Few tourists stray from Baku into Azerbaijan's interior

As tourists flock to Baku for the inaugural European Games, Jack Palfrey goes in search of the Azerbaijan you won’t see on TV.

“People think it’s all about the pig, but the key to a good sausage is in the production. Careful production, better product.”

Pausing for breath, John shifts his dilapidated people carrier into second, mechanically manoeuvring the vehicle around potholes in the gravel roads of Ivanovka Village, Azerbaijan.

How a Lancashire-born butcher ended up in a tiny communist village still missing from most maps is a good question, but like many Englishmen, John came to Azerbaijan to work in the oil industry.

Now, with a few more grey hairs on his balding crown, he makes a living by producing authentic Cumberland sausages for expat workers in Baku. You can take the English out of England, but apparently you can’t force them to eat Azeri sausages.

John stops the car to allow a flock of sheep, guided by an elderly shepherd, to cross the road ahead. Around us, ramshackle houses peek over high fences and in the distance the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains glow an ember red.


100 miles away another, more formal, lecture is taking place.

The last rays of the muggy Baku sun glint off the glass-framed skyscraper opposite the conference hall and into the eyes of Simon Clegg.

The Chief Operating Officer of the Baku 2015 European Games pauses momentarily, shuffles out of the ray of light and ploughs on with his speech to the awaiting audience of journalists and distinguished guests.

Baku's Flame Towers are the jewel of the city's skylineBaku's Flame Towers are the jewel of the city's skyline
Creative Commons / Francisco Anzola

“The European Games are a core part of Azerbaijan’s 2020 vision,” says Mr Clegg, “and a fundamental basis of President’s Aliyev’s strategy to turn black gold into human gold.”

The strange turn of phrase is a reference to Azerbaijan’s vast oil wealth, which has flooded Baku with petrodollars.

“I’m delighted to be able to stand here in front of you today and tell you that Azerbaijan has delivered on its promises, and has delivered on a scale that many thought impossible.”

Mr Clegg eyes dart quickly around the room. He raises a glass of sparkling water to his lips.


“It’s honestly the best wine I’ve ever tasted,” says John, returning his cup to the table with a bang. “I’ve drank gallons of the stuff and not once had a hangover.”

Vanya, a tall blonde man with round features, surveys us silently from the opposite end of the table, awaiting our verdict.

I take a swig from the mug placed in front of me. To my surprise, the homemade concoction makes for easy drinking. Smooth and sweet, it slides down the throat.

Satisfied with the verdict, Vanya ducks out through a doorway to fetch more bottles.

“In this village we’ve got different people for different things,” says John, leaning back in his chair, “Vanya here is the village winemaker, his wife makes bread, the woman a few houses down makes cheese and a man a few doors up from us keeps chickens.”

Vanya’s dining room is small but homely, with green plants in ceramic pots and bright pictures adorning the whitewashed walls. In the next room a young boy is rolling a plastic car across the tiled floor at the foot of a dozing elderly gentleman.

Vanya provides homemade bread, cheese and wineVanya provides homemade bread, cheese and wine
Jack Palfrey

“There aren’t many places like this left in the world,” John adds before draining his glass and standing up. “We better get back or we’ll miss dinner.”

John hands Vanya 15 Manats (£9) for 3L of his home-brewed wine, which comes in old plastic Coca-Cola bottles.

Vanya shows us out and we climb back into the rusting people carrier.


“To arrive here today, I drove along a new highway that wasn’t there three years ago,” gushes Mr Clegg, a note of sentimentality slipping into his voice as he addresses his adopted city, “I go past new metro stations, a new athlete’s village and the wonderful new Heydar Aliyev centre.”

“Have you seen that?” a suited gentleman whispers to a colleague in the row in front of me, “it’s incredible.”

“Even if I am held up by traffic,” continues Mr Clegg, “I’ve stopped losing signal on my mobile thanks to the new masts that we’ve helped put in place. I can access my email on the pretty much constant 3G network, and think about how, with the 600km of fibre optic cable that we’ve installed throughout the city, we have helped propel Baku into the forefront of the digital age.”



