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Disappointed with Yerevan

October 4 – 6, 2009: After passing through some more forested mountain scenery, the marshrutka to Yerevan entered a tunnel. When we emerged, I was amazed by a sudden change – all the trees had disappeared. Further south we skirted Lake Sevan, coldly blue, and beautiful, but reflecting barren hillsides. Yerevan surprised me too, much bigger than I expected, sprawling among low hills under hazy skies.

Villa Delenda

None of Lonely Planet’s hotel listings had appealed to me, and eventually I booked through Hyur Service (www.hyurservice.com). Instead of traveling independently around Yerevan, I had decided to take organized day trips, plus a two night tour to the disputed (with Azerbaijan) enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Hyur had been willing, unlike Sati Global, to guarantee that the tour would run even if I was the only client. They also had a list of Yerevan accommodations, and I picked Villa Delenda (www.villadelenda.com), which turned out to be an inspired choice.

Admittedly, when my taxi delivered me to the Villa, I thought the driver had made a mistake. Instead of a hotel sign, the building sported a tourist information board, telling me that the house had been built, from tufa, in 1906, while Yerevan was under Persian control, for the jewelers Gegham and Hovhannes Mnatsakanian. Once inside I was led upstairs to a room with a high, sloped, beamed ceiling, a big bed, and (I later discovered) a rain-head shower in the bathroom.

New development in central Yerevan

Unfortunately, the Villa was a rare survival in central Yerevan. Aside from Republic Square, surrounded by elegant low-rise buildings, the center of Yerevan was being gutted to make way for monumental high-rise development I would characterize as “brutalist modern”. I understand that the development is funded by members of the Armenian diaspora, who inhabit the expensive apartments maybe a month or two a year. After Tbilisi, somewhat shabby, somewhat chaotic, but built on a human scale, I found the center of Yerevan sterile and unfriendly, looking like the set for a dystopian sci-fi movie.

I did appreciate the restaurant scene in Yerevan. I enjoyed one of my best, if somewhat pricey, meals at Dolmama (dolmama.narod.ru/restaurant.htm)  – a huge salad of greens, tomatoes, nuts, olives and cheese followed by three quail in vine leaves. I drank a glass of good Areni wine with the meal, and then Dolmama introduced me to Pineau, delicious and just slightly sweet. Yumm! I ate a couple of times more cheaply at Marco Polo, on Abovyan Poghots, where the people-watching supplemented the food.

Since I had arrived on a Sunday, I spent my first afternoon checking out the Vernissage market. Down one side of Pavstos Byuzand Poghots an outdoor Home Depot gave way to souvenir stalls, then to clothes, while on the other side I found carpets and embroidery, flanked by glass and ceramics. I liked some of the wood carving, but I didn’t buy – too much travel still to go.

Garni temple

Monday morning at breakfast I met a French couple who would be on both my Hyur tours. She was ethnic Armenian, and had learned Armenian from her mother in her late teens, but he was a native Corsican, a chef, who spoke no Armenian. They were having to change hotels as the Villa Delenda was fully booked, and shared the taxi taking them to Hyur’s office with me, but I spent much of Monday’s tour chatting with a German guy who had lived in China for three years.

This tour took us to Garni, a largely reconstructed Roman temple, and 13th century Geghard monastery. On the way we stopped for what should have been an iconic sight – Mount Ararat, the symbol of Armenia, tauntingly just out of reach across the closed Turkish border. Alas, it floated, barely discernible, above a haze of pollution that seemed a permanent feature of the Yerevan area.

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