Suitcase and World: A City of Culture. Yerevan

Sunday, April 24, 2016

A City of Culture. Yerevan

The Cascade Complex.

After three weeks of non-stop go, go, go, we finally had a down day. Today is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. I don't know how you greet anyone today. Happy Genocide Day just does not sound appropriate. I think I'll just stick to the simple, "Hello, how are you?". In any case, today is a National Holiday and figuring that most places will be closed, Pat and I just opted to spend the day relaxing, reading....doing whatever.  The only thing we did commit to was going with Gurgen for an hour long walk around the city.  Apparently, he had to come into the city to meet up with some friends and so he came a bit early to be with us.  Very considerate of him as most certainly Pat and I could have wandered about on our own.  Of course, it's always nice to have a local person take you around.

A view of Saryan Park from the front window of our Airbnb apartment.  Just beyond those trees is the Yerevan Opera Theatre.

 Our Airbnb apartment.  This place is really spartan but comfortable.  But, we're missing Oleg's place in Tbilisi.

Our bedroom.  I took the larger bed to be next to the window - I like the room to be very cool when I sleep which means window open.

The kitchen.  Functional but not as well equipped as other Airbnb places I've rented.

This morning, we decided to have breakfast at home.  We managed to get to the supermarket yesterday afternoon and picked up a few items.  I cobbled together a scrambled egg concoction with cheese, ham and the asparagus we bought on the roadside on the drive from Tbilisi to Yerevan.  I had bought teabags with me from home so we had cups of tea to go with our scrambled egg meal. Nothing fancy but it was just to have breakfast. #lazytraveler

Breakfast is served!

We were done with breakfast and our morning duties well before Gurgen was set to arrive but it was such a gorgeous day outside that we decided to head outside and wait for him there.

Right across the street, we had seen and walked by a large statue.  They've been very popular with passersby wanting to have their photos taken, standing next to them.

I made Pat do the same :-)

The statue, which was installed in 2007,  features four characters from the 1972 Soviet comedy called *'Men*.  The characters were played by four of Armenia's most popular actors - Frunzik Mkrtchian, Azat Sherents, Avetik Gevorgian, and Armen Aivazian.

The four friends, Vazgen, Sako, Suren and Aram,  live in Yerevan and work as taxi drivers. Aram, the shyest of the group, is desperately in love with a girl, Karineh, but does not have the courage to tell her about his feelings. Taking pity on their friend, the other three concoct ways to bring the two together, resulting in some of the film's most beloved comical moments. The statue shows the characters standing before the building where Karineh lives, plotting ways to bring Aram closer to the object of his love.  It just so happens that our apartment building is right next door to the actual building that was used in the scene.

Speaking of apartment buildings, here is ours.  The two small windows above the entry door are the windows in the bedroom (left) and living room (right).

And we're right next door to a Chinese restaurant.  If we have a chance, I'd like to have a meal here.  Curious to see what Armenians think is Chinese food. :-)

Gurgen arrived, looking very happy and relaxed and we began our stroll through the city.  Had he spent all of yesterday with us, he might not have looked so rested :-)

A bit about Yerevan.  Situated along the Hrazdan River, Yerevan is one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities, dating back to the 8th century BC with the founding of the fortress of Erebuni in 782 BC by King Argishti I at the western extreme of the Ararat plain.  From the early 16th century up to 1828, Yerevan was under Iranian rule.  In 1828, it became part of Imperial Russia alongside the rest of Eastern Armenia.  In 1918, Yerevan became the capital of the First Republic of Armenia as thousands of survivors of the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire settled in the area.  In the early 20th century, the country became part of the Soviet Union.  Independence came in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Today, Yerevan is the seat of national government as well as the principal cultural, financial and industrial center of the country.

I never appreciated the cultural side of the city until today's walk with Gurgen.

From our apartment, we crossed the street and walked across Saryan Park.  On weekends, artists come to the park to display their paintings for sale.  A few artists were setting up as we walked through the small park.

In the center of Saryan Park is a marble statue of Martiros Saryan, Yerevan, 1986, sculpted by Levon Tokmajyan in 1986.  Martiros Saryan (1880-1972)  is considered to be one of the greatest Armenian painters of the 20th century.

The public buses look a bit tired and worn but I'm sure it's very functional system for the residents of the city.

Flower vendor in Saryan Park.  Beautiful roses.

