Tag Archives: shopping

Adventures in tea-drinking and shopping in Baku

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I’ve been back in Toronto for just over a week and I still haven’t managed to write about the last stop on my trip, Baku, capitol city of Azerbaijan. It also occurred to me that the Caucuses are not really an area ever covered in geography class, so if you’re curious about where I was, here’s a map:

We were in the trio of little countries to the left. (Source: University of Texas Library)

Anyway, Azerbaijan was really the only country we visited in which we didn’t leave the main city. We did spend an evening in my dad’s colleague Rafig’s dacha, on the north coast of the Apsheron Peninsula, but we were driven to and from, and although it was a wonderful evening of traditional food and traditional dancing (!), it wasn’t really sightseeing. So, Baku, then. What an incredibly beautiful city. It is right on the edge of the Caspian Sea and has been laid out to take advantage of its seaside local. There is a gorgeous wide pedestrian boulevard along the water that runs for kilometres uninterrupted and is always full of families, young couples, and school kids strolling around, eating in the many cafés or simply enjoying the view from one of the many benches. It’s all landscaped and filled with beautiful gardens and fountains and really, you could believe yourself on the Riviera.

I loved these dandelion-esque fountains.

The other restored area we wandered through in Baku’s downtown was the vast network of pedestrian shopping streets. Really, Baku feels strangely Parisian (although much cleaner), and its old buildings have been brilliantly restored in this area. The crime rate there is almost zero (the benefit of a totalitarian government, I guess) and I think a lot of the happy and carefree attitudes exhibited in the streets is because of this. Families are out at all hours with young kids playing happily and running around, and there isn’t a threat to be seen. It’s kind of incredible.

These grape vines are planted at street level and then trained up the wall to shade the upper balconies. You see this everywhere and I think it’s genius!

Baku also has a beautiful and immaculate old city. Unlike in Yerevan, where that just doesn’t exist, or even in Tbilisi, where they are working very hard to restore the Old City, in Baku, the buildings there have been wonderfully preserved. Many of the cellars and main-floors are now used to shops where you can buy all manner of Azeri-made textiles, pottery, and antiques. And I’ll be honest, I shopped. I didn’t buy much in either Georgia or Armenia, but since Baku was the last stop, and has some truly beautiful work, I treated myself a bit.

The Maiden Tower, which was built in the 12th century. From the top you get an amazing view of the city and sea, and the breeze is very much appreciated after climbing up the many, many airless steps.

This a tablecloth I bought, all beautifully woven out of camel wool and silk. The motif is called the flame, and it’s the national symbol of Azerbaijan – it’s on everything.

My parents bought this carpet. It’s 50 years old or so (meaning it was dyed with vegetable dyes, not acid-based ones) and made entirely of wool. We spent a whole morning carpet shopping, and it is quite the art.

Of course, we also ate and stuff. For the most part, Azeri cuisine is very similar to that of its neighbours. It was the hardest place for me to eat out in restaurants – for whatever reason, most of their dishes have meat in them and, since English is more limited here than elsewhere, it’s difficult to have any modifications made to the dishes. That being said, I did alright. Their bread is delicious and comes with every meal, and once I learned a few particular dishes (thanks largely to the meal we enjoyed with Rafig and his family), I was fine. The real treat, though, was the tea.

Azer Chay with strawberry jam. Delicious.

In Azerbaijan, they drink Azer Chay (literally Azeri Tea, but pronounced Azer Chai), and instead of serving it with milk and/or sugar, it comes with slices of lemon and a bowl of jam. Thus, when your tea has been poured, you had a slice of lemon and a spoonful or two of jam, which sweetens the tea. Their jam, though, isn’t like Smuckers or some other North American brand; it’s really more like a preserve, and the fruit is generally whole or in quarters, suspended in a thick, syrupy, liquid. It is delicious and very indulgent and I loved it.

