Few travellers to Azerbaijan look beyond the capital, Baku. What they miss is the charm of Sheki, a city swaddled in the foothills of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, and a significant stop on the Silk Route. In July 2019, Sheki’s historic centre along with the Khan’s Palace was anointed as UNESCO sites. It takes a day spent in its cobbled alleys, silk and spice bazaars, weaving in-and-out of its red-tiled homes, to unravel Sheki’s stories.
Sheki’s superstar is Xan Sarayi, or Sheki Khan’s Palace, perched on a hill at the northeast end of the town. Shaded by chinar trees, the two-storey structure was built as a summer palace for the ruler in 1762. The facade itself is quite the stunner, with turquoise, cobalt and ochre tiles studded on the walls, and wooden latticework windows. It is also the only fully restored building in the fortress complex which houses the Khans’ residences and a winter palace.
Inside, every inch of the walls and ceilings pops with vivid murals and frescos of floral and paisley motifs, along with hunting and war scenes in the rooms on the upper floor. But the palace’s cynosure are the windows covered in shebeke: mosaics of stained glass pieced together like a large jigsaw. I marvel at the sunlight streaming through them, casting psychedelic shadows, bathing the room in its warmth.
Walk down to the fortress grounds, to the roofed art and crafts bazaar where several artisans’ stalls showcase Azerbaijan’s unique handicrafts. The shebeke workshop is near the entrance, and the master craftsman demonstrates how he works magic on the wooden latticework, deftly incorporating bits of coloured glass. Other stalls display local embroidery, pottery, and the popular 11-stringed instrument—the Azerbaijani tar. A small history museum in the complex is also worth a stop for its galleries of traditional artefacts, cooking implements, pottery and weapons.
For a modern-day Silk Route experience, walk down the main road for about 10 minutes. Step inside the historic Yukhari Karvansaray Hotel, where a lush central courtyard is fringed by a two-level arcade of stone arches. Built in the 18th century for travellers and traders to rest for the night, the restored caravanserai is now open to both overnight guests and daytime visitors. There are far better hotels in town, so drop in just for a walk and their elaborate tea ritual at the çayxana (teahouse) with its cosy alcoves—sample dried fruit and nuts, apricot and white cherry murabba (jam), and baklava served with fragrant çay straight from the samovar.
For lunch, walk four minutes to Restoran Qaqarin for a quick meal of pilaf (fragrant rice baked inside phyllo pastry) and Azeri wine. Sheki is renowned for its sericulture industry, and few souvenirs are as lovely as the traditional silk Azeri headscarves known as kelagayi: These can be stylishly accessorised as scarves or stoles too. Pick one up from one of the shops lining the main road outside the Karvansaray hotel. And don’t forget to buy some famous Sheki halva, the rich and layered, nutty dessert also known as pakhlava, from Aliahmad Sweets, a five-minute walk away.
A 20-minute drive north of Sheki, deep in a valley overlooking jagged peaks lies the village of Kish, home to only a few thousand residents. Walk its cobblestone streets until you reach: the Albanian Church of Kish, said to have been built in the first century A.D. The modest, beautiful space is now a museum, and displays pottery and Bronze Age skeletons excavated in the region over the past two decades. Aimless walks around Kish are equally rewarding, with the mighty Caucasus for company.
Back in Sheki, reward yourself with a hearty dinner of piti, Sheki’s signature dish, at the restaurant Nuxa at Marxal Resort and Spa. The thick stew of lamb, chickpeas, vegetables rich with the flavour of onions and garlic, chestnuts and the stray apricot is traditionally slow cooked for 8-12 hours in clay pots called dopu, which impart a unique taste. Piti is usually served with copious amounts of lavash or
To eat piti like a local, tear the bread into small bits, pour over it the liquid from the dopu, sprinkle some sumac, and enjoy the flavourful, soupy mess. Then mash the remaining stew into a chunky paste with a wooden pestle, pour it into the bowl and eat it as the second course. www.shekisaray.az
There are no direct flights from Delhi and Mumbai to Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. All connections need a layover at gateway cities like Dubai and Sharjah. Sheki lies about 300 km/4.5 hr northwest of Baku. If you don’t hire a taxi, a bus from Baku International Bus Station (32 km/45 min drive west the airport) is a more economical option.
Indian travellers to Azerbaijan can get an evisa at evisa.com.az, which costs $25/`1,800, plus a service fee.
Rooms at the Sheki Saray Hotel are kitted with modern comforts and overlook either the city or the Caucasus Mountains (www.shekisaray.az; doubles from AZN70/Rs2,950).
Charukesi Ramadurai follows the travel mantra "anywhere but here". Her travel experiences range from playing pied piper to curious street children in India to playing the alphorn in the Swiss Alps. She tweets and Instagrams at @charukesi.