From the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea

Istanbul to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Sept-Oct 2013


Istanbul to Baku map

Turkey

Sat 7th Sept. We had a very good flight on Turkish Airlines to Istanbul, with a three-course meal (similar flights to other European destinations for the same price don't seem to include any food). The airport pickup met us and took us to the Istanbul Holiday hotel in an interesting area of back streets just a few minutes' walk from the Blue Mosque. The room was tiny but immaculately clean and the staff friendly and helpful. It was 11 pm but everyone was in a state of eager anticipation as the final choice for the 2020 Olympics was about to be made between Istanbul and Tokyo. By the time we put our bags in the room and walked up to the square the decision had gone to Tokyo and everyone was walking home quietly and dejectedly and all the trinket sellers were packing up. We strolled around then went back to the Seyyah Pub beside our hotel for a beer.

Sun 8th. After a nice buffet breakfast at the Istanbul Holiday hotel we wandered round the back streets of Sultanahmet district looking at the nice old houses, and up to the Hippodrome where there was a Korean cultural exhibition in progress.

Istanbul Bosphorus
We then got a taxi to the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Taksim district, where we'd booked ourselves two nights of luxury to keep Sheila quiet; as I told her, the only way is down from here. They gave us a superb corner suite with sweeping views of the Bosphorus, as well as the huge building site below the hotel that will eventually be the new football stadium.

After luxuriating for a while we walked to Taksim square and down Istiklal Avenue, a main promenading street with restaurants in courtyards and alleyways off it. We diverted off the main street to see two interesting old hotels, Grand Hotel de Londres built in 1896 where we woke up the parrot in the lounge and it squawked at us as we left, and the Pera Palace hotel where they were starting to lay out afternoon tea in the cavernous central hall. We got the funicular railway down the tunnel to Karakoy and the tram to Beyazit intending to visit the Grand Bazaar but it's closed on Sundays although there's a bustling market in the streets outside. We went back to Sultanahmet where we had a nice shish kebab with all the trimmings for dinner at Sultanahmet Koftecisi, a very popular place with queues of local people waiting to get in. We were lucky enough to get a seat by the window on the top floor with a view of the Blue Mosque. Finally we went back to Kucuk Ayasofya Street for a beer and peanuts at the nice pub beside our previous hotel. We debated whether to get a taxi or tram back to the Ritz-Carlton and settled for the tram which was actually much quicker because the traffic was jammed solid, then just got a taxi for the final short stage up the hill to the hotel.

Mon 9th. Before we left the hotel Sheila tried on a £50,000 emerald ring in the jeweller's shop, but I checked our finances carefully and decided we couldn't afford it - the shop owner had to prise it off her finger as she wasn't for parting with it! We walked down from Taksim Square to the tram terminus and got the tram to the Grand Bazaar.

Lamps shop
Fairly early on Sheila got the handbag she was looking for so after that we were able to stroll around window shopping, including the fancy lamp shops.

We had our first lunch of a very tasty pastrami and cheese baguette from a little sandwich stall in the bazaar, then went out to a tiny shoemaker's workshop just outside the bazaar to get my 15-year old Bally shoes stitched up where they were falling apart - this is part of every holiday because they're very comfortable and I can walk for miles in them. We went back through the bazaar then going up the narrow street from the north-east entrance we saw a nice doner kebab restaurant and went in to have our second very tasty lunch. At the top of the street we noticed a barber's shop where the cheerful barber gave me the full Turkish haircut including burning off the ear hairs with a flaming meths-soaked cotton wool taper, eyebrow and nose hair trimming, hair wash and a big splash of cologne. Feeling like a new man, we went on down the street to the Spice Bazaar which was absolutely packed with people and full of delicious spice smells. One of the many caviar sellers persuaded us to try a taste of Iranian caviar but it was from a very old tin and it was off. After a bit more walking about we got the tram back to the Kabalas terminus and the other funicular through a tunnel up to Taksim Square. We were very impressed with how clean everything in Istanbul is, and how relaxed and friendly all the people are, although there are still lots of riot police around after the recent troubles.

In the evening we strolled down Istiklal Avenue and had beer and wine looking out of the third-floor window of the Neoclassic Bar watching the world go by in the street below and the two ladies rolling and cooking flat breads in the window of the restaurant opposite.