The lights go out and the scene is cast into darkness.

There are a few laughs and mocking groans before Tanya, John’s wife and maître d’ of Ivanovka’s only guesthouse, addresses her gaggle of guests.

“It’s Friday night, everyone is having a shower now, the generator can’t handle it,” she says, with her disarming Russian accent.

As quickly as it vanished the generator flickers back into life, re-illuminating the feast laid out on the table. Steaming Russian borscht sits alongside crisp corned-beef pies, accompanied by large cups of Vanya’s dark red homemade wine.

“Let’s eat,” says John, dunking his spoon into the soup, “while the lights are still on.”

Eight of us huddle shoulder to shoulder around the table in Tanya’s outhouse. Aside from myself – the first international tourist to visit the guesthouse in some time – John, Tanya, two of their neighbours, an Azeri couple in their mid-30s with a young child, and an aging moustached expat from Leeds make up the remaining diners.

The village is overlooked by the Caucasus MountainsThe village is overlooked by the Caucasus Mountains
Jack Palfrey

Conversation over dinner is light-hearted, with plenty of spontaneous outpourings of adoration for Tanya’s cooking which she brushes off modestly.

As the plates are cleared the wine flows faster until eventually the three plastic bottles stand empty. The vodka is swiftly summoned for.

Predictably, the generator gives out again and candles are lit. Wrapped in darkness, we slump contentedly in our chairs.

“What a wonderful place,” says the moustached expat, who works in the Baku oil industry. “I’ve been in this country 20-odd years and this is where I feel at home. This is the real Azerbaijan.”

“It is not so wonderful,” grumbles one of the neighbours. “Families here are struggling to find work, and there is corruption up at the farm [the village’s biggest employer].”

“And if you get sick, the nearest hospital is over an hour away,” he laments.

“It’s often closed too, due to lack of electricity,” adds John, knocking back the last of his drink. “If I have a heart attack, I’ll be dead, no question.”

“The village won’t last much longer,” mumbles Tanya from somewhere in the darkness.


Mr Clegg draws a large breath as he builds up to the crescendo of his speech.

“Over the past 30 months, we have shown to both ourselves, and the world, all the benefits that a competition such as the European Games can provide.”

The total bill for hosting the Games is hotly disputed. The Azeri government quotes a figure of £1 billion while independent sources claim the total cost is closer to £5 billion.

“When you all make your journeys back to the airport, I’d like you all to take a moment to not only look at all the impressive infrastructure, but also to think about the physical and skills legacy that they symbolise.

“I hope that then, you will have a sense of what the inaugural European Games are, and what they mean for Azerbaijan’s glowing future.”

Applause rings out from the audience.

The sun sets on Azerbaijan's latest sagaThe sun sets on Azerbaijan's latest saga
Sohadiszno / Thinkstock

Fancy trying a slice of the communist life?

How to get there
Numerous airlines fly from London to Baku, including British Airways. The single fare with BA is around £244 (one way).

From Baku, daily buses run to the town of Ismayilly; however there are no staffed counters at Baku’s central bus station and even simple English is not widely spoken. Most people are willing to help tourists but miming is required (journey time: 4 hours; fare: 6 Manats). Ivanovka Village is a short taxi ride from Ismayilly (journey time: 30 minutes; fare: 10 Manats). If you value your life don’t get a taxi all the way from Baku; driving competency is extremely low and borders on horrifying.

Where to stay
The Ivanovka Guesthouse (tel: +994 50 377 1273; www.ivanovkaguesthouse.com) is the only accommodation option in the village. The modest but clean rooms all come with en-suite bathrooms (40 Manats per night). All meals are served on-site (self-catering is also available) and tours of the historical village and surrounds can be arranged.

More information

Enjoyed this piece? Then you will also like:
Is Baku destroying its heritage?
10 things to see and do in Baku
La Jeune Rue, Paris: An improbable feast

Visa and passport information is updated regularly and is correct at the time of publishing. You should verify critical travel information independently with the relevant embassy before you travel.