The last stop in our 23-day tour of the Caucasus was in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. I was in Yerevan for a couple days 32 years ago while studying in the Soviet Union. Like so many places in the former USSR, I found Yerevan to have changed dramatically in some ways, while still somehow retaining much of its Soviet feel.
Gone are the universally drab clothes of communist days. But while people are more stylish now, they wear a lot of almost mournful black and grey. Tons of shiny Mercedes line the streets, but mixed in with a surprising number of crumbling old Soviet Ladas that look like they were on their last legs decades ago. Grand Soviet edifices grace the center of the city, some of them even beautifully renovated. But shabby mass housing projects still linger around the edges.
And the Russian presence remains stronger than I expected. On the street I heard as much Russian as anything else. Russian language is ubiquitous on menus, storefronts, and movie posters. Most people working in hotels and restaurants are at least bilingual (Armenian and Russian) and often trilingual (with English). I found myself surprised when I’d ask a concierge in the hotel to make a dinner reservation, and he’d call the restaurant and conduct the whole conversation in Russian.
Like the other two Caucasian capitals (Baku and Tbilisi), we found Yerevan to be lively, attractive, bustling, and fun. There were plenty of good restaurant choices, loads of public art, and lots of well maintained parks, squares, and promenades.
But our favorite surprise in Yerevan was a dramatic indoor/outdoor arts complex called the Cafesjian Center for the Arts. The Center is built into and around the Yerevan Cascade, a massive set of staircases and fountains that climbs up a hill from the city center to some monuments at the top. The Cascade itself was begun in the 1970s, though it remained incomplete and was in a terrible state of disrepair until the early 2000s, when an Armenian-American businessman and philanthropist named Gerard Cafesjian used his own funds to complete its construction, along with the art center itself.
The result is what The New York Times described as “a mad work of architectural megalomania and architectural recovery… one of the strangest and most spectacular museum buildings to open in ages.” A pedestrian mall at the bottom of the Cascade is filled with sculptures. More artworks line the steps of the Cascade itself, and interior galleries linked by series of escalators run along the edges of the Cascade. It’s all fascinating to look at — and unlike anything we’ve seen before.
There is one other very special presence in Yerevan, something we didn’t get a glimpse of until we were climbing the Cascade itself on the first day when the skies cleared: the spectacular snow-capped Mount Ararat. It looms large over the city, even though it’s actually in Turkey (or in what locals might call Turkish-occupied Armenia). Every time we’d catch sight of Ararat we’d be amazed again by its striking beauty.