Around Shamakhi

Etibar shamakhi

Image: Etibar Jafarov

Around Shamakhi

Shamakhi, situated just under 2-hour drive North-West from Baku, is among the most popular tourist destinations in Azerbaijan.  Thanks to its rich past this seemingly inconspicuous place offers visitors plenty of unique historical and cultural attractions, and sheds some light on Azerbaijan’s eventful past. Regionally, Shamakhi is also famous for its carpet weaving  and wine making traditions.

About Shamakhi

The beginnings of Shamakhi go as far back as the 5th Century BC.  During the Middle Ages it was an important urban center and from the 8th to 15th centuries served as the capital of the powerful Shirvan State, and later as the capital of the independent Shirvan Khanate. The city was a serious outpost on the Silk Road and, according to historians, at some point it had 130 silk winding establishments. Unfortunately, due to its seismically active location, over the centuries Shamakhi has been regularly struck by devastating earthquakes, and in the 15th century, local rulers decided to transfer the capital to safer and strategically located Baku. In the 19th century Shamakhi became one of Russian Empire’s guberniyas (Shamakhi Governorate) but after another devastating earthquake from 1859 the administrative center was transferred to Baku. In the years that followed the political and economic significance of the city has decreased and nowadays Shamakhi is a small (population of approx. 31,000) and rather quiet town.  However, it still hold the remnants of its great past, and among them the leftovers of the Gulustan Fortress and the picturesque Yeddi Gumbaz mausoleum. And once you’re tired of sightseeing, try a glass of the fine local wine as Shamakhi district is the national center of wine growing.

What to see:

Juma Mosque (Friday Mosque)

The original mosque was constructed around 743-744 by Arabs and it is considered to be the second mosque in the Caucasus after the Friday Mosque in Derbent (Dagestan).  Over the centuries the mosque has undergone several major reconstructions (12th Century, 17th Century, 1860, 1909, 2009) due to the significant damages caused by numerous battles and earthquakes.

Shamakhi_Juma_Mosque,

Image by Azernews

Gulustan Fortress

Gulustan Fortress, built at the foot of Murovdag hill, some 2 kilometers North of Shamakhi, used to serve as a defensive installation for the shahs of Shirvan. The first recorded fortifications here were the iron gates erected between 1043 and 1049 by Shirvanshah Gubad. However, some archeologists claim that the fortress  could have been built as early as the 9th Century. In its prime, the massive construction intimidated foreign armies but the numerous earthquakes and passing time has left a significant toll on its structure. Today all that is left of this formerly imposing construction are plenty of scattered stones, some towers and remaining of defensive walls but it’s still well worth visiting the place. From the top of the hill you will get a better idea about the original size of the fortress and you’ll be rewarded with beautiful views  over the area. For detailed information about the fortress please click here.

Gulustan

Remaining of the Gulustan Fortress. Image: wikipedia.

Yeddi Gumbaz mausoleum

This ancient cemetery, situated about 1.5km south of Shamakhi, was built in the 18th century for the family of the last khan of the Shirvanshah dynasty. The name, which translates as ‘’Seven Domes’’, comes from the number of gravestones in the crypt belonging to the shah’s relatives. Only three of the mausoleums survived till this day, others are either entirely or partly destroyed. 

Yeddi Gumbaz mausoleum

Yeddi Gumbaz mausoleum

Shamakhi wines

Thanks to its mild climate, fertile soils and hilly terrain, Shamakhi district is the key wine grape growing and wine making area in the country. Traditionally, local wine makers produced sweet wines (result of the local taste as well as dry climate) but over the last years there have been a lot of efforts made to start production of world-class wines, and nowadays it’s possible to try some good red and white dry wines. It’s worth noting that wine tradition in the area is centuries-old and you can find here some indigenous grape varieties, such as Madrasa (spelled also Matrassa, derived from the name of a local village) used in production of popular red dry wines. Interestingly, among the first European purchasers of local wines were the Portuguese traders who worked on extending their commercial influences in Asia.

Practical information

For more information about getting there, accommodation etc. please contact us directly.

