Tatevik Arshakyan, my guide, was quick to point out that Tuff emerges from the fiery aftermath of volcanic eruptions, from the pumice that once danced in the molten chaos. It’s both lightweight and fragile, yet capable of bearing the weight of history and the hues of a thousand sunsets. With a history that eclipses Rome by 29 years, Yerevan boasts its place among the world’s most ancient cities, its genesis dating back to 782 BC under the reign of King Argishti I.
Frozen in time, Yerevan is like a living time capsule, a Soviet-era relic that has somehow managed to escape the clutches of modernity. My time in Armenia’s capital transported me back to the days of red stars and hammer-and-sickle emblems. It’s a city where Brutalist buildings stand tall, and the streets are lined with imposing Soviet structures, coexisting seamlessly with modern cafes, trendy shops, and bustling markets.
The city’s very atmosphere exudes a Soviet charm, a nostalgic echo of the era of borscht and ballets. The city’s theatres, with their gilded interiors and velvet curtains, seem to mutter tales of thunderous applause. The art museums haul you back to a time when art was a tool for cultural _expression_. The National Opera House, with its imposing façade, stands as a symbol of the rich artistic heritage that blossomed under Soviet patronage. It’s a city that’s old-fashioned, but not outdated, just like a good glass of rosé. Whether you’re in the mood for a leisurely stroll or a romantic rendezvous, Republic Square (locally Hraparak), is where all the action happens. It’s where locals and visitors alike gather to bask in the glorious sunshine and revel in the pulsating energy of Yerevan. This architectural masterpiece blends an oval roundabout with trapezoid-shaped sections, creating an ensemble of five grand neoclassical buildings bedecked in pink and yellow tuff. The square’s ambience is further enhanced by the melodies of the musical fountains.
Amidst Yerevan’s bustling squares and grand cathedrals, uncover the poignant tribute to the Armenian Genocide at the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial Complex featuring a towering obelisk and a walkway lined with 1,500 basalt pillars. Visit the Cascade Complex, its towering staircase, adorned with sculptures and fountains, cascades down the hillside, offering breathtaking views of the city below. Delve into the world of Armenian manuscripts at Matenadaran, home to a vast collection of 23,000 manuscripts dating back centuries. Immerse yourself in the city’s rich history at the History Museum of Armenia which houses a national collection of over 400,000 objects spanning prehistoric artefacts to contemporary art, and discover hidden gems at Vernissage, a vibrant flea market.
When your feet feel weary from exploring, refresh with sweet water from a Pulpalak fountain, and savour the flavours of traditional Armenian cheese and bread, or desserts like Gata. To embark on an offbeat adventure through Yerevan’s cultural tapestry, step into the Megerian Carpet Museum and let your imagination wander through the centuries-old stories woven into exquisite textiles as well as sample Armenian cuisine that is just as rich. At Lusik Agulesti’s House Museum and Art Cafe, savour the flavours of time-honoured Armenian cuisine while immersing yourself in the artistic legacy of Lusik Agulesti, a pioneer of Armenian modernism. And for a taste of Yerevan’s bohemian side, venture to Dalan Art Gallery, where creativity and culinary artistry converge, leaving you with a symphony of flavours and artistic inspiration.
My second stop in Armenia was Gyumri, its second-largest city which is a mere 120 km (or a brisk two-hour drive) from Yerevan. With a history stretching back an impressive 5,000 years, Gyumri, formerly known as Alexandropol, is a veritable archaeological trove, where history whispers from every stone. During the Soviet era, Gyumri underwent a name change and a makeover, shedding its former moniker of Alexandropol and embracing the Soviet moniker of Leninakan. Here, ancient ruins stand side-by-side with modern buildings, creating a fascinating blend of old and new. As you navigate through Gyumri’s labyrinthine alleys and cobblestoned streets, you will find the echoes of the past serenading you, their melodies weaving tales of forgotten lore.
From churches with intricate carvings to quaint houses exuding old-world charm, Gyumri’s architecture stands as a testament to the craftsmanship of generations gone by. Galleries pepper the cityscape, their walls decked with the works of talented local artists who draw inspiration from both the past and the pulsating rhythm of the present. Some of Gyumri’s most fascinating museums can be found tucked away within the homes of renowned authors Hovhannes Shiraz and Avetik Isahakyan, or in the artistic world of sister artists Mariam and Yeranuhi Aslamazyan. For a glimpse into Gyumri’s rich history, don’t miss the Dzitoghtsyan Museum, or the Museum of Urban Life and Culture, a hidden gem clad in red and black tuff, housed in the grand two-story residence of one of the city’s wealthiest families during the 1800s.
