The sights and truth about Gyumri

Gyumri

Gyumri is an ancient Armenian city with a dramatic and glorious history. It is situated in the extreme west of the country, on the border with Turkey, on the Shirak Plateau. This part of the mountainous country is surrounded by Shirak and Pambak mountain ranges and spurs of Aragats, the highest mountain range in modern Armenia. The city of Gyumri, which is second in size only to the capital Yerevan, is the administrative center of the Shirak region.

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History

Archaeological studies testify that the territory of modern Gyumri has been inhabited since the Bronze Age. It is also known, that the settlement the city stands on was called Kumayri in the ancient times. Scholars have associated this name with “Gimirrai” – so called by the tribes of Cimmerians who raided the western coast of the Black Sea, and then settled in the ancient Armenian provinces of Vanand, Shirak and Hayrarat. Historians suggest that ancient Gyumri was a center of the union of Cimmerian and Scythian tribes.

In his work “Anabasis” the antic Greek historian Xenophonte wrote about “a populous, flourishing city of Kumayri”, and in the Armenian chronicles Gyumri, known then as Kumayri, was first mentioned in the 8th century: the Armenian historian Ghevond wrote about it in the pages devoted to the revolt of 773-775 which broke out against the Arab conquerors.

The central square of Gyumri

In 885-1045 Gyumri, as part of the Armenian Bagratid kingdom, a single independent state, was experiencing a golden age in the history of its country.

In 1555 the area where Gyumri is located became part of Persia, and at the end of the Russian-Persian war of 1804-1813, the Russian Empire became the rightful owner of the place.

A succession of renames

In 1837 the construction of the Russian fortress started in Gyumri. At the same period Emperor Nikolas I came here and renamed the city Alexandropol in honor of his wife Alexandra Fedorovna. The official administrative status of the city of Alexandropol was given in 1840.

By the end of the 19th century, the border fortress city of Alexandropol became one of the largest in size and importance trade and cultural center of Transcaucasia. Handicrafts flourished here, trade was booming, and the railroads connected the city to the major centers of the region.

After World War I, the Turks briefly dominated here, and in 1921, the Soviet regime was established on the territory of Armenia.

In 1924, Alexandropol was renamed Leninakan. At the beginning of 1991, the city was renamed again as Kumayri, and after the sovereignty of Armenia (in the same year) it received its present name – Gyumri.

The black tuff church of St. Astvatsatsin (Saint Blessed Virgin) The October Cinema

Beauty in Ruins

The thriving, crowded city would still be an ornament to any tourist route in Armenia if the elements had not intervened. Situated in an unstable 8-9 point seismic zone, Gyumri has been hit by numerous earthquakes, but the December 1988 disaster was a national catastrophe and its traces are still visible in the city.

The Spitak earthquake, also known as the Leninakan earthquake, literally razed most of Gyumri to the ground. Today, many parts of the city have been rebuilt, but much of the invaluable historical monuments have disappeared forever.

Surb Amenaprkich (All Savior) Church Monument to Shahumyan by Merkurov

City Walk

Today Gyumri produces a dual impression. At the first sight, there is peace and calm here, and only the cars and the modern clothes of the pedestrians ruin the illusory impression, that you’ve got to the beginning of the last century. On the other hand, walking along the paving stones of the once magnificent Old Town, which has been destroyed, you will feel the atmosphere of drama: beautiful old houses with spectacular decorations of red and black tuff at a closer look are mutilated by cracks, and fragments of historical sites can still be seen lying directly on the ground. However, such a trip will give you an emotion that few other places can experience.

Although the old town is still in a very poor condition, because of the lack of funds for the restoration, the work is still underway, and Gyumri is worthy to be visited.

The “Girl with an Oar” sculpture in Gyumri’s Old Town

From the 1860s to the 1920s, about a thousand beautiful buildings were built in Gyumri from the local tufa rock. Initially red and black colors were used in their decoration but later, when red tufa was exhausted, white plaster was used for the facades, with black tufa masonry alternating with it.

