Try telling anyone from the UAE that you are going to Baku. The reactions are likely to range from ‘Ah Baku?’ to just a shrug. The reason: everyone goes to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. It’s a destination that takes a little less than three hours to reach, visa is on arrival, there are plenty of flights and it offers an exotic experience for an affordable rate. In a nutshell, in the last few years, ever since the tourism boom began in this little Eurasian country, part of the erstwhile Soviet Union, it has become the UAE’s resident’s choicest destination for a quick break. However, even if you have visited Baku, there is a reason you should visit it again. And if you haven’t, make a plan, pronto!
Surrounded by the Caspian Sea (which, if you have learnt your geography well, you would know is a lake!) on one side and Georgia, Iran, Armenia and Russia on the others, Azerbaijan is a country that cannot be understood at first visit. Yes, it’s got the beaches, the nightclubs, great food and a charming walled city plus the mountains and the greenery but it’s the history, depth and the beautiful amalgamation of the past and the present that make it glorious. This is a land that hasn’t forgotten its traditions, a country which is not at war with its past even as it embraces its future, a land that celebrates religious diversity and a populace that is warm, welcoming and sincere.
Scratch the surface and there is much to love and even more to discover. In a nutshell, take another look (also the latest tourism campaign launched) and you will find a whole new country.
WHAT TO SEE
* OLD CITY
Begin your exploration with Baku, the capital and arguably, the most famous spot in the country. Wide, clean roads, a sparkling promenade and pockets that reflect the Soviet past with its stately grand buildings are the highlights.
But if you want the true example of East meets West, if you love places that bring the romance of the past, then drive straight to the Old City. It’s absolutely delightful and it’s hard not to fall in love at first sight.
Firstly, it’s the look - a bit of old fashioned Europe, a lot of the erstwhile Soviet Union, some parts Asia, a touch of the Middle East, all of which are ensconced within a fort. Secondly, it’s the surprises that the Walled City offers. As you stroll by, you see excavations dating back to the 12th century that have been carefully preserved (particularly in this zone they call ‘Bazaar square’ which has neatly displayed lines of idols and stones that tell the story of another era). And then there are the charming, cobbled streets winding through narrow alleyways, protected on both sides by charming old buildings some of which are gorgeous boutique hotels and souvenir shops, while others are Caravanserais (old fashioned inns for traders in another era) that now function as restaurants. You’d be surprised to see the Indian and Pakistani influences in this area for most merchants that used to visit Azerbaijan for the flourishing trade scene were from South Asia. As always, people-watching is fun here. From cycle-born fruit-sellers with strawberries and cherries to talented artists creating magic in their studios, there is a lot to observe and of course, photograph.
One must-visit is the Maiden Tower, a 12th century monument, which along with the 15th century Shirvanshah’s Palace counts among the biggest landmarks in the city! Climb up the narrow stairs of this UNESCO-listed structure and you will get to enjoy awesome 360-degree views of the city. Yes, it is so worth it! Also, spare time for the miniature book museum that…hold your breath…also house the Bhagwad Gita and Hanuman Chalisa in miniature form.
An overview of Baku
HIGH LAND PARK
Well known as the ‘Viewing Square’, and earlier in the Soviet era as Sergei Kirov Park, it’s a tourist favourite for Grammable pics. Walk around the park, enjoy the views of the city lights as well as the Caspian Sea it offers and soak in the sunset. After a day of sight-seeing, this is where you should go to enjoy some me-time and feel at peace.
HEYDAR ALIYEV CENTRE
Another architectural wonder, it’s a glimpse of the modern side of Azerbaijan. What makes it so special? Just the fact that it was designed by Zaha Hadid, worldwide recognized architect and Pritzker Prize winner, makes it work a dekko, even if you aren’t exactly into art and exhibitions. If you love the creative world, you will be doubly impressed.
