• Michael Knock

Azerbaijan & Georgia - 20 Day Explorer (Virtual Tour) - Day 8

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.

Day 8 - Kish/Sheki

This morning, with breakfast, we were in for yet another surprise. Again, a local-produce inspired breakfast but the tea was served with jam - very Russian in style. The tea is served in a tulip/pear shaped glass, a variety of local jams are served and you simply put a spoon of jam in your mouth and drink the tea through it. What a taste sensation and a great sugar hit as some of us have opted to walk the 5km to Kish this morning, the others are taking a local bus - a marshrutka.

Just five kilometres from Sheki but it could be a million miles from care, is Kish's Albanian Church, one of our greatest monuments of Caucasian Albania – an ancient state that existed here from about 3BC to 8AD.  The core of this beautiful church is thought to date to 1AD, yet archaeologists have discovered evidence that a cultic site existed here as early as 3,000BC!

The church now functions primarily as a museum to Caucasian Albania and features a host of Bronze Age ceramics discovered during excavations carried out in the early 2000s by a joint Azerbaijani-Norwegian team, as well as glass-covered vaults displaying ancient graves with two-metre long skeletons. 

It was interesting to learn that the term "caucasian" comes from here and referred to the "white people" who were very fair.

We had lunch at Kish, which is located towards the end of a valley with views to snow-capped peaks and then caught a marshrutka back to Sheki to see how the Shebeke stained glass is made. The rest of the day was free to explore this town, taste some of it's famous halva and look further into the silk industry here.

Shebeke is made through the process of tracery. Puzzle pieces (called ‘network tracery pieces’) made from wood and coloured glass are expertly slotted together into a frame. Amazingly, there is no glue, nails or any fasteners or any kind used in the process.

I couldn't say it any better than the Azerbaijani Tourist Board with their description of an afternoon in Sheki..."Take a break from an itinerary packed with sightseeing and spend a morning or afternoon simply wandering the cobbled streets of Sheki’s historic old town, an area that was recently added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Soak up the bucolic atmosphere, admire the intricate brickwork and hunt for some historical relics. This upper part of the city is made up of 19th-century merchant housing with distinctive gabled roofs, mosques and hammams, reflecting Sheki’s long history as a former hub of the silk trade. You can visit house museums to local literary heroes Mirza Fatali Akhundzade and Bakhtiyar Vahabzade and call into the Sheki Khans’ House. For a Quintessential Silk Road experience in Sheki, stop for tea and sweets or better still spend a night at Karvansaray, an authentic 18th-century caravanserai-turned-hotel.

Once an important trade hub along the Silk Road, Sheki continues to exude a spirit of the past. On the historic trading street named after legendary local writer Mirza Fatali Akhundzade, step into small boutiques and admire the authentic craftsmanship, whether it be witnessing patterns being printed onto the colourful kelaghayi headscarves traditionally worn by Azerbaijani women or decorating clothes and cushions with intricate floral designs using a technique known as takalduz embroidery. Meet talented artisans making pots, papags (a national hat), miniature caskets and national instruments whose skills have been passed down through generations.

Between the baklava and the jammy/sugary tea, it’s obvious that Azerbaijan has a bit of a sweet tooth. Sheki’s contribution to the country’s sweets cabinet is halva (halvasi or Sheki pakhlava), a super-sticky, syrup-drenched nut slice.

According to legend, the recipe for Sheki pakhlava was first devised for the Khan who didn’t mind a dessert or two. It was such a success, it soon became a mainstay of Sheki’s pastry shops and a favourite across Azerbaijan.

Sheki halva is made with rice flour, sugar and hazelnuts, and flavoured with coriander seeds, cardamom and saffron. It’s traditionally prepared in a round pan by building up layers of pastry and stuffing. The diamond motif on top (made to reflect the patterns of shabaka glass) is made using a special funnel. Once baked, it’s finally drenched in hot sugar syrup. You can find Sheki halva at shops all over town and at the local market.

After this morning's walk to Kish, the history and culture that almost drips from the Albanian Church walls, an amazing picnic with those extraordinary views and a white-knuckle ride back to Sheki, the afternoon wandering at our own pace was perfect.

Part of the opportunity to explore today was also to locate another restaurant to try the Sheki Pita again.

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