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Gyumri (population - 120,000 people) is the principal city of northwest Armenia and the administrative centre of Shirak. A city of stately Russian architecture, cobbled streets and a bustling market, Gyumri is one of the most attractive towns in the country, and also one of the most tragic. Gyumri was almost completely destroyed by the 1988 earthquake. At 11.41 on Wednesday 7 December 1988 - when most adults were at work and most children at school - around 60% of the buildings were destroyed by an earthquake. The epicentre of the earthquake, which measured 6.9 on the Richter scale, was 30km east of Gyumri in Lori province near the small town of Spitak (population then about 25,000) where every building was destroyed.

As a result, the northwestern-most city in Armenia has dwindled to almost half its 1988 size. You can still see devastated buildings around town, as well as historic structures under careful reconstruction. Twenty years after the quake, life is only beginning to normalise, although locals still seem to talk about it as though it occurred last week. Jobs have returned, permanent housing has replaced most of the cargo container homes and the population has increased two-fold.

The problems Armenia has had in dealing with the aftermath of the earthquake have long made any visit to Gyumri a salutary experience. However, not to go there means missing an important aspect of modern Armenian history. Apart from the direct impact of the earthquake, an indirect consequence was the shutting of Metsamor nuclear power station because of its vulnerability to any further earthquakes. It was the closure of Metsamor, by far Armenia's biggest source of electricity, coupled with the blockade by Azerbaijan and Turkey as a result of the war over Nagorno Karabagh, which led to most Armenians having no electricity and hence no heat during the winters of 1992/93, 1993/94 and 1994/95.

On the whole, Gyumri is now a bustling city like any other although the scars are evident in the populace as well as in the buildings.

The townsfolk of Gyumri have a distinctive accent with hints of western Armenian, and a famously ridiculous sense of humour in tandem with conservative social mores. Other Armenians like to tease Gyumritsis about local delicacies such as kalla (cow’s head) and the particularly rich stew of khash made here in the cold seasons. The winters last longer here than in Yerevan, until April or May. Few travellers come this way, most people choosing to travel between Yerevan and Tbilisi via Sevan and Dilijan. But if you are on a loop tour of northern Armenia then Gyumri becomes is a necessary stop and jumping-off point for several sites including Marmashen and Harichavank. Visitors will be treated to some good-value accommodation, decent restaurants and the remnants of 19th-century Russian colonialism.

Gyumri was first settled around 400 BC, possibly by Greek colonists. It was caught up in the long struggles for supremacy between the Persian and Ottoman empires and the town was inhabited periodically until the early 19th century, when the Russians moved in and built a large military garrison. However, the older surviving buildings, mostly in the centre, date from the period after Russia gained control of the region following the Russo-Turkish war of 1828-29. A fortress was quickly built to defend the new border and in 1837, when Tsar Nicholas I visited Gyumri, the town was renamed Alexandropol after Nicholas's wife, Tsaritsa Alexandra Fedorovna. That name lasted until 1924 when it was again renamed, this time in honour of the recently deceased Lenin. A steady influx of settlers arrived from Russia and the western Armenian cities of Kars and Erzurum. As the third largest city in the Caucasus, after Tbilisi and Baku, Gyumri was an important trading post between the Ottoman Empire and the rest of Asia and Russia. As a transport hub it was a stop on the rail journey from Tbilisi to Tabriz.

In 1920 the Turkish-Armenian war ended here with the signing of the Treaty of Alexandropol, an event that ceased the Turkish advance on Yerevan. In Soviet times the border was shut and Alexandropol became known as Leninakan.

The survival of the older buildings indicates that under Tsarist rule construction was to higher standards than in the Soviet era. It is possible to imagine a time when Gyumri, with its mix of smart new buildings and renovated attractive old buildings, the shoddy Soviet-era constructions having been swept away by the earthquake, will once again be a pleasant place to live.

The Gyumri airport still runs a few flights each day, but the town exists more as a matter of tradition than usefulness today. It used to be the last major stop for goods traveling into Turkey and Georgia, so many of the farmers from the Mount Aragats valley brought their items into Gyumri to sell. In ancient times, Gyumri was an important trading center, probably for traders coming across the mountains through what is now Turkey. It was first mentioned in a cuneiform inscription found at the Marmashen church complex thought to be from the seventh century B.C., and Greek historian Xenophon included the city in his writings from the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.