Baku offers much to savour but to get a real feel of the country, you must travel outside the capital. Gabala or Qabala is your go-to. One of the most ancient regions of Azerbaijan, this is another area where you find remnants dating from the 3rd BC up to the 18th century. No wonder it’s an archaeologists’ delight.
The drive to Gabala is lovely. Once you pass the city, you see undulating green and purple fields, soothing hills from afar and tiny quaint villages. It is tempting to compare it to the European countryside but though it’s not as stunning, these meadows and farms have a charm of their own. A suggestion: leave early in the morning and make several pit stops. Such as the mausoleum of Diri Baba, a 15th century Sufi saint, situated in a cave atop a tiny hill, the Juma mosque and the tombs of Mustafa Khan’s family, the erstwhile rulers of the region.
Once the uphill journey begins, the landscape further changes until you reach the Tufandag Mountain Resort (cable car). Like heights and depths? Enjoy the ride then!
This is a true gem. A destination for the ‘real’ traveller, who yearns for the unknown and unusual. A small city, located off the slopes of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, Sheki boasts of rich architecture, Silk Road history, great food, charming people and breath-taking natural beauty.
Let the first stop be the village of Kish. A fairy tale hamlet in the midst of the mountains, you could be forgiven for thinking a time machine took you to another era. This is that picture-perfect locale that ticks all the marks in a fable – stone homes, old churches, tiny village stores and wizened old men and women huddled around the corner biding time. Don’t miss the old Albanian church right in the centre of the village. Now, there is something utterly charming about old churches in older villages. The origins of this particular church can be traced back to the 5th century BC and the remains of human beings, excavated by archaeologists and preserved to this day, is stupefying to say the least. The walls and other relics tell a tale of their own – from the existence of Christianity in the region to the influence of religion.
A short drive away from Kish, you reach the main region of Sheki – the teahouses, the caravanserais, old homes and the sights and sounds offer the much-needed calm from the madness of the city. A perfect getaway, if there was any!
Charming, charming Sheki
WHAT TO EXPERIENCE
It doesn’t matter whether you make a two, three or 10-day trip to Baku. No visit to Azerbaijan would be complete without an outing to the Gobustan Gobustan National Historical and Cultural Preserve, a settlement on the outskirts of Baku. Be prepared for things you may have never seen before in life!
Remember your old geography lessons that spoke about volcanoes made of either lava or mud? Well, Azerbaijan offers this eye-popping experience. Apparently, there are about 700 to 800 mud volcanoes around the world out of which half are in this country. To reach this desolate area where you can spot the mounds, you have no choice but to rent a beat-up car that looks like it has survived a war but somehow zigzags its way and manages to drive you in one piece. It’s surreal experience thereafter and worth the rough ride. In an open large grey barren moorland you spot small mud mounds atop which you can climb and see the live volcano! The sight of the liquid, cement coloured mud bubbling from underground and almost spilling over the mound, leaves you with shock and awe. Unlike lava, this mud is cool and creamy (yes you can touch it!) and apparently great for the skin. A natural beauty treatment that’s a gift from the earth? You bet!
GOBUSTAN ROCK ART
Another one for history buffs. This UNESCO-protected site covers three areas of a plateau of rocky boulders rising out of the semi-desert. And what does it have ? Jaw dropping insights into pre-historic times. Observe closely and you see the incredible rock art – carvings on rocks that illustrate primate men, their ritual dances, animals, bull fights, wars and daily life. The dates of these carvings – 5000 to 20,000 years BC! There are about 6000 such rock engravings that bear testimony to 40,000 years of rock art. Don’t ask what year that would be! Let’s just say it’s beyond imagination!
ATASHGAH - FIRE TEMPLE
Perhaps due to its communist past, religion does not play a huge role in defining Azerbaijan but the harmony of various cultures is an interesting aspect. And nowhere is it more visible than at the Atashgah Temple, a very unique historical monument. Literally meaning the ‘house of fire’, until the 19th century, natural gas leaked through the rock around the temple. It seemed as if the earth was burning without any incitement. While the site was already considered holy by the fire worshippers, a temple building was constructed around it at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century. Even today, the ancient fire rituals are commemorated here during Navroz, the parsi New year.