Tues 10th. We spend the morning packing and enjoying our luxurious room at the Ritz-Carlton then checked out and returned to the Istanbul Holiday hotel where we got room 203, a nice bright room with a view of the street. We walked towards the Grand Bazaar stopping for a nice doner kebab lunch on the way. We had Sheila's shoes mended this time then strolled around the bazaar then walked down to the Blue Mosque and back to the hotel. I had a coffee in a café while Sheila had a nap, then we walked to see the Whirling Dervish ceremony in a 500-year old Turkish hammam (bath house) at the Hocapasha Cultural Centre. Five Dervishes whirled continuously for nearly an hour on a small stage and it was very atmospheric and interesting.

Hagia Sophia at night
We used some of our spare tokens to get the tram back to Sultanahmet and walked round the square past the illuminated fountains and mosques.

Then back to the Seyyah Pub and had a very tasty meal of veal steak and beyti kebab while watching Turkey beat Rumania to qualify for the World Cup.

Weds 11th. We like room 203 (and probably 103 and 303) but unfortunately they are booked tonight and everywhere else seemed to be full so we had to move to a tiny windowless room at the back, with a bathroom so small you can sit on the toilet and rest your chin on the sink - the whole room would fit into the bathroom of the Ritz-Carlton with space left over, but of course at a fraction of the price. After breakfast we went on a walking tour of the tourist sights of Istanbul - the Blue Mosque, where they hand out plastic bags for you to carry your shoes in and scarves for women to cover their heads, Hagia Sophia, the underground Basilica Cistern with Medusa's heads holding up some of the pillars, lunch of beef doner and Turkish pizza, along the posh Nuru Osmaniye shopping street and through the Nuruosmaniye Mosque

Istanbul sherbet vendor
... and through the Grand Bazaar to the Book Bazaar where we had a refreshing glass of 'sherbet' from the sherbet man for 1 Lira ...

... and up to the Sulemaniya Mosque on its hill, then down steep streets, pausing for refreshing watermelon slices from a streetside vendor, to the harbour where there were lines of boats which we thought were ferries but were actually fish shops with chefs cooking fish and serving them to customers at the harbourside tables. We walked over Galata Bridge to the fish market on the other shore then got a tram all the way to Fenari Isa Mosque, an old former church but it was closed for renovations. We tried to get a taxi back but it got snarled up in so much traffic we got out by the Grand Bazaar and walked to the Hippodrome where Sheila had a rather expensive ice cream for 5 Lira (she had several more during our stay) ...

Pub cat
... and finally back to the Seyyah Pub for nice red wine and a pint of beer (if the cat doesn't get it first).

Thurs 12th. The taxi took us to the Metro bus office near Taksim Square where we left our bags and went for a ride on the 'heritage tram' along Istiklal Avenue before the Metro's shuttle took us to the bus station somewhere way out in the suburbs. Then we got the 1:20 bus for Safranbolu which fought its way through the traffic to 'FSM Bridge' across the Bosphorus into Asia. The bus conductor served soft drinks and snacks as we enjoyed the comfortable ride through the countryside. After a couple of stops we arrived at 8 pm and the hotel we'd booked sent a shuttle bus to pick us up from the bus station. The Cesmeli Konak hotel is a lovely old half-timbered house up a cobbled street, and they gave us a spacious, airy room with traditional wooden fittings and smooth wooden floors. We immediately set out to find a restaurant but none of the ones in the centre of the old town served alcohol. Eventually someone at Kadi Oglu restaurant no. 1 took us through the back streets to the edge of the old town where Kadi Oglu hotel and restaurant no. 2 produced Efes beer and a nice red wine, and a very tasty mixed grill and lamb on a hot plate accompanied by a prettily-arranged salad.

Fri 13th and Sat 14th.

Cesmeli Konak breakfast
We started with amazing breakfasts at the Cesmeli Konak. The table was laid with a traditional Turkish breakfast as we sat down - two cheeses, two types of olives, tomatoes, cucumber, two sorts of honey and fresh crusty bread. But then they started bringing more - a big plate of french fries, a pan with two fried eggs cooked in butter and a plate of toast; I thought it was wonderful but Sheila was not so impressed!
Safranbolu Arastasi bazaar
We wandered round the incredibly picturesque old town, looking at the timbered houses, big stone mosques and the ancient bazaars almost roofed over by luxuriant grapevines.

