F1, food and fun. Azerbaijan is fast becoming a tourist magnet.
From being a popular stopover on the fabled Silk Route to becoming a tourist magnet, Azerbaijan, less than three hours away from Dubai, will enthrall history lovers, foodies – even skiers, discovers Anand Raj OK
Before I set foot in Baku, I’d seen pictures of the iconic Heydar Aliyev Centre (left) and I knew seeing it in real would be an ‘oh wow’ moment. But the first slack-jaw inducing moment – and they would be several – occurred minutes after I landed in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku. Still relishing the pampering I enjoyed flying in from Dubai on board flydubai’s business class – and earlier at the comfy Business lounge in Dubai – I walked into Heydar Aliyev International Airport only to be transported to an amazing, seemingly futuristic world.
Turkish style czars Seyhan Ozdemir and Sefer Caglar, of the Istanbul design company Autoban, clearly stuck to the brief the Azeri airport authorities gave them: to make every passenger feel like they are VIPs and to avoid ‘public areas’.
Massive wooden pods not unlike cocoons are available for passengers to rest, lounge, work on their devices or even enjoy a spa treatment in some parts of the airport. Trees at various points add a green
element while glass ceilings allow natural light to flood the halls.
Not for nothing is the 65,000sqm airport which is split into four levels and clad in glass and metal, it is listed as one of 12 most beautiful airports in the world. In case you are interested, airports in Mumbai, Denver and Osaka are some of the others that figure on the list.
‘Do you know that Baku is associated with a lot of very interesting things?’ said a trivia-loving journo I’ll call Mr S who was with us on the trip. Like? I asked. ‘Like, former World Chess champion Garry Kasparov was born here,’ he said.
Although I don’t play the game, I was impressed.
‘Ok, one more,’ he said. ‘Did you know that the Pierce Brosnan Bond movie The World is Not Enough was partly shot in Baku?’
I did not, but decided I must watch it again to see if I could recognise the locale.
Emerging from the mouth-like exit of the airport, I turned around to admire the smooth, curved, gently undulating roof. It would be a theme I’d notice on several structures across Azerbaijan, which is fast becoming a tourist magnet.
But then tourism and travellers are nothing new to the largest country in the south Caucasus.
I remembered my history professor in college lecturing about Azerbaijan being a favourite of traders since time immemorial thanks to its strategic location on the Silk Route. It served as a gateway to exotic China
Zipping past a ROW of modern buildings interspersed with Soviet-era ones, we abruptly entered a section of the CITY where concrete dividers bearing ads for beverages and Emirates Airlines lined ROADS
and wealthy Europe, he droned. I forgot what the country was famous for because I guess I’d dozed off at that point.
Keen to pick up what I’d missed in college, I was all ears as Shamkhal Abushov, our tour guide on the bus, gave us a brief lesson in history. It seemed more interesting than my history prof’s lesson not just because he mentioned something about maidens in towers (more about that later).
En route to JW Marriott Absheron Baku, our destination for the night, Shamkal pointed to a white, wave-shaped structure that stood proud on a perfectly manicured mound.
That has to be Zaha Hadid’s work, I said, noting the smooth ripple-like exterior of the structure – her architecture signature of sorts.
Shamkal nodded a yes. ‘That’s the Heydar Aliyev Center, a symbol of modern Baku,’ he said. An award-winning piece of architecture, it houses an auditorium, a museum, exhibition halls and government offices. Resembling a series of smooth folds, the Centre is a visual delight sure to hold the curiosity of any lover of design and architecture and I made a mental note to visit the place later that day.
Zipping past a row of modern buildings interspersed with Soviet-era ones, we abruptly entered a section of the city where concrete dividers bearing advertisements for beverages and Emirates Airline lined the roads. Skirting the bends of the road were soft dividers and metal barricades. Seeing the puzzled look on my face, Shamkal was quick
with info. ‘The Formula 1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix was held here recently [July 3],’ he said. ‘Most of the dividers are bolted in permanently but large sections of the metal barricades will be dismantled soon.’
Shifting gear, Mr S was quick to add: ‘Did you know that with a lap circuit of a tad more than 6km, Baku City Circuit is the secondlongest circuit on the current F1 calendar?’ Wow, I said. Encouraged by my response, he continued: ‘Valtteri Bottas set the fastest time ever recorded in an official F1 session in Baku notching 378kmh during the qualifier.’
Mr S was about to dish out another piece of trivia when we turned a corner and drew up in front of the JW Marriott. The 23-storey hotel is an epitome of luxury and my room on the sixth floor had fabulous views of the F1 circuit on one side and the spectacular Caspian Sea on the other.
I, of course, wanted to do more than just stare out of the hotel window, so quickly headed down for a short walk in the city.
Stepping outside, the sun’s glare blinded me for a moment. The sky was a kid’s watercolour painting blue and the temperature a pleasant 28C. A gentle breeze rustled the trees while across the road, some workers were loading F1 barriers into a large truck parked near the kerb.
Clutching a guide book, I ambled along Neftchilar Avenue, the city’s arterial road, a large section of which runs along the spectacular Baku Boulevard that skirts the Caspian Sea.
Sprinkled with a curious mix of old and new buildings, a walk along the road offers a slice of modern Baku while also giving an insight into the rich history of the city. Grey, blocky concrete Soviet-era buildings hold their own next to modern highrises housing offices and shopping arenas advertising almost all major fashion labels.
Baku city, my guide book tells me, is more than 2000 years old and home to over two million people. Clearly, the
The Maiden Tower in the Old City area of Baku overlooks part of the F1 track
Tucking into Azeri cuisine at the Firework restuarant at JW Marriott Absheron Baku is a perfect way to end a tour of the city; above, the Flame Towers pay tribute to the nation’s natural gas wealth