Saturday, January 14, 2017

Göychay's Pomegranate Festival

Back in early November, Anthon, William and I went on a weekend trip to go to the Pomegranate Festival in Göychay that takes place every year. Göychay is about a 3-hour drive away from Baku.

We went to Göychay the Southern (faster) route, drove up to Gebele
and then took the Northern, more scenic route back.

Pomegranates are a big deal here in Azerbaijan. Stores sell several varieties of pomegranates, all kinds of different products made with pomegranates like fruit leather, sauces, and juices. You can see pomegranates in many paintings, and pretty much every souvenir shop sells little decoration pottery pomegranates or pomegranates made out of metal.

I love these ceramic pomegranates. Aren't they cute?!?
They oftentimes also come with similar patterns
like the ones on the bowls and plates in the background. 

Metal pomegranates that are sold at almost every souvenir shop

Besides a flame, water, a carpet and the mythical Simurgh bird, the logo for the 1st European Olympic Games, that took place in Azerbaijan, also included a pomegranate as one of their symbols. And one of the two mascots was "Nar", which is the Azerbaijani word for pomegranate.


In fact, we just recently bought four Azerbaijani paintings for our Christmas present this year, and two of them have pomegranates in them.

Before our trip to Göychay, we tried to research as much as possible, but there is not too much information in English about the festival. We didn't know where exactly to go and what time the festival and the parade would start, so we just drove to the middle of the city where the streets were decorated with colorful banners, and waited for things to start. There were many people in the downtown area that all seemed to be there for the festival.
Throughout the city, you could see pomegranate stamps on the streets, pomegranate fountains, and other pomegranate decorations.

After walking around the in the downtown area for two hours, we started wondering if the festival really took place in the downtown area.
We looked at google maps for larger open areas that might be where everything takes place, then followed the festival's banners and eventually discovered the main festival field.

It was pretty crowded around the booths, so I told Anthon to go first while I stay with William and the stroller. A couple of seconds later, a woman tapped my back and started interviewing me without even asking for permission. A few seconds later, a group of people surrounded us, the camera was on me and William and the reporter started asking questions, and I couldn't really chicken out anymore. All I remember from the little interview is that I was quite confused, that I couldn't speak and smile normally because I had just got my braces in that week and that she made me say a few sentences in Azeri that I probably butchered :-)

10 seconds after Anthon had gone to a booth,
he turned around to see where we were and found us like this

Besides that, the Pomegranate Festival was fun to visit. It was not huge, but it was nice to see the things you can make with pomegranates - art, cakes, juice, sauce, jam, and all kinds of hygiene products. People showcased many different kinds of pomegranates in many shades of red and yellow that visitors could try. We would have loved to buy some pomegranates, but for some reason nobody seemed to really be selling them.

Pomegranate opened the "Göychay way"

There was a booth that sold hygiene products, there were some people who sold homemade pomegranate sauces that Azeris use for a traditional sturgeon dish, and there were a bunch of street food vendors (mainly kebab). We bought something that looked like pomegranate juice, but it tasted so bad! Not sure what that was. We asked a local to try and tell us what it was, but she didn't even know what it was and did not want to finish her glass either.

There was a large food court field with lots of these kebab stands.
I have no idea how these guys can grill in the smoke like that all day long.

At the day long festival, they have a parade with the Pomegranate Queen and several competitions like juicing pomegranates just with your hands, and weighing who has got the heaviest pomegranate, wrestling.
More to see in this youtube video I found of last year's Pomegranate Festival:

We only stayed for about 2 hours because we got tired of trying to keep our boy happy in his stroller, and unfortunately missed these cool activities. Not sure if they took place earlier in the day or after we were gone.
Maybe next time...

But William made some new friends. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Azerbaijanis LOVE children!

We spent the night in Gebele at the Qafqaz Tufandag Mountain Resort Hotel, about 30 minutes north of Göychay.
We paid $67/night for a superior double room, breakfast included. The room looked modern and tastefully put together. Right outside of the hotel were two cable car lines to go up the mountains. I think we paid about $5 each to go up both cable cars.
The views were beautiful from up there.

We somehow managed to get William to sit down for 3 seconds and get a cute picture of him. 

Since eating out is not too much fun with William, we ordered food to our room. We hadn't eaten much all day and just ordered several dishes that sounded good to us. The portions were very generous and we couldn't finish  everything #firstworldproblems.
For all the food, we paid about $21- awesome!

After the day in Göychay, we were too tired to go out and see things in the afternoon, but I would love to go back to Gebele and visit the surrounding little sights that I saw on this map. There is a waterfall in the area (Yeddi Gozel), a mausoleum, an Udi church, a beautiful new mosque, a small theme park for young kids, a shooting club, a winery in Savalan, and some skiiing in the area.

On our ride back home, we stopped in Gobustan (about an hour away from Baku) to see this interesting early 15th century "Diri Baba" mausoleum that is carved into the mountains.

