As I have stated many times in these e-postcards, football is an excuse to travel, not the other way round. Being a follower of the Irish national team affords many opportunities to travel off to not-so-obvious destinations that I would otherwise never consider visiting. So when Armenia were drawn in Ireland’s Euro 2012 qualifying group, this was the one game I most wanted to attend. And here I am, writing from Yerevan, the sweltering capital of Armenia.
And make no mistake, it is HOT. Temperatures touching 40 degrees during the day and not dropping below 30 even during the dead of night. Not surprising given that Armenia is part of the Middle East really. After all, Iraq is closer to Ireland than Armenia. Despite the blazing heat, almost nobody wears shorts. The sight of pasty Irishmen strolling around with exposed legs must have been a big culture shock to the hospitable locals.
Not everywhere is air conditioned (my hotel thankfully is) so the only way to stay cool is to sit outside and drink. That’s our excuse and we are sticking to it. The local beers Kilikia and Kotayak claim to be 12.5% proof. If this is true, I am now immune to the effects of alcohol…
Went to an Armenian restaurant and sampled some of the local food. The main meal was a concoction of boiled beef and fresh vegetables on an open sandwich of pitta bread that was nothing to write home about. But the restaurant owner insisted on plying me with glass after complimentary glass of Armenia vodka, which was LETHAL. Any more than the one and a half glasses I just about held down and I would have been comatose.
Yerevan is a small city of 1.1 million people. The look of the place is that which you would expect of former Soviet cities. Wide open boulevards of multi-lane traffic circling huge open squares. Grand palaces rub shoulders next to bland tower blocks, and construction work everywhere as investment comes in and said tower blocks are being torn down to be replaced.
More than anywhere else in the world I have been to, you really take your life into your own hands crossing the roads here. Attempting to get to the other side entails running the gauntlet of 5 lanes of traffic who don’t stop when the green man is flashing. Best to wait for a local person crossing and follow in their slipstream.
The main sight to visit in Yerevan is the Armenian Genocide Memorial Tsitsernakaberd Park. Over 1.5 million Armenians were massacred by the Turks in 1915 in what is referred to as The Forgotten Holocaust. It’s something I must admit I knew little about and found it eye-openingly educational. What’s more, many Irish fans were there at the same time as me, confounding the Irish reputation of doing nothing but drinking in Irish bars all day.
Also worth seeing was the Cafesjan Center For The Arts, popularly known as The Cascades. It is built into a hill, with the outside landscaped into spectacular terraced gardens and fountains. It’s possible to take escalators up to the top, but naturally we walked up the steps. Not a wise move in said boiling temperatures, but the views at the top were a reward to behold.
The match itself was at the Republic Stadium, a 20-minute walk south west of the city centre. From the outside it looks like an imposing communist era ground of granite columns and heroic statutes. Inside it was a low, modern-ish, 1 tier stadium of 20,000 capacity that was about three quarters full for the occasion. Only about 500-600 Irish fans made the journey here, but we certainly made ourselves heard. Ireland scraped a 1-0 win with a Keith Fahey goal in the last 15 minutes. But once again it was goalkeeper Shay Given who kept Ireland in it with a string of fine saves. And to think he can’t get a game for Manchester City.
So there you have it. Our qualifying campaign is up and running (And France losing at home to Belarus was a happy bonus) on another enjoyable trip. With all the investment and building work going on here, Yerevan sees itself as a future Paris or London. I’m not so sure about that. It’s a long journey to get here (flying for seven hours via Moscow) but for us, it was most certainly worth it.