Elegant old walls and cobblestones in lovely Sighnaghi

From Sheki, Azerbaijan we did a 3-hour car trip over the border into Georgia and on to the lovely hilltop town of Signhaghi. Much more welcoming to tourists than Sheki, this town’s cobbled streets were bustling with life. We took an immediate liking to Georgia after the mild deprivations of Sheki.

After trying a couple house wines we stepped up to this bottle of “Friends’ Wine” (very local) at The Terrace restaurant. Big improvement.

A tiny town in itself, Sighnaghi serves as something of a tourist gateway to Georgia’s wine country. Georgia has long had a reputation for its winemaking. When I studied in the Soviet Union 32 years ago, whenever you saw wines they were from Georgia (though most people drank vodka). So we were looking forward to trying out the local brews.

The first couple tries were not a success at all. We’d have a glass of white with lunch or a carafe of red with dinner, and they were close to disasters. Then we climbed up the pricing scale a little and started to fare better. Once you get into the $8-10 a bottle range (in a restaurant) the wines started to do alright. Lesson: Even in Georgia, if the wine is running around $1 a glass, you might be making a mistake.

The highlight of our visit here was a day trip to see my old friend from Iowa, Sarah Dietch. We worked together for Senator Harkin years back, and Sarah is now doing a stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Telavi, just an hour from Sighnaghi. It was great fun to come to Telavi to have a nice lunch and catch up on Georgia, politics, the Peace Corps, and various Harkinista friends.

Meeting up with Sarah in Telavi

Hiking up to The Terrace restaurant with great views above Sighnaghi

The atmospheric streets leading out of town

A memorial in the charming town center

The view from The Terrace restaurant

We think Georgian food is one of the best cuisines of the former Soviet Union

Weather during our stay was just gloomy enough to give the town a great atmosphere

How’s this cemetery for atmospheric?

After lunch with Sarah we paid a visit to this massive 900-year old plane tree in Telavi

Jim came across some fun graffiti

Romantic Georgian architecture under gloomy skies

A streetscape in Sighnaghi

More autumn gloom

We stopped en route to Sheki to ride cable cars up into the mountains

We loved Baku but we were eager to go to Sheki, described in Lonely Planet as “Azerbaijan’s loveliest town.” I mean, how bad can that be, right? Well, OK, it had its charms but we weren’t exactly enamored of it.

Sheki, with a population of 64,000, lies about four-and-a-half hours northwest of Baku. Leaving Baku we found ourselves in a big, rolling desert for quite a while before we got any sense of the Caucasus but eventually we started to get into green foothills. We had made plans to stop en route at a little town for lunch and then again at a ski area where you can ride cable cars up and down the mountains. Both stops made the drive a lot more pleasant than just motoring on though the home-made wine at lunch was not exactly up to par. OK, it was awful, but the rest of lunch was good.

How’s that for a bucolic lunch setting?

Once we got to Sheki we discovered there really wasn’t much there. The main draw is an old “palace” – really an administrative building – from when Sheki was the capital of a small Khanate. Flanked by plane trees planted in 1530 (yes, nearly 500 years old), the building is modest from the exterior but inside it is pretty impressive, largely because of the stained glass. Each window consists of hundreds of hand-carved wooden pieces slotted together without metal fastenings. For whatever reason you weren’t allowed to take pictures from inside the building, so this photo is lifted from Wikipedia.

Not much to see from the outside but once you get inside the windows are beautiful

Beautiful indeed, but it’s a small building; it only takes at most 15 minutes to walk through. There were two other small museums in the old walled town but they were utterly forgettable. After that, what do you do in Sheki? Not much it turns out. There’s a big old caravansary (an old inn with a big courtyard to host caravan travelers) that takes another 15 minutes to walk around. And that’s about it, even though we had three nights scheduled here. For years as we’ve been traveling I’ve felt sorry for people on package tours who pull into a town like this, stop overnight, and then leave the next day. This time I was a little jealous.

For about $1.20 each we bought tickets to a local art museum. Really not much to see but the ladies who work there were lovely and so happy to show us around.

The old town – palace, caravansary, and so on – along with our hotel were all up the hill a bit from the modern town and Mark went down there to explore while I hung out to read. He came back pretty discouraged; nothing at all that resembled what one would call a “restaurant.” We ended up each of the three nights in Sheki at a restaurant just a few minutes from our hotel that was little more than tables set out under some trees with a pretty limited menu. The good news was that the food was actually really good and the people were really friendly. It’s a little strange eating outside at night when the temperature is barely 50 degrees but with enough sweaters it ended up being charming. And cheap: good food for both of us along with a bit of vodka and wine for under $25.

One of the joys of eating outdoors is the opportunity to make new friends

In the end I did find Sheki charming, though three days was a bit much. I spent one day a little under the weather from something I ate for lunch (and, choices being as limited as they were we still went back there for lunch the next day…) but when I got down to the modern town it really was pretty. I sat in a park to read but that didn’t work so well; within a minute a couple kids coming home from school stopped and sat right with me to carry on a conversation. In Azeri, which didn’t work so well so instead he pulled out his little guitar-like instrument and started playing for me. Then an old guy took it and played something before the kid got it back to play some more. Friendly people here, even after they decided I was serious that I wasn’t going to give them any money.

