Azerbaijan & Georgia - 20 Day Explorer (Virtual Tour) - Day 6-7
We were due to be heading to Aerbaijan & Georgia @ this time of year, however, COVID-19 restrictions have required us to suspend all tours for the rest of 2020.
On this virtual Tour, you can travel with us as we explore two emerging countries - Azerbaijan & Georgia. On this Tour, we fly into Baku, Azerbaijan and out of Tbilisi, Georgia and bus, hike & funicular our way around these amazing cultures.
This morning, after another great variation on breakfast, we headed off to more towns with multiple spellings - Nij, Nidj, Nidzh or Nic (sort of makes reading a map very difficult) - before continuing on to Sheki/Seki/Shaki/Şəki for our overnight stay.
Nij won't be found on too many maps but this village/region of @ 4000 people is home to the native Udin/Udi people, direct descendants of ancient Caucasian Albanians and the only enthnic minority retaining their affiliation to Christianity in Azerbaijan. There are about 10,000 Udi people spread throughout Azerbaijan, Georgia & Russia mainly.
Nij is about 90kms/2 hrs from Lahij so it was a great place to explore over a cup of tea. One of the first things we noticed as we drove into Nij was that the village's coat of arms appeared to have silk worms on it. Later, we found out that sericulture is one of the major industries in this, and 37 other, regions in Azerbaijan.
Silk has been produced in this region since the 11th Century (it is on the Silk Road, after all) and it was developed into a major industry in the 1920's with it's own mill etc.
Another 70km/70minutes and we arrive in Sheki for lunch and a tour of the Sheki Khans Palace. In July, 2019 this building was recognised by UNESCO as part of the broader Historic Centre of Sheki, and is considered one of modern Azerbaijan’s most prized pieces of architecture.
The palace was built in 1763 as a summer residence for Sheki’s ruling family. To make the most of the fresh air, they built it on a small hill above the city and enclosed the gardens with fortified walls. The palace is quite modest in size for a royal residence – just six rooms and two balconies spread over two levels. What it lacks in floorspace, it more than makes up for in decoration. Unfortunately, photography is not permitted inside so you have to visit the neaby Winter Palace to get an idea of who their decorator was.
Every sq centimetre of the palace – which has been painstakingly restored by architects and master craftspeople – is absolutely breathtaking in its detail and opulence.
The 36 metre-long facade is the first thing you encounter upon entering through the gates. Every part of it is covered with exquisite plasterwork, peacocks, scallop patterns and Islamic-inspired motifs in a palette of salmon, black and blue.
Standing under the roof gable and looking up at the painted overhang, you realise that every last corner of the palace has been thoroughly and thoughtfully decorated. From the outside, you can appreciate the detail of the intricate wooden window frames. Once you go inside, you’ll realise these are actually stained glass (a special local variety known as Shebeke).
The Khan's also had a Winter Palace in Sheki. Remarkably, this was only recently discovered and restoration work has been underway since 2010.
Our home for the next two nights is the "Old Town Hotel" - a caravanseri-style hotel with interior courtyard, spacious rooms and wonderful dining. It was conveniently located in the centre of town and on the way back from the Khan's Palace.
We had been told that we had to try Sheki Piti, a local speciality. Tural led us to Restaurant Gargarin and, as the say, the rest is history.
Piti is a traditional Azeri dish – a chunky, aromatic stew made from meat (chicken or veal), chickpeas and mixed vegetables. It’s quite fatty (sometimes with chunks of lard on top), and some pitis have a single apricot added to the mix. It’s traditionally served in a small earthenware pot with lots of bread on the side.
Eating piti can be a bit of an artform.
First, you tear your bread into small pieces and place them in an empty bowl. Pour the piti liquid over the bread. Sprinkle with sumac and eat the sodden bread/soup as your first course.
Next, you mash the remaining piti stew into a chunky paste using a special wooden pestle and transfer it to your bowl to eat as a second course. A serving of piti costs about 5 AZN (@ AUD$5).