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Armenian opus

Pink stone architecture, modern sculptures and affordable antiques colour the canvas of capital city Yerevan

Vernissage market. Photo: Alamy
Vernissage market. Photo: Alamy

Yerevan is dressed in monochrome. Various shades of pink, to be precise. With softly hued 19th century tuff stone edifices lining its leafy boulevards, Armenia’s capital city exudes an old-world elegance. The ubiquitous pink igneous rock also gives the city of one million people its moniker of “Pink City".The pint-sized metropolis of a country hemmed in by Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan, Yerevan punches far above its weight in terms of arty offerings. I’m engulfed by vibrant art—graffiti-splashed alleys, parks filled with statues and busts, fountains prancing to classical music. Even some of the city’s roads are inlaid with kaleidoscopic murals.

Yerevanians boast that their city is Rome’s elder sibling. It’s not an empty claim. Like the Italian capital, this south Caucasian city’s fervour for art is palpable. It is also one of the world’s oldest surviving capitals, dating back to 782 BC under king Argishti I of the Urartu tribe.

“Yerevan is so old," Sira, the guide, explains as I admire Mother Armenia, the copper statue of a female warrior in Victoria Park in the city centre, “that our first tourist was Noah". The name Yerevan is said to have been inspired by the first words the Biblical patriarch uttered after he found his ark on Mount Ararat, visible from the rooftops of the city. He shouted “yerevats", which means “I see", on spotting land after the flood subsided.

The Sculpture Park and Cascade. Photo: Alamy

Stately architecture

Republic Square is the pivot around which Yerevan seems to flow. It is a stately jumble of neoclassical buildings and flower-bedecked greens. In the 1920s, Russian-Armenian Alexander Tamanian, the city’s chief architect, built modern Yerevan around this square on a spiral-shaped plan.

Inspired by the great musical traditions of his twin muses—Vienna and Paris—Tamanian also constructed his masterpiece, the Opera House. It is a magnificent circular structure with two concert halls, 1,400 seats, arched hallways and an expansive amphitheatre. It has defined Armenia’s musical culture since 1933, when it was built under Soviet rule.

“Some of the greatest Armenian and Russian operas, ballets, and plays have featured at this historic building, including Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Aram Khachaturian’s Gayane and Armen Tigranian’s Anoush," I’m told as I explore the capacious building.

Not far is Abovyan Street, Yerevan’s oldest avenue. The atmosphere on this street—lined with luxurious homes, spiffy boutiques, coffee shops, hotels, restaurants and nightclubs—is so thick, it can be sliced with a knife. Locals lounge in open-air cafés, stores sell branded wares, gelato bars do brisk business. Sidling into a seat at a café, I order soorj (coffee in Armenian) and observe my surroundings. The coffee arrives in a long-handled bronze jezve pot that derives its name from the sound of slurping made by a contented coffee drinker.

Yerevan at dawn, seen from the Great Cascade. Photo: Alamy

Open-air canvas

A 10-minute walk takes me to the Cascades, a culture-cum-entertainment venue rolled into one, where waterfalls and gardens cascade down one of the city’s highest promontories. The garden has sculptures by different artists. There are works by Welsh sculptor Barry Flanagan and British sculptor Lynn Chadwick’s abstract geometric heads and bodies, which I find engaging. I’m entranced by the creations of famous Colombian sculptor Fernando Botero, like the Black Cat and Woman Smoking A Cigarette.

It’s a novelty for me to see so much art in a public place. In India, I only see such creativity in museums. In this open space, the works appear fresh, dynamic, possessing a distinct personality.

The view of the city’s terracotta rooftops from the Cascades’ Monument Terrace is breathtaking. Blue-tinged Mt Ararat looms in the distance on Armenia’s border with Turkey. Here too, there are several eye-catching sculptures. I feel as though the collection of voices of artist-activists is putting forth a message about urban issues, human rights and aesthetics.

‘Woman Smoking A Cigarette’ by Colombian sculptor Fernando Botero. Photo: Neeta Lal

Vintage finds

I spend my last day at the iconic open-air flea market Vernissage, rifling through a cornucopia of antiques, paintings and carpets. There are wood carvings, silver jewellery, old coins, traditional dolls, jezves and ceramics for sale, and visitors and locals alike vie for the best deals. Next to a hawker selling carpets, my eyes are drawn to a duduk. I’ve heard that the traditional Armenian double-reed woodwind flute is always made of apricot wood. Why, I ask the seller, a fourth-generation duduk player and maker. He explains that the wood of apricot (Armenia’s national fruit) best resonates the sound that is unique to the Armenian duduk. “No other wood offers this advantage," he adds. No Armenian wedding, festive occasion or family gathering is complete without a duduk player.

Upon my request for a tune, the musician plays a slow, soulful number. Men, women and children stop to listen. Unmindful of the whirligig around him, the duduk player closes his eyes as if in a deep, meditative trance and continues to create beautiful music. And together, we all celebrate the vibe of this fascinating city, where art, history and modernity come together in one harmonious whole.

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