The Fire Temple is the evidence of how Zoroastrianism spread in this part of the world. Strangely, this was mixed with Hinduism thanks to the arrival of the South Asian traders. Even today, this temple complex – which back in the day was a resting place for traders - has symbols of Hindu religion, most notably, a Shiva and Ganesha statue in one of the rooms surrounding the fire temple. Consider this: Hindu symbols and deities in a Parsi fire temple located in a country that’s largely Islamic!
Similar feelings are evoked at the Yanardag – Fire mountain. You actually see fire emerging from the bowels of earth throughout the day and night. Yes there is a scientific explanation but when you the flames leaping out of the base of a hill, stupefaction is replaced by science!
Yummy cherry jam, don't miss it!
Don’t leave Azerbaijan without completing this ritual. As you drive past the villages, you see several ‘chai houses’. Tea is an elaborate ceremony here. You are served a platter containing nuts, chocolates, sugar, lemon slices, aromatic tea bags and the star of the show – jam. Now, the Azeri jam deserves a chapter of its own. Slightly squishy, mildly sweet, the populace here makes jam out of every fruit. Have a sip of the tea, munch on the nuts, have a bite of the chocolate and a spoon of the jam – you feel all is well with the world again. Repeat the ritual. Divine is an understatement.
WHERE TO EAT
• Cizz Bizz (Old City, Baku)
Cizz bizz (pronounced Juzbuz). A restaurant oozing with old world charm, this has some delightful Azeri cuisine. Don’t miss the Mangal salad – aubergine, tomato and green pepper. Qutab is another specialty – tasting almost like stuffed paratha you can have it stuffed with meat or pumpkin.
• Caravanserai (Sheki)
Know what a unique dining experience is? THIS! Having a meal at an 18th century caravanserai that has now been converted into a hotel and restaurant. You may not find this in tourist guide but will discover this gem in Sheki. That the caravanserai is in this village that dates back to at least a 1000 years, somewhere in the midst of the mountains in northern Azerbaijan adds to its mystique. The menu isn’t elaborate but one bite of the melt-in-the-mouth kebab is enough to transport you to heaven.
• Chayki (Baku)
A fine dining spot with lovely interiors, Chayki serves Azerbaijani cuisine with a modern twist. A warm green terrace, pleasant views of the Caspian sea and food that makes you crave for more… do not miss a meal here! Must-eat: The lula kebab – kebabs that are perfectly balanced, beautifully spiced and simply delicious.
• Derya Fish House (Baku)
A charming open-air restaurant by the Caspian Sea. Try the grilled trout and its accompaniments. It’s for those picture-perfect culinary moments.
• Shamakhi (Shamakhi, on the way to Gabala)
Highway restaurants are fun. Shamakhi, named after the region is one such. Housed in the midst of an orchard you can have your meal surrounded by a green garden with gorgeous trees and fruit-bearing plants. Must-try: Piti – a lamb broth. Cooked for eight hours and served in a jug with broth, potatotes, chick pea, plum and meat. This is a dish that was originated in Sheki but is now available at most traditional restaurants.
WHERE TO STAY
• Shaki Palace Hotel, Sheki
A charming little hotel right in the midst of the mountains. Has a spa, a restaurants that faces the hills, a lovely pool and Caravanserais nearby. Just apt for a lazy day in the village and come back and stare at the mountain.
• Qafqaz Sahil Baku Hotel
A good option if you want to stay in the modern ‘White City’ area. Close from the airport, good amenities and fine views of the is an added bonus.
HOW TO REACH & CURRENCY
Azerbaijan Airlines flies from Dubai to Baku at the most convenient timings. Baku is reached in three hours. Both UAE and Azerbaijan are in the same time zone. The dominant currency is Manat. One Azerbaijani Manat is equivalent to Dhs 2.16