Nagorno-Karabakh is the fourth piece of the South Caucasus jigsaw, a geopolitical product of the Soviet Union and a self-declared republic recognised by no one. The subject of a brutal war between 1990 and 1994, this small region is Armenian culture on land claimed by Azerbaijan.
Most of Azerbaijan’s scenic highlights lie in the spectacular, snowcapped Great Caucasus or its luxuriantly forested foothills. Some of these zones are accessible from the Baku–Balakən road, others from the Quba–Qusar area, but unless you’re prepared to hike via 3000m passes there’s no direct way to cross between these two regions.
Worth a look if you're heading to/from Iran, Southern Azerbaijan’s coastal strip is the lush breadbasket of the country, where tea plantations line the roadsides and trees are heavy with citrus fruit. Inland, bucolic forested mountains offer tempting streamside getaways and there's hiking potential in the grassy uplands beyond.
This cradle of Azeri culture and history is now a disconnected lozenge of Azerbaijan wedged uncomfortably between hostile Armenia and ambivalent Iran. Historical monuments and oasis villages are dotted about a fascinating landscape of deserts and melon fields rimmed by craggy barren mountains. It’s a memorable place but visiting requires resourcefulness and imagination.
Ordered and compulsively neat, Naxçivan City’s streets are lined with shiny new facades, yet a strange torpor reigns. That’s especially true in blisteringly hot summers, which render most activity impossible beyond the playing of nard and drinking of tea in soothingly shady parks.
The southern region’s biggest town, likeable Lənkəran (Lenkoran) is famous for flowers, tea and its trademark ləvəngi cuisine. The city is short on must-see attractions but exudes a laid-back charm, is full of relentlessly hospitable people and serves as a springboard for visiting the Talysh Mountains.
Stepanakert, Karabakh’s rather inadvertant capital, is a bustling and prosperous place spread out along a steep hillside over the distant Karkar River. Despite a recent construction boom, there's still plenty of the town's Soviet heritage visible, as well as many rambling, typically Caucasian family homes.
Azerbaijan’s hazelnut capital sits at the confluence of two wide mountain rivers descending steeply from the Great Caucasus. The lower town (bazaar, bus station) is unremarkable but a useful place to stay and organise transport. The older town centre is 2km uphill. Climbing steeply into the wooded foothills behind is the pretty village of Car (pronounced 'jar').
Famous for apples and carpet-making, Quba is a town in three parts. Old Quba is a grid of low-rise streets raised above the deep-cut Qudiyalçay River. This had been the 18th-century capital of local potentate Fatali Khan, but later became a provincial backwater once the khanate had been absorbed into the Russian Empire (1806).
Azerbaijan’s second city has relatively little to show for millenia of history, unable to decide itself whether it's 2500 or 4000 years old. But 21st-century reinvention is starting to make the most of its surviving heritage, dust off its Soviet-era austerity and add some twinkles of new architectural daring.