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Baku hotels – where to stay

Since a few years ago Azerbaijan has focused its efforts on developing local tourism sector, hotels in the country have sprung up like mushrooms. Today in Baku you will be spoiled for choice with a wide variety of sleepover places starting from internationally renowned brands to independent boutique hotels. In this post we will give you an idea about some of the best options, depending on your budget.

HIGH END

Fairmont – situated in one of the Flame Towers, the symbol of modern Baku. From the rooms you will get some of the best views of the capital.  It’s location provides a good starting point for the city tour but if you’re planning to visit some of the local clubs or restaurants you’ll have to take a cab.  In the hotel you will also find the only French restaurant in the city and a spa.

fairmont

Fairmont Hotel Flame Towers

Four Seasons – conveniently situated just on the outskirts of Icheri Sheher. This classically inspired yet modern hotel overlooks the Caspian Sea and the Boulevard, and is within a walking distance from most of Baku’s ”must-see”. Apart from an Italian restaurant and Bentley’s whiskey and cigar  bar, there’s also arguably the best seafood restaurant in the city (Kaspia) and a luxury spa.

4 Seasons Forbes

Four Seasons Hotel Source: Forbes

JW Marriott Absheron the hotel is overlooking the massive Azadliq Square and Dom Soviet. JW Marriott Absheron is situated in the modern, futuristic part of the city, about 30mins walk  from the Old Town and other tourist attractions. Apart from the luxury spa, there are as well two restaurants – Oronero and Fireworks. The first one serves Italian food and has spacious outdoor dining terrace, while the other offers an exciting mix of Azerbaijani, Turkish, Iranian and Punjabi food.

Marriott

Source: Panoramio

Hilton Baku – centrally located, overlooking the Boulevard and the Caspian Sea, close to all tourist attractions and the shopping area. Apart from the open terrace Sky Grill located on the 24th floor and Cilantro, a restaurant serving Middle Eastern and Mediterranean inspired food, there is also Baku’s only 360° Bar offering incredible views over the sea and the city.

sky bar hilton

Hilton 360 Bar

MID RANGE

Park Inn – located next to Hilton, close to the cultural sites and business center. Very popular with corporate travellers. The top floor is occupied by Eleven, one of the most popular clubs in the city. Situated in the vicinity of bars, restaurants and the shopping area.

park inn

Park Inn. Source: Hg2

Central Park – located about 15mins walk from the Fountain Square and the Old Town, very close to the spacious, recently created Winter Park and the remains of the last century’ s oil barons’ mansions. It allows you to experience a different side of Baku without taking you away from the center. In the vicinity of bars and restaurants.

Central Park hotel_

Central Park Hotel

BOUTIQUE

Shah Palace  –  a charming boutique hotel situated in Icheri Sheher, just by the Shamakhi Gate (Double Gate), provides an excellent starting point for the city tour. Its atmospheric interior  combines the elements of classical, Azerbaijani architecture with pieces of national artwork. Apart from the outdoor terrace restaurant, there is also a wine bar serving some of the finest local and international wines.

shah palace

Shah Palace Hotel

Atropat – situated in the heart of Icheri Sheher; perfect starting point for the city sightseeing. Atropat offers an open air roof dining terrace with 24hr service.

atropat hotel

Atropat Hotel. Source: destinia

Sultan Inn – located in the center of Icheri Sheher. In their own words ”the hotel blends harmoniously with the surrounding reality and is conveniently positioned close to famous historic landmarks reached by winding old streets with mosques, carpet and handicraft shops”. The hotel offers as well an excellent open air roof terrace restaurant serving good quality Azerbaijani food.

Sultan Inn

Sultan Inn hotel

BUDGET

Noah’s Ark – situated in Icheri Sheher, very close to tourist attractions and within a walking distance from popular bars and restaurants. Apart from the standard hotel rooms, there’s also an apartment available for rent that will accommodate up to 5 people (120 sq m). On the 5th floor, there’s also an Azerbaijani restaurant with 360′ city view.