Currently, there is little to see in Gyumri. There are a few museums and ancient churches, as well as a 19th-century Russian fortress. The ruins from the earthquake have yet to be rebuilt and may not be for many years, as most of the people whose homes and workplaces were destroyed have moved to other cities by now. In between Gyumri and Yerevan lies Mount Aragats, the highest mountain currently in Armenia, at about 14,000 feet. Ashtarak, the closest town of any size, has 20,000 people. It is known for its heavy wine but actually is more interesting for its old structures. It has a fifth-century church and bridge, as well as many monuments and tombs. It also has a 13th-century church. The small town-fortress of Ambered was constructed during the reign of Kamsarid in the seventh century to protect their kingdom from invaders. At more than 7,000 feet above sea level, on the slopes of Mt. Aragats, the fortress has views over the Urartian Plan.

Sights & Activities - The historic core of town, the Kumayri neighbourhood, is between Azatutyan Hraparak and the city park. While not as intact as Goris, the buildings of Kumayri are of a finer standard. Gyumri’s atmospheric 19th century Astvatsatsin Church, locally called Yot Verk (Seven Wounds), stands on the northern side of the square. The battered and worn roof cones from an earlier incarnation of the church stand outside. On the south side of the square is the Amenaprkich (All Saviours) Church, which is being ever so slowly restored to its pre-earthquake glory. Nearby, the shuka is something of an attraction with its endless piles of fruit, whirling coffee grinders and rows of cognac bottles.

A couple of blocks north of Yot Verk is the more modest Surp Nishan Church, built in 1870 and restored in 2003. The old buildings along Gorki Poghots and by the city park are worth wandering around – some buildings are shells; others have been restored to their prime. On Teryan Poghots there is a 19thcentury pyramid-shaped Russian army chapel with a peaked silver roof. Continuing over the hill for 500m or so brings you to the Sev Ghul or ‘black sentry’ fort. From here you can see the Mother Armenia statue on an adjacent hill, towards the Turkish border.

The Museum of National Architecture and Urban Life of Gyumri (47 Haghtanaki Poghots; working hours 10am-5pm Tue-Sun) is a substantial building set back from the corner with Teryan Poghots. The 1872 mansion of the Dzitoghtsyans includes fine furniture and authentic decor, plus an art gallery and displays on local history. An attached gallery of sculptures by Sergei Merkurov contains more Lenins and Stalins than you can shake a sickle at. The Museum of the Aslamazyan Sisters (232 Abovyan Poghots; working hours 10am-5pm Mon-Fri) on what was once Kumayri’s finest promenade is another house museum with a display of traditional furnishings and more contemporary artworks. About 30km north of Gyumri, the village of Ashotsk offers a range of activities in both summer and winter, including kayaking, biking and cross-country skiing. Artur Mikayelyan organises these activities and offers accommodation in his simple home. Marsharutkas from Gyumri run to Ashotsk hourly during the day. It’s a great way to experience rural Armenia and stay active too.

Getting There & Around - Buses and marshrutkas, including those to Yerevan (two hours, every 20 minutes 7am to 7pm), leave from the avtokayan on Tigranyan Poghots. Transport to Vanadzor (one hour) leaves almost hourly between 9am and 4.30pm. Marshrutkas travel daily to Tbilisi (3,5 hours, 10.30am). Vanadzor is on the train line between Yerevan and Tbilisi; there is a train every day in one direction (even days to Tbilisi and odd days back to Yerevan). Train travel is two to three times slower than road travel; it takes 3,5 hours to reach Yerevan and between 10 and 12 hours to reach Tbilisi. Call the station to confirm schedules. There are lots of taxis in Gyumri and cheap marshrutkas all over town. A taxi ride from the avtokayan to Garegin Nzhdeh Poghots should cost around AMD500; an urban marshrutka costs AMD100. Shirak Airport, which is 5km southeast of town, is served by Siberian Airlines (Moscow, Novosibirsk), Ural Airlines (Ekaterinburg), Aeroflot-Don (Sochi, Rostov) and Armavia (Moscow). There are plenty of ticket agencies in town.

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