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. The 1988 Spitak earthquake levelled large sections of the city and drove most of the survivors away. 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 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.