Amidst Gyumri’s architectural tapestry, there are a few landmarks that stand out like a sore thumb, or rather, a striking masterpiece. The Seven Wounds church, constructed from black tuff stone, stands defiant, a testament to resilience even during the Soviet era when churches were shuttered. Its domes, though toppled by the 1988 earthquake, still stand guard. St. Nshan, Gyumri’s oldest church, graces the charming Rustaveli Street, its weathered walls whispering tales of centuries past. All-Savior’s Church, a masterful replica of the cathedral in Ani, Armenia’s former capital, was built between 1858 and 1873.
Across town, in the park commemorating the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II, stands the Mother Armenia statue, a symbol of strength and resilience. Next door to Mother Armenia stands Gyumri’s iconic Black Fortress, Sev Berd, a formidable structure crafted from black tuff stone in the 19th century. This circular sentinel once served as a military barracks and prison, its walls mirroring tales of battles fought and prisoners held. Today, the fortress has been transformed into a cultural hub, its stern interiors now welcoming exhibitions, concerts, and events. Venture inside to explore the small museum and descend into the depths of the fortress’s basement, where a deep well awaits, its secrets whispered from the shadows of time. No trip to Gyumri would be complete without indulging in its culinary delights.
Have your taste buds tantalised by chechil, a string cheese native to the Shirak region, or dine at Chalet Gyumri, where traditional Armenian cuisine dances in harmony with a captivating collection of historical artefacts. And wash down your culinary adventure with homemade fruit vodkas, infused with the sweetness of apricots, cornelian cherries, peaches, or mulberries.
My third and final stop in Armenia was Dilijan, tucked away a mere 95 km (about an hour and a half) from the bustling streets of Yerevan. Dilijan is a picturesque town nestled amidst the verdant Tavush region. This verdant haven, often dubbed Armenia’s Switzerland or Little Switzerland, has long been a sanctuary for those seeking refuge from the urban clamour. Its serene charm is enhanced by its idyllic location along the banks of the Aghstev River. Dilijan’s verdant embrace will greet you from every angle, and if you visit during autumn as I did, the forested slopes transform into a vibrant canvas of golden yellows and crimson reds. Legend has it that the town’s name stems from a shepherd named Dili.
Sharambeyan Street, the heart of Dilijan’s old town, has been lovingly preserved, its pedestrian-only lined with artisan workshops, art galleries, and traditional Armenian architecture. Step back in time where cobblestone streets and beautifully preserved 19th-century buildings await. Delve into the treasures of the Museum of Folk Art on Getapya Street and discover exquisite local art and handicrafts, from intricate woodwork to delicate lace, and from handcrafted dolls to vibrant ceramics. While Dilijan’s natural beauty is undeniable, it’s the town’s mediaeval-era architecture that truly steals the show. Nestled amidst the forests of Dilijan, the monasteries of Haghartsin and Goshavank stand as an exemplification of the architectural prowess of Armenia’s mediaeval era. Haghartsin, with intricate carvings and breathtaking views of the valley below, showcases the grandeur of Armenian ecclesiastical art.
Haghartsin’s trio of churches – St. Gregory, St. Stepanos, and St. Astvatsatsin – will leave you awestruck with their architectural beauty and serene ambience. Haghartsin boasts a rare 13th-century refectory, echoing the architectural ingenuity of its time, and is decorated with stunning khachkars, cross-stones that stand as silent sentinels of Armenian heritage. Nearby, you’ll spot the charred remains of an ancient walnut tree, once a symbol of protection against lightning strikes. Legend has it that if you can squeeze through the gnarled cavity in its trunk, your dreams will take flight. To delve into Dilijan’s rich tapestry of folklore, and artistic heritage, visit the Local Lore Museum and Art Gallery. Embark on a nature adventure to the Drunken Forest, where the trees seem to sway in a perpetual state of intoxication or venture to Gosh Lake where tranquillity reigns supreme.
Dilijan’s culinary scene is a symphony of flavours, harmoniously blending traditional Armenian fare with international influences. Kcuch, on Myasnikyan Street, reimagines Armenian classics with a modern twist. For a taste of old-world charm, Haykanoush, situated within the Old Dilijan Complex, transports diners to a bygone era with its restored 19th-century dining room, where handmade Tufenkian carpets adorn the floors and hearty Armenian cuisine warms the soul. Under the watchful eye of Haghartsin Monastery’s benevolent gaze, I embarked on a culinary adventure, learning the art of crafting Gata sweet pastries from local artisans and savouring the unique flavours of green-coloured honey wine, a first for my palate. Most diners perfectly complement the breathtaking views of the town and surrounding hills.
On your way back, don’t miss the mesmerising shores of Lake Sevan and the majestic forested slopes of the Tavush region, a landscape so picturesque it’ll leave you breathless.
With more than a decade of writing experience and a passion for exploring the world, the author is a travel journalist with a knack for captivating storytelling.Views expressed in the above piece are personal and solely that of the author. They do not necessarily reflect Firstpost’s views.