Noah's ark

Noah’s Ark Hotel

Altstad Hotel – a small hotel (8 rooms only) situated in Icheri Sheher, surrounded by  main tourist attractions of the Old Town and within a walking distance to bars, restaurants, shops and museums.

Alstadt

Altstadt Hotel. Source: Lonely Planet

Caspian Hostel – a family-run hostel located in Icheri Sheher. Rooms available: an eight-bed dorm and a double-bed in a separate room. There is also a kitchen and separate bathroom with shower.

caspian hostel

Caspian Hostel. Source: Lonely Planet

These are only some suggestions on where to stay in Baku. For more information please contact us and we will be happy to advise. In the next post we will  prepare a list of the best places to stay when traveling around Azerbaijan.

Eating Baku – a guide to the city’s best restaurants

Whether you travel on a budget or have got some extra cash to splash, below you will find a brief introduction to the best of Baku’s restaurants. This is just a short list, which will be updated and expanded in the future to ensure you always get the ultimate dining experience.

BUDGET

Araz –  one of these places where even a tourist will feel like a local. Araz cafe is very popular with young foreigners, especially with the ”hippy” expats or travelers on a tighter budget. It offers a good choice of both Azeri and international foods, decent wine and beer. Recommended whether you just want to drink some tea or spend a few hours sipping beer with friends. Great location for every weather but especially pleasant in the summer when you can sit in the garden overlooking the Fountain Square. Open 24/7.

Darya Fish House – this large restaurant is situated in the fishing village just of the Bibi Heybat Mosque. You can eat here a well prepared local fish accompanied by traditional Azerbaijani starters while looking over the Caspian Sea. Tasty and cheap.

Imereti – arguably the best Georgian restaurant in Baku. It offers a great choice of typical Georgian food, and decent wine too.  On hg2 Baku you will find the old address but the restaurant was moved to 6 Rasul Rza a while ago.

imereti

Cabbage with nuts by Imereti FB

Cudo Pecka – a chain of bakeries located around the city offering a variety of sweet and savoury Azeri pastries including pahlava and qutabs. There’s one in Azerbaijan Avenue, very close to the entrance to the Old Town, and another next to Nizami metro station.

In Baku you will find as well lots of shaurma places where you can eat for about 2AZN, well 3AZN if you top it up with ayran. Also, there are plenty of places offering local delicacies such as meat and vegetable qutabs or pirazhki filled with potatoes, which are sold for about 20-30 kapik/piece. Family bakeries often sell as well pastries resembling Georgian khachapuri. Look for those in the back streets of Targova (there’s, for example, a small bakery on Rasul Rza Street; follow the street up north moving away from Targova).

qutabs

Qutabs. Source: flavorsofbaku.com

MEDIUM

Tosca Cafe & Enoteca – one of the most popular Italian restaurants in Baku. Tasty Italian food in the beautiful setting of the Baku Boulevard.

Sultan Inn – there are a couple of them in Baku but try the one in the Old Town, located on top of the Sultan Inn boutique hotel – it has a little terrace overlooking the Caspian Sea. Very good Azeri food and wine.

Sumakh – located a bit further away from the city center but definitely worth the extra effort – excellent Azeri food in a modern interior.

sumakh restaurant yenimemar.az

Sumakh restaurant

Fayton – Great choice of traditional Azeri dishes. Interesting, slightly elegant but very warm and cozy interior with lots of traditional objects including music instruments, samovars and carpets. Great place for an autumn or winter lunch/dinner. Might get a bit loud when there’s live music.

Sahil – situated one floor above Tosca. Very good Azeri restaurant with beautiful  views over the sea and the boulevard.

STEEP

Kaspia – at the Four Seasons Hotel – delicious grill and sea food from the Caspian Sea and not only.

kaspia

Kaspia, Four Seasons Hotel

Scalini – situated in front of the Hyatt hotel, Scalini offers a good choice of Italian dishes, including fresh pasta, decent pizza and… octopus carpaccio – to name a few. In the adjacent building there’s Scalini Lounge where, for a change, you can stop for the English fry up or Yorkshire pie.