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Of the later buildings of the last century a number of residential houses with semicircular arches and lancet windows – an original reinterpretation of traditional Armenian architecture – attracts attention.

Today it is possible to explore Gyumri in an orderly and purposeful way by following the hiking route. Be guided by the signs and pay attention to the information boards installed near the sights.

Slowly strolling through the romantic narrow streets of the old neighborhoods with tiny stores and boutiques, stopping at the market looking for traditional Armenian delicacies, you will understand why Gyumri has long been called the city of poets and ashugs, crafts and arts, as well as the capital of Armenian humor.

The sights of Gyumri

In the 80s of the last century it was planned to organize a historical-cultural reserve in the historical area of the city, as here the best ensemble of commercial and handicraft architecture in Armenia is represented, but these plans were interrupted by the elements.

The historical quarter is located in the center of Gyumri, between Shahumyan Street and the park. A board with the scheme of the area, where the location of the historical sights is indicated, is installed near Surb Yot Verk church.

There are 20 replicas of the destroyed cross-stones in Julfa in the square of cross-stones. Gyumri Drama Theater

Central Square

This spacious area was called May Uprising Square during the Soviet era, then Freedom Square, and in 2009 it was renamed Vardanants Square.

In general, it has not changed its appearance, which it acquired in 1926 after one of the earthquakes.

The Church of the Seven Ranks of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Yot Verk Surb Astvatsatsatsin), located here, was erected in 1873-1884 on the site of a 17th-century chapel. In 1988 it became a victim of a fatal earthquake. By 2001, for the celebration of the 1700th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity in Armenia, the church was largely restored, but at its foot there still lie the original fragments of the domes that fell during the natural disaster.

The interior of the church is skillfully decorated with paintings, and its distinctive feature is that it is the only Armenian church with an iconostasis on the altar.

The Church of All Savior (Amenaprkich) decorates the southern part of the square. It was built in 1860-1873 and is considered to be the most beautiful and of great historical value. The temple was erected according to the design of Tadevos Andikyan, based on the image of the cathedral in Ani, the ancient city located today in Turkish territory. It is a magnificent building with rich ornaments that artfully decorate its facade and interiors.

Under Soviet rule, the church’s bell tower was blown up and it became a concert hall. During the earthquake of 1988, the church was destroyed almost to the ground. Today it is restored, but the process is very slow, because the building is being assembled literally by bits and pieces, like a shattered precious vase, trying to use the remaining original fragments. In 20 years, during which the reconstruction lasts, they almost managed to return the church to its former appearance: the specialists headed by the architect went to Turkey, visited Ani and took exact measurements so that the church in Gyumri corresponded to its prototype.

The square to the east of the temple contains copies of ancient cross-stones (carved steles with images of crosses and relief ornaments) which were destroyed in the oldest medieval cemetery in Julfa.

Modern cross-stones can also be found in the city streets. The art of creating this intricate carving is included in the intangible sites of the World Cultural Heritage of UNESCO.

In the center of the square is a sculptural composition, depicting the Armenian hero, legendary commander, defender of the Christian faith, Vardan Mamikonyan, who died in the 5th century in a battle of Avarayr against the hordes of Iranian Sassanids. The Armenian Apostolic Church has canonized Vardan Mimikonian and the soldiers who fell with him as saints.

The Black fortress

On the elevated western outskirts of Gyumri, which was the center of the city in the 19th century, a gloomy black tuff cylindrical building rises on a hill.

This height had always been strategic for the army and after the integration of Armenian territories into the Russian Empire the construction of the Sev Gkhul – Black Sentinel fortress started here. Intended to protect the borders from the Persian and Turkish threat, it is perfectly preserved and represents semicircular Cossack quarters, as well as the remains of a Cossack post and sloboda.

During the archaeological work, more ancient cultural layers were found under the Black fortress, indicating that the structure was built on the site of older buildings.

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From the fortress wall an impressive panorama of Gyumri opens from one side, and from the other side behind the power lines one can see the border with Turkey and a monumental sculpture-allegory of Mother Armenia.

