Azerbaijan expert and guidebook author Mark Elliott goes under the radar with his recommendations for the best things to see in Azerbaijan...
In 2017 and 2018, Georgia bounced into the global tourism spotlight as the new, up-and-coming destination for adventure travellers.
2019 looks like being the year to go a hop one step further east to Azerbaijan, which hosts this year’s Europa League Final as well as the remarkable Baku Grand Prix.
Nicknamed the ‘Land of Fire’, it’s known for its ‘burning mountain’, mud volcanoes, and dazzling 21st century architecture - including a trio of 30-storey skyscrapers shaped like flames. But there is so much more, and a few less obvious personal discoveries for Az-bound travellers.
It’s hard to imagine a more delightful Caucasian town than Sheki (Şəki). Nestled into richly wooded foothills with sheep-grazed mountain meadows high above, it is not only on a branch of the fabled Silk Road but even produces silks of its own.
Here you can peep into a genuine ancient caravanserai once used by silk-traders, or even stay in one of the atmospheric if no-frills rooms. The ‘Labyrinth’ at nearby Fazıl is a spookily brilliant tumulus excavation.
And on fields southeast of town lies a key venue for chovgan – Azerbaijan’s traditional horse-sport, a kind of rough-and-tumble polo-with-attitude.
Within the hefty stone walls of what was once an 18th century fortress-citadel, is the mural-covered palace of local sovereign Chelabi Khan (ruled 1743-1755). That’s the top tourist attraction of Sheki’s quaint old-town. But few visitors know that very close by there’s a second, slightly older palace – the Xan-Evi.
It’s far less busy, has murals of its own and, for me at least, the greatest delight of the place is simply finding it, tucked away in a warren of archetypal cobbled alleys lined with picturesque old houses.
Supposing we take the Biblical flood as historical, where would you say that Noah settled his family after the ark had crash landed? According to Azerbaijanis it was in Nakhchivan. And to prove the point you can visit “Noah’s tomb”.
Viewed from the east on a very clear day you can see the structure backed by the snow-whitened cone of Mount Ararat (Ağrıdağ) floating like Mount Fuji on the far horizon. The small tomb’s brickwork is inlaid with touches of blue glaze and topped with a gilded spire.
But is it ancient? The plaque by the doorway sums up the answer with dead-pan comic brilliance: “XI Millennium BC. Restored 2013”.
“How do you know it’s really so old?” I asked the caretaker. “We have a photo from the 1890s!” He retorted. So, almost 8000 years, then.
There’s plenty more quirky stuff to see in Azerbaijan’s disconnected enclave of Nakhchivan.
Start with the far more visually impressive Momine Khatun, a glorious tomb tower dating from 1186 and set amid genuinely old carved-stone monuments. There’s a Soviet era salt mine in which you can sleep as an asthma cure.
In the lovable oasis village of Ordubad, locals grow some of the world’s prized (and most expensive) bitter-sweet lemons. Best of all, on a crag-top in the middle of nowhere is Alinja Castle, extensive ruins accessed by a seemingly endless stairway.
Nicknamed Azerbaijan’s Machu Picchu, the site offers extraordinary views encompassing the impressive tooth of Ilan Dag (Snake Mountain) and more distant mountain ranges across the Araz River in Iran.
Once Noah had parked the ark he rushed to plant a vineyard. And then got storming drunk. OK, that might be myth. Nonetheless, today’s archaeologists assert that the Caucasus is indeed the world’s oldest known centre of wine-making.
Most of Azerbaijan’s wineries were destroyed in the late 1980s when Mikail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign saw the vines rooted out.
In recent years, however, wholescale replanting and hi-tech viniculture techniques have seen a rebirth of quality Azerbaijani vintages notably from the sunny mountain foothills around Gabala (Qəbələ) – a spa and ski resort full of glitzy yet good value getaway hotels.
Meanwhile in Baku, new wine bars are adding to the city’s already impressive selection of drinking holes that range from quirky hipster dives and expat pubs to snazzy cocktail lounges.
In the southeastern corner of Azerbaijan, the Caspian coastal region is lush and green, attractively patch-worked with tea plantations and citrus groves. Behind the coastal strip, thick woodlands rise into the magical Talysh Mountains, dripping with beautiful waterfalls and dotted with isolated ancient villages.
High above is the habitat of ‘Europe’s last leopards’. They’re so rare that it took months for a National Geographic team to get camera-trap footage… so don’t expect to see one. However, the next best thing is hiking through moss-festooned enchanted forests of the Hirkan National Park accompanied by the ‘Leopard Man’.
Real name Babakhan, he’s the local guide and all-round athletic superhero who showed NatGeo where to place their camera traps. He gets his nickname not just for his skill at tracking (and once wrestling) big cats, but also for his leopard-like ability to simply run up a tree, then lie reclining on one of its overhanging branches. Unforgettable.
Azerbaijan – The Mark Elliott Guide is the most in-depth guidebook to Azerbaijan in print. The expanded fifth edition (2018) is available from publisher Tale Heydarov’s TEAS Press.
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