Chinar – a very fancy place next to Baku’s Funicular. They serve Asian cuisine (Thai, Chinese, Japanese and Singaporean) and offer a great choice of cocktails, also non-alcoholic. On the weekends it’s advisable to book in advance. On Friday and Saturday evenings there’s usually a DJ playing electronic lounge music.

Chinar baku3d.az

Chinar by baku3d.az

OroNero – this restaurant, located in the Marriott Absheron hotel, offers tasty modern Italian food. We recommend to choose a table on the spacious terrace overlooking the Boulevard.

Art Garden – good Azeri food in the beautiful setting of the Old Town.

Art Graden

Art Garden, Baku

UNIQUE DINING EXPERIENCE

Mugham Club – called by the Hg2 Baku  ”one of the world’s most atmospheric restaurants”. The restaurant is situated in a two storey caravanserai in the Old Town and offers a unique dining with live Azeri music and dances.  A truly beautiful interior.

Mugham Club by hg2 Baku

Mugham Club by hg2 Baku

DOs & DON’Ts – customs and traditions in Azerbaijan

Like every country, Azerbaijan has its own set of customs and traditions. Being aware of them will definitely make traveling to the country more effective and will spare visitors any potential misunderstandings with the locals. In this post you will find some brief information about the most common and interesting local habits but don’t be too stressed about remembering all of them – foreigners will usually be cut some slack!

Greeting 

Handshake

manwomen

When introducing yourself to local women keep in mind that Azerbaijan is a Muslim country and it might be considered inappropriate for men to shake hands with ladies. This applies especially to the countryside where society is usually more conservative than in Baku. Handshake rules in business environment are usually much more relaxed but – just in case – always wait for your female companion to stretch her hand first.

Also, never shake hands across a doorway as it’s considered bad luck!

Kissing on the cheek

Source: Cora Poage

Source: Cora Poage

As a rule, in Azerbaijan men don’t greet their female friends with a kiss on the cheek. Again, be especially careful about it when in the countryside as you might upset the family of the girl.

On the other hand, you will often see men greeting each other in this way – this is seen as normal.

Public displays of affection

Azeris are a fairly progressive Muslim society, yet still public displays of affection are considered inappropriate, even in the center of Baku, so don’t be surprised if  you get scolded by a local when ”smooching” your other half on the street.

Fashion

Azeris are quite liberal when it comes to clothing. Especially in the capital, you will notice girls wearing a lot of make-up, short skirts and ultra high heels. People usually care about their appearances a lot and they always make sure that their outfit, shoes included, is squeaky-clean. In  a bad weather you will often see men and women pulling out their cleaning rags to wipe their shoes off the mud.

Shorts

shorts

According to Islam, the modesty requires men to cover their legs thus shorts aren’t well received. However, as everything in the country, this is also changing very fast. Only a few years ago wearing bermudas in public places was seen as offensive. Today however, lots of young Azeri men choose this  garment on hot summer days when temperatures can easily hit 40’C. Still, try to avoid it in the countryside.

Food

Sharing

Local people will always offer to share their food with you and you are supposed to do the same, even if you know that the answer will be negative.

Sacred Bread

tandir

When walking around Azerbaijan’s cities and villages you will often see stale bread hanging in the plastic bags on a tree or piled up somewhere high. Azeris never throw away bread to the rubbish bin as it’s considered offensive towards those who go around hungry.

Personal questions

People in Azerbaijan will be interested in your personal life so be ready to get asked lots of direct questions about yourself even from the people you barely know (e.g. regarding age, marital status, children etc). While in some countries it might be considered intrusive, here it is seen as a genuine sign of interest and concern.

Other local customs

Don’t wear shoes in the house – take them off as soon as you enter and you will be offered  a pair of slippers instead.

slippers

Never whistle indoors as it’s bad luck!

Don’t blow your nose in public.

Men should give up their seats to women and older people.

Only man can sit in the taxi next to the driver. Women can afford that only if the driver is a relative.

