BURN­ING BRIGHT: Azer­bAi­jAn beck­ons

The 'fire coun­try' has an eclec­tic mix of his­tor­i­cal at­trac­tions set along­side new-world won­ders to sat­isfy the taste of any vis­i­tor, writes Aarti Na­graj

Gulf Business - - TRAVEL -

If mud-spout­ing vol­ca­noes and a moun­tain fire that’s been burn­ing cease­lessly for the last 4,000 years are things you want to tick off your travel bucket list, Azer­bai­jan is the place to go.

Lo­cated on the edge of the Caspian Sea, the tiny coun­try is per­haps best known for its oil wealth and as the host of the Euro­vi­sion Song Con­test in 2012. But Azer­bai­jan has much more to of­fer.

The place that most tourists start from is the cap­i­tal city of Baku. A city of con­trasts, Baku of­fers an in­ter­est­ing glimpse into the past and the fu­ture of the Caspian re­gion, while also jux­ta­pos­ing man­made at­trac­tions with nat­u­ral won­ders.

Heav­ily in­flu­enced by the Ot­tomans and later the Soviet Union, the cul­ture and man­ner­isms of the Az­eri peo­ple have been moulded into a unique blend of Arab hospi­tal­ity com­bined with a love for Rus­sian mu­sic and style. Beau­ti­ful ar­chi­tec­tural be­he­moths rise in the midst of the city, while stark Sovi­etera struc­tures con­tinue to dot the coun­try­side.

Mean­while, at the cen­tre of the city – which seems to be modelling it­self to re­sem­ble the fu­tur­is­tic sky­line of Dubai, tall, glass-façade build­ings – such as the fa­mous Flame Tow­ers – shine bright at night; a sym­bol of the coun­try’s vast oil wealth.

There’s no doubt that the re­cent drop in oil prices has hit the coun­try hard – a drive across the edge of Baku presents an eerie view of mo­tion­less oil pumps, sil­hou­et­ted against the sky.

But the eco­nomic im­pact of the oil price drop has also forced the coun­try to look at di­ver­si­fy­ing its rev­enue sources, with tourism emerg­ing as one of the main driv­ers.

Across the coun­try, young Az­eri guides – most of­ten women – of­fer suc­cinct com­men­tary in flu­ent English at tourist sites, of­ten pro­vid­ing more than just text­book-pre­scribed de­tails.

Get­ting around us­ing pub­lic trans­port can be dif­fi­cult, but most ho­tels or­gan­ise tours – which are quite rea­son­ably priced. Also, if you would pre­fer to wan­der around within the main ar­eas of the city on your own,

au­dio guides are avail­able to ac­com­pany you on long walk­ing trails.

The must-see for any vis­i­tor to Baku is the old part of the city, which re­mains nes­tled within a mas­sive fort wall. Lined with nar­row cob­bled streets and al­leys, the Old Town (called Icheri She­her) in­cludes at­trac­tions such as the Shir­van­shah Palace and the Maiden Tower.

The vast palace, a re­minder of the op­u­lence en­joyed by the erst­while rulers of the coun­try, re­vives a grim mem­ory right at the en­trance – bul­let marks on the wall, rep­re­sent­ing the hor­rors of the 1918 war with Armenia.

Climb­ing up the 29.5 me­tre high Maiden Tower is also an in­ter­est­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, of­fer­ing views of the city and the sea from tiny peep­holes on the way up be­fore the grand view at the very top. Each land­ing floor of­fers some fas­ci­nat­ing in­for­ma­tion about the con­struc­tion of the tower, in­clud­ing the sev­eral leg­ends be­hind its name. The most pop­u­lar myth is that the tower is named af­ter a princess who trag­i­cally killed her­self by jump­ing from the tower.

Along with these two main struc­tures, the old city is lined with an­cient res­i­dences and mosques, colour­ful graf­fiti, loud shop­keep­ers hawk­ing a va­ri­ety of sou­venirs and the char­ac­ter­is­tic car­a­vanserais, of­fer­ing food in tra­di­tional Az­eri style.

Another land­mark within Baku that evokes a re­ac­tion of awe is the Hey­dar Aliyev cen­tre de­signed by the late Zaha Ha­did. A favourite for selfie back­drops, the iconic white wavy-shaped ar­chi­tec­tural mas­ter­piece hosts a mul­ti­tude of cul­tural events. The ar­tis­ti­cally- sculpted car­pet mu­seum is also worth a visit, es­pe­cially to ap­pre­ci­ate the in­tri­ca­cies of weav­ing.

But to truly see the ex­tra­or­di­nary in Azer­bai­jan, you need to leave the con­fines of Baku.

A day trip will take you to the an­cient site of Go­bus­tan, where pet­ro­glyphs (rock paint­ings) dat­ing back thou­sands of years re­main well pre­served on the moun­tain­side. The in­ter­ac­tive mu­seum on­site pro­vides all the his­tory and in­for­ma­tion you need about the UNESCO-her­itage site.

Most tour op­er­a­tors will com­bine another must-see at­trac­tion with the Go­bus­tan trip – the truly amaz­ing mud vol­ca­noes. In­ces­santly spout­ing thick grey mud, this unique at­trac­tion can be ex­plored up-close (yes, you can also touch the ooz­ing mud).

Another day trip from Baku that warrants a slot on your itin­er­ary is a visit to the fire tem­ple ‘Atesh­gah’ and the burn­ing moun­tain ‘Ya­nardag’.

Hin­dus and, even fur­ther back in his­tory, Zoroas­tri­ans used Atesh­gah, which is built in a re­gion that pre­vi­ously boasted nat­u­ral gas re­serves, as a place of wor­ship. Another pocket of nat­u­ral gas lights up the mys­te­ri­ous flames that lick the edge of the Ya­nardag moun­tain, a phe­nom­e­non that has been wit­nessed for the past 4,000 years (ac­cord­ing to our guide). Al­though no­body re­ally knows when the fire started.

Also not to be missed is the Gala his­tor­i­cal and ethno­graphic mu­seum, lo­cated some 40km away from Baku. Climb rick­ety stairs of the old­time houses pre­served at the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site to sneak a peek into how Az­eri peo­ple lived in the past. You can also say a quick hello to the well­main­tained camels, don­keys and other farm an­i­mals graz­ing lazily at their stalls.

A mere two hours away from Dubai, Baku is well con­nected by air and makes for a per­fect week­end get­away. But to truly ap­pre­ci­ate the won­ders of the fire coun­try ex­tend your stay, head out of the city and be­gin ex­plor­ing.

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