Harmony of Contrasts
When you arrive in Baku, you immediately find yourself in a holiday atmosphere. People in the Caucasus know how to have fun, but Azerbaijanis particularly excel at this. They are incredibly hospitable and have a sparkling sense of humor. It is a great pleasure to socialize with them.
Azerbaijan, as everywhere in the Southern Caucasus, is a melting pot of many ancient cultures. In addition to its own, the Indian, Persian, and Turkish cultures predominate here. In the 19th century, they were joined by the European and Russian cultures. This has given the country its own unique and distinctive flair.
Today Baku is a modern metropolis. However, the old part of the city with its inviting nooks and crannies, winding lanes, and architecture of the mid-19th-beginning of the 20th centuries has entirely survived.
The Old Town has plenty of comfortable modern hotels,
…restaurants serving exquisite national cuisine,
…and historical monuments.
We begin our walk around Baku from the Old Town. That is to say, from the foot of the famous Virgin Tower. According to one of the legends, a king wanted to marry his own daughter. His daughter, ashamed of her father’s intention, asked him to build a tower and agreed to marry as soon as it was completed. Upon completion the girl jumped from the top of the tower to escape her shameful fate.
Other legends say that the tower is a lighthouse, or perhaps a Zoroastrian pagan temple from the times of the Persian Sasanian Empire. We begin our journey with this ancient enigma. And what is a journey without mysteries?
We walk at a leisurely pace, taking in the magnificent antiquity. And in the background we catch a glimpse of the city’s new architecture. What a classy ensemble this makes!
Nearby are some archeological excavations. This is the grave of Apostle Bartholomew. The real thing! Right in the center of the city. He was martyred here in the 1st century, and his shrine remains to this day.
A little further is a Persian classic…in stone.
And this is an antique stall.
We go in … and the abundance of antiques makes our heads spin!
And here is a carpet shop. They are fantastically beautiful, but not cheap. And true to form, Azerbaijanis also sell carpets in Tbilisi. But at lower prices!
And here are souvenirs. Pure consumer goods, but very appealing!
This is the entrance to a teahouse. The figure is carved in wood. Extremely quaint!
Tea is a specialty. The Azerbaijanis like to add thyme. It makes for an aromatic and delicious brew. Tea is served with different kinds of jam. And of course we are told that famous people once sat where we are sitting. For instance, Margaret Thatcher sat here. But this does not raise the price of the tea.
Why are the alleys in the Old Town narrow and winding? Because strong winds always blow on the Absheron Peninsula where Baku is situated. And if the alleys are narrow and also winding, the wind loses its force…
This is in also the Old Town. Azerbaijanis are Shiite Muslims by faith. They treat religion with respect, but without fanaticism. Many follow Sufism, which is a mystical, philosophical, and intellectual teaching.
The Palace of the Shirvanshahs, the rulers of the state, was situated in the territory of Azerbaijan and South Dagestan in the 9th-16th centuries. The main buildings of the palace complex date back to the 14th-15th centuries when the country experienced its heyday. This brings us to the end of our first walk, but we will return here in the evening. And believe me, it is worth it!
After dinner, we will go for another walk, this time through nighttime Baku. No other city in the Caucasus has undergone such tempestuous development as Baku.
From a small locality in the mid-19th century, Baku has burgeoned into a huge city, now the capital of Azerbaijan.
Baku experienced its heyday at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries during the legendary oil boom when it became a world oil capital. The most beautiful buildings designed in Baku’s characteristic style remain from this time.
Today Baku is the largest and richest city in the Caucasus. It is also the most multinational and multicultural city in Azerbaijan, as well as an international tourist center.
The next day, we will take a trip around the Absheron Peninsula. You cannot come to Azerbaijan and not see the Caspian! We will go out onto the shore to take a look at this boundless azure expanse.
Absheron has another claim to fame—its burning mountain. There is nothing mystical here. Natural gas has been seeping steadily from the subsurface at this spot for millennia and is manifested in tongues of fire.
The oldest Zoroastrian church in the Caucasus is located here. This “eternal flame” served as an object of worship for the Zoroastrians.
This inscription in Sanskrit and Old Persian testifies to those who erected with building.
Zoroastrianism was the predominant religion in this region for millennia. The ancient Persians were fire worshippers. The present-day territory of Azerbaijan was part of their empire.
Indians also lived here. They settled near the temple. Zoroastrianism also came to Persia from India.
The museum reproduces the atmosphere of millennia ago. The fire and stones here are natural,
… while the figures are made from paper mache. Here is an Indian. He is resting. He lies on a bed of lime and has sprinkled himself with it to stop the insects from bothering him.
This is also an Indian. A healer by the looks of it. This is what they looked like in those days (according to contemporary Azerbaijani ethnographers).
And this is a lime-maker. As we now know, it was a very important product.
And here is a Persian caravaner (on the right) talking to a local Indian. It seems they are coming to terms on something… This kind of peaceful atmosphere existed right up until the 8th century. Then the Arabs came, killed all the Zoroastrian priests, destroyed their temples, and Islam began…
On the third day, we set off for the west of Azerbaijan, in the direction of Georgia. And on the way we will visit different interesting sites. Our journey takes us along the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasian Mountain Range. The mountains in these parts are partially bare, partially covered in thick forests. Rivers run through the picturesque gorges.