Useful links:

http://morganstuart2010.wordpress.com/2011/03/05/cultural-customs/

More on cherishing the bread 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 

Visa to Azerbaijan fuss-free

image: travelmaestro.co.uk

image: travelmaestro.co.uk

Visa-related questions are among the most frequently asked when it comes  to planning a trip to Azerbaijan. The procedures have been modified over the last couple of years and many people seem confused by what is actually required at the moment. In this post we will try to address these doubts by providing comprehensive and up-to-date information on how to get a tourist visa to the country.

Visa on arrival

This service has been stopped in October 2010. Except diplomats and passport-holders from visa exempt countries, anyone who will come to Azerbaijan without a pre-arranged visa will be sent back.

Nationals of the following countries don’t need a visa to enter Azerbaijan:

For up to 90 days: Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Mongolia, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan

For up to 30 days: China, Turkey

For up to 15 days: Iran

Electronic tourist visa with SW Travel

SW Travel is among travel agencies licensed to issue online visas to Azerbaijan. The visa fee is 35 EUR if you book the accommodation with us, otherwise the cost is 60 EUR. The procedure is very simple.

Send the following documents to visa@swtravel.az:

  • Scanned completed and signed visa application form (JPEG format) – possible to download from our website
  • 1 color photo 3×4 against white background (JPEG format)
  • Color Passport copy ( JPEG format)
  • Copy of air ticket booking confirmation (JPEG format)
  • Confirmation from the hotel that you will be staying with them (not needed if booking accommodation through SW Travel)
  • Payment confirmation

Within 15 days you will receive your visa by email.

image: azernews.az

image: azernews.az

Consulate

You can also apply for the visa at an Azeri consulate closest to your place of residence. You can do it in person or by mail. If you’re staying abroad but don’t have the resident status in that country check in advance if the local Azeri consulate accepts applications from non-residents.

Required documents:

  • Completed application form
  • Photos 3×4 against white background
  • Passport and a copy of the first page of the passport
  • Invitation letter
  • Confirmation of payment for the visa
  • Completed & printed e-survey

Before applying for the visa you should also complete the evisa survey, print it out and submit it with the rest of the documents:

Among consulates issuing tourist visas for non-residents is the consulate of Azerbaijan in Batumi (Georgia), which might be very helpful for those planning a trip around South Caucasus. The Consulate in Batumi issues tourist visas within 3 working days, and it doesn’t require an invitation letter. As of now, the Consulate in Tbilisi issues only business visas to Azerbaijan.

Note: filling evisa application IS NOT ENOUGH to receive the visa. It’s used by the Ministry but you still have to go through the old procedure.

Other things to keep in mind

Various rules might apply to different countries and it’s always good to check the website of your nearest Azeri consulate for details. This is especially important when planning your trip. Make sure you always allow enough time for the visa application to be processed as in one country it might take only a couple of days but in another up to 3 weeks!

Due to the ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, if your passport shows any evidence of travel to the Armenia-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan you will be denied entry to the country and banned from entering for life.

Registration with State Migration Services 

In April 2013 the Government of Azerbaijan has scrapped the requirement of Police Registration for all foreigners planning to stay in the country and replaced it with a less complicated procedure of Registration with State Migration Services (SMS).  According to the new rule, anyone planning to stay in the country longer than 3 days should register with State Migration Services within the first three working days from the arrival date. If you’re staying at a hotel, guesthouse etc. the staff should take care of it. However, if you’re planning to stay with friends or family, make sure they are aware of the new rule as otherwise they might face a fine. All you or your host has to do is send the following documents to this email address qeydiyyat@migration.gov.az:

  • Completed and signed application form
  • Copy of your passport
  • Copy  of the ID document of the receiving party

The application form can be downloaded from the SMS website:

Hope the information above clarified a bit the current rules of obtaining a visa to Azerbaijan. If you have any additional questions don’t hesitate to leave a comment and we will do our best to help. For more information regarding different types of visa, including transit visa, please see the links below:

http://azerbaijan24.com/azerbaijan-tourist-visa.html

http://www.president.az/azerbaijan/foreign/visa/

For those planning to apply in Georgia:

http://www.azembassy.ge/

http://www.azgenconsulate.ge/en/

For those applying in the UK:

http://www.visaforazerbaijan.org.uk/about.php