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Undiscovered Armenia, Europe's most underrated destination has a big heart

Mountain Ararat and Yerevan city, Armenia - © iStockphoto/Mikhail Pogosov

By Ben Lerwill

With the biblical beauty of Mount Ararat, a relaxed pace of life and welcoming residents, Armenia's capital, Yerevan, is the perfect place for an original and unpredictable city break.

Modernity meets tradition

I spent 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 placed 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 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 had excellent views over the capital’s almond-coloured cityscape, the skyline punctuated by imposing civic buildings. In the distance, green plains stretched to snow-capped mountains.

Is Armenia Europe’s most disregarded nation? It’s certainly ignored by the travel media. It has brandy, 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. As a proposition among the wider travel community, it hasn’t found its niche.

Two decades of independence

Yerevan, the capital, barely bumps the tourism radar. Until quite recently, I probably couldn’t have told you it was in the Caucasus. And when I started reading up on it, I wasn’t sure it was for me. A post-Soviet metropolis tucked away on the furthest fringes of the continent? It sounded trying. It has the novelty factor and, inevitably, a good range of Stalinist edifices. But a decent cultural city break? Doubtful.
 
But Armenia celebrates 20 years of independence on September 21 2011, and two decades is enough time for a city to define itself. I was 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) – made it a genuine geopolitical and cultural crossroads.

More than a million people call Yerevan home, and the immediate feel was of a far more Continental, brightly buffed destination than I’d expected. It was busy – crowded even – but full of life being lived slowly.  Boulevards stretched between civic squares, the fashionable heel-clacked their way to ice-cream stalls, and a river valley formed a green belt around the city centre. It had a character that wasn’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 were very much in evidence too, with boxy Ladas trundling past Gucci, Mothercare and Burberry stores.

Religious sites, apricot vodka 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 got 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 thirteenth-century tract known as ‘The Homilies of Mush’, had been made from the skins of 660 calves. Elsewhere in the galleries were letters, bibles and philosophical works, all beautifully embellished with painstaking calligraphy and hand-mixed natural colours. Were it to come to London, it’s the kind of priceless, mind-blowing collection that would have commentators crowing. 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 its secular pulse, in the evening I found myself a prime spot at the southern end of Hyusisayin Poghota, a broad, Ramblas-style urban strollway. I watched as the fountains on Republic Square turned into focal points for families, couples, balloon-sellers and backgammon players.

Not for the first time, I could see why Yerevan had earned its reputation as the most relaxed of the Caucasus capitals. The mood persisted when I went 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 there was no compromise on the food. Homemade apricot vodka rounded off a generous meal of vine-wrapped rice and barbecued lamb. By 11pm, I was 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 woke to see it glowing majestically above the rooftops, every bit as mighty as its Biblical status would indicate.

Swayed by the sunshine, I got a taxi to the pilgrimage site at its base, the Khor Virap Monastery, which sits just inside the Armenian border. It’s 30 kilometres 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 5,137 metre-high apex. I arrived an hour before the tour buses, and spent 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 – there is no attempt to sensationalise the tragedy, an approach that serves to heighten the horror – while outside, a memorial stands over an eternal flame. There is also a garden of trees planted by representatives of international states who recognise the genocide, including the UK, US, France and Russia. It gave my last day in Yerevan a profoundly sobering tone, but made the trip even more worthwhile.

Rough-edged, under-touristed charm

As a cultural break, the Armenian capital offers an original weekend away, with enough of an infrastructure to take the stress out of a visit and sufficient rough-edged, under-touristed charm to keep things pleasingly unpredictable. I was welcomed as some sort of dignitary when I chanced to wander into the city chess club during an all-ages competition, and later spent 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 had the chance to meet were warm and hospitable – but this isn’t just somewhere to come for smiles and brandy shots. Yerevan, particularly when combined with other parts of this tiny nation, is a lot more notable than its international status would suggest.

World Heritage Sites to visit in Armenia

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 (Haghpat pictured above) sit close to each other on the lip of the Debed Canyon in the north of the country. Both were founded in the tenth century.

Geghard Monastery

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 visithttp://whc.unesco.org.

Fast facts

Getting there

Several airlines operate direct and indirect flights to Yerevan from major UK airports, including: bmiAir FranceKLMAir BerlinLOT and Flybe. Return flights start at around £250-£450.

Hotels

The Armenia Marriott Hotel Yerevan enjoys one of the best locations in town. Doubles from £180 per night.

Anahit Stepanyan (+374 1 052 75 89) offers home stays in an art-filled apartment overlooking the Opera House. The flat is up several flights of stairs. £12 per night.

Restaurants

Our Village (5 Sayat Nova Av, +374 1 054 87 00) combines home-style cooking with live music and trad decor. Meal for two plus wine: £25.

Clubs

Malkhas Jazz Club (52 Pushkini St, +374 1 053 17 78) is a classy music venue with two nightly performances. It’s open until 3am, and there’s a £5 cover charge.

Time Out guidebooks

1000 Great Holiday Ideas

Plan your perfect trip with this inspirational compendium of failsafe holiday suggestions. It's packed with fresh ideas for traditional breaks, from beach idylls to winter sun and family camping, along with great suggestions for trying something different – all around the world. Whether you're looking for a weekend break or the trip of a lifetime, Time Out's worldwide team of travel specialists can take you there.

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