Russian Chapel

The church-chapel of the Archangel Michael was built in 1879-80 and served as a funeral church: there was the burial of the Russian soldiers who fell in numerous assaults of the Turkish fortress of Kars. The necropolis in the courtyard of the chapel is called the Hill of Honour.

The design of the chapel is very unusual: the walls are reinforced by strong buttresses, and a Russian-style pyramidal dome rises above them. The Armenians call it Plplan (Shining): the metallic dome brightly reflects the sun’s glare.

Museums

The Museum of National Architecture and Everyday Life of the city is situated in a building that was constructed in 1872 and is a magnificent example of the pre-revolutionary architecture of Gyumri. Here one can see pictures, household items and exhibits of local history dating back to Alexandropol. You have to pay an entrance fee to the museum (120 rubles).

The house-museum of the Aslamazyan sisters is also worth visiting, which also houses an art gallery. In 2014, the jury of the “Museum Night” contest recognized it as the best in Armenia. The museum, located in a beautiful building with carved wooden balconies, was opened in the 1980s. After the earthquake it was reconstructed for a long time and was reopened for visitors only in 2004. Paintings and ceramics by Maryam Aslamazyan and her younger sister Yeranuhi are on display – over 600 exhibits in total. The works of the famous sisters are known not only in Armenia. Some of them are exhibited in the Tretyakov and Dresden Galleries.

Central Park

In this green corner the locals and guests of Gyumri love to spend time. Actually, there are no special sights in the park, but the atmosphere that reigns here is absolutely special. It looks like an illustration to the Soviet movies of the 50s: viewing platform with a colonnade, phone booths, a fountain with a sculpture of a girl with an oar, and, of course, an observation wheel from which there is a wonderful view over the city and surroundings.

The Surroundings of Gyumri

From Gyumri you can go on fascinating excursions to the nearest surroundings. During the tour explore picturesque landscapes, places where archaeological excavations are conducted. It is interesting to visit ancient temples and monasteries. These include:

  • The ruins of the Gyumri fortress, erected during the Urartu state;
  • Arichavank monastery complex (VII-XIII centuries);
  • Marmashen Monastery (10th century);
  • the cathedral in the former capital of the Bagratid kingdom of Ani (11th cent.);
  • the ruins of the basilica of Anipemza (V cent.);
  • The famous Arich Monastery, which has been the summer residence of the Catholicos since the middle of the 19th century.

Seasons

The climate in Gyumri, as in most parts of mountainous Armenia, is sharply continental, with hot and dry summers and frosty, moderately snowy winters. Of the major cities, Gyumri is the coldest. Frosty winters last from December to March, sometimes with temperatures dropping to -40 ° C and below.

Spring comes at the end of March. June, as a rule, is much cooler than the rest of the summer months, because it is in June that the greatest amount of precipitation falls. From July to late September it is hot, the temperature sometimes exceeds +35 ° C (such heat usually comes in August).

The warm autumn in Gyumri lasts until the beginning of November, and then it gets cold.

Restaurants

Gyumri is a wonderful place for food lovers: the choice of food here is excellent, and the prices in restaurants and cafes are not expensive.

Cherkezi Dzor restaurant, nestled in the picturesque gorge of the same name, is called a fish paradise. Only fresh fish is served here, which is caught locally. It is cooked in different ways, and the specialty is sturgeon kebab. A shish kebab of sturgeon and trout costs 500 rubles per kilo. The atmosphere in the restaurant is homely, there are open and closed rooms.

Many tourists are delighted with the restaurant Gyumri Hacatun: the prices here are low, and the portions are grandiose. The restaurant offers Armenian and Georgian cuisine in all its glory. The sturgeon and mutton shish kebab deserve special praise. The only drawback is that the cash register doesn’t accept bank cards.

Devotees of Caucasian cuisine will also enjoy the restaurant Vanatur.