It was an absolutely gorgeous day for a walk and as we followed Gurgen along, I tried to commit as much as I could to memory so we could retrace his steps later, if we wanted to.  Unlike Baku where we had to use the underpass to cross the wide streets, here you cross above ground.  The stop lights all have timers on them so you see how long you have to wait between red and green lights.  Traffic seems to be very well behaved so street crossing is not an act of dancing with death.

I would say that in just about 10 minutes walk, we had arrived at the The Cascade.  I recognized it from all the pre-trip reading I had done.

The Cascade is a complex, the center piece of which is a massive staircase with fountains, was originally conceived by the architect Alexander Tamanyan (1878–1936).   Tamanyan was called upon to lay out Yerevan as a modern Soviet city.  Tamanyan's  first general plan of the modern city of Yerevan was approved in 1924.  Among his most famous designs in Yerevan are the Opera Theatre and Republic Square.

With the Cascade,  Tamanyan wanted to connect the northern and central parts of the city—the historic residential and cultural centers of the city—with a vast green area of waterfalls and gardens, cascading down one of the city’s highest promontories. Unfortunately, the plan remained largely forgotten until the late 1970s, when it was revived by Yerevan’s Chief Architect, Jim Torosyan. Torosyan’s vision of the Cascade included Tamanyan’s original plan but incorporated new ideas that included a monumental exterior stairway, a long indoor shaft containing a series of escalators, and an intricate network of halls, courtyards, and outdoor gardens embellished with numerous works of sculpture bearing references to Armenia’s rich history and cultural heritage.

Construction of Torosyan’s design of the Cascade was launched by the Soviets in the 1980s but abandoned after the Armenian earthquake of 1988 and the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. With independent rule and the transition to democracy, Armenia entered a period of severe economic hardship, and the Cascade remained a neglected relic of the Soviet era for more than a decade.

Then along came Gerard Cafesjian, an American businessman of Armenian descent.  Working with the City of Yerevan and the government of Armenia,  Cafesjian initiated the revitalization of The Cascade in 2002.  Over the next seven years, the entire complex was renovated and transformed into the Cafesjian Center for the Arts.

At the entrance to the complex stands a statue of Alexander Tamanyan, depicted looking down at a table at his plans for the layout of city.

Alexander Tamanyan as sculpted by Artashes Hovsepyan (1973).

Located at the base of the Cascade is the Cafesjian Sculpture Garden, which is home to a fine collection of large scale sculptures.

There are 3 pieces by famed Colombian sculptor, Fernando Botero.  This is Roman Warrior (1986).

In the middle of the photo - Fernando Botero's "Mujer Fumando un Cigarrillo (Woman Smoking a Cigarette)", 1987, bronze.
In the foreground of the photo, "Two Watchers V" by Lynn Chadwick, 1967, bronze.

The most whimsical sculpture in the garden - Peter Woytuk's "Kiwi", 2011, aluminum.

Fernando Botero's "Gatto" (Cat), 1999 bronze.

On the left, "Impala Leap" by Sarja Guha, 2005, welded steel.  In the very background, a bit hard to see,
are: Joana Vasconcelos's "Pavillon de Thé", 2012, wrought iron and "Olympic Horses" by Tom Hill, 2012 which were created from reclaimed horseshoes.

Fountains appear at every level of the tiered steps of The Cascade.  Today, the jets were off so we can only imagine how nice they would look with the water bursting out of them.

On the first tier stands a version of Robert Indiana's Love sculpture.  The original Pop Art image was created for print media in the 1960's.
Even the jets are a work of art!

We didn't visit the arts museum itself today.  I made a note for Pat and I to return another day.   Flanking one side of the park are apartment buildings.  On the other side is a row of restaurants.

Looking around the place, you can see that this is a very upscale area.  The restaurants, though very reasonably priced by US standards would be costly for most Armenians.  Even though it was a Sunday and a beautiful day to outdoors at that, it was relatively quiet here - just a few people having coffee and eating at the tables outside.

The water fountains flow very freely here and the water is clean and sweet tasting.

Why can't the water fountains in the US look this pretty?  Ours are just plain concrete slabs.  So boring.

From The Cascade, we crossed the street to the place I simply refer to as the Opera Theatre.   You can't really blame me because the formal name is "Armenian National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet after Alexander Spendiaryan".

The Opera Theatre, designed by Alexander Tamanyan.

On the corner of Moscovyan and Mashtots Streets stands a tall statue of William Saroyan, an American born novelist, playwright, and short story writer of Armenian descent.  The statue is the work of architects Ruben Hasratyan and Levon Igityan and was sculpted by renowned Armenian sculptor Davit Yerevantsi.

William Saroyan.

