Nowhere better expresses Azerbaijan’s 21st-century economic transformations than Qəbələ. Five years ago it was a dowdy market town whose main attractions were the quaint but unsophisticated cottage getaways in a wooded valley around 5km north. Today the city is a vast construction site. Soviet-era structures have been demolished or refurbished, grand new public buildings are rising and that once-quiet wooded valley has been largely overwhelmed by tourism complexes: the pharaonic Qafqaz Riverside and its sister property, Qafqaz Resortalong with the sprawling Qabaland Amusement Park. Reportedly further developments are planned towards Durca but for now that remains an unspoilt seasonal village (and quad-biking destination for resort guests) where shepherd families’ old stone houses are only occupied during the midsummer grazing season.
In the Qəbələ town centre, the only really historical building is the colonnaded 19th-century mosque. Around 500m south is the new Historical Museum. It displays finds from Old Qəbələ but its most unusual feature is the fake Stone Age–style swing gate through which one enters. Next door is a typically grand, wordless Heydar Əliyev Museum.
Qəbələ has launched an international music festival (www.gabalainternationalmusicfestival.com, http://gilanpianos.com/4.html) in July and the town’s soccer team, Gabala FC (www.gabalafc.az) is rapidly gaining stature, managed during 2010 and 2011 by ex-Arsenal defender Tony Adams.
If you don’t have the budget for Qəbələ’s megaresorts, try Qəbələ Xanlar. Its family size cottages are set in one remnant area of beautiful mossy woodland directly before the Qafqaz Resort. Cheaper ‘cabin’ rooms with bathroom are big, if slightly worn.
In the town centre there are two hotels within two minutes’ walk of the mosque. Hotel Qəbələ has a few flaws (damp sheets, smelly drains) but is more spacious than the oddly conceived Karvan Otel, which stands beside the telecom building.