by Fiona Maclachlan
As summer arrives in Azerbaijan, and the temperature in the capital city Baku soars, then the lure of the surrounding countryside increases exponentially. Even the smartest city folk jump into a car or bus at a moment´s notice, and head for the country´s beaches or forested mountains.
With the improving road system, travelling is fast becoming quick and comfortable; favourite destinations can be reached very easily indeed.
Choose between a day trip or a longer stay, go wild camping in luxuriant meadows, or get pampered in 5 star world class luxury hotels, the choice is yours depending on just how close you want to be to nature.
Because I like to travel in Azerbaijan, and have done for several years, Azerbaijani people often ask me where my favourite place is in their country. Maybe they secretly hope it will be the village home of a favourite grandparent! Faced with such a tremendous choice of destinations, often special to me for very different reasons, I try to visit each in turn, and with each visit try to explore just a little further than before.
Travelling here always reveals special moments and, without exception, I feel totally privileged to be a guest in this most amazing country. A wonderful feeling results, both energising and uplifting. So please, take yourself out of Baku, and chill… You will return so refreshed that you can tackle the heat head-on.
Laze on a beach
I am a little particular when it comes to beaches and, unlike many Bakuvians, I like to have a beach to myself. Greedy maybe, but luckily it´s an option. Azerbaijan has miles of coastline, much of which comprises sandy beaches on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Nabran to the north is hugely popular with Azerbaijanis and comprises a huge variety of resorts, mostly well set back from the roadside sea-front. There´s plenty of forest behind the resorts for walks and recreation. For me, Nabran is at its best in June and, despite the ever increasing choice of large, up-market resorts with a vast range of facilities, my favourite is a smaller simple resort, with an invitingly clean outdoor swimming pool surrounded by manicured rose gardens, with options of breakfast or kebabs delivered to your cottage balcony. What a way to start summer. Pure bliss!
Sometimes a quick, fun-filled escape from the city is what´s required, and for several years now Amburan has been top of my list. A purpose-built beach resort just a little to the north of Baku, its excellent facilities include decent changing and shower facilities.
Of course with the many miles of coastline there are many, many more beaches to choose from. For wild swimming, don´t forget the other options of rivers (often ´dammed´ anew each summer by locals to form pools) or lakes. The vast reservoir at Mingechevir in the centre of Azerbaijan has a good beach and fresh water swimming.
Head for the hills
When the heat gets too much in Baku then do what people do the world over - head up. In Azerbaijan you have the option to head not only for the hills, but also to the mountains and, in addition, you have not only one but two famous mountain ranges to choose from. The Caucasus Mountains to the north are immense and here you can spot the beautiful Bazarduzu (4485m), Azerbaijan´s highest peak, which is typically snow topped all year round. A trek up Shahdag (4243m) can easily be organised (you need mountain guides, horses, tents and so on) but for me it´s a real treat just to go to the mountain villages and resorts which you can reach by car. They afford some seriously amazing mountain scenery. Stroll amongst the high meadows which are spectacularly rich in mountain flora even in the middle of summer. Stay overnight if you like, options such as Suvar (accessed by an incredible 4x4 route via Qusar) are comfortable and the views breathtaking. Alternatively, the Talysh Mountains to the south of Azerbaijan contain magically exotic forests and associated wildlife, including leopards. To find out all about this special environment, head to Hirkan National Park to the south of Lenkeran.
Quba is a town in the northern half of Azerbaijan which is ever-so famous for its apples. I like to go to a nearby area called Qachrash, which is reached along a small road out of Quba and is well known because the forest is so thick that daylight cannot get through to the forest floor.
Lenkeran, to the south of Azerbaijan, is by the sea and is famous for lemons and tea. Base yourself at the Qafqaz Sahil resort for good accommodation and tasty local food dishes, and enjoy exploring the area. You can get up into the Talysh mountains, visit hot water spas, set fire to water, and even, a little further south, spot Iran over the border. Note that the area over the border is a region of Iran called Azerbaijan - how confusing is that?! Iran´s Azerbaijan is home to millions of ethnic Azerbaijani people, many more than live in Azerbaijan itself. Just one of the curious results of the way that wars have been waged and borders re-drawn over the centuries.
...or go west
To the west of Baku you can vist Shamakha, which was once a capital city before earthquakes caused the Shirvan Shahs to move to Baku. A short distance north from Shamakha takes you to the interesting Pirguli village, which has several observatories looking to the skies. To the south of Shamakha, enjoy one of my favourite routes - the road to Agsu as it twists down the steep, tree-covered hillside dotted with tea shops and restaurants all enjoying an ever better view over the low-lying central plain of the country. To the west of Shamakha is one of the best road routes in all Azerbaijan. It skirts the foot of the Caucasus Mountains, traverses wide stony river beds, passing through fruit and nut country, and always with a view up through forest to the jaggy mountain peaks. To continue along this route means passing through the settlements of Ismailly, Vandam, Qabala, Oguz, Sheki, Qax, Zagatala and, if you haven´t yet gone far enough, to Balakan and the mountain route to Georgia. Each township is on a river carrying snow melt and has smaller villages further upstream. What a delight to explore these towns and villages!
5 star luxury
Or keep on the road until you reach Qabala, one of the most interesting regions. Up in the tree-lined valley beyond the town of Qabala itself lies an unexpected treat - the most beautiful and luxurious 5 star resort complex in all Azerbaijan. The setting of the Qafqaz Resort and Qafqaz Riverside is truly exquisite, the standard of the service superb, and the comfort and facilities will surprise and entertain. Home of Azerbaijan´s annual International Music Festival, this resort area recently welcomed the UK´s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
If you can tear yourself away from Qabala and all its historic and archaeological places of interest, then you´ll pass through Oguz and then arrive at Sheki. Long popular with tourists to Azerbaijan, Sheki boasts the Sheki Khan´s Saray among its attractions - a small but very fine palace built without a nail or screw. You simply must at least visit the Carvanserai Hotel, perhaps my favourite hotel anywhere for its incredible atmosphere; stay if you can get a room! Kish, upstream, is home to a much restored Albanian church, where the knowledgeable Ilhama will willingly tell you about the history of such churches in Azerbaijan.
Continuing on my special route beyond Sheki, visit Qax and make a point of seeing the churches - go inside and marvel at the paintings covering the walls and ceilings. This is near Georgia, so look out for Georgian influences and enjoy a Georgian slant to the menu choices at the many roadside restaurants lining the way upstream to the peaceful village of Illisu.
For anyone whose grandparents come from Ganja, or any other place in Azerbaijan which I´ve not mentioned, please rest assured that I probably love your city or town or village too. Even Sumgayit, which used to have a bit of a name for Soviet pollution, is being cleaned up and has a wonderful seafront. I once tried to scare myself by going there - I thought I was being brave - but instead fell for the Dove of Peace monument.
There is one place I would still very much like to visit - Goygol. This lake, every Azerbaijani person tells me, wistfully, is beautiful. There´s a new National Park here which I hope, one day, to be able to explore.
Please enjoy travelling in Azerbaijan; I do hope you find your own special place and enjoy every moment!