Lovers of Italian cuisine can visit Pizza DiNapoli. This restaurant has a great selection of pizzas and salads cooked according to traditional Italian recipes. An added bonus is free Wi-Fi.

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For a truly delicious, fragrant espresso, go to Le Café. The hospitable staff knows how to make an invigorating drink. Sadly, Le Café opens on 1 May, which is the start of the season and closed in winter.

Accommodation

Gyumri lives a rather modest life and is not the best place for building luxury hotels. The hotels of budget category are mainly represented here, but there are several 4-star hotels.

The number one hotel in Gyumri is the Nane Hotel, judging by the positive reviews it has received. It is located north of the historic center. This small cozy hotel has a beautiful interior, spacious rooms with modern furniture, and courteous staff. The price for a day’s stay starts from 2 240 rubles. It also includes Wi-Fi and a wonderful breakfast: homemade eggs, honey, local cheese, cottage cheese, fresh fruit.

Berlin Art Hotel is also popular. It was built by the German Red Cross after the 1988 earthquake and originally served as a hospital. The outside of the building looks unassuming, but its walls are dominated by cleanliness and order. Contemporary art is on display here. Excellent breakfast and Wi-Fi are included in the price, which starts from 1735 rubles per day. The hotel has a system of discounts for tourist groups, humanitarian organizations and tourists, who stay here for a long time.

Among the modest hotels there are Guest House Dompolski, Vanatur Hotel, Guest House Dompolski (prices start at 500 rubles per night). They are clean, the staff is polite, tourists are provided with Wi-Fi (doesn’t always work fast) and breakfast is light and monotonous. These hotels are within walking distance of the city center.

If you intend to visit Gyumri in the fall or winter, check if your hotel is well heated: many tourists complain about the dampness and cold in the rooms even of those hotels that are considered prestigious.

How to get there

Gyumri’s Shirak Airport is 5 km from the city and receives flights from Moscow, Rostov-on-Don and Sochi.

You can get to Gyumri from Yerevan by train, bus or minibus. The trip takes about 2.5 hours.

If you like the freedom of movement, rent a car in Yerevan. The road surface is not the best, but there are beautiful views and you can stop in any picturesque place.

What to see in and around Gyumri

After the earthquake, Gyumri is restoring the traditions of a city of masters in different spheres – culture and art, crafts and sports.

Gyumri, the second largest city in Armenia, is located in the north, 126 km from Yerevan, the administrative center of the Shirak region, 10 km from the city is the border with Turkey.

The first written mention (by the famous Greek historian Xenophon) about the settlement dates back to the 5th century B.C. Some researchers attribute the name of the city to the pre-Scythian tribes of the Kimmer. The town’s former names, Alexandropol (in honor of the Russian Empress) and Leninakan, date to the periods when it was part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, respectively. The historic name was returned to the city in 1992.

The city and its population

By the end of the 19th century Alexandrapol was the third commercial and cultural center of Transcaucasia, after Tiflis and Baku. The next prosperity of the city is connected with the Soviet period. By the end of the Soviet period the population of the city reached 240 thousand.

Luckily, in contrast to the chronologically older Yerevan, Gyumri preserved quarters of beautiful old houses built in the second half of the 19th century. The quarters of old buildings are harmoniously combined with low-rise buildings (“stalinkas”) built in the first half of the 20th century.

Many Armenian actors, poets, writers, Hussans (folk bards), athletes were born or lived in Gyumri. Therefore it is not surprising that many expressive monuments were erected in their honor. It was in Gyumri that the first Armenian opera and the first ballet performance took place. Before the earthquake the city seriously competed with Yerevan for the title of the cultural capital of Armenia.

In the second half of the 20th century, the architectural image of Gyumri, like that of other Soviet cities, was badly damaged by blocks of faceless “Khrushchevs”. These blocks were most affected by the catastrophic earthquake of 1988. Some of the ancient buildings were destroyed or damaged.

