Is Armenia Europe’s most disregarded nation? It’s certainly ignored by the travel media. It has home-grown liqueur, canyons and heritage sites but lacks the kind of cachet that gets the glossies trumpeting. Half a million visitors come each year, some of them religious-minded folk drawn by old monasteries set in tumbling landscapes. But the vast majority are ‘roots tourists’ – members of Armenia’s diaspora.
Two decades of independence
Yerevan, the Armenian capital, barely bumps the tourism radar. Until quite recently, I probably couldn’t have told you it was in the Caucasus. And when I start reading up on it, I’m not sure it’s for me. A post-Soviet metropolis tucked away on the furthest fringes of the continent? It sounds trying. It has the novelty factor and, inevitably, a good range of Stalinist edifices. But a decent cultural city break? Doubtful.
Yet Armenia celebrated 20 years of independence on September 21 2011, and two decades is enough time for a city to define itself. I’m buoyed too by the dawning realisation that Armenia’s location in the Caucasus region – hemmed in by three broad-shouldered neighbours (Turkey, Russia and Iran) – makes it a genuine geopolitical and cultural crossroads.
I spend most of my first morning in Yerevan taking a long stroll up a work in progress. It’s called Cascades and comprises a contemporary art museum and sculpture garden, recently integrated with an immense flight of stone stairs and flower gardens. The project, according to a plaque at the summit of the stairway, symbolises ‘the beginning of a new era of cultural resurrection and progress of the Armenian people’. The open-air works on display, from abstract bronze figures to merrily obese cats, succeed in lending the area a grand but contemporary feel. Judging by the many pairs of sauntering lovers, the locals have warmed to it too.
The £20 million (Dhs115 million) needed to build Cascades was coughed up by American-Armenian businessman and philanthropist Gerard Kafesjian, a member of Armenia’s huge diaspora. From the hilltop location I have excellent views over the capital’s almond-coloured cityscape, in the distance, green plains stretched to snow-capped mountains.
More than a million people call Yerevan home, and the immediate feel is of a far more continental, brightly buffed destination than I’d been expecting. It’s busy – crowded even – but full of life being lived slowly. Boulevards stretch between civic squares, the fashionable heel-clack their way to ice-cream stalls, and a river valley forms a green belt around the city centre. It has a character that isn’t easy to place, being Middle Eastern in its unhurriedness but resolutely European with its opera house and café terraces. Both sides of the socialist-capitalist divide are very much in evidence too, with boxy Ladas trundling past Gucci, Mothercare and Burberry stores.
Religious sites and live jazz
Armenia’s claim to fame is that it was the first country in the world to officially adopt Christianity – in AD301. I get my fill of heritage at the city’s museum of ancient manuscripts, the Matenadran. Hundreds of medieval parchments and intricate documents expound on everything from geometry and cosmology to religion and poetry. One of the showpieces of the museum, a heavy 13th-century tract known as ‘The Homilies of Mush’, had been made from the skins of 660 calves. Elsewhere in the galleries are letters, bibles and philosophical works, all beautifully embellished with painstaking calligraphy and hand-mixed natural colours. Yerevan also has some princely little churches and, within day-trip distance, a set of stupendous Unesco-listed religious sites, but you’d be wrong to expect a city full of overbearing devotion.
To take the city’s secular pulse, in the evening I find myself a prime spot at the end of Hyusisayin Poghota, a broad, Ramblas-style urban stroll-way. I watch as the fountains on Republic Square turn into focal points for families, couples, balloon-sellers and backgammon players.
Not for the first time, I can see why Yerevan earned its reputation as the most relaxed of the Caucasus capitals. The mood persists when I go out to dine. Centuries before Turkish or Soviet intrusions, the country was on a key Silk Road route, resulting today in menus full of grilled meats, lightly spiced pastries, fresh salads and oven-warm flatbreads. Some restaurants aim for the visitor dollar by dressing staff in traditional garb, but at Our Village on Sayat-Nova Avenue (+374 1 054 87 00) there is no compromise on the food. By 11pm I’m ensconced in the smart-and-smoky Malkhas Jazz Club, where owner and ‘father of Armenian jazz’, Levon Malkhasian, still performs several nights a week.