It's pretty hidden and we didn't see any signs leading to this mausoleum,
but we had read about this in a newsletter and decided to stop there since it was on our way back to Baku.

There is not too much inside the building. I looks like it is being used as a very small mosque now. There is a tiny corner room with a Koran, and then there is this room in the picture with a few seat cushions.
Stairs leading up to the roof top

So yeah, we really liked our first trip outside of Baku. The festival was not huge and amazing-amazing, but it was neat to get out of Baku and see more of the country, and see locals celebrate their favorite fruit and keep up traditions.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Shahdag - Our Post Christmas Ski/Mountain Experience!

For our second trip out of Baku, we decided to head 3 hours north west to a popular spot for Azeris and expats to get a away from the city - Shahdag!  Shahdag, only about 5 kilometers from the Russian boarder, is a developed outdoor recreation area with great resorts, skiing, and hiking.   For the resort's full informational PDF, click here.

We stayed at Park Chalet, one of the two hotels that fall in the Marriott group.  My overall impression was that Park Chalet offered one of the best valued ski vacation I've ever heard about.  We stayed in a suite with their "half board ski package" which runs any night from Sunday through Thursday.  It offers lodging, breakfast, dinner, and all rented ski equipment for two people (skis, ski poles, ski boots, helmet, jacket, and pants) at a very affordable price! Please note that they don't rent out gloves and skiing glasses, but you can buy nice ski gloves there for about 80 AZN and ski goggles for about 80-90AZN, at least the ones we had that only cover the eyes.

With this package, standard rooms start at 185 AZN (102 USD) and a one-bedroom suite will set you back 255 AZN (142 USD).  Due to our working status in Azerbaijan, we don't have to pay the 18% sales tax which reduces the package rates for standard room to 157 AZN (87 USD) and the one-bedroom suite rate to 216 AZN (120 USD)!

[If you are eligible to get the 18% VAT back, you have to bring your DIP ID and DIP passport with you. No need to get a VAT stamp, they take the 18% off when you get the hotel bill. So, it's best to charge as much as possible to the room]

Park Chalet

As a Petty, it is in my genetic make-up to get excited about deals and this one was certainly no exception.  Although hard to admit, there were moments when I was so excited about this deal, I would remind Melissa every 5 minutes, "Melissa, do you realize what a good deal this is!?!?!?!".  After five times of saying that though, she quickly put me in my place and forbid those words to come from my mouth for the rest of the day.  I woke up the next day talking about what a great deal it was - to Melissa's dismay.  Normally, I feel guilty about the expense of skiing.  Without owning gear, it is normally very expensive, but not at Shahdag!

Lobby area
Lobby area

Our suite - it was pretty spacious with about 90 m²

The bathroom had a bathtub and a rain shower with great water pressure

After checking out our room, we went to the hotel's main restaurant for dinner. Dinner for two people was included in the rate. Anthon and I have pretty high standards when it comes to eating out, so we found the food just fine. It was nothing amazing that I would ever crave again, but it was decent.
The service was great and the restaurant itself looked very nice.

Anthon had ordered a medium rare steak, which was overcooked, but my seafood pasta was pretty good. 

The next morning, we opened our room curtains and had this beautiful view:

The breakfast buffet for two people was included in the package. We really liked their breakfast. It had pretty much all you could want at a breakfast buffet - all kinds of rolls, cheeses and cold cuts, jams, honey, breads, pastries, fresh and dried fruits, cereal, semolina and oatmeal porridge, omelets, scrambled egg, boiled eggs, pancakes, and hot foods like sausages, potatoes, tomatoes. A few juices and coffee were included, but we had to pay a little extra for our hot chocolates, which is pretty common at hotel breakfast buffets. 

After our delicious breakfast, we finally hit the slopes. William stayed with Oma Gaby. Pik Palace has a kids' playroom in the basement, which was great to have. Park Chalet has one, too, but we didn't know about our second trip to Shahdag. 

Typical boy - he LOVES cars!

One thing that isn't included is your lift ticket to hit the slopes.  In Utah, these can run you $40 to $120 per day (I know, some of these higher-end resorts are much better too!).  However, at Shahdag - you guessed it - it is inexpensive.  Only $11.70 to be exact!

We tried to get an English-speaking ski instructor, but nobody was available until the afternoon, so we decided to go by ourselves. The only time I (Melissa writing here) ever went skiing was on a 5 or 6 day-long ski class trip in 5th grade, which was about 17 years ago. I didn't get the hang of it until the last two days of skiing because nobody told me what I was doing wrong, so I was a little bit nervous about going skiing again. I thought I had to start all over again.
I just went down the practicing slopes a couple of times, surprisingly never fell and got a feel for the skis pretty quickly. Yay!

After going down several blue slopes (and accidentally a red one), we felt more and more confident. 
The cool thing about skiing at Shahdag was that it is usually pretty empty, at least the two times we went there. We had the slopes almost to ourselves the entire time!

