Sunbathing- Caspian style

Those who think that the Caspian Sea is only about oil exploitation are up for a pleasant surprise. The long, hot and rainless summers, warm sea and 713km of coastline scattered with sandy beaches make it a prefect destination for a summer break.

Beach clubs

Some of the best spots for sunbathing are found in Absheron Peninsula just about 30km away from Baku, and among the most popular ones are beach clubs in Bilgah. There you will be able not only to top up your tan and have a dip in the Caspian Sea but also chill on the beach with a cold drink while listening to electro sounds played by some of the best Baku DJs.

Sea Breeze beach club

Sea Breeze beach club in Bilgah

Amburan  is the newest beach club in Bilgah and at the moment also the most popular. If  instead of baking on the beach you prefer to relax by the pool, make sure you go there early as later in the day you may not be able to find a free sun chair.

Amburan beach club

Amburan beach club in Bilgah

Jumeirah Hotel

For a red carpet treatment head to Jumeirah hotel. Among many facilities the hotel offers fancy restaurants, aquapark, tennis courts and a luxury spa. Interestingly, you will find there as well the tallest chandelier in the world.

Jumeirah hotel, Bilgah

Jumeirah hotel, Bilgah

Jumeirah beachfront

Jumeirah hotel, beachfront

Baku beaches

However, for a good beach experience you don’t even need to leave the capital. Tourists will find Shikhov, a beach situated in the outer suburb of Baku, particularly interesting as the view from the shore stretches over giant oil-rigs.

Shikhov beach. Photo taken by Anthony Colas

Shikhov beach. Photo taken by Antony Colas

Novkhani beach is located only a few kilometers outside of Baku. The area is very popular with local families due to the proximity to AF Hotel & Aquapark.

Novkhani beach by Machaon

Novkhani beach by Machaon

Absheron National Park

For those not overly keen on sharing the beach with other people we recommend Absheron National Park. While sunbathing in the park isn’t allowed, the stretch of golden sand extends way beyond the park and the sea water is as clean as in the protected area.

Absheron National Park. Source: az-magazine

Absheron National Park. Source: az-magazine

Nabran

Nabran is a sea resort located about three-hour car ride north from Baku. It was founded in 1900 by Russian colonists and it is believed that its name originated from the Russian word ”nabirat” (”to recruit”), which refers to the people recruited to the village by the order of the Russian Emperor to fish sturgeons for imperial cuisine. Fishing was the main activity of its residents up to the 1970s. Apart from views over the Caspian Sea and beautiful nature, the resort offers as well quality accommodation, spas and lots of entertainment for people of all ages.

Nabran beach

Nabran beach

Sheki – the land of culture and pahlava

Sheki should definitely top the list of places not-to-miss for anyone interested in visiting Azerbaijan. This charming small town located in the north of the country will with no doubt satisfy both travelers looking for some culture experience and those wishing to spend a few days in the vicinity of nature. The city has to offer not only interesting historical sites but also excellent trekking, hiking and fishing opportunities.

A bit of history

Sheki was founded about 2700 years ago but since then it was raided and plundered on several occasions ( by Arabs, Persians, Ottomans, Georgian Kingdom – just to name a few), so the current architectonic gems date back mainly to the times following the establishment of Sheki Khanate (1743), which was  one of the strongest feudal states in the Caucasus. During its existence the local population was engaged in silkworm breeding, craft and trade. As a result of a flood of the river Kish in 1772 the ancient city was completely destroyed, many people died while those who survived either moved elsewhere or resettled in the present-day city. In 1805 the Sheki Khanate became a vassal of the Russian Empire and 8 years later the area was fully annexed by Russia. The Khanate was completely abolished in 1819 and replaced with the Sheki province.

Things to see:

Royal Palace of Sheki Khan 

photo.net sheki palace GungaJim Downs - Denver Area

Palace of Sheki Khans. Author: Jim Gunga

The building comes from the times when the town was the capital of Sheki Khanate. It was created at the end of the 18th century and not even one nail or a drop of glue was used to construct it. This lavishly decorated summer residence is the only remaining part of a much larger complex, which used to include winter palace, residences for the Khan’s family and servants’ quarters.

Caravanserais

Caravanserai-Sheki wikimedia

Caravanserai. Source: wikimedia

The building was constructed by the Sheki Khans to host caravans as they passed through on the Silk Road to and from China. There are two caravanserais in Sheki – Lower and Upper Caravanserai – of which the first one is used as a hotel while the latter serves as a historical and architectural monument. The rooms in the Lower Caravanserai are basic but comfortable, and in the backs of the building there is a pleasant garden with a restaurant.

Juma Mosque

It was constructed in 1745-1750. Directly in front of the mosque there is a small cemetery where Gadzhi Chelebi, the 18th century ruler of Sheki, is buried. The mosque has a 40m minaret, from which a muzim 5 times a day announces call to prayer.