People seem to love these directional signs.  Personally, they're confusing to me.

Near the Opera Theatre also stands a statue of Komitas Vardapet, commonly known as Komitas.  Komitas was an Armenian priest, musicologist, composer, arranger, singer, and choirmaster, who is considered the founder of Armenian national school of music.  The statue was sculpted by Ara Harutyunyan in 1988.

A young girl playing beside Komitas.

The story of Komitas is a sad one.  Snipped from Wikipedia:
Orphaned at a young age, Komitas was taken to Etchmiadzin, Armenia's religious center, where he received education at the Gevorgian Seminary. Following his ordination as vardapet (celibate priest) in 1895, he studied music at the Frederick William University in Berlin.
He collected and transcribed over 3,000 pieces of Armenian folk music, more than half of which were subsequently lost and only around 1,200 are now extant. Besides Armenian folk songs, he also showed interest in other cultures and in 1904 published the first-ever collection of Kurdish folk songs. His choir presented Armenian music in many European cities, earning the praise of Claude Debussy, among others.
Komitas settled in Constantinople in 1910 to escape mistreatment by ultra-conservative clergymen at Etchmiadzin and to introduce Armenian folk music to wider audiences.
During the Armenian Genocide—along with hundreds of other Armenian intellectuals—Komitas was arrested and deported to a prison camp in April 1915 by the Ottoman government. He was soon released under unclear circumstances and experienced a mental breakdown and developed a severe case of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The widespread hostile environment in Constantinople and reports of mass-scale Armenian death marches and massacres that reached him further worsened his fragile mental state. He was first placed in a Turkish military-operated hospital until 1919 and then transferred to psychiatric hospitals in Paris, where he spent the last years of his life in agony. Komitas is widely seen as a martyr of the genocide and has been depicted as one of the main symbols of the Armenian Genocide in art."

A statue of Aram Khachaturian graces the front of the Opera Theatre.   As we walked by the Opera Theatre, both Pat and I noticed a performance of the Armenia State Ensemble this coming Wednesday night.  Without hesitation, we agreed we wanted to attend the show.  Unfortunately, the ticket booth was closed so Gurgen has offered to follow up for us.  Very excited we finally get to see a show!  We've been attempting to do something like this even before our trip to Central Asia.  Last year, Pat and I were able to attend a performance by the Sukhishvili Georgian National Ballet at Lincoln Center in NYC which we enjoyed.  Now we have a chance to see Armenian dance.

Khachaturian was the most renowned Armenian composer of the 20th century.  His statue was sculpted by Yuri Petrosyan in 1999.

Beautiful tulips in bloom.  One of the many rewards of traveling in springtime!

Our stroll through town took us past Swan Lake which I suspect has been always simply known as a nice place to relax and enjoy a water view.  That is before the arrival of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.  Kanye held an impromptu, late night concert here when he and his wife visited this time last year.  He ended the concert by jumping into the pool of water.  Hundreds of fans dived in after him, prompting Armenian police to put a stop to the performance.  What was he thinking??  Have some respect, people!

Jokingly, I asked Gurgen to point out the spot where Kanye took the plunge so I could perhaps do the same to commemorate the event.  Only kidding of course. 

Crossing the street from Swan Lake, we strolled down Northern Avenue which today was totally deserted perhaps because it's a Sunday morning.  This pedestrian only avenue is home to luxury residential buildings, high-end branded shops, commercial offices, coffee shops, hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs.

Northern Avenue was originally included in the layout of the city as designed by Alexander Tamanyan but it was never constructed during the Soviet period.  Construction of the avenue began in 2002, based on the original plan by Tamanyan but redesigned by architect Jim Torosyan.  Since then, the avenue has undergone renovation, the most recent of which was completed in 2014.

The symbolic key to the city of Yerevan.

From Northern Avenue, we turned onto Abovyan Street which leads to Republic Square.  Here, you can see the buildings of modern Yerevan.

Could be any place in Europe.

And the buildings of old Yerevan which are slowly being given new lives.  It's nice to see old buildings being repurposed.  I think it's a tragedy when beautiful buildings are torn down just because they are old.

We made a quick stop inside a shop called Salt Sack which sells some nice but affordable art pieces - things that Pat and I would consider buying as souvenirs for ourselves.  I did spot a few things I like but given that this still early in our visit to Armenia, I decided not to buy anything.  I made a mental note of the store's location in case we want to come back at a later date.

Leaving the store, we walked a few more blocks to finally reach Republic Square which we had driven through yesterday with Arshak.  Today, we could get a closer look at the large square.

