Founded in 782 BC, Yerevan just happened to be celebrating its 2,800th birthday this year!

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.

We never got around to visiting Castro Shame Bar, though I was intrigued

I was shopping for soap but decided against this brand

Remarkably well preserved pots from 4,500 BC attest to Armenia’s very long history

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.

Mt. Ararat has a very special presence in Yerevan, even though it’s technically in Turkey

Our visit started off on the wet and gloomy side, but the city was still quite attractive. Plus my rain coat brightens everything up.

And there I am at the bottom of the fascinating Yerevan Cascade

A sculpture by Colombian artist Fernando Botero in the pedestrian mall/sculpture garden below the Cascade

Artwork adorns every level of the Cascade as you climb the hill

One special exhibit in the Cafesjian Center featured works by an Iranian photographer, Shadi Ghadirian. These photos were part of a series I really liked.

Just another lively square in Yerevan

Cities across the former Soviet Union feature gritty underpasses, often filled with little shops, to get across big wide streets

The little church in the front is the Katoghike Holy Mother of God Church, dating from 1264. When it miraculously survived the 1679 Yerevan earthquake, they built a new, bigger church around it. But when the Soviets tore that church down in 1936, protests led them to spare the original church. The new, bigger church here is Saint Anna, built in the early 2010s.

The History Museum of Armenia is loaded with artifacts from the country’s long history. Some were a yawner, but we were fascinated by this wooden cart from the second millennium BC

The only mosque in Yerevan, the Blue Mosque was reconstructed in the 1990s with Iranian funds

We’ve loved much of the food throughout this region, including pkhali, a Georgian specialty of chopped vegetables and walnuts

Dinner at a really cool (and almost empty) wine bar/restaurant called Vinograd

One last glimpse of Mt. Ararat

Not a lot to do in Dzoraget but with a kitty like this what more do you need?

From Tbilisi we drove nearly three hours south across into Armenia. The plan was to break up the drive to Yerevan and there was supposed to be a nice hotel almost exactly in the middle between the two capitals. The hotel is right on a little river in the Debed Canyon so it seemed perfect for a couple nights, a little hiking, whatever.

Well, it didn’t quite work as well as we’d hoped. The hotel was nice enough and the setting in the canyon was beautiful. But there was nothing to do. Nothing. No hiking trails, no little town, no alternative restaurants. Nothing. If we’d had a car you could drive to some World Heritage-listed monasteries, but we didn’t so there was not a lot to do. Which made two days a bit long.

The Avan Dzoraget Hotel nestled along the Debed River. A beautiful setting but definitely on the dull side.

There were still some little gems to be experienced. Mark had a cat that loved sitting in his lap getting petted. One day it was sunny enough for me to find a rock in the little stream and read. The food at the hotel was excellent which was surprising. Both days we were there a bus with tourists would pull in around 4:00 PM and they’d have a dinner table set for 25 or so; otherwise we were the only guests. That’s not typically the environment for great food but the food there really was great.

Ultimately I enjoyed our two days. If I have some beautiful scenery and a place to read I can be happy. Mark? Bored out of his mind. That’s OK, from here it’s down to Yerevan and the city will keep him engaged.

A rock, the little Dzoraget River, a valley, and a book. What more do you need?

Looking up the Debed River no more than a quarter-mile from our hotel. Would have been a great place to explore but there were no trails at all.

A lovely view across the river and valley from our room

The food here was really, really good, everything super fresh. Here we have a grilled eggplant salad, an olive salad, and a nice glass of Armenian wine. So much better than that over-hyped Georgian wine!

Somehow I always seem to stumble onto cemeteries. As I noticed in Georgia most headstones have photos of the deceased somehow impressed on the stone. Eerie.