The very nice man in the tourist information office suggested the places we should see and the next day his very helpful colleague called Yacup contacted his friend in Trabzon and arranged a hotel there for us. We stopped in Cinci Han, and old caravanserai now a hotel, for a cup of coffee ...

Safranbolu Kaymakamlar house
... then walked up the hill to Kaymakamlar, one of the old houses that is open as a museum and furnished on three floors in typical Ottoman style, complete with life-size figures in traditional poses, which was very atmospheric.
Safranbolu rooftops
We walked further up the hill for views of the city ...
Safranbolu blacksmith's bazaar
... then back down through the blacksmiths' bazaar perched on the rim of the little river canyon.

We walked back through Arastasi, another ancient guild bazaar with little wooden shops lining the cobbled streets. We walked up castle hill and looked round the city museum in the big yellow mansion and up the clock tower where the nice man who has looked after the clock since 1965 showed us the workings and the reverberating chime. On the way down the hill we stopped at the garden of Mehmet Pasha mosque to see the famous sundial, but because the garden is completely shaded by trees the sundial was not working to best effect. We went on to Cinci Han and phoned home from the public phone there.

Safranbolu Arastasi bazaar tea shop
We went back to the guild bazaar and had a pot of tea at the historic café there ...
Safranbolu Kacak mosque
... then walked out into the eastern suburbs to find the old Kachak mosque, built on arches over the stream and with a wooden minaret.

We went back across town through the Yeri bazaar and the blacksmiths' bazaar and out into the western suburbs looking for the other wooden-minareted mosque but we went way past it and only saw it once we had crossed the stream and gone up the other side of the canyon. We came back round in a circle and found it was only a few yards up the other road from the blacksmiths. When we got back to the hotel they very kindly gave us a plate full of refreshing fruit. Some places are absolute gems and Safranbolu is one of them.

In the evenings we walked round the corner to Imran Lokum Konak hotel and restaurant, apparently the only other place in the town that serves alcohol. One night we sat out in the open-air restaurant in the balmy evening and had delicious steak in mushroom cream sauce and chicken kebabs, with a nice half-bottle of Turkish red wine for me and several Efes beers for Sheila. The next night was distinctly chillier and we sat inside.

Sun 15th. A long 14-hour ride on the comfortable Ulusoy bus to Trabzon, through the mountains and then along the Black Sea coast. At several of the bus station stops along the way there were tearful farewells as parents saw their teenagers off to university on the bus. In Trabzon we stayed at the Karayel Hotel and went for a quick beer and peanuts before collapsing into bed at 1 am.

Mon 16th. After another great Turkish breakfast buffet (with additional spicy sausage and peppered eggs) we went to see the very helpful Yahyah at tourist information who had booked our hotel here.

Sumela monastery
We started talking about what we wanted to do and he said: the minibus for Sumela Monastery leaves right now! He phoned someone up, we rushed across the street and before we knew it we were in a minibus on a tour. We went inland up a valley by a rushing stream and stopped in the clouds under a monastery perched precariously and picturesquely on a cliff high in the mountains. It had fascinating Greek-style paintings and calligraphy on the walls and a very remote and deserted feel.

We walked a couple of kilometres back down a path through the trees with Omar and Sami, two very nice chaps from the Lebanon, and had doner kebabs in a café by the waterfall while we waited for the minibus back. Back in Trabzon we returned the umbrella that Yahyah had kindly lent us (which we hadn't needed) and went for a walking tour along the shopping streets to the old town surrounded by walls, but only found a couple of old houses and an old church converted to a mosque there. We walked back through the busy bazaar which was much more for local people than the tourist-oriented bazaars in Istanbul. In the evening we walked round the square and found the Efes Bar and Restaurant on the 2nd floor of a building with a big open window overlooking the busy street below, and had veal shish kebab and chips with beer and wine.


