork or decoration anywhere on the walls. But the two young women who staff the front desk aim to please, jumping at the smallest request with offers to make phone calls or find out about anything we need.
The State Museum of Armenian History and National Art Gallery, dominate the former Lenin Square, above, along with government buildings and a Marriott Hotel. We were surprised to find most of the museum explanations in English. Like visitors to the Louvre in Paris who head directly to the Mona Lisa, we were most interested in seeing the world's oldest leather shoe, on display in a lighted glass case. The 5,500-year-old shoe was discovered in a cave by a team of archaeologists a few years ago. The shoe, made of a single piece of cowhide leather was shaped to fit the wearer's right foot. No pictures allowed unfortunatley.
Of course we've been enjoying the food, more Middle-Eastern than Georgian, with lots of grilled vegetables, and dishes incorporating walnuts, apricots and pomegranate. This meal included cracked olives
with lemon, walnuts and pomegranate juice; grilled red bell peppers, eggplant mixed with tahini; stuffed grape leaves and flat bread. Barbecued lamb, beef or chicken are on every menu, but we're staying away
from meat mostly and enjoying the vegetables, nuts, cheeses, and of course, wine and Armenia's specialty, Cognac. Travelers can call tours and tastings at the Yerevan Ararat Brandy-Wine-Vodka Factory, celebrating its 137th anniversary this year. The factory is on the grounds of a former Persian fortress that once housed a mosque, gardens and underground tunnels used to get in and out of the city safely. Privately-owned until it was nationalized by the Russians, the factory was abandoned after the collapes of the Soviet Union in 1991. It reopened again in 2002 under the ownership of a local politician and arm wrestling champion, and now produces fine Cognacs sold all over the world, but mainly in Russia.
We signed on for an $8 tour and tasting with the delightful Monika Khachatryan, above, who spent more than an hour with just the two of us, walking us through the barrel rooms and explaining that the French were so impressed with the brandy produced here long ago that they agreed to allow the Armenians to call their brandy Cognac, a term reserved for brandy made only in the Cognac region of France. Notice her scarf. It's a "Pucci'' scarf which she wore when she noticed my name on the reservation list.
The best part of the tour, of course was the tasting. We first sipped a fortified wine made in 1924 that the factory donates to charity auctions where it sells for up to $6000 a bottle. At 19% alcohol, it was once considered "Cognac for women.'' Real Cognac is 40%. Since it was just afternoon, we limited oursevelves to small sips from 10 and 20-year old bottles, paired with slices of grapefruit and oranges and a square of chocolate. The only thing missing was the cigars!