 (Anthon wrote: I really enjoyed skiing.  I'm by no means a pro, but I'm an early intermediate picking up parallel skiing on the blue runs.  I hope to make it back one or two more times to put myself in the firm intermediate camp.  Maybe next time, I'll remember to reserve an English speaking instructor (at $8 per hour!)


In the afternoon, we went sledding with my mom and William. Renting 3 sleds was 40 Manat ($22), which was a little pricey in comparison to the other things, but it was still a lot of fun. William really liked sledding as you can see in the videos. 


After skiing and filling our tummies with delicious food again, we went swimming in Park Chalet's indoor swimming pool. I'm in a love-hate relationship with swimming. I like going swimming, but I'm very picky about the water temperature. I hate cold-ish water! But luckily their indoor pool had the perfect temperature. William is a water baby and had a lot of fun splashing around, too. 

After two nights at this beautiful resort, it was time to check out. We were happy to have survived two nights in the "execution suite" :-)  but we could have stayed there longer.
We had such a wonderful experience that Anthon is already planning our next vacation at Shahdag.

So for all those who are reading, come visit Baku and make a trip to Shahdag.  At the low prices - it is very hard to beat!

For those who are interested in going to Shahdag, a few comparisons between two of the main hotels there:

Both Pik Palace and Park Chalet claim to be a 5-star hotel, which Anthon and I don't completely agree with. They are more like very nice 4-star hotels. I would say that the two hotels are at the same level, though.
At other 5-star hotels outside of Azerbaijan, the staff has definitely been more attentive, personal and helpful, and the food has been better and more interesting than at these two hotels.
The service at both hotels is okay. The staff is very polite, but they just lack some fine skills that the staff at other high-end places usually have. For example, the waitress at our breakfast (Pik Palace) got at least 5 things wrong from our not too difficult order - wrong juice, wrong quantities, brought items that we didn't order, wasn't sure about several items on the menu if they were available or not, etc. However, breakfast was included in our rate and we didn't make a big deal about it since it didn't cost us any extra.

Pik Palace is only slightly more expensive than Park Chalet (15 AZN for a standard room), but the rooms are a little bit bigger. For those who care about hotels products, Park Chalet uses the Asprey line and Pik Palace uses Bulgari.

We haven't been to all the restaurants at both hotels, but we went to Park Chalet's Aspen Grill restaurant for breakfast and dinner (that I wrote earlier about in this post), to Pik Palace's Italian restaurant "Scalini" for dinner and Alpina Brasserie & Wine Bar for breakfast and dinner.
I think the room-service menu is the same at both hotels, but the hotels' restaurant menues do vary a little bit. Park Chalet offers more "normal", comfort food, while Pik Palace offers a little changeup with typical comfort foods as well as Asian dishes like Nasi Goreng, and Sushi (mediocre, we wouldn't order it again).

The quality of the food is comparable. We did like having the Italian restaurant at Pik Palace for a little changeup. The pasta dishes we had were pretty good, but the pizza was just okay.
The breakfast was very similar to the breakfast buffet at the Park Chalet. I only really noticed a difference in their hot chocolates, which both are not great and cost 9 AZN - not worth it!
Not sure if it the same with Park Chalet, but at Pik Palace there isn't a breakfast buffet during the week when the hotel is empty, and instead you get a menu to choose items from. Everything is included in the rate, so it doesn't matter what and how much you order.

Both hotels have an indoor pool, but only Pik Palace has an outside pool, too, in case you come here during the summer months.
And both hotels have valet parking. So, if you're coming here, make sure to take everything out of your car that you are going to need during your stay.
Both hotels offer babysitting services for 15 AZN per hour. Don't expect the greatest baby entertainers in the world. We told our babysitter that she can go to the kid's playroom or go outside, but she just stayed at the room the entire time. Which is not a big deal for us, but 4 hours in a small room during active hours can be pretty long for a toddler. Our babysitter even managed to put on William's diaper the wrong way both times she babysat him :-)

The ski rental shop is in the basement of Pik Palace and the slopes are right outside, so if you stay at Park Chalet, you will have to walk outside across the plaza to get to the shop. Not a big inconvenience, in my opinion, but for some this might be important.

I didn't find the Pik Palace as tastefully done as the cozy Park Chalet is. The style is a little gaudy with all the crystals and flowery swirls on the floors and walls, and in my opinion, the blue accents just don't look good.

They blue actually doesn't look bad in this picture, it looked less tasteful in person, though. 
Swirls and flowers everywhere
Reception area

And more swirls, crystals and flowers!

However, both hotels are Marriott hotels and since we like to collect hotel points, we prefer staying at these two hotels over the Shahdag Inn & Spa.
So, these are all points to take into consideration when coming to Shahdag. If we decided to get a suite next time, we would go back to Park Chalet, but with a toddler that has lots of energy, we prefer the bigger standard rooms at Pik Chalet.