Some of our best ever excursions have been when we have just found a taxi driver, negotiated a fare and pretty much controlled our own destiny.
We resorted to book a couple of group excursions through a Baku agency and on the whole were left frustrated by the logistics and underwhelmed by the destinations. Why on earth didn’t we stick to our well versed routine?
The logistical frustration came about due to the dreaded hotel pick up (and later drop off).
As we were in the old town we had to make our way to the gates, but we had been assured when booking that we would be last pick up, giving us just time for our hotel breakfast.
In the event I received a message to say our pick up was to be 8 o’clock, precisely the time that breakfast started. Our guide was in no mood to negotiate on time, curtly stating that if we weren’t there they wouldn’t wait!
The hotel obliged with a coffee, day old slightly stale bread, cheese, jam & olives. Annoyingly we left just as the fresh bread arrived and doubly annoyingly we didn’t depart from the gates until 8.20. Grrrrrr.
We then went about the tortuous episode of finding various hotels, looking for missing guests and being moved along by traffic police so we had to circle around again, wasting more time.
When we passed by the Maiden Tower at 8.55 I had to stop myself swearing loudly. We were only 5 minutes from our hotel that we had left an hour before!
Tour operators provide hotel pick ups as a selling point. For me this is a misnomer and if I do book tours again in future it will have to be one where everybody meets at a central point at a set time. Not including a ropey lunch would also be a huge bonus!
We eventually got onto the main road out of the city and promptly stopped at a supermarket for a loo break and supplies. Double grrrrr!
The tour was to last 12-hours gate to gate and despite the shenanigans at the start (and finish) was rather good fun.
Our group were half english speakers and half russian. This meant two guides taking it in turns to point out the points of interest en-route and in framing what we were about to see. The russian-speaking guide seemed to have ten words for every one we heard in english. Maybe ours was just bored…….
Diri Baba Mausoleum, Qobustan
Our first stop was the two-storeyed mausoleum & mosque built into a cliff face in the 15th Century. Handily stone steps had been built up to the main entrance of the small construction.
Many legends and mystic events are related to this monument, which is why the mausoleum has attracted many pilgrims since the 17th century. On this day it was our minibus and coach load of very happy Singaporean pensioners, whose laughter rang out from the miniature building.
I had a pleasant twenty minutes clambering up the narrow internal spiral staircase, but there wasn’t much wow factor to be honest.
Juma Mosque, Shamakhi
Next up we visited the biggest mosque of Caucasus located in the Shamakhi, the former capital of Azerbaijan.
The Juma Mosque was originally built in the 8th Century, but a combination of earthquakes, fires and battles have seen the mosque rebuilt several times over the centuries. Certainly the admittedly impressive building appeared extremely well renovated.
For me, the treasure of a mosque is always its interior and most especially its ceiling. The Juma certainly didn’t disappoint in this respect.
After a stop at a honey farm where we tasted several varieties of delicious honey, and an OK lunch at a very nice restaurant situated in a forest, it was time to visit the stunning lake.
The lake was in a gorgeous setting surrounded by Caucasian hills. We declined the offer of renting a pedalo, instead just wandering around in the warm sunshine and taking in the beautiful view.
It is so easy sometimes to just stick to the main cities, especially when time is short. However, to truly appreciate a country you must get out into nature.
The penultimate stop was the holiday resort of Tufandag, a centre for winter time skiing and summer hiking.
We took the cable car up to the mountain top for some great views. According to legend the lakes on the mountain still have the pieces that broke apart from the Noah’s Ark during the biblical storm.
Our final stop was called The Sweet House, a paradise for those with a sweet tooth. The shop was best described as Willy Wonka’s store room.
It was absolutely crammed with colourful baklava, jellies, chocolates, caramelised fruit, nut clusters and every sugary concoction that you can think of.
We were invited to dive in a sample the wares. Like a proverbial kid in a sweet shop I needed no second bidding. So excited was I that I neglected to take any pictures of the candied kaleidoscope.
Serves me right that I had a belly ache for the entire journey home!
That was our lot aside for the three-hour journey back to Baku, followed by the interminable hotel drop off. We were to be last off. Typical.
My Train Travel Books
Azerbaijan will feature alongside all of the other former Soviets (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania & Estonia) in a future book in the Wilbur’s Travels series.
Part One detailing my travels by train across all the Balkan countries is available now from Amazon.