More musings on the last few weeks’ events in an attempt to capture the highlights once and for all. Starting chronologically takes us to Sheki – the second ‘big trip’ out of the city.
When a public holiday fell on a Friday, a group of us decided to head north-west into the mountains for the long weekend and ‘get away from it all.’ Our three-car convoy left Baku mid-morning and three hours later we were happily settled into late breakfast at a shaded terrace table high up a hillside, overlooking the plains we had just crossed. The meal portended as well as the scenery: bread, butter, honey, cheese and gaymar (similar to yoghurt but less tangy) all vitally fresh and flavoursome.
By mid-afternoon we had arrived at our lodgings: capacious and well-appointed pine wood cabins nestling in a tree-filled valley at the foot of the first snow-capped mountain I had seen in Azerbaijan. The cabins formed part of a large resort comprising several dozen buildings spread out widely amongst the trunks of a coniferous plantation. As we were travelling well before high season we virtually had the place to ourselves but even with a fuller guest list I imagine the atmosphere can maintain a good balance between party and private.
There is a green hill far away…
Being the one non-Azeri in the group I had happily followed my friends’ choice of accommodation as the local grapevine is far more up to date and reliable than any book or website I would ever find and boy did they do well. The idyllic setting was complemented by an atmospheric change in traffic (mostly farmers on horseback and soldiers on border patrol, lest we forget what was over the mountains) and some superb catering. Nothing fancy, just some of the best raw produce never tasted in modern England: indescribable butter, tomatoes so red and sweet they would humble a Sambuca-dipped Ferrari, breakfast eggs with yolks gold enough to rival the rising sun, the list could go on… …and of course we did not disappear into the wilderness without packing a certain few supplies of our own: the evenings under the trees were most convivial…
While we were staying just beyond the outskirts of Sheki-proper, the city itself is a place rich in history with some notable sights to see and I was not about to ignore all that. Very close to where we were staying is an Albanian church with roots going back many centuries. I have not read enough to say with certainty whether or not these Albanians bear any relations to the Albania currently existing a bit further west into Europe but one thing is for sure, these people were tall. Part of the exhibition at the church is a selection of excavated tombs surrounding it. Pride of place is reserved for a skeleton named Lucy: a woman who is calculated to have died at the age of thirty-five and a height of seven foot two.
The Albanian Church at Sheki – a treasure hiding in the hills
Those tombs are preserved within an immaculately kept walled garden containing some beautiful rose bushes and a particularly ancient-looking tree. Set within the wall’s inner surface are deep hollows which have been glassed as display cases and show models of the church as it developed over the years. The woman who gave us a quick guided tour of the display was clearly passionate about her subject but became doubly so when we reached cases depicting a certain period. For a while the church was claimed as Armenian by Armenia and modifications were made. Later research proved this to be an error and further modification work took place. Our guide’s tone of voice and body language spoke as much as her words if not more so during this part of the tour.
The Khan’s Palace at Sheki
Like Baku, Sheki has an ancient, walled city at its heart and where Baku has the Shirvanshah’s palace, Sheki has the Khan’s palace. As the name suggests, it was the seat of the local ruler during the khanate period of Azerbaijan’s history and it is a magnificent structure. In this instance size truly does not matter as much as what you do with it: the building being of two storeys and no larger than a pair of generously sized terraced houses in London suburbia. What you don’t get in your average London ‘burbs pad is the mosaic exterior plus two balconies with multi-faceted reflective ceilings, the interior more paint-adorned than that of the Sistine Chapel and wall-sized stained glass windows throughout, some of which double as sliding doors through to the balconies. On this occasion being the one non-Azeri in the group was a mild handicap as I did not understand a word of the guide’s speeches but I was more than happy to just walk round, look and wonder.
Of course I can not relate a visit to Sheki without mentioning the famous Sheki paklava, so there it is mentioned (for those who don’t already know: fine pastry, crushed nuts, vermicelli topping and all doused in so much honey/sugar syrup (usually the latter these days) it is sweet enough to probably carry a health warning in the EU – an acquired taste but gorgeous).
A closer look at one of those balconies. The Beauty of the Gardens
During the drive back to Baku we slowed for a roundabout and smelled the unmistakable aroma of fresh-baked bread. Turning back we sniffed out a bakery with a dough batch six feet across and a fired oven as deep as a long-wheelbase Transit van. We bought a bread the size of a dustbin lid (they make them flat here) and so fresh it was too hot to carry comfortably in its newspaper wrapper. It sustained us happily for the rest of the journey. There would be photographs to accompany this particular tale if it wasn’t for the battery in my camera deciding to give up at the moment the bakers said yes to having their picture taken. I will go back.
Not long after the Sheki trip I paid a flying visit to England: almost literally flying as it included 1400 miles of driving in ten days and a lot more gadding about besides. As always I was frustrated not to be able to meet as many people as I wished to but most happy to see those who I did. Two and a half years into expatriotism (why doesn’t the spell-checker like that one?) I am also discovering that while parts of me will remain forever England, other parts are happy to place as much distance between me and the sceptred isle – in its current BBC-reported condition – as possible. I plan to cover fewer miles during my next visit and take stock.
In the meantime, summer rolls on. Courtesy of Nigar and Dima (most excellent hosts in Moscow) I have been introduced to a couple of nights of dacha life. They have come down to the family dacha in Mardakan (a beach town and retreat on the north side of the peninsula) to chill out for a while and guests are invited. As I wrote last year, dacha season annually turns the well-to-do of Baku into serious commuters as they go to live outside town for the summer while continuing to go to work in the city each morning. This may sound like hell to anybody living on the outskirts of a major western European or American city but in Baku it can work. Traffic here has not yet reached artery-clogging proportions in the mornings and the difference in comfort between the hot, sticky city nights and those of dachas kissed by the sea breezes is substantial. An experience to enjoy while it is still possible to do so.
This summer I have also managed to partake of the beach season and finally go for a dip in the Caspian. While there probably are secluded little bays that no one knows about in hidden, far-flung nooks along the coast, beach-lovers within a decent drive of Baku have to be ready to pay for something by the sea: either free access and fees for sun-beds, tables, chairs and parasols or a flat fee at the car park followed by everything laid on. Some dubious experiences of the former have lead to shrugging acceptance of the latter and even though some might belittle the Caspian as a briny lake, there is still no substitute for playing in the breakers or being on the shores listening to the wind-whipped rollers tumbling in.