I loved it so much I bought a box of tea and two jars of homemade jam to bring back with me. The jam that I bought came from the market, which is an entirely local affair situated in the opposite direction of anything that you could consider remotely touristy. My mum and I went up there to buy some food for dinner (my dad’s work is based out of Baku, so he has an apartment there). You can buy everything there. Just everything. Besides the jam, we also bought fruit leather (hugely popular in the region), fruit and veg, and two kinds of cheese. We could have kept right on shopping, but our bags were quite heavy.

There is a whole section of the market dedicated to dried fruits and spices.

Jars and jars and jars of preserves. These are much, much larger than the jars of homemade jam I bought.

In all, we had three and a half days in Baku before getting on the plane and heading home (for me, that was 26 hours door-to-door). It was an amazing way to end a two-week holiday, and you can bet I’ll go back if I have the chance.

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Touring Armenia

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Really, I could keep right on writing about Georgia, but I’ve been in Yerevan for three days and if I go back to Tbilisi now, I’ll never catch up because we’re leaving for Baku tomorrow. So, Armenia. We’re staying in Yerevan, the capital, where there isn’t really an “old city,” although there are many areas that are clearly Soviet in provenance. It’s a beautiful city, though, and downtown the streets are wide, with wide sidewalks lined with flowers boxes and shaded by large mature trees.

We arrived on Thursday, after driving six hours from Tbilisi, and unfortunately that drive coincided with me getting very sick, which made the entire day a wash (I did nothing by lie on the couch and sleep; it was very unpleasant). The following day my mum wasn’t feeling too well, so we took it pretty easy. We did walk down to Republic Square though, as well as buy a couple of little souvenirs from a local artist’s shop.

All the big important government buildings in Armenia seem to be made of this multi-coloured pink stone. (This one is on Republic Square.)

All of this is to say that yesterday was our first proper day, and we certainly made the most of it. In the morning we went to the vernissage, which is a huge market in the downtown where you can buy anything from antique dishes to jewelry to inlaid wood boxes to carpets to military memorabilia, among many, many other things. I bought a pair of handknit socks, but I’ll write about those later. My parents looked at many carpets, but because we’re going to Azerbaijan next, and Azerbaijan does not get on with Armenia, it would be impossible to buy something that large here and then take it with us to Baku. It’s a shame, because they’re lovely and really reasonably priced, but oh well.

Carpets were everywhere.

Also cameras…

… and military memorabilia such as uniforms and medals.

After that, we met with my dad’s colleague Artem and left Yerevan and headed south, toward Mount Ararat. Our first stop was Khor Virap, a monastery just on the Armenian side of the border with Turkey, at the bottom of Mount Ararat (the place where Noah’s Arc is supposed to have ended up).

If Mount Ararat hadn’t insisted on hiding behind storm clouds all afternoon, this picture would be much more spectacular.

The monastery is beautiful and, beyond its stunning setting, it’s also the place where Grigor Lusarovitch, the man who first introduced Christianity to Armenia in the 3rd century, was imprisoned in a well for 13 years by a king who did not want to be Christian. Like all stories, it’s really more complicated than that, but that’s what it boils down to. My dad and I actually climbed down into the well and although it isn’t deep, there are no windows and not much space – certainly not somewhere you’d want to spend years and years of your life.

Instead of a picture of my dad’s bum as he climbed out of the well, here’s a shot of the monastery from the rise on the right in the previous photo.

After Khor Virap Artem took us farther into the mountains (the Lesser Caucuses) to visit the Noravank monastery. Monks certainly knew how to pick breathtaking locations, but they were clearly not the practical type. Noravank is deep in the mountains and to get there you have to drive through a long and winding gorge with high rocky walls. It was kind of jaw dropping, to be honest.

The rocks really were this colour. The strata is also mostly vertical (instead of horizontal, which is what we’re used to seeing), so caves open up between the layers, creating large pockets in the cliff faces.

Outside the primary monastery building…

…and inside.

