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