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Destination: Yerevan, Armenia

The Armenian capital of Yerevan might not be at the top of every holiday wish list but the city is full of sights, sounds and stunning scenery. Words and pictures by Tim Pile

 

Quick, what's the capital of Armenia?

It's not a name that rolls off the tongue, I grant you. In fact, some people are unaware the place even exists. At Chek Lap Kok my boarding pass causes a mixture of curiosity and consternation. An EVN tag is attached to my luggage with a doubtful, "you won't see that again" look, as if I've booked an overnight flight to Narnia.

Yerevan has a hint of Never Never Land about it. Snow-capped Mount Ararat looms over the city - a Kilimanjaro-like apparition visible at every turn. And there's an Alice in Wonderland surrealism in Republic Square, where singing fountains perform each evening.

As the clock strikes eight, Armenian-French crooner Charles Aznavour booms out across the neoclassical plaza - a signal for gallons of floodlit water to spurt, wriggle and pirouette to the beat. A thousand flashbulbs flare as Handel's Water Music morphs into a rousing Abba medley and the crowd cheers as a dozen pink jets arc skywards in a rousing grand finale.

Fortunately, Yerevan has a number of non-fountain-based attractions. The Cascade, built to commemorate 50 years of Soviet rule, is an ideal place to get your bearings. Huff and puff up all 572 steps of the giant stairway and you'll be rewarded with unobstructed views of the city and omnipresent Mount Ararat, which (whisper it) is actually in Turkey.

Back at street level, Vernissage flea market is a great spot for picking up souvenirs and even better for people watching. Yerevan's position at the crossroads of ancient trade routes can be seen in the diverse faces of its inhabitants. Russians rub shoulders with Turks; Greeks natter over coffee and Iranians answer the call of prayer at the Blue Mosque.

Armenia has a long and traumatic history of foreign occupation. Romans, Persians, Ottomans and Soviets have all left their mark architecturally and psychologically. Conscious of this volatile past, Armenian diplomats engage in a delicate geopolitical balancing act and somehow manage to stay on good terms with the United States, Russia, China and Iran.

The relationship with Turkey is more complicated and centres on the highly sensitive issue of the 1915-16 genocide. Feelings are still raw almost a century on, underscored by an ongoing trade embargo and land borders that remain firmly closed. A stallholder at the flea market offers his perspective.

"We're like a divorced couple who find themselves in the same room at a party. It's awkward, uncomfortable and neither speaks to the other."

Tourism in Armenia is in its infancy and finding out which sightseeing bus goes where, and on which day, is bewildering, so I opt for a DIY approach.

Yerevan taxi drivers have the look of unsuccessful boxers with their gapped teeth, squashed noses and take-it-or-leave-it prices that floor the unwary like a right hook. I'm about to give up when an elderly cabbie called Walter scribbles an acceptable fare on his cigarette packet and we settle on a half-day circuit of the region. Our conversational German is exhausted before we reach the suburbs and, when my driver slips on a tape of Aznavour's greatest hits, I'm tempted to ask for my money back.

Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion, and boasts 40,000 places of worship. Few can match Khor Virap for photogenic potential, however. Situated beside the Turkish border, the iconic monastery is surrounded by vineyards and green pastures with you-know-what providing a snowy backdrop.

Our next stop is the cathedral at Echmiadzin; the first church to be built in Armenia and arguably the oldest in the world. It's claimed that splinters of wood preserved in the museum are from Noah's Ark. A storm of biblical proportions soaks us on arrival and I squelch inside just as Sunday morning service is starting.

The carefully choreographed ceremony incorporates pomp, pageantry and more than a little showmanship. Rows of soggy worshippers seem undecided whether to bow their heads in prayer or record proceedings on their mobile phones.

As he drops me off back in town, Walter pounces with a "two for the price of one" sightseeing offer for the following day. We reach a deal that involves me paying above the odds but having final say on the in-car playlist. He may be nearing 80 but Walter shows more entrepreneurial savvy than most of his fellow countrymen.

Armenia's Soviet legacy means older citizens often lack the know-how to succeed in business, relying instead on poorly paid jobs stifled by layers of bureaucracy. The younger generation sense a brighter future but they're also realistic.

"Things are improving," my hotel receptionist suggests, rather unconvincingly. "In the past, if you needed official approval for something, you had to queue at five separate windows to get all the necessary paperwork stamped. Now it's only one … although you might have to wait there five times as long."

You might also have to wait for an empty table at one of the lively restaurants and bars along Pushkin Street. A cacophony of languages including English can be heard above the hubbub, a reminder that many "tourists" are actually members of the diaspora.

It's estimated that three times more Armenians live outside the Caucasian nation than in it. Former tennis star Andre Agassi, chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, the Kardashian clan and singer Cherilyn Sarkisian (better known as Cher) all claim partial Armenian ancestry. Many choose to work overseas, returning home with enough money to start a business or retire.

Walter bought himself a taxi.

An early morning start means we're soon clear of Yerevan, although our progress slows on the steep canyon road leading to Geghard Monastery. Camouflaged by rugged grey cliffs, the picturesque Unesco world heritage site comprises two medieval churches hewn from the rock. The cavernous chambers have such spine-tingling acoustics that it's surprising no one has thought of piping in Monsieur Aznavour.

At the Hellenic temple in nearby Garni, a group of Italian tourists are doing their best to pay attention while a tour guide reels off a long list of ancient names and dates. Yawns are stifled and watches glanced at.

Greco-Roman ruins are no competition for the singing fountains, it seems.

 

Getting there: Emirates flies to Dubai, from where Flydubai links to Yerevan.

 

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