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

Friday - - Contents -

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

57

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

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