Happy Birthday, Yerevan!!

What’s the oldest city in the world? What’s the first thing that pops into your head? If you said Rome, today is your lucky day because you’re about to learn something new! Yerevan is 29 YEARS older than Rome. Take that, Rome! Ha!

Serious decorating…

Yerevan is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, right next to Babylon. It got its start in 782 BC when King Argishti I founded the fortress of Erebuni. I guess you could say that the rest is history… 2799 years of history, to be precise. Today, unfortunately, most of the historic buildings have been replaced with newer models. In 1924, the architect/urban planner Alexander Tamanian (the same guy who designed the opera house) made a new master plan for the city center, and a lot of the historic streets and structures were destroyed to accommodate his plans. You can still visit the remains of Erebuni fortress, though, about 7 km southeast of the center.

There was also a chalk party for kids earlier in the day where they shut down the street and kids got to chalk it up

Yerevan’s birthday is celebrated every year (since 1968) on the second Saturday in October. Believe me when I say that this birthday party is like nothing you’ve EVER seen before. Word of the day: ridiculous. I’m going to try not to overuse it in my descriptions of the happenings, but I can’t make any promises because well, it was ridiculous.

There was an extensive schedule of events for the day, and I didn’t make it to even half of them. How could I? You would have to be in 100 places at once. The exciting festivities started with a street cleaning and the washing of Yerevan monuments… don’t want to miss that! Those were the only events that started before noon because this is Armenia and “morning” here means like 12-3PM.

I decided to make a loop around the different areas where things were happening. My timing is apparently impeccable because I made it to Republic Square right at the end of the “Opening of the International Balloon Festival” which means that I was there just in time to see the hot air balloons take off. Oh yes, hot air balloons. Twelve of them. Did you think that “balloon festival” means those dinky latex balloons? This isn’t MY birthday party we’re talking about. This is YEREVAN!

One small example of the balloon arch craziness… now just picture this literally everywhere

On the topic of balloons though, it looked like a balloon festival threw up all over the city. You couldn’t look in any direction without seeing a balloon arch or balloon column… or 100 of them. Tons of businesses had balloon arches surrounding their doorways, colors perfectly coordinated to the business’s colors or defaulted to Armenian flag colors. I don’t even know how they managed to accumulate that many balloons. Trust me, I am NOT being dramatic. I’ve seriously never seen anything like it. Balloon factories around the globe probably worked overtime for months to fill the city’s order. Okay, maybe slightly dramatic, but we’ll say 5% drama and 95% completely warranted commentary.

Anyway, the hot air balloons. It was like something straight out of a movie. The twelve of them took off one after another and floated around the square. It was awesome. Don’t think that when I say “ridiculous” I mean it wasn’t awesome because it definitely was that. It was also just completely over the top.

All lined up and ready to launch

Airborne!

Doesn’t this look like something straight out of a movie?

The streets were PACKED

Prepping for their festive ride

I took a stroll down to City Hall and was there just in time to see the “Festive cycling” participants (aka people on bikes, carrying Yerevan flags and wearing matching t-shirts) depart. So incredibly random. From there, I headed back towards the center and the opera house. One of the best things about the day was that most of the streets in the event areas were closed. How fun is it to be able to walk fearlessly in the middle of a usually busy street? (The correct answer, by the way, is VERY fun.)

There were also approximately one million stages with ongoing performances all across town. There were stages in Republic Square, the park near Republic Square, the opera house, two of the parks near the opera house, two on Northern Avenue, and at Cascade. And I’m probably missing some, honestly.

The taglines of the day: “feel Yerevan” “love Yerevan” “see Yerevan” and “hear Yerevan”

Flags over the street.. leave no corner undecorated

Northern Avenue

Me, Liz, and Gagik

I spent the day marveling at the fact that we literally searched the entire city on Independence Day, trying to find something going on and failing miserably. Now I understand why because with plans in the works for Yerevan Day, how could the city afford to do anything? Better question, how could the city afford Yerevan Day? I would bet that’s a sensitive topic… there are so many things here that could benefit from even a tiny fraction of the probably millions of dollars it took to pull everything off.

This makes Armenia sound like a country with confused priorities, and I won’t argue with that. Before you start judging though, think about the fact that it happens everywhere. I’d bet there are zero countries that aren’t guilty of doing the exact same thing. I’m not saying it should be excused because everyone does it or that I didn’t think the day was a ton of fun… It’s just something to think about.

Cascade during the concert!

At night, there were simultaneous concerts at a few of the stages. I went to the one at Cascade because it seemed like the biggest deal. I had heard about previous concerts there and wanted to see it in action. They put up a stage facing Cascade, and people stand on the stairs like they’re bleachers! It’s brilliant. I somehow ended up right in the front, maybe because I was by myself and it’s much easier to wiggle your way through a crowd when you’re solo. The concert was an orchestra with a revolving cast of singers. Each singer came on for one song, and sometimes it was just instrumental so they brought out dancers. I enjoyed the music, and it was also cool that the crowd was a huge mix of ages, from babies to grandparents. It’s always fun to be a part of something that brings together a diverse group of people.