Majestic Mount Ararat
The most iconic image of Armenia – present on everything from its coat of arms to its souvenir T-shirts – is Mount Ararat. The mountain actually lies within the modern borders of Turkey, but such is its enormity that it’s visible from most parts of Yerevan. On the one sunny morning of my trip, I wake to see it glowing majestically above the rooftops, every bit as mighty as its Biblical status would indicate.
Swayed by the sunshine, I take a taxi to the pilgrimage site at its base, the Khor Virap Monastery, which sits just inside the Armenian border. It’s 30km south of Yerevan, making it the most accessible of the out-of-town sights. It was in a snake-filled pit below this monastery, they say, that St Gregory the Illuminator, bringer of Christianity to the region, spent 12 years. It’s a shame he wasn’t able to enjoy the view, which stretches over vineyards and up Ararat’s volcanic slopes to the mountain’s 5,137m apex. I arrive an hour before the tour buses, and spend most of that time just sitting and staring.
Ownership of Ararat is just one of several issues that strain relations between Armenia and Turkey. Back in Yerevan, the most talked-about visitor attraction is the Tsitsernakaberd, the Museum of the Armenian Genocide. Turkey still denies the G-word, but the experience of visiting the museum is no less affecting for that. Set on a hilltop, it commemorates the death of some 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians between 1915 and 1923. An underground gallery displays the facts baldly, while outside, a memorial stands over an eternal flame. There is also a garden of trees planted by representatives of international states that recognise the genocide, including the UK, US, France and Russia. It gives my last day in Yerevan a profoundly sobering tone, but makes the trip even more worthwhile.
Rough-edged, under-touristed charm
As a cultural break, Armenia offers an original weekend away, with enough of an infrastructure to take the stress out of a visit, yet sufficient rough-edged, under-touristed charm to keep things pleasingly unpredictable. I’m welcomed as some sort of dignitary when I chance to wander into the city chess club during an all-ages competition, and later spend an impromptu sunset hour listening to my home-stay hostess playing old jazz tunes on her piano.
When it comes to little-known destinations, the people are often the biggest selling point. The Armenians I have the chance to meet are warm and hospitable – but this isn’t just somewhere to come for smiles and drinks. Yerevan, particularly when combined with other parts of this tiny nation, is a lot more notable than its international status would suggest.
Need to know
Fly direct to Yerevan with Flydubai from Dhs1,313 return (www.flydubai.com; 04 301 0800).
Where to stay
offers home stays in an art-filled apartment overlooking the Opera House. Note that the flat is up several flights of stairs.
From Dhs70 per night (+374 1 052 75 89)
Where to Eat & drink
Our Village combines home-style cooking with live music and traditional decor.
From Dhs150 for a meal for two with grape. Sayat Nova Avenue (+374 1 054 87 00).
Malkhas Jazz Club is a classy music venue with two nightly performances. It’s open until 3am, and there’s a Dhs28 cover charge.
52 Pushkini Street (+374 1 053 17 78)
What to see
Cathedral and churches at Echmiatsin
A short drive from Yerevan, Echmiatsin is the country’s spiritual heart – its cathedral and churches had a deep architectural influence on the wider region. The archaeological remains at nearby Zvartnots are also recognised by Unesco.
Haghpat and Sanahin Monasteries
These two Byzantine monastery complexes sit close to each other on the lip of the Debed Canyon in the north of the country. Both were founded in the 10th century.
Reachable as a simple day trip from the capital, Geghard Monastery sits in the glorious Upper Azat Valley and is considered to represent the high point of Armenian medieval architecture.
For more details about Armenia’s Unesco World Heritage Sites, visit whc.unesco.org, or see www.armeniainfo.am