Georgia

Tues 17th. We walked over to the Prenskale travel office on Ataturk Square and bought tickets for the 12:30 bus to Batumi in Georgia. They had a free shuttle bus to their office out of town where the bus started from. It was a lot smaller than the Metro or Ulusoy buses, there were no on-board refreshments and they kept stopping to pick up people at the roadside, but the trip was pleasant enough up to the border. There were queues at the border posts out of Turkey and into Georgia but the formalities were simple and we were soon through and waited for the Preskale bus to come through. However, it then went all wrong as the bus drove straight past without picking any of us up, and the driver waved vaguely up the road. We got a taxi and chased after the bus and caught up with it where it had parked by a shop so that the driver could do some shopping. We accosted the driver but he just said 'finished' and waved us away - we were furious. We should have got the Metro or Ulusoy bus.

Batumi Hotel Amirani
However, our taxi driver was very friendly and took us to a couple of hotels and we found a room we liked in the very central Hotel Amirani in a nice old building with a marble staircase. We had a suite with two rooms with high ceilings and a mixture of big dark-wood furniture and plastic modern chairs, and a balcony from which we could see the sea. It must have been quite grand once.

We walked around the town and at first we couldn't find any restaurants but then we stopped at the Café Privet iz Batuma which seemed to be a favourite with the local mafia; tough-looking scruffy tattooed men kept pulling up in big expensive cars, leaving them parked half-way across the street, greeting each other and having a coffee. Georgian script is an incomprehensible collection of squiggledegook to us but luckily the menu was also in English and Russian. We got the last free table and had tender steak in wine sauce and a tasty pepperoni pizza with an Italian salad and very nice Georgian wine. Apparently the Georgians have been making wine for 4,000 years and they make a good job of it!

Weds 18th. It seemed strange to be woken by the sound of church bells rather than the call to prayer from the minaret that we'd heard all through Turkey. The Georgian style breakfast was similar to Turkish style, with cheese, cucumber, tomato, fried eggs and bread rolls.

Batumi cityscape
We walked all round Batumi, which has some elaborate stylish modern buildings as well as some nice old houses in the back streets ...
Batumi wire statue
... and Sheila's favourite statue made of wire.

We went down through the park to the seaside and walked along the pleasant promenade and round by the yacht harbour, then through the town stopping at the old St Nikolaz Church and the modern Piazza with its coffee shops. We went back to the seaside and had lunch at a café by the beach, and whiled away the afternoon reading and watching the world go by. In the early evening we went back to Café Privet iz Batuma and had another excellent meal watching more of the world go by. By chance the railway ticket office was just a few doors down from our hotel on Mazniashvili Street so booking our train was very easy. We collected our cases and got a taxi to the railway station 5 km outside town where we met Omar and Sami again and we all got the overnight train to Tblisi.

Thurs 19th. The beds were quite comfortable in our little 2-person compartment and the clatter clatter of the train quite soothing and we slept well and arrived in Tblisi early, before 7 am. A taxi driver took us to several hotels but couldn't get the idea that we wanted to be in the old town. Eventually we found the GTM Hotel in a nice old building on the edge of the old town and got a room with a sunny balcony. We walked across the bridge and through the old town to Freedom Square then up one of the big wide racetrack roads to the tourist information office in the museum. Armed with their very useful map we got a taxi to the railway station and bought tickets for the train to Armenia which was very straightforward. We got a taxi back then went for another walk into the old town but didn't get very far, branching off into the small streets full of restaurants near Gorgasali Square and had a late lunch of a bottle of Georgian champagne (18 Lari = £7.20) and a plate of hummus. After a bit of a rest to clear the effects of the champagne we went back to the same street in the evening and had a nice steak and a plate of German sausages at the Leffe Pub and restaurant, where they served five colours of Leffe Belgian beer including our favourite dark.

Fri 20th.

Tblisi massage
We went for more walks round the old town, starting with the ancient sulphur bath houses in Abanotubani district. Underground there are huge tiled, domed rooms steaming with hot sulphurous water and various levels of massage available from big hefty women, which seemed to range from a normal massage, to massage leaving no skin, to massage with broken bones (as illustrated in a photo on the wall of the breakfast room)! We had a look round but didn't indulge.
Tblisi houses
We walked up steps to Gomi Street and around the little back streets below the castle hill and through more old streets with wooden-balconied houses (some restored, some derelict) through Gudiashvili Square to the big central Freedom Square.