More new friends

That wraps up our somewhat brief journey through Azerbaijan. Now it’s off to Georgia.

How can you not be charmed by a town like this?

We managed to find a cute café where they made authentic espresso

Of course you’re often reminded that you are in the former Soviet Union

Sometimes it feels like nothing much has changed in many, many years

A second-story hallway in the old caravansary

One of the two nearly 500-year-old plane trees outside the palace

An old church that houses the other utterly unforgettable museum in the old town

Exterior of the Sheki Palace; the beauty is apparent only when you go inside

There are big foothills behind the town and I’d hoped to maybe do some hiking. Sadly there didn’t seem to be any trails so that didn’t work so well.

Mark at our lunch stop on the way to Sheki. The greenery behind him? Plastic.

And me at the same lunch wearing a warm sweater that I (wisely) picked up in Baku before heading into the mountains

Our cable cars

These Azeri guys offered to take our picture up on the mountain but then wanted to capture themselves too

The food was good and really cheap. Here you see pickled cabbage, a yoghurt dish, and fresh greens that were spectacularly good

And keeping with the theme of new friends, this was the guy who made us dinner every night. By the third night we were buddies.

While we had mixed feelings about staying in Sheki for three nights Boston Bear was a big fan. For $90 we had a two-room corner suite where he had his own bed. Score!

I really did (heart) Baku. That stunning building behind me is one of the architectural wonders of the city.

To my surprise I fell in love with Baku. I’d actually been here a couple times in the early aughts when I worked for an international NGO; my memory was that Baku was OK, but nothing special. Traveling for work is a lot different from being a tourist though and during our four days here we discovered great food, great parks, and great architecture all at a fraction of the price we would pay in other big cities.

A few things to know about Baku. It’s the capital of Azerbaijan and, with a population of 2.2 million people, the largest city on the Caspian Sea and in the Caucasus region overall. It’s a boom town dependent on oil and its fortunes over the years have ebbed and flowed with the demand for oil; these days, it’s booming. And here’s some trivia you might find useful some day: because the Caspian Sea lies in a big basin Baku actually sits some 93 feet below sea level. Thus it is both the largest city in the world below sea level and the lowest capital city. File that away for when you need it.

Here we are in front of the Maiden Tower, emblem of Baku

Because the Azeri people are primarily Turkish – the two languages are closely related and mutually intelligible – they are largely Muslim. Notwithstanding their affinity with the Turks, though, who are largely Shiite Muslims, the Azeris are primarily Shia like their neighbors in Iran to the south. But – and this is the huge difference, perhaps related to the effects of being an oil boom town, perhaps in part a reflection of the long Soviet domination here – the Azeri people are pretty much non-secular. So while Iranians just a few miles away live in a theocracy, I didn’t see a single woman in a burka nor did I hear the call to prayer once. How’s this for an unexpected experience in a Shia Muslim city: in 2009 Lonely Planet declared Baku one of the top ten cities in the world to party the night away. Strange that such a difference would exist in such close proximity.

During our stay here we experienced, to some degree at least, three separate parts of Baku. The Inner City is the old, historic town declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. The Maiden Tower – a 12th century tower of ambiguous purpose – is the emblem of not just Baku but Azerbaijan itself. We climbed the tower (kind of boring actually) and poked around the Inner City. And while the ancient walls were attractive, to me at least it felt as though the Inner City had been cleaned up a great deal since I was here maybe 13 years ago, and not entirely in a good way.

One of the gates to the Inner City. The walls were beautiful and there were some good restaurants just inside but otherwise I found the old town to be a little antiseptic.

The newer part of the city dates from Baku’s original oil boom in the late 19th and early 20th century. There are some really beautiful streets with grand turn-of-the-century buildings that clearly remind you of walking in Paris or Vienna. And in those great buildings are some really high-end stores that seemed awfully empty since although there is a lot of oil money floating around by most accounts not a lot of that flows to the vast bulk of Azeris.

Just a small sample of the attractive early 20th century buildings in Baku’s newer section

And then there’s the really new part of Baku reflecting the oil boom of the 21st century. Stunning architecture, an enormous parkway stretching some four miles along the Caspian that’s extremely well maintained, an attempt at building the world’s largest flag pole, an entirely new cultural region at one end of the park.

While there is a lot of new and ongoing construction in the city, two developments really stood out. The first was the Flame Towers that dominate the city’s new skyline. They are three glass skyscrapers, each shaped like flames. (Baku’s ancient history is based on the town being founded near the spontaneous flames that would erupt from the oil near the surface of the earth. As flames are central to the ancient Zoroastrian religion, the region was considered holy.) In the daytime they’re beautiful but at night they really come alive with some 10,000 lights creating a light show that displays variously such sights as the Azeri flag, water flowing, and massive flames burning. Now if I were designing a skyscraper I might not want to evoke in people’s minds huge cataclysmic fires, but it is truly striking.

The Flame Towers looming over Baku. The light show at night truly defines the skyline.

