Ganja: In the Heart of the Caucasus

Note: This article about Ganja located in Azerbaijan was originally written for Skylife Magazine of Turkish Airlines and was published in January 2016 issue.  

As our plane starts to descend to the city of Ganja, accompanied by breathtaking views I don’t want to end, this tiny city has stolen my heart even before I set foot on it. Situated in the middle of the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, Ganja is the second largest city in Azerbaijan. It’s a must-visit destination thanks to its eye-catching architecture and unique mountainous panoramas, but most importantly for its friendly people. We arrive at Ganja, a mere 10-minute drive from the airport, via a road lined by trees on both sides and with the Caucasus Mountains as the backdrop.

What strikes me first in the city are the well-preserved structures dating back to a time when it was still part of the Soviet Union. My hotel is right across from the 500-year-old Shah Abbas Mosque, built in a typically elegant style. After checking in, my first stop is Javad Khan, the most popular street in the city. Shops line this street, which is dappled by shade from the trees in the morning and illuminated by streetlights in the evening. There are also a number of cafés where, if you’re as lucky as I am, you may encounter a live guitar or violin performance.

Mount Kapaz

Taking advantage of the chilly but very sunny weather, we decide to spend the afternoon in the Hajikand district, which is filled with restaurants as far as the eye can see. When we arrive there I learn that the Azeri restaurants don’t have shared dining areas. Instead, each group is welcomed into special booths surrounding the main building, and the orders are given via a phone in the booth. We enter our booth (with a mountain view) and first of all fill the oven with pieces of wood. This is where we’ll be toasting our bread in a moment. After we order our meat, we try the side dishes, which are reminiscent of those in Turkey. I particularly like those prepared with yogurt. Then comes the pomegranate, an essential item on Azeri tables; however, the course that is most appreciated is the dessert, apple kebab. As the dinner comes to a close, the sun begins to set behind Mount Kapaz, deep within the Lesser Caucasus Mountains. It’s time for us to return to the city.

Layla and Majnun – Link to Ganja

Ganja’s beautiful architecture looks even prettier when lit up in various colours at night. This lighting is most effective on City Hall, adding to its beauty. The square in front of the hall is filled with young locals at weekends, and I join in with them. This magnificent square once hosted the largest-ever flash mob performance, with 6,000 people for 2015 Baku European Games. This performance is currently under evaluation, to be listed among the Guinness World Records. Everyone knows the story of Layla and Majnun; however, very few know that its author, Nizami – the father of the love story as a literary genre – is from Ganja. We visit his mausoleum in Ganja; he also has a statue in the Borghese Gardens in Rome. Our next stop is Heydar Aliyev Park, the largest in the South Caucasus, which I first caught sight of on our way from the airport. There are bicycles parked at the entrance to the park, provided by IDEA, the Azeri non-governmental organization, in order to increase environmental awareness. I also learn that the park is included in many green projects, including building nests for migratory birds.

On my way to the airport as my trip to Ganja comes to an end, I dream that in time we’ll hear more of this elegant, historic and under-appreciated city.