We walked back across the brand new elaborate 'Peace' footbridge across to Rike Park and back via the cable-car station which we added to our list of things to do later. We had to change rooms at the hotel because ours was booked and our new room finally became vacant about 4 pm, so we switched to a nice room at the front of the hotel with a balcony and three big windows overlooking the river, the fancy new footbridge and Tblisi town. We went back to the Leffe Pub for dinner and had absolutely delicious steak in Calvados sauce. Then Omar and Sami came by (interesting how you come to a place you've never been to before and meet people you know) and we sat and chatted about travelling, literature and the dramatically different women's clothing styles between Turkey and Georgia - covered from head to toe in Trabzon to, as Omar said in Batumi "they have forgotten their clothes"!

Sat 21st.

Mtshketa view from Jvari church
We went on a day trip to Mtskheta, the Unesco world-heritage former capital about half an hour's drive from Tblisi. We started at Jvari Monastery, perched on a hill with fabulous views of the town, the rivers and the hills. Down in the centre of Mtskheta we went to the large Sveti-Tskhoveli Cathedral, a very historic spot where Jesus' shroud is reputed to be buried.

Inside there was a mixture of marriage and baptism ceremonies going on in the various side chapels, and outside the streets were thronged with wedding parties and tourists. We also went to the Samtavro Nunnery and then back to Tblisi. In the evening we went to the railway station and got the 10 pm train to Yerevan, Armenia, in another nice two-berth sleeping compartment. The border formalities were very straightforward - as soon as the train started the Georgian official came along and collected our passports and brought them back soon after, duly stamped out of Georgia. About 1:30 am the train stopped and the Armenian official came along the corridor and stamped us into Armenia then and there. No visa was required for our UK passports, although the Australian next door had had to buy a visa online for $10.


Armenia

Sun 22nd. Rather too efficiently, the lady carriage attendant came and collected our bedding and towels an hour before we arrived in Yerevan, so I just pulled the bedding off Sheila as she carried on sleeping until a few minutes before we arrived.

Yerevan cabbages
After the usual argument with the taxi drivers who try to fleece newcomers at railway stations (same the world over), we had a cup of tea and watched the busy vegetable market or 'car boot sale' outside the station until the booking office opened at 9 am and we booked the train back.
Yerevan Villa Delenda
Then we got a much nicer taxi driver to take us to our hotel for 1,000 Dram (£1.50), a quarter of the price the other sharks wanted. We had a big airy room with high ceilings, exposed brickwork, wooden floors in a lovely old building called Villa Delenda that's almost the last surviving part of Yerevan's old town and it too may be scheduled for 'redevelopment'.
Echmiadzin Cathedral Monks
We booked a tour and went to Echmiadzin, a former capital city half an hour away, where there are several important historical churches scattered around a desolate post-Soviet landscape of defunct factories and run-down apartment blocks. The churches however were magnificent and because it's Sunday there were services and a production-line of weddings in progress at all of them. Choirs sang and hooded, bearded priests intoned while incense filled the air. Everywhere was packed with worshippers, tourists and marriage parties. As the procession of priests departed from the main cathedral after the service the head priest blessed everyone in the crowd by touching their heads with a golden jewelled cross, and by nipping smartly from one end of the queue to the other Sheila managed to get blessed twice.
 
We walked around town in the evening looking at the shops, and went into Yerevan Taverna on Amiryan Street which seemed very popular and was full of local groups and parties having a great time. We had a wonderful plate of Armenian smoked fish followed by salad and accompanied by sparking Armenian champagne. As in Georgia we couldn't check any bills because they were in Armenia's own squiggledegook script.

Yellow Lada

Our initial impression of Armenia was more Soviet-style, with big blocky buildings, policemen in huge Russian-style peaked caps and lots of Lada cars (including 4x4s!). This trendy yellow Lada with white-wall tyres was actually in Baku. 

Mon 23rd. It poured with rain most of the day so we had a 'day off' and spent most of the time lazing around the hotel reading.

