My trip to an unexpectedly endearing Eurasian state
The word ‘Azerbaijan’ probably doesn’t make you think of your next holiday.
Because Azerbaijan is far from a ‘bucket list’ destination for most of us. In 2019, Europe could only scrape together 224,000 visitors. The UK accounted for 36,000 of them.
But Azerbaijan really wants you to visit. Despite only establishing a department of tourism in 2001, the oil-rich nation has pumped billions into its nascent tourist industry, and is doing everything it can to promote itself.
It has bagged some high profile sports events, like the 2019 UEFA Europa League final and the 2015 European Games. It has also started calling itself the ‘Land of Fire’ – a nickname that’s far cooler than France’s ‘The Hexagon‘ or Italy’s ‘The Boot‘.
When I booked a ticket, my main concern was that rapid modernisation, especially in Baku – the capital – would amount to a brash and garish display of the country’s oil wealth. I worried there would be little to pique my interest as a tourist.
I was very pleasantly surprised not just by Baku itself, but also by the range and quality of attractions in Azerbaijan as a whole. It was a holiday I would recommend.
Baku, the only place most visitors see
According to the Internet, Baku has been dubbed ‘The Paris of the East.’ I don’t think much of this title. Baku might have boulevards and some French cafés, but the people of Baku are far too welcoming and the city far too clean to make such an unfair comparison.
You probably won’t walk past any sweet tea-sipping board game enthusiasts in Paris, either. They are a common sight in Baku, which is the birthplace of chess maestro Gary Kasparov.
As of September 2020, 2 of the top 11 active chess players are Azeri. But in the streets of the Old City, men sit down to play backgammon, a board game that has been around a couple of thousand years longer. The speed with which they move the checkers is completely out of keeping with their slow sips of tea and the remarkably casual conversation they maintain throughout their game.
The Old City board gamers call backgammon ‘nard’ – an Iranian word. It’s one of many reminders that Azerbaijan was once part of the Persian Empire, in between spells under Ottoman and Russian rule.
Baku’s skyline betrays this turbulent history. If you take the funicular to the top of the hill for the view, you will see an eclectic mix of architecture: late imperial Russian, old Islamic, Soviet and Art Nouveau.
But the most striking two buildings were constructed in the last ten years.
The Heydar Aliyev Center
The Heydar Aliyev Center is a curvaceous contemporary art museum and culture centre, named after Azerbaijan’s former president and designed by the late British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid. It looks like it belongs in Star Trek, not among the tower blocks of suburban Baku.
The Flame Towers
The multifunctional Flame Towers have become a national symbol that gets plastered all over tourist literature. At night, the LEDs covering each tower produce a fiery light show that you can supposedly see from anywhere in the city.
But what’s this recurring fire motif all about, you might ask?
Azerbaijan is home to naturally occurring gas flares. As a result, the country has long been associated with Zoroastrianism. Practitioners of this ancient Persian religion see fire as a holy symbol of purity and truth and build fire temples as places of worship.
There are actually quite a few famous people who have dabbled in Zoroastrianism: Voltaire, Freddie Mercury, and most recently Lady Melisandre in Game of Thrones.
Beyond Baku – fire and…mud
I saw one of these Zoroastrian fire temples – Ateshgah – as part of a day tour from Baku. This day was one of the highlights of my trip.
I’ve been on my fair share of mediocre and largely forgettable tours; many are uninformative, will use a non-descript church, temple or some ruins as filler, whisk you around at pace, and involve much more driving than seeing stuff.
But tours are a slick operation in Azerbaijan. Going at a fairly relaxed pace, we visited mud volcanoes, huge natural gas flares on the side of a hill, 20,000 year old Neolithic rock carvings and the Zoroastrian fire temple. And none of it felt gimmicky.
In fact, the historical significance of every site was always well explained; there are purpose-built visitor centres with flashy digital graphics and buttons you can press, labels in good English and eager tour guides.
The alacrity with which Azeris talk with you about their history and culture is not limited to the capital. 150 miles northwest of Baku is the mountain town of Sheki, full of extremely hospitable locals who all drive Russian Ladas and are keen to chat to tourists.
Sheki – one of the friendliest towns around
Sheki is a Silk Road destination famous for its beautiful 18th century palaces – built by the influential Persian khanate that ruled the town – and for its hiking.
I won’t pretend that the Islamic architecture or mountains were the main draw for me, though. It was the delicious food, which is not for the health-conscious.
The best local dish is piti, a mutton stew cooked in a clay pot with various vegetables, chickpeas, chestnuts and a dollop of lard. Many of the restaurants in Sheki don’t have menus. So even if you don’t order piti, you’ll probably get it anyway.
For dessert, there is Sheki halva. It’s a local take on baklava with its own distinctly powerful flavour, covered in saffron and sugary syrup. I accidentally bought a kilogram, and was pursued by a phalanx of wasps for the rest of the day.
Must be the Ganja
I sadly had only a week in Azerbaijan. But I imagine most visitors don’t even give it that, because the Azeri Tourist Board’s latest marketing scheme rather humbly asks us all to ‘take another look’ at the country to explore its hidden depths.
There are certainly places I’d visit on a second trip: some of the remote mountain villages, and Ganja, the country’s second city. Ganja supposedly has a rich ancient history, but no marijuana, despite its name.
Not so high on my list is Naftalan, home to a very unusual and controversial crude oil spa. It has never particularly appealed to me, but if you are lucky enough to experience the many alleged health benefits of an oil bath, perhaps you can let me know.
That would be just another reason for me to return to the Land of Fire.