In conclusion, Yerevan Day was ridiculous. Everything was done to the extreme. I think my jaw was dropped for 80% of the day. People looked like they were having a great time. I had a great time. I feel like I can confidently say that I will never experience a day like that again. I just have one question left… if that was how 2799 was celebrated, what on earth is 2800 going to look like?

The opera house

Insanity

During one of the instrumental pieces

Fireworks!

Look at how close I made it to the stage!

Can you find me? Also, how sad looking is that heart?

Welcome to Armenia!

I’m exhausted! Do you want to know what time we finally got to our Airbnb in Yerevan (the capital of Armenia) after the delay in Kiev? 3:30AM! Sarah and I were about ready to collapse. Of course, though, that thing happened where when you’re really tired, you cross a line into being semi-delusional and then you’re all wound up, and it’s hard to fall asleep. We managed to pull ourselves together by around 4:15 and decided to push our wake up time back by a few hours… we were originally planning for 8AM, and there was a zero percent chance of that happening.

The opera house

We rolled out of bed around 11 and managed to get moving by noon. The first thing we wanted to do was get our bearings, so we set off without much of a plan, ready to roll with whatever came our way. Sarah steered us in the direction of the Opera Theater which is in the southern part of an area with a bunch of really well-done public spaces. That’s one of the things we’ve noticed and enjoyed the most about Yerevan so far. Unlike some cities, the public spaces here have plenty of benches and shade trees and other things to make the space actually usable! It’s no fun sitting in on a hot, direct-sun covered bench when you’re trying to take a breather. Plus, there are fountains and little man-made lakes, and it makes the city feel much more livable. There is also a lot of public art which I really enjoyed. Yes, sometimes (often) public art is weird, but it’s fun to look at (and pose with!).

We thought this was funny. We didn’t need to come all the way to Armenia to take this picture… the nearly identical (except it’s red instead of blue) love statue in Philly is much closer to home!

Perfect

Nailed it.

Check out that landscaping. And that beautiful tower crane over the stairs.

From there, we headed up the Yerevan version of the Spanish Steps (in Rome), the Cascade Complex. As someone who’s experienced both though, I can say that these stairs are way cooler! Apparently, there’s a free escalator that runs all the way up underneath the stairs, but Sarah INSISTED that we walk. I’ll admit that it was cool getting to see the view of the city get better and better as we climbed higher, but it was less cool realizing how out-of-shape I’ve gotten in the past few weeks. Ugh.

The entire staircase was like a celebration of water… which we definitely didn’t mind because it was HOT, and getting splashed was a great way to cool off!

There are also fountains/water features and plants throughout the staircase, and stopped at all of the landings to check out what new and interesting things were happening at each (not because we were dying or anything… no, of course not). About halfway up, we were thrilled to see a drinking water fountain… My other favorite thing about Armenia so far? You can drink the water!!! I’m tired of not being able to drink tap water, so this is beyond fabulous! For anyone who doesn’t understand this struggle, say a big THANK YOU to whoever is responsible for the clean water where you live. It’s nice to not have to worry about drinking arsenic or dysentery-causing bacteria and getting skin infections from shaving your legs with bacteria-filled water (that last one actually did happen to me in Ghana… not cool).

At the top, we were welcomed by an awesome view of the city with Mount Ararat in the background. I’ve seen millions of pictures of that mountain, but let me tell you, it doesn’t make it any less incredible when you see it in person. Sarah and I were completely geeking out.

I ❤ public art

Divers!

Flowers and Ararat!

Victory Park, one of the many Yerevan parks, is also at the top of the stairs, so we took a stroll through the amusement park, rode on mildly questionable ferris wheel, and fell in love with the statue of Mother Armenia. Check out the pictures below. Have you ever seen a more empowered looking woman?? She looks fierce and like she’s about to kick some serious butt.

Lunch is served!

Ferris wheel! I promise these are happy smiles, not “I’m kind of terrified that this ferris wheel is going to collapse” smiles

Mother Armenia, looking over her kingdom

She’s so cool.

We were about ready to collapse after all of our walking in the hot sun, so we headed back to the apartment to regroup. That was followed by a shopping trip, after which we were confident in the true identities of about 3/10 things that we purchased (you try shopping in a country where the alphabet isn’t even the same… it’s not easy!). Example of our shopping conversations:

“Okay, we need butter.”

“This looks like butter… I think? Do you think?”

“Yeah I think so… yeah. Yeah that definitely looks like it’s probably butter.”

“Okay well… I guess we’ll find out.”

Repeat for every item on the list.

We spent a good 10 minutes standing in front of the meat counter trying to identify literally anything. In case you were wondering, that ended with us purchasing zero meats after we 1) failed to identify even one, 2) realized that we didn’t know how to order them, and 3) were not really in the mood to break out a full-on charades act.

Also, fun fact, it’s about $8 for a regular sized jar of peanut butter. Darn imported goods.

Pop up stage

As much as we wanted to go to sleep after all of that, we dragged ourselves back out of the apartment to listen to some live Armenia music at the base of the Cascade Complex before calling it a day. All in all, a solid first day of our first Sarah/Lara (you can call us Slarah…I know, not the best thing we’ve ever come up with, but it’s really the only way to combine our names) international vacation. Stay tuned… I’m sure that plenty more language-struggle-filled adventures lie ahead.