Best for: The sheer variety of visiting options, peppered with some of Azerbaijan’s best wineries
Why do it? To find out more about Azerbaijan’s Silk Road history
Route: Baku, Shamakhi, Lahij, Qabala, Sheki, Zaqatala
The classic. This route sets out from Baku and crosses semi-desert before running alongside the green feet of the High Caucasus range, where bucolic side-trips up into the foothills await amid visits to Azerbaijan’s ‘Silk Road’ towns.
The star of the show is the city of Sheki, with its large caravanserais, khan’s palace, sturdy fortress walls, fine hotels and great hiking potential. Its UNESCO-listed historic centre, which was rebuilt after mud flows destroyed it in the 18th century, once flourished on the riches of the silkworm boom.
Further west, Zaqatala also has a lovely, if limited, Old Town and is a good starting point for walks up shepherds’ paths to Sound of Music-style vistas, though it’s a conservative place with few tourist facilities. In contrast, Qabala (east of Sheki) has several large, resort-quality hotels with inviting spas. Although its city centre is forgettable, the setting is pretty and a cable-car network operates year-round.
Day trips from Qabala visit the archaeological ruins of Old Qabala and some curious churches at Nij, though the cultural story here is perhaps more interesting than the buildings themselves. To the west, don’t miss the recently renovated silk village of Basqal or the larger, more enchanting coppersmiths’ settlement of Lahij. It’s worth staying at a homestay in Lahij to get a feel for the village after the numerous day-trippers have gone home.
To continue on to Shamakhi – with its impressive mosque, cemetery and winery – it’s now possible to take a steep, circuitous lane from Lahij that travels via Damirchi and the Shamakhi astronomical observatory at Pirqulu.
Note that if you’re travelling between Baku and Tbilisi (Georgia) by public transport, the land border is currently open only to those leaving Azerbaijan. An option for those aiming to do an eastern loop is to start by going from Baku to Ganja (see ‘The Lesser Caucasus’), then linking by bus to Sheki before returning east. At the time of writing, the Baku-Sheki-Zaqatala train services were temporarily suspended, so be sure to check ahead.