Along the way, we will stop at the mausoleum of Sufi philosopher and hermit Diri Baba. It was built at the beginning of the 15th century in a deep gorge right up against a hanging cliff. This place is known for many its many mystical stories. We won’t tell you ahead of time to keep the suspense…
We will visit the town of Shamakhi. This town was the ancient capital of the Shirvan khanate. It is also known for its handmade silk, which was highly valued in the European markets back in the olden days.
We will visit workshops where silk scarves are made. They use only natural dyes and the patterns are embroidered by hand.
The next stop on our journey is Lahidzh. It is surrounded on all sides by high mountains.
For many centuries, Lahidzh was a center of handmade brassware. As you can see, it has not changed much.
Each workshop also sells its ware.
Here you can see how the brass is forged and decorated, and you can purchase any item that takes your fancy.
In the evening we will meet at the Afra hotel in Oguz. This is the best local hotel.
In the morning, we will go to Shaki. It is one of the oldest towns in Azerbaijan. One of the most well-known historical monuments is the Palace of the Shaki Khans (18th century). The palace has an exquisite façade, in front of which grow two sycamore trees planted in 1530
The palace rooms are decorated with opulent brightly colored drawings. The beautiful stained glass windows also give the palace a special ambiance. From Shaki, we head for the Azerbaijani-Georgian border.
And here we are in Georgia! We cross the border at Lagodekhi and find ourselves in Kakhetia, or to be more precise, the Alazani Valley—the center of Georgian winemaking.
We will stay at the Royal Batoni Hotel. It is situated at the foot of the Great Caucasian Mountain Range.
It is already late in the evening, so we only have time for dinner and a good night’s rest.
But that was not to be! There can be no Georgian feasting without traditional polyphonic singing.
And where there is singing, there is also dancing. Afterwards, you can head for bed and sleep…if you are able!
We are already into the fifth day of our adventure, but it feels as though we have just begun. Today we will take an excursion around the valley. And we begin with the Gremi Fortress (15th century), located nearby..
In the 15th century, when Kakhetia was an independent kingdom, the Gremi fortress served as the residence of the Kakhetian czars. It has all the attributes of the medieval monarchy—a robe and crown…
…knight’s armor and equestrian accoutrements, and most important…
…a royal toilet. In those days, it was a great luxury for an ordinary person.
And this is the Nekresi Monastery. It is situated close by. It was founded in the mid-6th century and is a prestigious spiritual and scientific center of the early Middle Ages. The walls of the church interior boast frescoes from the 9th century.
We will have lunch at Auntie Nunu’s wine museum. The museum features a collection of wine-making items, beginning from the middle of the first century BC. The museum consists of ancient wine cellars, tasting rooms, and a collection of ordinary and vintage wines.
We will dine in the museum gardens…
… or (depending on the weather) in one of its rooms. The feasting will not end until the guests drink their last glass of wine.
In the evening we will take a ride in a hot air balloon over the Alazani valley. After the ride, you will be initiated as hot air balloonists along with conferral of commemorative diplomas and badges, and toasting with champagne.
Dinner will be served on the veranda of the hotel restaurant. But before dinner, we will make our own chacha.
Chacha, as all famous Georgian wines, is part of the Georgian culture. In the olden days, chacha was tested for alcohol content by dipping a finger into the chacha and setting light to it—if the chacha burned but did not burn the finger, it passed the test. We continue these traditions. After it has been made, the 60 proof beverage will be poured into bottles with a label attached bearing the name of its owner and ceremoniously presented to them.
The next day, we will set off for the Alazani Valley. Our journey takes us through the picturesque the mountain pass of Gombori. At the top of the pass, we will make a short stop, open a small keg of saperavi wine, and drink it along with fresh sulguni cheese, herbs, vegetables, and hot lavash bread… then we will continue our journey!
Tbilisi is situated on both banks of the River Kura. The old town, its historical center, is at the foot of Mount Mtatsminda.
It has retained its special style, which is distinguished by narrow streets built up with 2-3-story houses made of stone and bricks with wooden verandas, passages and balconies. The buildings date back to the mid-14th-beginning of the 20th centuries.
In the evening, we visit the sulphur baths. They are situated in the very center of the Old City. Thermal springs have been gushing from under the ground here for thousands of years. This is in fact where Tbilisi began. As Alexander Pushkin said, “I have never seen anything more magnificent than the Tiflis baths in my life!” Alexander Duma also liked them. Essentially nothing has changed since then.
The next day, we will go to Mtskheta. It is the olden-day capital of our country, located not far from Tbilisi. This is where Georgia’s conversion to Christianity began. The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral was built here in the 11th century on the site of the first Christian church in Georgia built in the first years of Christianity.
The Jvari Monastery is situated on the top of a hill not far from Mtskheta. According to legend, in the 4th century, Mirian, the first Christian king of Georgia, erected a cross there. It stood high in an open place and was an object of universal worship. In the second half of the 6th century, the Jvari Monastery was built at the site. The cathedral has survived almost unchanged to the present day.
We will spend the last evening of our journey in an olden-day Tbilisi tavern—a favorite hangout for local revelers! We will party until dawn! And if you miss your flight, no worries! We will send you in the opposite direction, and you can fly home from Baku!