Yerevan Cascade lion
During a lull in the rain I walked up to the top of the 'Cascade', a staircase with a series of fountains and sculptures including a very impressive lion made of old car tyres, built up a hill overlooking Opera Square.
Yerevan Republic Square
In the evening we found that the Taverna and another restaurant opposite were fully booked so we went to Diamond Restaurant and paid 3,000 Dram extra (£4.60) to sit at a VIP table on the rooftop overlooking Republic Square, watching the traffic circulate and the grand buildings around the square light up. The food was disappointing and expensive but it was an experience.

Tues 24th.

Garni temple
The weather improved, the sun came out and the hotel arranged a car to take us for an excursion to Garni and Geghard for 150 Dram (23 pence) per km. Garni is a well-preserved (reconstructed after it fell down in an earthquake) Hellenistic temple, like a smaller version of the Parthenon.
Garni canyon
It is set on a promontory almost surrounded by a spectacular river canyon with houses perched on the rim.
Geghard Monastery
From there we went on to the wonderful Geghard Monastery, a tremendously historic site set into the limestone hillside, with churches and chapels with elaborate high cupolas ...
Geghard Monastery
... and lots of ancient carved crosses and inscriptions. It was definitely a highlight of the holiday.

Luckily we had just missed the sacrifice of a sheep (or goat, it's hard to tell which when it only has half its skin on).

Yerevan market stall
We returned to Yerevan and went to the modern Tashi shopping mall beside which was a fascinating old market hall with all sorts of interesting stalls including fruit and veg, a whole stall full of pickled things including garlic, and a sticky dried fruits stall.

We walked back to the post office on Republic Square then Sheila went to a nearby beauty parlour and very daringly got a tattoo! Not a pictorial one but one to extend her eyebrows which she felt were too short - it only cost £23 and you get what you pay for (only kidding). We finished by returning to Yerevan Taverna and had soups followed by plates of smoked fish and local cheeses, washed down with beer and nice Armenian wine.

Wed 25th. About 5 am a noisy group arrived and went tramping up and down the wooden stairs talking at the tops of their voices; oh no, I thought, she's going to blow and sure enough Sheila was up and telling them to be quiet. We spent our last day in Yerevan walking around the shops in the sunshine and having a coffee and cake in one of the cafés on Opera Square.

Mount Ararat from the train
Then we went to the station and caught the 3:25 train. The landscape from the train was quite dry and dreary, although we had a good view of Mount Ararat in the distance.

We discovered that the next carriage was a buffet car with a little restaurant and two tables full of rowdy men drinking beer and laughing. Once again the passport formalities were quite painless and conducted while the train continued on its way. We arrived in Tblisi on time at midnight and got a taxi to the Ponto Hotel in Avlabari district.


Georgia again

Thurs 26th and Fri 27th. Breakfast at Ponto Hotel was one of the best, and they've all been good. As well as the usual cheeses, meats, cucumber, tomato, olives, yogurt and bread there were salty fried eggs. On the first night we were in a small rather dark downstairs bedroom but as soon as it was available we moved up to the suite on the top floor, with a large bedroom, a balcony overlooking the street and a big bathtub. Probably our favourite room since Istanbul ...

Tblisi wonky brickwork
... although the brickwork of the building directly opposite our balcony gave some cause for concern.

We went by metro to the station where a very efficient but not particularly friendly lady booked our next train, then the metro back to Freedom Square and walked through the old town stopping to phone home and for a frozen yogurt.

Tblisi Narikala Castle
We took the cable car up to Fort Narikala perched on a crag with fabulous views of the town, and walked round the walls to St Nicholas Church and down the hill to the baths district.
Tblisi Metekhi
Then we walked along the 'right bank' riverside road looking at Metheki Church across the river and all the old houses with wooden balconies ...
Tbisi Shavteli Street leaning tower
... then back along Ioane Shavteli Street, Tblisi's medieval high street, with an interesting mixture of old houses, cafés, churches and building sites.

We stopped for more frozen yogurt and coffee and realised that the derelict building opposite was the caravanserai that used to house a museum, that I couldn't find previously. We went to the railway station to go to the nearby Carrefour supermarket but they didn't have the 'Korean spices' for carrots that we were looking for (anything to make cooked carrots taste nice has to be a bonus) so we took the metro back to Avlabari, through the 'old men's debating society' in the square outside and back to the hotel. A good six hours of sightseeing each day.