Museum of applied art

Albanian church

Albanian Church, Sheki

Based in the Albanian Church just opposite of the Royal Palace of Sheki Khans. It houses an exhibition of various Azeri objects including ancient musical instruments, clothing and jewellery.

Kish

Albanian Church. Source: TEAS

Kish is a picturesque village with an ancient Caucasian Albanian church located approximately 5km north of Sheki. The road leading to the village is quite bumpy but guarantees spectacular scenery with wide river, pine forests and majestic mountains. Fans of hiking will surely be satisfied with this walk.

According to a legend, the Kish church was started by the first century apostle Eliseus, who converted the site from a pagan temple to an apostolic church. The area around the church was excavated from 2000 until 2002, and the remains of bodies found within the present church walls, which date back to the 5th century, are on display in the churchyard.

Gelersen Goresen fortress

If you continue going up the hill from Kish you will find the ruins of a medieval fortress built by a local Khan to resist an invasion of a Persian ruler. Worth visiting even if only to admire the spectacular views over the river Kish.

Kish nature

Kish river

Ilisu State Reserve

Ilisu is a village located in the Greater Caucasus about 50km north from Sheki, just on the border with the Republic of Dagestan. It is situated 700-2100 meters above the sea level and is arguably one of the most beautiful nature spots in Azerbaijan. Go there to admire stunning views over the imposing mountains and learn more about the endemic plant species and local fauna.

Ilisu. Source: wikimedia

Sheki baklava

When in Sheki make sure you visit one of the confectionery shops that are famous throughout the country for selling a special type of baklava prepared from nuts, walnuts, butter, sugar and spices.

c-documents-and-settings

Source: Tripadvisor

Useful links:

Sheki Khan Palace byt the Bald Hiker

History of Kish, Azerbaijan International

Hiking in Sheki

Wikitravel – for practical information (getting there & about, hotels etc) 

A weekend of discovery in the Caucasus: Sheki and Ilisu. Frenchies in Baku

Ancient Sheki, AZ Magazine

Sheki, Azerbaijan Travel

Sheki, what to see and do. TripAdvisor

Visiting Shaki, Azerbaijan by Uncornered Market

4 Seasons in Azerbaijan

Getting around Azerbaijan

By plane

azal 2 planes

AZAL Azerbaijan Airlines

Azerbaijan Airlines (AZAL) connect Baku with major cities of Azerbaijan (Gabala, Nakhchivan, Ganja), and are the most comfortable and the quickest way of getting to these places. In case of Nakhchivan traveling by air is at the moment almost the only option as the exclave is separated from Azerbaijan by Armenia, with which Azerbaijan is still at war. Otherwise you can cross to Nakhchivan by train from Iran.

One way plane ticket costs about 50AZN (64USD). To book a ticket and for more information visit azal.az.

By train

Azerbaijan by train. Source: trend.az

Azerbaijan by train. Source: trend.az

Railways in Azerbaijan are fairly old and there are plans to revitalize them in the forseeable future mainly by introducing high-speed trains in Absheron peninsula and between larger cities of the country. While the trains might be a bit slow, they are certainly comfortable and very safe. Here you can find information about fares and timetable. Travelers with a limited travel time or on a budget should definitely try the overnight trains. The most handy routes of the sleepers are Baku-Ganja and Baku-Lankaran .

Baku-Tbilisi train

There is an overnight train to Tbilisi from Baku, which leaves the capital of Azerbaijan every night around 20.45 (confirm the hour before traveling), and arrives in Tbilisi around midday the following day. The train has 1st class ‘spalny vagon‘ 2-bed sleepers, 2nd class ‘kupé‘ 4-berth sleepers.  The distance is 551km, the fare is about 47AZN (60USD) in a 1st class sleeper, or 25 AZN (32USD) in a 2nd class sleeper.  You can buy a ticket at the station or online. If you choose to take this train remember to bring some food with you as there is no catering, only tea! You will get clean sheets and a pillow, and will be able to sleep the whole trip through. The train stops at the border for quite some time (possibly even 2 hours) so if you’re in a hurry, after passport control you can continue your journey to Tbilisi  by taxi.

By bus

Azerbaijan by bus

Azerbaijan by bus

Traveling by bus is among the cheapest options in the country. Large, comfortable coaches equipped with AC and TV connect Baku with all major cities of Azerbaijan. Occasionally the trip might seem a bit long as buses stop frequently to collect passengers  along the way. On longer routes drivers stop as well to eat and rest. To give you a rough idea about the cost of the trip, for example, bus ticket from Ganja to Baku costs approximately 6-7AZN and the trip lasts around 6-7 hours. If you want to take a bus from Baku to any city within Azerbaijan or abroad go to Beynəlxalq Avtovağzal / International Bus Terminal located on Sumgait Highway just at the entry to Baku. There you will find the most reliable timetable and will be able to buy the ticket.

