x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

My Kind of Place: Yerevan has thrived through conquest

Its cultural heritage and relaxed atmosphere make the Armenian capital ideal for a short break.

The snow-capped Mount Ararat on the Turkish border can be seen from Yerevan city centre. Marianna Meliksetyan / iStockphoto.com
The snow-capped Mount Ararat on the Turkish border can be seen from Yerevan city centre. Marianna Meliksetyan / iStockphoto.com

Why Yerevan?

The Armenian capital cannot boast the exuberance of Baku in neighbouring Azerbaijan, nor does it have the beaches of Georgia's Black Sea resorts, but Yerevan stands head and shoulders above its fellow Caucasus cities thanks to its quiet, unassuming charm.

With a history that dates back to the eighth century BCE, Yerevan has been passed between numerous hands over the centuries and the influences of the Roman, Persian, Ottoman and Russian empires - to name just a few - are clearly visible, both in the architecture and numerous historic sites. There's also a developing arts scene that pays heavy tribute to its rich and colourful heritage.

Yerevan's elevation from small village to major economic centre only occurred over the past century, when it transformed into an administrative, scientific and cultural hub and home to more than a million people under Soviet rule. In spite this new status, however, it still retains the stress-free air of a town reluctant to join the rat race of most capitals. Couples slowly saunter through parks and coffee drinkers prop up outside cafes for hours on end.

For a relaxed, inexpensive weekend getaway, Yerevan - just over two hours' flight from Dubai and with glorious summer temperatures in the low 30s - is an unexpected treat.

A comfortable bed

Yerevan doesn't have a vast array of luxury hotels to choose from, but among the most established - and certainly the best located - is the Armenia Marriott Hotel (www.marriottarmenia.com; 00 374 10 599 000), in the heart of the city's central Republic Square. Like its grand, Russian-era front, which is illuminated at night, the rooms might feel slightly dated, but it's worth staying for the spectacular view of the square's dancing fountains from the lounge. A double room costs from 99,600 Armenian dram (Dh886) per night, including taxes and breakfast.

The Europe Hotel (www.europehotel.am; 00 374 10 546 0606) is an excellent and good-value option with only 44 rooms and multilingual staff. Tucked around the corner from Republic Square, it manages to be walkable distance from most landmarks while remaining quiet and cosy. Some of the well-designed rooms offer views of Mount Ararat, so it's worth asking if one is available. A double room costs from 28,000 Armenian dram (Dh249) per night, including taxes and breakfast.

Find your feet

One of Yerevan's distinct advantages is that it isn't particularly large, meaning many of the city's most interesting landmarks can be covered in a few pleasant hours' walk. Start in one of the open-air cafes on the tree-lined stretch leading up to Republic Square, then stroll up Abovyan Street onto the pedestrianised and boutique-lined North Avenue to the grey yet impressive Opera Theatre, built in the 1930s. Then walk beyond to the Cascade, an unfinished Soviet project leading up the hillside that has been transformed into an art museum and sculpture park, offering panoramic views of the city and mountains beyond.

Meet the locals

Yerevan is an extremely friendly place, and most interactions with locals are likely to involve a warm welcome to their city. During the summer months, kids, couples and families alike flock to the square around the opera house and its surrounding cafes, so just park yourself on a bench, watch the world go by and say "hello", or if you want to be clever,"parev" when the occasion arises.

Book a table

Much like the wider region, lamb, aubergine, dried fruits and nuts are staple elements of traditional Armenian cuisine, although bulgur wheat is often preferred over rice. Despite throwing in the occasional French twist in the menu, the Club (www.theclub.am; 00 374 10 531 361), a cosy, rustic spot just off the opera house square, is definitely worth visiting for its wide selection of local dishes such as fried aubergines served with either meat or cheese (main courses cost from 6,000 Armenian dram [Dh53]), but remember to book ahead.

For something altogether un-Armenian, but often a welcome treat, the diner-style Factory (Pushkin Street) has possibly the finest selection of freshly prepared burgers in Yerevan, if not the whole Caucasus (mains from 3,370 Armenian dram [Dh30]).

Shopper's paradise

A 21st century addition to Yerevan's inner city is the pristine, sand-coloured North Avenue, a multi-million-dollar project that counters much of Soviet-era architecture and is somewhat reminiscent of Beirut's revamped Central District. Already bustling with the likes of Burberry along with several local boutiques, this thoroughfare is rapidly becoming the city's high-end fashion district.

Elsewhere, the Vernissage flea market is fantastic spot for a few hours of nosying through someone's old (and generally inexpensive) mementoes from the Soviet era (mainly badges, watches and posters) along with equally cheap handicrafts and souvenirs.

What to avoid

There's not a great deal to worry about in Yerevan, with crime almost non-existent. However, there have been reports of pickpockets lurking around the Vernissage market, so it's worth putting your valuables out of easy reach there.

Also, while taxis are inexpensive and most work on a meter, for longer journeys it's best to negotiate a fare beforehand to avoid any confusion at the journey's end. At the airport, ignore the "official" airport taxis and flag down a city taxi that has just dropped people off - it'll cost you about a quarter of the price.

Don't miss

About 30 minutes' drive out of the city lies Khor Virap, an ancient and hugely popular monastery and pilgrimage site in Armenia. In the third century, Saint Gregory was imprisoned underground here for 13 years (you can climb down to inspect his cramped cell) before he led Armenia to become the world's first country to adopt Christianity as its primary religion. Despite its theological and historical significance, at just 100 metres from the Turkish border, Khor Virap (which literally means "deep well") offers some unparalleled views of the snow-capped Mount Ararat in the distance. Just try to get there on a sunny day.

Go there

FlyDubai (www.flydubai.com) flies to Yerevan three times a week. A return costs from Dh1,822, including taxes.