We used the kettle in the hotel's breakfast room to brew a tea and coffee, then in the evening we went back to Leffe Pub for delicious steak with Calvados sauce followed by ice creams from a shop by the square.

Tblisi Narikala castle
Then finished with a cable-car ride to the castle and back ...
Tblisi Peace bridge
... for a great view of the city lights at night.

Sat 28th. We got the metro to Marjanishvili and walked up and down the elegant shopping street looking in the expensive shops; Sheila tried so hard to spend some more money but she still couldn't find anything she wanted to buy! Then we went by metro to Freedom Square and had our familiar walk through the old town stopping to make calls and have a bacon sandwich and a frozen yogurt. Finally we used up our metro card credits with a last cable-car ride up to the castle and back again.

Russian factory in Georgia
Then it was time to collect our cases and go to the station for the 4:30 pm train to Baku, past deserted Russian factories for mile after mile as we left Tblisi behind.


The passport formalities took a bit longer this time and at one point we had to go to another compartment where a guard wearing a huge Russian-style cap took our photos and entered our details in a big briefcase full of computer equipment. The formalities were all done by 8 pm and we settled down for a comfy and quiet night's sleep after the people two compartments down had turned down their TV and the train continued on its way. There was lots of bedding and two pillows each, but no buffet car on this train.


Azerbaijan

Sun 29th. We walked out of the station in Baku and began negotiating with taxi drivers for the ride to Sheki, nearly 300 km away. It was difficult because nobody spoke English and they started at ridiculous prices of course, but thanks to 'Wikitravel' we knew the price should be around 60 Manat (just under 60 Euro) and eventually a nice old man agreed to take us. We drove through the streets of Baku then he seemed to realise that he didn't know the way, so he phoned a friend who came and took us over. He was the driver from hell and we had a four-hour white-knuckle ride, tearing past all the other traffic at top speed, overtaking on blind bends and in the thick fog we encountered on the mountain passes, making endless calls on his mobile phone, gesticulating as he spoke with no hands on the wheel, and only stopping when he wanted to buy some grapes and some eggs from wayside vendors.

Sheki Karavanserai hotel
Amazingly we arrived in one piece and drove up the old main street to the Karavansaray Hotel, a wonderful place in a 300-year old caravanserai with vaulted brick ceilings and thick walls.

Sheila chose one of the best rooms for 50 Manat (£45) with a bedroom and separate lounge with comfortable furniture and extremely comfy beds.
We had a quick lunch in the hotel restaurant because we'd hardly eaten for 24 hours.

Sheki Khan Palace
We walked further up the hill to the Khan's Palace in the fort at the top. The palace was a delightful two-storey building with walls covered in murals and coloured-glass windows casting patterns on the floor.

In the evening we walked half-way down the hill to the Ovkular Mekani restaurant and pub with its walls covered in hunting trophies and the furry skins of all sorts of animals, and had kebabs with a very nice bottle of Azerbaijan wine. Although they didn't speak English the staff made a real fuss of us and we thought we might be the first English tourists who'd gone there.

Mon 30th. The Karavansaray was one of the quietest hotels we've ever slept in, even the call from the mosque next door was very faint, and we slept until nearly 9 am. We walked down the hill and had an odd sort of brunch at Chelebi Khan restaurant on the main square (a single boiled egg cost £1.50 so we may not go there again). We wandered round the square and did some shopping then walked halfway up the hill to the Ovkular Mekani and had some salad and a beer to complete our lunch. While Sheila had a nap (she says she is fed up with seeing that phrase, but I have to tell it like it is!) I walked up to the Gagarin restaurant and had a cup of coffee sitting in their garden under the shady trees, with a wonderful view of the town and the mountains. We then tried out the local minibuses and for 20p each went for a ride around the town. In the evening we went back to Ovkular Mekani again and this time we chose very well. We had 'piti', the traditional stew in a pot and the waiter showed us how to eat it properly - you break up bread in your bowl then pour the gravy on it (like 'pobbies' if you're a northerner) and eat that, then you put the meat and beans and crust of fat into the bowl and mash it all up and put some sort of spice on it. I had meat and spinach with a separate plate of yogurt and again he jumped in and mixed it all together for me, then tore off a piece of bread and told me to eat the bread and a fork-full of the mixture together. It was accompanied by a very tasty chopped salad with coriander and another bottle of Azeri wine; all delicious.

