Gyumri, Armenia's Historic Gem
Do you ever think about Gyumri? Probably not, but if you do it's likely because the city is still slowly recovering from the devastating 1988 earthquake. Gyumri, like New Orleans, has a vast amount of historic architecture to restore, which is quite a project for such a tiny emerging economy. And like New Orleans, Gyumri has both a unique architecture and history as a colonial city from the Age of Empires with an abundance of culture for visitors to explore.
After two hectic weeks working non-stop in Tavush and Artsakh, Araxie and I returned to our apartment in Yerevan needing a break. We hadn't spent much time in Armenia's second largest city, so we took a weekend in Gyumri to relax and explore. You can make the roughly two hour trip by bus or taxi for 1500-2500 drams a person.
We decided to stay at Friendly B&B with Gyumri Flair. You can find owner Varduhi's place on Airbnb https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/6284684 It's a classic old Gyumri home with comfy rooms and a nice backyard where you can relax. Varduhi welcomed us with tea and homemade preserves, and showed us the restored salon, which is a lovely example of Gyumri's elegant 19th century homes. The neighborhood was full of vintage homes and a short walk to the historic district. We ordered the breakfast for a small additional charge, which was a good choice because Varduhi's food is delicious!
Gyumri's historic center is slowly being restored, and in the year since we first visited much has been finished, though there are still many historic buildings that need work. We strolled down the nearly completed pedestrian Abovyan Street to the The Gallery of Mariam and Eranuhi Aslamazyan Sisters. Renowned painters and ceramicists from the Soviet era, their works are both emotional and adventurous, with a lush and sensuous use of color and brushstroke.
After viewing the Aslamazyan sisters' works, we headed back to the main Vardanants Square and stopped at Ponchik Monchik for coffee glacées and a ponchik and monchik. Ponchiks are the made to order vanilla custard donuts and monchiks are the Nutella filled variety. With a walking tour of the historic center, we worked off those delicious treats.
We first visited the small church of Surb Nishan to light candles and take some quiet moments for meditation and reflection. It was wedding season and of course there was a big crowd at St. Astvatsasin Church on the square. Reluctant wedding crashers, we watched from the doorway. After the ceremony there was a procession of honking cars decked out in bows and flowers circling the square while the lead car shot video. Love, Armenian style.
Heading across the square to Surb Amenapkrich Cathedral, which is still being restored since the 1988 earthquake, we met Tigran, the painter working on the inside of the cathedral. He showed us the luminous completed work on the dome and the beautiful works in progress in his studio inside the church. Seeing the earthquake's devastation, the restoration seemed a miracle. We wandered through the park behind the cathedral eating ice cream from the sidewalk vendors and admiring the intricate khachkars, or cross stones displayed there. Khachkars are a complex form of devotional carving developed in the early Middle Ages. They are a truly indigenous Armenian art form, usually used as upright memorial stele. Khachkars are part of UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Each one is unique in its combination of design elements, an eternal message in stone reaching us across the centuries.
Continuing our walking tour in the central Kumayri historic district we wandered past unique buildings like the Poloz Mukuch Beerhouse and Araks Hotel. In addition to the lovely black tufe stone, historic buildings feature unique wrought iron, tin, and carved stone embellishments. There are wooden and stone balconies and windows in both eastern and western styles.
When we were ready for dinner, we made our way to the Cherkezi Dzor fish farm and restaurant. The fish was fresh and flavorful in a lovely garden setting. There are several varieties of fish cultivated there and many different preparations. Don't miss it. http://gyumrifish.am/
On our second day in Gyumri, after sleeping in, we enjoyed Varduhi's breakfast. Starting with a large pot of tea, we had fried eggs, fresh cucumbers and tomatoes with herbs, breads, homemade blackberry preserves, local honey, fresh yogurt with preserves, Armenian cheese and butter, and Varduhi's amazing Lahmajoon Rolls.
We walked to the market to sample some fresh produce, then to the gold market where we carefully restrained ourselves. At 11:00 the Museum of National Architecture and Urban Life of Gyumri and Merkurov's House Museum opened and we had a tour in English.
Later we admired the sculpture in Victory Park, noting all the heroes of Armenian history whose statues were displayed there. Stopping back at Ponchik Monchik, we snacked on potato filled perashkis, a savory donut or fritter.
We walked to Central Park to explore its historic Soviet era buildings and monuments. The Soviet era Oasis restaurant is intact, and when we checked in there was a big table of Russian soldiers feasting to complete the retro feel.
We were about ready for a late lunch, so we headed to Rijkov Street, a pedestrian street off Vardanants Square lined with outdoor cafes. We ate at Trezzo, Italian food Armenian style, where the salad and pizza were tasty with fresh vegetables and Armenian cheeses.
Heading back to Yerevan, we left the Black Fortress, the Hovannes Shiraz and other museums, a visit to the Gyumri Beer brewery, a side trip to the Ani Overlook, and the puppet theater for next time. Armenians and diasporans often criticize of the slow pace of restoration since the 1988 earthquake, but that's no reason to neglect a visit to this historic city. We returned to Yerevan relaxed and refreshed.
Things To Do
The Gallery of Mariam and Eranuhi Aslamazyan Sisters, Abovyan Street http://www.aslamazyanmuseum.com/
St. Astvatsasin Church, Vardanants Square
Surb Nishan Church
Surb Amenapkrich Cathedral, Vardanants Square
Central Park, https://visitgyumri.com/central-park-after-maxim-gorki/
Museum of National Architecture and Urban Life of Gyumri and Merkurov's House Museum, Haghtanaki Avenue
Gold Market, Aragats Street, https://visitgyumri.com/gyumri-gold-market/
Central Market, Haghtanaki Street, https://visitgyumri.com/gyumri-open-market/
Friendly B&B with Gyumri Flair. Airbnb https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/6284684,142 Levon Madoyan Street
Araks Hotel http://www.arakshotel.am/
Villa Kars https://m.facebook.com/villakars/
Cherkezi Dzor, Bulvarayin Street, http://gyumrifish.am/
Trezzo, Rijkov Street
Ponchik Monchik, Abovyan Street