The other almost insanely beautiful building is the Heydar Aliev Cultural Center, designed by world-famous starchitect Zaha Hadid. We knew it was supposed to be beautiful but we were genuinely blown away by it. The building was closed on Monday, the only day we had to go there, so we didn’t go inside but the exterior is simply stunning, big flowing curves and striking movement. And as a bonus as we explored the exterior the grounds are decorated with large blow-ups of National Geographic photos shot by Azeri photographers.

The Heydar Aliev Cultural Center

(How is this for a coincidence? The very morning we were planning on walking out to see the building I was reading the morning Axios political update email. And there, item #9, seemingly randomly was a picture of the building simply calling it one of the most beautiful buildings on earth. Coincidence or proof that we’re being followed?)

One downside to the building can’t be attributed to Dame Hadid. It is named for Azerbaijan’s third president, a guy who created what can only be described as today’s authoritarian, dictatorial regime. Aliev had been a bigwig in the Soviet Union and after that government collapsed he began a quick rise to the top in his native Azerbaijan. He ruled for 10 years until just before his death in 2003 when he was succeeded by his son. And just in case it’s not clear that this is a family operation, the current vice president is the current President Aliev’s wife. With this much oil money at stake you wouldn’t want to risk letting it out of your control.

Mark & this stunning building

The only other downside to the Cultural Center – and this is shared by locations all over Baku – is that it is nearly impossible to get to on foot. This is a city meant for cars and the challenges of getting around as a pedestrian are significant. I won’t blame Ms. Hadid for that, either; she deserved all the awards she won with buildings like this.

For walking, though, you can’t beat Baku Boulevard, the huge park running along the Caspian Sea. Mark & I walked pretty much the whole distance to get to the new Yarat Contemporary Art Center with its current show of Azerbaijani artists from the post-Stalin era. The whole route was beautiful but oddly we saw almost no one out. Sure, the weather was a little misty, but it wasn’t that bad and it was a Sunday morning. For us, though, it was so nice that although we hadn’t intended to initially, we ended up walking all the way back too. And for whatever it’s worth, the next day, Monday, the weather turned nice and there were lots of people out enjoying the park then.

Just a small section of the seaside park, ideal for strolling. Along both sides were old photos, some dating back to the 1920s, showing how the city has evolved.

And so yes, there was a lot to love about Baku. The food was excellent and almost insanely cheap; our hotel was beautiful and a fraction of what you would pay for that quality in any other large city; and we loved the parks and buildings. We had debated scheduling a five-day stop and decided not to but now I kind of regret that decision. Instead we’re moving north up into the Caucasus mountains themselves, eventually into Georgia and Armenia.

The ticket booth outside Maiden Tower had these ridiculously cute kittens just hanging out. It was a little difficult to get Mark into the tower.

The Eye of Baku on a wet, moody day

There’s quite a story associate with this site, National Flag Square. At 531 feet the flagpole was briefly the tallest in the world but after just a couple months with the record it was overtaken by the 541-foot flagpole in Dushanbe, Tajikistan which itself was quickly surpassed by a 561-foot flagpole in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Worse yet, not long after it went up at a cost of $24 million or so the flag pole started to lean and had to be quickly taken down. So now they have this big monument to … nothing.

New friends Mehemmed and … I didn’t get the other guy’s name … in front of Baku Crystal Hall, built in 2012 in time to host the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest. These guys were just walking along the parkway as I was headed back and wanted to chat and practice their English. They were interesting and fun, curious about why I was in Azerbaijan. When I told them we were traveling through the Caucasus, including a week in Armenia, their mood quickly changed. Azerbaijan and Armenia, you see, are mortal enemies and have been for eons. Armenians, you see, are Christians while Azeris are Muslims. And even if they’re all secular they are still regional enemies. As far as Mehemmed and his friend are concerned, Armenians eat their children and rape their daughters. Maybe not that bad but he honestly couldn’t understand why someone who seemed civilized (me) could want to go to Armenia. Strange how hate can permeate a culture.

Out beyond both the Flag Square and the Crystal Hall was the Yarat Contemporary Art Center. We went out there to see an exhibit of post-Stalinist Azeri “masters” which was a pleasant little trip. That’s me down there while Mark was up on the second floor. It was the kind of art museum I like: reasonably small, good descriptions, and free!

“Marine Monuments of the Caspian Sea” by Nadir Qasimov, one of Mark’s favorites

“In the Flowering Garden” by Farhad Khaliov, my favorite

On his way back from the Contemporary Art exhibit Mark stopped at the national rug museum. It was in a very cool building but he describes touring it as 20 minutes of his life he’ll never get back.

There are a LOT of fountains in Baku and – unlike so many cities in the U.S., they always seem to work

More pictures of Zaha Hadid’s amazing work

It was masterful from every angle

Oh yeah, there was food too

Another night, another great (and cheap) meal

Pickle and vodka, the proper way to start any meal in this region

And produce

The seaside park after the weather cleared up

A strange bicycle ride, where authorities closed off this massive street in front of the main government building for a pretty ragged bunch of people

And those damned cute kitties