Tues 1st Oct.

We got a local taxi to the bus station and immediately found a Mercedes driver who would take us to Baku for the standard 60 Manats (£50). He was a much better driver than the one who brought us here, he went fast but more carefully, actually had two hands on the wheel some of the time and only made one phone call during the whole journey.

Azerbaijan roadside fruit stall
He was also more relaxed, happy to stop at wayside fruit stalls in the mountains to sample the produce and take photos, and halfway he suggested we stop for chay (tea) which we were happy to do because we hadn't had any breakfast.

In four hours we were on the outskirts of Baku but then everything slowed down as we got stuck in traffic jams, then had terrible trouble finding our hotel because nobody had heard of it or the street it was in.

Baku Fawlty Towers Hotel
With a sense of achievement we finally got there and checked into the Fawlty Towers Hotel, a really nice place with a sense of humour, with only about six rooms but they all have eclectic decorations and wooden furniture, and there is a book exchange with shelves full of English-language books (just in time, as we had run out of reading material). The nice lady on reception who spoke good English said our driver from Sheki had found the place more quickly than most Baku taxi drivers did!

We walked around Fountain Square, the centre of the 'Boom Town' area with elegant Art Nouveau style buildings dating from the oil boom of the late 19th century, which all appear to have been cleaned up and sandblasted recently, and selected a Mexican restaurant just for a change, where we had excellent chimichanga and a pulled pork sandwich, with the ubiquitous Efes beer.

Weds 2nd to Fri 4th.

Baku old and new city
We went for a walk round the medieval old city of Baku inside the city walls (overshadowed by the impressive skyscrapers of the modern town), looking at old caravanserais, bath houses ...
Baku Friday Mosque portal
... mosques with elaborate portals ....
Baku Maiden's Tower
... and the enigmatic 'Maiden's Tower' which we couldn't climb because it was being renovated.

We walked back to Boom Town and had a nice lunch of beef doner kebab, soup and salad in a popular little local restaurant with all the dishes on display behind a glass counter. Another walking tour went back to the old town and up to the Palace of the Shirvan Shahs at the top of the hill. The palace apartments were still closed for renovation (as they were when my 12-year old guide book was written) but the rest of the complex was very interesting.

Baku Caspian seafront
We went down to the tree-lined seafront boulevard and walked along the promenade by the Caspian sea, journey's end.

When we eventually found an underpass to get across the racetrack of a road that runs along the seafront, we returned via the grand buildings and elegant pedestrian shopping streets of the 19th century town.

We found Sultan's restaurant, a fascinating place where the big, bustling dining area is surrounded by a large indoor barbecue section, a bread-making area, a long display counter with selections of dishes displayed and a complete butcher's shop. They brought over the starter trolley with 20 or 30 sample dishes and we chose hummus and a delicious yogurt with garlic and dill which came with a big puffy bread, followed by sirloin steak with baked potatoes. The bread basket was accompanied by an olive tapenade. It was excellent, and all accompanied by Efes beer and Azerbaijan wine of course, and we went back twice.

Another evening we stopped on impulse at a local kebab restaurant and had very nice doner and aubergine kebabs garnished with salad and chips and a Russian salad. On the way back to the hotel we stopped for a couple of Erdinger dark beers at the Pattaya, our friendly local bar which seems to be a hangout for English expats.

Sat 5th. We flew home very comfortably on Turkish Airlines, stopping for three hours in Istanbul on the way. Istanbul airport was the most crowded airport we'd ever seen, it was absolutely teeming with people sitting around on the floor in groups and we had to buy coffee to justify having a place to sit. There was also complete confusion as they changed our departure gate three times but didn't tell us until we arrived at the wrong gate. It almost made us feel like we were back in India!

Cat on potatoes
Relaxing after a hard day's shopkeeping!


If you would like to see our other holiday pictures, please click here ....... Globe