Seven buildings are located in this large square.
  • The National Gallery and the History Museum building.
  • The Ministry of Finance.
  • The Government House.
  • The Ministry of Transport and Communications of the Republic of Armenia .
  • The Marriott hotel.
  • The Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
  • The Ministry of Territorial Administration.
Several of the buildings are constructed from the pink hued tufa stone.

Government House.

National Gallery, the largest art museum in Armenia.

More of those Armenian water fountains.  They are so lucky to have water that flows so freely.

Pointing out some of the places we'll be visiting in the days to come!

An old door on Abovyan Street.

We then retraced our steps on Abovyan Street, this time stopping at a small square named after Charles Aznavour who was a world renown French singer, songwriter, actor.  His parents were Armenian immigrants.

The square is in the form of a semi-circle and was designed in 1924.  It was primarily known as the Moscow Cinema Square because the Moscow Cinema building is adjacent to the square.  Standing to one side, in the square is a small fountain decorated with the stylized statues of the 12 signs of the zodiac.  The basin of the fountain was designed by Arsen Melikyan and the statues were sculpted by Ararat Hovsepyan and Vladimir Atanyan.

Naturally, I looked for my sign - Scorpio.  I thought this was it but apparently, it's Cancer.

Anchoring another area of the square is this way larger than life spider, sculpted by Ara Alekyan.

There's also a large, interactive chess set in Charles Aznavour Square.  Chess i s very popular in Armenia, dating back to the Middle Ages.

We continued our walk along Abovyan Street, heading back towards the Opera Theatre.  The street was tree lined and it looked to be more residential.  I have to say it again.  It was an absolutely picture perfect morning for a stroll through the city....our neighborhood if you will :-)  I am doubly glad that we took Gurgen up on his offer as I don't think that Pat and I would have discovered this area on our own.

The one thing that I've come to appreciate about Yerevan is just how cultural it is.  There are little theatres and performance venues scattered about town.

This is the NCA.Small Theatre, an experimental theatre founded in 1997.

Kiosks advertised performances at various venues around the city.

From Abovyan Street, we turned onto Sayat-Nova Avenue, continuing our walk in the direction of the Opera Theatre.   I caught sight of something I had to take a photo of because I don't, I would never see in major city in the US.  I took the photo outside a wine bar located on a busy street in downtown Yerevan.  Granted, it's a quiet Sunday morning but still....  The photo shows a small table atop which were a notebook, a pen, a glass of wine and a cellphone.  On the chair was an open backpack.  The owner of all those things was nowhere in sight.  If this was the scene in the US, the phone and backpack would have been stolen in a couple of minutes.  It just goes to show you how safe it is in Yerevan.  So ironic given how people in the US perceive that places like Yerevan are *dangerous* or at least, less safe.  Nothing could be further from the truth!

Sayat-Nova Avenue is where the Puppet Theatre (Officially known as the Yerevan State Puppet Theatre named after Hovhannes Tumanya) is located.  I love puppets and I've been wanted to see a show for ages.  But I know that Pat is not all that keen and we have a dance performance potentially lined up so I did not press to get more information about upcoming shows.  We did enjoy a bit of fun posing on the large chair that sits out front of the theatre.  Gurgen did the honors behind the camera. 

I had to put my feet up to show my feet :-)

By this time, it was well past the hour that we were suppose to spend with Gurgen.  He finally got the call from the friend he was meeting up with.  Before parting ways, we thanked him for graciously showing us about town and agreed on a meeting time for tomorrow.  We're finally heading out of town!

We were just stone's throw from the Opera Theatre and I knew exactly how to get us back to our apartment.  On the way, Pat made one more check of the ticket booth to see if it was open.  Unfortunately it wasn't so we'll be relying on Gurgen to get us our dance performance tickets.

Back in the apartment, we just relaxed the rest of the afternoon away.  After three weeks of non stop sightseeing, it was really nice to have a break.  We threw open the windows to let in the sun and cool air.  For dinner, I cooked up the pork chops, potatoes and flat beans we had bought at the supermarket yesterday.  Nothing fancy but we were feeling much too lazy to go out and find a place to eat.

Dinner at Chez Saryan aka our Airbnb apartment :-)

We are starting a three day, two night road trip tomorrow so after dinner, I got down to doing some packing.  We're both just taking our backpacks with us, leaving our suitcases behind in the apartment.  I'm excited as we'll finally get to visit Areg's father aka Gurgen's grandfather in his village home!  Can't wait!

Goodnight from Yerevan!