A second church (or chapel?) they managed to fit on the edge of the cliff.

(And, this is as far as I got before we went out for dinner. And then I packed. And then I went to bed because I had to get up at 3:30 a.m. to take a taxi back to Tbilisi so we could catch out plane to Baku. And then there was no wifi in our apartment, so this post has languished. I’ll finish it now, a whole week and two countries later.)

Our last day in Armenia was a kind of taking it easy day. Yerevan is the International City of the Book for 2012, so we visited the museum exhibit about Armenia’s history of printing (celebrating its 500th anniversary, which is pretty amazing) and wandered around a bit, picking up souvenirs and whatnot. The real highlight of the day, though, came before breakfast, when we climbed the Cascade.

700+ steps before breakfast? Heck yes!

If you think that looks like a lot of stairs to climb before breakfast, well, it was. But that’s fine, because it was totally worth it. The Cascade is preceded by a sculpture garden and is being privately funded as an arts and culture centre in Yerevan. Each of those central landings (with the rounded windows) has a gallery or concert hall or other artistic venue inside (there are escalators inside for those who prefer not to climb in their finery) and fountains or sculptures or both on the outside landing part. There are also boxwood-trimmed gardens lining the outsides of the steps, which, as far as I can tell, are made of limestone.

This is either the third or fourth landing, but I honestly cannot remember.

The white steps rise and rise and rise until all of a sudden they end in a chain-link fence at the top, beyond which is a construction site that has languished since 2009 or so. To continue up to the black platform (the base of the memorial to the Armenian genocide), you have to walk around and then climb more stairs. The plan is to connect the two, and I really hope it happens, because it is a spectacular monument. Also, there’s this view (watch that tallish building in the front):

From the second landing.

From the third landing.

From the top of the white steps.

From the very top, on the black platform.

This is the real reason we climbed it so early. Mount Ararat and Little Ararat get covered in clouds and obscured by haze quite quickly, and although evening is really the best time to go, morning is also good for clear views. We just managed to beat the clouds, but we climbed quickly when we saw them rolling in.

Afterwards we treated ourselves to breakfast on one of the many patio-in-a-park restaurants. Not too shabby.

Armenian “pancake” stuffed with cheese and mushrooms.

Maritime Wool

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Last weekend I escaped the city for the lovely Nova Scotia countryside where I grew up. I hadn’t been home home in over a year, so I was really excited already, but when my mum told me about a local wool producer, I’ll admit that added to my excitement. We went on Friday and then, because I didn’t fully consider my purchases, we went back on Saturday so I could pick up some more wool.

A camera shy Cotswold

A camera shy Cotswold

Gaspereau Valley Fibres raises their own Cotswold Sheep, which were once one of the most popular wool sources, but had since been reduced to a rare breed. Cotswold wool is recommended for outerwear, and Gaspereau Valley Fibres offers complimentary patterns with each skein, which come in both natural colours and hand-dyed.

Natural skeins of Cotswold wool.

Natural skeins of Cotswold wool.

The shop is gorgeous – it’s in a converted barn, but has retained all its original post and beam construction, and is headed by a wood stove – and carries a huge selection of fibre. In addition to their own wool, the also carry skeins of 100% Maritime Wool made from 60% New Brunswick alpaca and 40% Nova Scotia Corriedale wool. It is gorgeous and soft enjoyably squooshy and I bought three 250-yard skeins, although I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do with it yet. It’s also sold in natural colours, which are what I tend to gravitate toward anyhow.

60% alpaca, 40% wool, 100% Maritime

60% alpaca, 40% wool, 100% Maritime

Winding

Winding

All in all it was a great haul from a gorgeous shop. If you find yourself in Nova Scotia, I would definitely recommend stopping by.

A flock of Cotswolds, plus one alpaca, all very curious about what I'm up to.

A flock of Cotswolds, plus one alpaca, all very curious about what I'm up to.

My haul.

My haul.