At present the ancient city is still healing the wounds caused by the natural disaster. The Kumairi Historical and Cultural Reserve (another historical name for the city), interrupted for three decades, has now resumed its work in the historical districts of the city. It includes old buildings and streets of great architectural value.

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The situation is much worse in the social sphere. Gyumri has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and emigration is rampant. The number of people living in the city today is half of what it was before the earthquake. However, these problems are, to a lesser extent, peculiar to all post-Soviet Armenia.

Gyumri has always been considered the center of Armenian humor (like Gabrovo in Bulgaria). The city even has monuments to the jokers who lived here. The current generations of Gyumri citizens haven’t lost their faith in the future of the city, which is loved by many Armenians in a special way.

Geography and climate

The city is located in a seismically dangerous zone, where strong earthquakes periodically occur. The city was badly damaged by these natural disasters in 1926 and 1988. Gyumri is in a basin surrounded by mountain ranges at an altitude of 1550 m above sea level. The continental climate of the city is rather harsh. Winters resemble the middle belt of Russia. It is almost always snowy and cold, and in some years, frosts can reach -40°C. Summers are moderately hot, without the extreme temperatures that are not uncommon in some Armenian regions.

Accommodation and Prices

The best tourist times in Gyumri are ahead, so the prices of accommodation and food in the city are moderate not only by European standards. Judging by the reviews of guests, the best city hotel is Alexandrapol Palace Hotel (70 Mayakovsky Street). Its exterior and especially interior decoration really looks like a palace. Excellent marks tourists and the level of service. It is pleasant that in this first-class hotel you may stay in the available standard rooms. Their daily price depending on the season is 4000 RUR – 5000 RUR.

In Nane Hotel, which is considered a 5 star hotel (Garegin Nzhdeh Street, 1/5), a similar room costs RUR 5000 per day. In a very decent 3-star Berlin Art Hotel (25, Akhtanaki Ave.) 3000 RUR will be enough. The building was built by the German Red Cross after the earthquake, and the word Art is associated with the exhibition of contemporary art inside the hotel. Even cheaper accommodation will be available in guest houses.

Food and dining

There is also a recognized leader among catering establishments – the fish restaurant Cherkezi Dzor (“Cherkezi Gorge”). It works from 11:00 till 23:00 on Karmir Berd street. The restaurant has its own fish farm. The fish (4 varieties of “ishkhan” – trout and Siberian sturgeon) is fished in front of the client and cooked right away. During this time the visitor can … go for a walk on horseback. Besides fish shish kebab in pita bread, in the restaurant menu there are pancakes and dumplings with trout, sandwiches with caviar, sea-buckthorn jam pie. A more than hearty lunch (without liquor) will not cost more than 500 RUR.

Restaurants Gyumri Hacatun and Vanatur have good reputations. They specialize in dishes of famous Armenian and Georgian cuisine.

The most popular first dish is khash cooked from lamb or beef shanks. It is so caloric that it is eaten separately and only in the morning. As for the second course, lamb shashlik takes first place. Spelt, rice, beans, lentils, millet are widely spread. Greens and spices – cilantro, tarragon, basil, thyme are frequent attributes of dishes.

Transportation

The city has an airport “Shirak” which receives flights from Moscow, Rostov and Sochi. Pobeda” low-cost airline operates flights to Gyumri from Moscow. The approximate cost of the ticket is 3000 RUR, and the travel time is 2 hours 35 minutes. These cheapest flights to Armenia are used by thrifty Russian tourists. After all, the cost of the air ticket Moscow-Yerevan and ordinary flights Moscow-Gyumri is at least one-third higher. Such travelers can take advantage of the bus transfer to Yerevan, provided by “Pobeda” company. It will increase the cost of the ticket by about 500 RUR.

As for the transport connection between Gyumri and Yerevan, from 7:00 to 20:00 you can choose between a shuttle bus, a private car and an electric train. The shuttles leave from Gyumri bus station as they are filled up (you should wait not more than half an hour). The fare per person is 1500 AMD, and the travel time is two hours. It is also possible to get there by a private car with usually four passengers. Each of them will pay 2500 AMD. The minimum price for a cab is 10000 AMD. But even here it is not difficult to wait for a hitchhiker or two.

