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19 August 2017Last updated
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Five of the best off-the-radar cultural gems

Get ready to explore a slew of affordable, untapped destinations all within easy reach of the UAE

Tabitha Barda
21 Mar 2017 | 02:18 pm

1. Armenia

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From rugged snow-capped mountains to sweeping verdant valleys, crumbling medieval monasteries and traditional villages, Armenia’s dramatic landscapes, rich culture and quirky capital, Yerevan, are just a three-hour flight from Dubai. With its troubled Soviet past now more than 20 years behind it, Armenia not only has a treasure trove of contrasting historical gems to visit – spanning from the prehistoric Zorats Karer (the ‘Armenian Stonehenge’) to the 5th-century St Paul and Peter Church and the imposing Soviet-style Mother Armenia monument – it also offers excellent hiking options, snow sports, wine tasting and a buzzy, offbeat selection of restaurants and nightlife in Yerevan. Based in the capital, it is easy to arrange sightseeing tours of the key hotspots via an agency such as Envoy Tours, through which you can book anything from one-day trips into the countryside to visit ancient caves and 10th-century fortresses, to package tours that whisk you off for five days for skiing and sightseeing. Most tours include a homemade lunch cooked by a local family in their own home, which offers an authentic glimpse into the lives and hospitality of Armenian villagers. Day tours start from around Dh140 including lunch, see www.envoytours.com.

Accommodation in Yerevan spans from decent and clean private hostel rooms with en suites from Dh112 per night (envoyhostel.com) to swanky rooms at the impressive Multi Grand Hotel (multigrandhotel.com) available for around Dh560 per night including breakfast.

Need to know:
Flights to Yerevan take approximately three hours, 20 minutes. Direct flights start from around Dh1,100.

2. Bosnia & Herzegovina

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Although international visitors may still associate Bosnia and Herzegovina with the tragic civil war of the 1990s, the former Yugoslavian nation’s craggy natural beauty, ancient monasteries, Ottoman architecture and unique blend of East-meets-West history make it a fascinating and yet hitherto largely undiscovered holiday spot.

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From hiking, fishing and kayaking in the unspoilt wilderness of the Bosnian and Herzegovinian highlands, to sampling local cuisine in one of the many cafés perched next to the awesomely picturesque Mostar bridge, or scuffing down the cobblestone alleys of Sarajevo’s Ottoman Baščaršija (Old Bazaar) and marvelling at the neo-Moorish grandeur of the City Hall and library (which Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been visiting before he was assassinated, triggering the First World War), the country’s cultural heritage is well preserved and omnipresent. A seven-day tour with Sarajevo Funky Tours takes in the capital, national parks and rafting in crystal clear springs among many other highlights and costs Dh2,120 including accommodation.

Need to know:
Flights to Sarajevo take six hours from Dubai and start from around Dh1,500.

3. Slovakia

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With Slovakia being home to the Carpathian Mountains and a host of ski resorts, it’s easy to think of it as a winter destination. But, with its mild spring and summer, it’s a year-round tourist haven. Snow melts as the temperatures rise, turning the stunning mountain peaks into a riot of colour, and buzzing slopes make way for hiking trails, lakeside strolls and even caving in the vast network hidden beneath the heights. Possibly the most beautiful area to visit is the Slovensky Raj National Park, home to dramatic plateaus, thundering waterfalls and picturesque rivers. It’s not for the faint-hearted, though; hiking here involves near-vertical ladders, rope bridges over precarious drops and plenty of holding your breath!

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For a look at Slovakia’s impressive history, a visit to medieval Spis Castle is a must. One of Central Europe’s largest castles, Spis was once a safe haven for Hungarian royals and nobles. Today it offers phenomenal views of the surrounding countryside, as well as a fascinating museum of medieval history in what was once the palace. Accommodation costs vary depending on where you’re staying, but a room at the four-star Grand Hotel Strand in Vyszne Rubachy will set you back around Dh350 per night including breakfast.

Need to know:
Flying to Bratislava from Dubai takes just over five-and-a-half hours and direct flights start from around Dh2,200.

4. Transylvania

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Moody Gothic castles rising from the mist, ancient forests frequented by bears, wolves and lynx, bat-filled caves laced with sinister mystery – the dark romance of this legendary Romanian region is within an easy six-hour flight from Dubai. While the capital, Bucharest, is the better-known option to fly into, new, low-cost flights to Cluj Napoca – the unofficial capital of Transylvania – have opened up this artsy, bohemian and largely undiscovered city to UAE travellers. Home to historic universities, avant-garde galleries, medieval towers and a vibrant world of weird and wonderful nightlife, Cluj’s many studenty eateries, boho bars and thriving café culture make for a perfect city break. It is also, of course, a great gateway for the many stunning natural beauty spots and dramatic fairy-tale castles of Transylvania.

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Prince Charles of Wales is a huge fan of the region and has restored a range of rustic guesthouses within driving distance of Cluj airport (transfers can be arranged). Accommodation is traditional and affordable, full-board meals are included, and you can take part in anything from bear-watching and horse treks to pond swimming and forest foraging, as well as day trips to the Unesco-protected Saxon village Sighișoara, picnics by the Pied Piper’s cave and gorge (where the legendary figure is said to have taken the abducted children of Hamelin) and of course a visit to Bran castle (home of the infamous Vlad Dracula, or Vlad the Impaler). It will set you back Dh460 per person per night including full board with three-course meals and drinks, guided tours and activities during the day, entrance fees, transport and taxes, as well as breakfast at departure. See www.transylvaniancastle.com

Need to know:
Flights to Cluj-Napoca from Dubai take just under six hours. Wizz Air offers flights from around Dh1,100 (direct flights only available on Saturdays).

5. Macedonia

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Located on the Vardar River at the foot of Mount Vodno, Macedonia’s capital city of Skopje is an interesting mix of civilisations, cultures and design ideas. At various times ruled by Ottomans, Romans, Byzantines and Bulgarians, evidence of each can still be seen around the city, jostling for space with newer structures resulting from the enthusiastic government-led development programme of recent years. The area around the riverside is known to be particularly lively these days, both in terms of its architecture and adornments as well as its social offerings.

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For a peek into Skopje’s past, check out the Kale Fortress – featuring evidence of a Neolithic settlement – and the ancient Turkish hillside area of Čaršija, still going strong alongside the 15th-century stone bridge. Its winding lanes and maze of narrow streets is where you’ll find many of the city’s most popular teahouses, cafés and nightspots, not to mention numerous mosques and other sites of cultural interest.

If you’re a nature lover it’s well worth taking the time to get out of the city and head for the hills, where you’ll find the Matka Lake in the middle of the breathtaking Matka Canyon. With plenty of caves to explore, hills to hike and water to kayak or sail across, the canyon area also boasts a number of monasteries, including the historic St Andrew’s, home to original frescoes painted by Jovan the Metropolitan in the 1300s.

Skopje is full of options for accommodation, from the seriously budget-conscious to the luxurious, but it’s reassuring to know even the higher-end choices are affordable. The riverside Park Hotel & Spa has rooms for around Dh480 per night, including breakfast.

Need to know:
Skopje is just under six hours from Dubai, and direct flights start from around Dh1,565.

Photos by Istock/Shutterstock. Prices are intended as a guide only.

 

 

Tabitha Barda

Tabitha Barda