By marshrutka

Marshrutka. Source- Jessica's in Azerbaijan! blog

Marshrutka. Source- Jessica’s in Azerbaijan! blog

Marshrutkas are paid minibuses that connect smaller cities of Azerbaijan with the capital or other minor towns. They are by far the cheapest means of transport in Azerbaijan but might be quite tiring and time-consuming so try to avoid them if your travel time is limited. Since they’re privately owned, there is often no particular timetable nor specific pick-up point. If you choose to travel by minibus, the best idea is to ask the locals for advice – giving the name of the town you’re heading to and adding the word ‘’marshrutka’’ should be enough to be understood, even if you don’t speak Russian nor Azeri.

By car

Azerbaijan highways. Source: WB

Azerbaijan highways. Source: WB

Car travel is the most convenient way of moving around the country as it allows you to get without hassle almost anywhere you want. Major cities are connected with comfortable highways (Baku-Ganja, Baku-Lankaran, Baku-Sheki, Baku-Tbilisi etc.) but even the less frequently travelled roads are usually of good quality. If you’re planning trips to Lahic or Khinalig we advise you to rent a 4×4 car as roads leading to these remote villages are still unpaved and might be challenging, especially on a rainy day. Also, if you plan to travel ‘’off the beaten track’’, we would recommend to hire a guide/driver who speaks Azeri. He will be of a great help in communication with the Police, which will very likely stop you on the way, and will also get you to your destination without any problems as indications to some places, including tourist destinations, aren’t always straightforward.

For more information/help please contact alina@swtravel.az or r.valiyev@swtravel.az.

Useful links:

Hitch-hiking in Azerbaijan   Hitch-Hikers’ Handbook 

11 Must-dos in Baku

Lahic – the gem of the Caucasus

Naftalan – Azerbaijan’s petroleum spas

Naftalan region

North-West Azerbaijan

As the story goes…

Centuries ago a caravan with camels was passing through the arid region of north-west Azerbaijan. The trip was progressing slowly as the animals were trying to stay away from the oily lakes omnipresent throughout the area. One of the camels was in poor health so, to avoid slowing down the trip even further, the caravan’s leader decided to leave him behind. When a few months later the caravan returned to the region, they found the camel not only alive but also in an excellent shape. After keeping an eye on him for a couple of days they realized that the animal owes its health to regular baths in the dark greasy liquid from the lakes. Word of mouth spread and people started traveling to the area from far and wide in hope of finding a relief from their health troubles. With time a petroleum spa, Naftalan, was established in the region.

Some facts

Marco Polo

Marco Polo

Marco Polo, the Venetian explorer who traveled to the East in 1271-1291, wrote about today’s Naftalan:  a “fountain from which oil springs in great abundance … not edible but good for burning and to treat men and animals with mange, and camels with hives and ulcers”. Archeological findings in the area date to the 12th Century AD. The oil was traded by caravans throughout the Near East, and was known as far as China and India. In the Tsarist Russia the oil was used as a treatment in the Russo-Japanese War.

The healing oil

naftalan_nativ

It is believed that Naftalan oil relieves joint pain, cures psoriasis, calms nerves and beautifies skin.

Naftalan oil, a thick, black-brown liquid with a particular, aromatic odor, is unique to Azerbaijan and forms in the deep layers of the earth beneath the plains of Naftalan. It has a complex chemical composition and is very resinous, a little sour, without paraffin oil, and contains almost no light fractions such as gasoline, kerosene, naphtha. For centuries it was used as an ointment to heal skin conditions and provided relief to people with such problems as eczema, psoriasis and even arthritis. Rich in physiologically active components, Naftalan oil is known to improve the skin’s ability to regenerate itself and absorb more nutrients and oxygen. It also stimulates the collagen and elastin production of the skin cells.

Naftalan today

During the Soviet era, Naftalan’s famous crude oil baths used to draw tourists from all over the Soviet Union, and at the height of their popularity the spas had 75,000 visitors a year.

Naftalan in 1958

Naftalan in 1958

The collapse of the USSR and the Karabakh War almost ruined the industry but today the resort is undergoing a revival. The old spa center, which is currently used chiefly as a dormitory for the war refugees, has been replaced with modern hotels and treatment facilities.

Naftalan spas today

Naftalan spas today

Treatments

The most popular treatment at Naftalan is the crude oil bath. Patients dip their bodies in 35 gallons of crude oil, at a temperature of 40 degrees for about 10 minutes per day. Other treatments are also available, for example the resin from the crude oil is extracted and painted on the patient’s limbs, helping the nervous and blood system and easing joint pain.

Useful link:

http://www.azer.com/aiweb/categories/magazine/ai102_folder/102_articles/102_naftalan_abbasov.html