After a disappointing overnight visit to Quba, we were seriously questioning our decision to leave Baku and push further into Azerbaijan. Getting around was the easy part – we just weren’t that impressed with the scenery or the towns we saw.
All that changed when we arrived in Sheki, a sweet little settlement in the shadow of the Greater Caucasus 300km northwest of Baku.
Pulling into Sheki, you couldn’t have wiped the smile off my face. Beautiful houses and painted gates, grand old stone buildings, cafes, cobbled streets, plane trees… Ahhh. This was the Azerbaijan I had been dreaming of.
The only reasonable parallel I can draw is with Granada in southern Spain (the feel more than the look of the place). Historical buildings attract the tourists, and the little town of Sheki has developed its infrastructure to accommodate them. If you don’t mind seeing a few tacky souvenir shops, it’s a very comfortable place to spend a few days.
Sheki has still managed to hold onto its residential neighbourhoods, which are an absolute delight to wander through. Pair this with friendly locals, good food and fresh air, and Sheki is definitely the place to go if you want to experience a part of Azerbaijan that’s not Baku. Sheki is conveniently located between Tbilisi and Baku, so you can break up the journey here if you’re travelling between the two cities by bus.
Here are 11 reasons why I think you should add the town of Sheki in northern Azerbaijan to your Caucasus itinerary…
The Sheki Khans’ summer palace
Considered to be modern Azerbaijan’s most prized piece of historical architecture, the Sheki Khans’ summer palace (often called the Sheki Khans’ Palace or Sheki Xan Sarayi) is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen. I won’t go into the history of the palace (it’s easy to read up about it online); even if you’re totally ignorant of the building’s history, the design and aesthetics alone are enough to leave you breathless.
The coloured plasterwork on the exterior… The painted roof overhang… The incredible interior with its shebeke windows and intricate murals (see more below)… Everything has been meticulously restored. In my opinion, the summer and winter palaces are reason enough to visit Azerbaijan.
The (lesser-known) winter palace
Located outside the fortress walls in a seemingly random suburban street, the Sheki Khans’ winter palace was only rediscovered by historians quite recently. Reconstruction began in the early 2010s and is a work in progress. Only one room has been fully restored to its former glory – our guide told us that 90% of what you see above is original.
As the story goes, Sheki’s Khans’ were exiled to Iran and Turkey when the Red Army marched into town. A few generations of the Khans’ decedents lived inside the winter palace before it was abandoned, ruined, and completely forgotten. While money was being poured into the reconstruction of the summer palace, regular people started living inside the old building. Unbeknownst to them (and to everyone else), there was a former palace hiding under the dirt and decay, complete with picture-book murals and shebeke glass.
The interior is much like the summer palace’s; but here, photography is allowed inside provided you’re willing to pay. We forked out 10 AZN for two people and two cameras, including an English-speaking guide. She and her family are the palace caretakers and they live right next door.
I can’t imagine a more fitting place to spend the night in Sheki than the Sheki Karvansaray Hotel. I loved this place so much I wrote a whole post about it – read it here.
Sheki – population 63,000 – is a conservative town and like elsewhere in Azerbaijan, it’s the men and boys you’ll see out on the street, not women. We found everyone to be extremely friendly and helpful – another thing we’ve noticed about Azerbaijan. One day while out walking, I had my camera poised and this group of men asked me to take their photo. A few blocks later, a group of construction workers did the same thing. On the bus out of Sheki to Qax, the other passengers were so excited to talk to us through the few Azeris who spoke the tiniest bit of English.
This wouldn’t happen in bustling Baku; it was nice to briefly connect with some Azerbaijani people.
real Soviet-era retro
Hammer and sickle left an impression on Sheki that hasn’t been filed away like it has in Baku. During the Soviet era, mineral water-rich Sheki was actually used as a health retreat. But what’s far more interesting are the little reminders of Sovietism – throwbacks to the days of the sputnik and chain smoking – that are still scattered around Sheki’s streets.
seeing how ‘shebeke’ is made
Shebeke, Sheki’s own special version of stained glass, is made through the process of tracery. Puzzle pieces (called ‘network tracery pieces’) made from wood and coloured glass are expertly fitted together without using glue or any other fasteners. Some panes of shebeke use up to 1,800 individual pieces – it really is very impressive.
You can see beautiful examples of shebeke inside both the summer and winter palaces. At sunset, when the light hits the shebeke at just the right angle, it casts a gorgeous mosaic of light on the floor, not unlike an intricate Azerbaijani carpet.
When the Sheki Khans’ palaces were being reconstructed, all of the shebeke work was done by local master craftsmen using original materials and glass imported from Burano. You can visit their workshop on the grounds of the summer palace and see a quick demonstration of how it’s done.
Textiles & Embroidery
Also on the grounds of the summer palace you’ll find a few small museums and an arts and crafts souvenir shop. The museum housed inside the old Albanian Church displays a nice collection of textiles, carpets and embroidery from Sheki and surrounding villages.
Sheki’s residential area is full of beautiful brickwork, houses with plaster molding that imitate the Sheki Khans’ palace, little shops and taverns, and colourfully painted gates. I was so impressed with the beautiful town streets that I could seriously contemplate living in Sheki.
To get to Sheki’s residential neighbourhood from town, walk up the street that leads to the Sheki Khans’ summer palace. When you see the movie theater (The Gengis Club), make a left. Cobbled alleyways peel off in all directions from here, and it’s a great place just to wander and get lost. The Sheki Khans’ winter palace is also in this area, tucked away down a narrow suburban street.
Piti is a traditional Azeri dish – but we never came across it in Baku. It wasn’t until we arrived in Sheki, where piti is something of a local specialty, that we were able to try it. Piti is a chunky, aromatic stew of meat (chicken or veal), chickpeas, vegetables, and a bunch of other unidentifiable ingredients. The stew is 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 is a bit of an art. First, tear your bread into small pieces into an empty bowl. Using the back of your spoon to keep the chunky bits in the pot, pour the piti liquid over the bread. Sprinkle with sumac and eat the sodden bread/soup as your first course. Next, you smush the remaining piti stew into a chunky paste using a special wooden pestle. (The waiter might step in at this point to help you.) Once you’ve finished the soup and smushed the stew, transfer it to your bowl to eat as a second course.
A serving of piti costs about 5 AZN and since it’s basically two meals for the price of one, we ate a lot of it in Sheki. Our favourite piti was at Piti House (located underneath the Karvansaray Hotel), followed by the Karvansaray Hotel restaurant itself and finally, Restaurant Gargarin.
…And Sheki halva
Azerbaijan has a major sweet tooth. Sheki’s contribution to the country’s sweets cabinet is halva (halvasi), a super-sweet, syrup-drenched slice that’s a lot like baklava. I have no idea what’s in it (apart from some kind of nut); what makes it different is the web of crispy sugar syrup on top which gives halvasi an interesting texture.
Buy it at shops all over town, at the local market, or eat it with a latte at Buta Bar inside the lobby of the Sheki Saray Hotel.
fresh air and green space
One of the most appealing things about Sheki is the town’s location. With the Greater Caucasus as a backdrop, fresh spring water runs through town and there’s green all around. It might not be as beautiful as some mountain villages in Georgia, but Sheki is idyllic and a stark contrast to Baku – which is exactly why I think it makes an ideal complimentary destination if you’re only making a few stop offs in Azerbaijan.