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Electric trains are less convenient because they spend more than 3 hours in transit, and they leave at fixed hours – 8:00 and 6:00 pm. However, they are considerably cheaper – 1000 AMD. Another plus is that the train station building is quite interesting architecturally. There’s even an open-air museum with steam and diesel locomotives.

Very affordable prices for intracity transportation. You should pay only 12 RUR for a bus or shuttle bus, and not more than 1000 AMD for a cab within the city.

What to see in Gyumri

Most of the local attractions are located in the center of the city, within walking distance. Information boards, installed next to them, are a great help in orientating.

The main peculiarity of Gyumri is about thousands of beautiful houses built in the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. This building is the best in Armenia. The works for the creation of the historical-cultural reserve Kumayri on their basis are at a good pace and it promises to become the center of tourism in the city.

The central square of the town was named in honor of the iconic figure in the history of Armenia, commander Vardan Mamikonyan. In the 5th century he led the struggle of the Armenian people against a powerful neighbor, Persia, which tried to impose Zoroastrianism on the first Christian state.

In the center of the square is an equestrian monument to the commander and his associates. To the left of it you can see the Church of Our Savior, which was built in the second half of the 19th century. During the Soviet years the church was a concert hall. The building, which was almost completely destroyed by the elements, has now been completely restored.

Opposite this church is the diocesan St. Astvatsatsin (Holy Virgin) Church of the 17th century, which has the second name Yot Verk (Seven Wounds) and is associated with the seven wounds of Christ. The church of St. Astvatsatsin lost its domes during the earthquake, which, however, was intended by its builders. The domes, having taken the brunt of the blow, reduced the damage to the rest of the church. The restoration of the church is not yet complete. Its peculiarity is its unusually opulent interior for ascetic Armenian churches. Nowhere else can you see an altar with an iconostasis.

There is also St. Alexandra Russian Orthodox Church in Gyumri (24 Nalbandyan Street), which the locals call “Plplan zham” – the sparkling chapel. The point is that the galvanized dome reflects the sun’s glare, so it is clearly visible from afar. Russian soldiers who died in several wars with the Turks were buried in the church. On the place of their burial, the Hill of Honor, a few years ago was opened Memorial Complex. The powerful dark-grey defensive structure, “Sev ghul” (Black Sentinel), also reminds of the long Russian presence. There is a Russian military base in Gyumri even now.

There is a square of khachkars (“cross-stones”) near the Amenaprkich Church. The unique Armenian art of making steles with stone carvings of crosses and ornaments is included in the list of UNESCO. The largest collection of 10,000 cross-stones was located in the medieval Armenian cemetery in Julfa, now in Azerbaijan. At the beginning of this century, modern vandals destroyed it. In the square of cross-stones, copies of some of them have been recreated (there is a similar alley in Yerevan as well).

Vardanants Square connects to another large square, Ankakhutyan (Independence) Square, a beautiful boulevard named after Nikolai Ryzhkov with many stores and a souvenir market. The former chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers arrived in the then Leninakan immediately after the earthquake and for several months headed the initial stage of reconstruction work. Ryzhkov has left a good memory in Armenia. He was awarded with the title of Hero of Armenia, and a monument was established in the epicenter of the earthquake, in the town of Spitak.

You can combine your stay in Gyumri with visiting historical monuments nearby. These are monasteries Marmashen (X century) almost on the border with Turkey, Arichavank (VII-XIII centuries) and Aruch (VII century). They are part of a tourist tour to Gyumri from Yerevan.

Conclusion

Memorable cities necessarily have their own face, unlike others. Gyumri undoubtedly belongs to these cities, and this is felt by those who have a keen sense of it. From a tourism point of view, it is a kind of “sleeping princess. Fortunately, there are good reasons to believe that in the near future, a city that has fully recovered from the earthquake will become an adornment of tourist routes in Armenia.

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