"You are the first person I know who is traveling to Azerbaijan!," exclaimed my travel agent enthusiastically. For the tourism professional, the city of Baku is certainly a more original destination than, say, Cuba. That being said, if you choose to visit this country of 9.5 million people, your friends and relatives may be confused: "Azer... what?"
Therefore, it may be useful to make a few comparisons to better place this poorly-known country.
Little Turkey: Located on the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan is a country that is 95% Muslim but resolutely secular, where people speak both Russian and Azerbaijani (sometimes called Azeri Turkish). Like Istanbul, Baku can say it belongs just as much to Europe as to Asia.
The other side of the Caucasus: The country of Azerbaijan is remarkably diverse both in terms of culture and geography. The 2014 Winter Olympics brought attention to the Western side of this mountainous region, but make no mistake about it, Baku is determined to outrank Sochi in terms of sports facilities and business tourism.
The first country of black gold: Exploited commercially in the Caspian Sea for the past century and a half, oil made Azerbaijan very wealthy, and then led to it being placed under Soviet rule beginning in 1920. Independent since 1991, the "Land of Fire" can again enjoy the profits from its oil windfall and pay for shiny skyscrapers. Important note: all that glitters is not Dubai, and Baku has much more to offer in terms of culture.
Azerbaijan's renewed prosperity has led to the establishment of high-tech museums. A visit to the country would logically begin in Baku, more precisely at the Heydar Aliyev Center, a spectacular building designed by "starchitect" Zaha Hadid. This institution offers an important window into the national culture and is also a space for temporary exhibitions, as well as a tribute to the president-founder of the country, whose cult of personality is still very much alive.
The Azerbaijan Carpet Museum is another cultural and architectural capital not to be missed. Located in the seaside park on the coast of the Caspian Sea, this ultramodern building literally unfurls underfoot when you take a cable car from the heights of Dağüstü Park (which is in many ways similar to Montjuïc in Barcelona). Occupying three luxurious floors, the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum condenses centuries of local handicraft. Iran is only 320 km from Baku, so the types of rugs you can admire in the museum are mostly Persian. Baku is also home to several other more classic museums.
In terms of modern architecture, we can't forget the Flame Towers, a set of three skyscrapers made to resemble the city coat of arms. At night, the Flame Towers may be lit in the colors of the flag, or to look like moving flames. But in fact it's the whole city of Baku that becomes a kind of spectacle of lights: the luxurious buildings on Neftchiler Avenue, constructed during the first oil boom (1885-1920), are bathed in white light that shows off their architectural detail, while more modern towers stand out with more elaborate colorful projections.
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World Heritage City
Baku is a city of contrasts. There is nothing modern about a stroll through the old town to admire the Maiden Tower, its caravanserais, its fortifications and its alleyways from the medieval period. Listed as one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites and in the process of being completely restored, the Walled City of Baku contains numerous B&Bs, boutique hotels and restaurants. It's an ideal place to drink tea and smoke hookah, and take a break away from all the chaotic car traffic. That said, you could cap off a stroll through the old town with en exploration of Nizami Park and the pedestrian streets in the downtown area, accessible as soon as you cross the fortifications on the north side.
To learn more about the complex history of the Caucasus, there's nothing like a pedestrian guided tour of Old Baku, a visit which will inevitably end at its highest point, that is, the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, beautifully restored and outfitted with ambitious multimedia installations.
And to go back in time, it is also possible to make an outing 65 kilometers south of Baku, to a national park which is also on the list of World Heritage Sites. Overlooking the Caspian Sea, Gobustan (the "sea of rocks") is famous for its mud volcanoes and its thousands of breathtaking cave engravings dating back between 5,000 and 40,000 years.
Sports And Entertainment
The Azerbaijani government spares no expense when it comes to promoting the country. Baku has therefore hosted the Eurovision contest in 2012, in the retro-futurist Crystal Hall, inaugurated that same year. The city is now preparing to welcome the first European Games, which will take place in 2015 in an Olympic-sized stadium.
Car racing is another way of attracting crowds, and the visit of 40 or so international journalists was organized to coincide with the Baku World Challenge (Blancpain Sprint Series). Formula 1 will also make an appearance in 2016 during the European Grand Prix, on an urban circuit which easily bears comparison with the track at Monaco.
The climate in Baku is similar to that of Sochi. Our trip in the month of November was certainly during the off-season, but a walk along the seaside park gave us a great view of fall foliage, which provided a nice contrast to the palm and olive trees lining the downtown streets. While Baku receives the occasional snowfall in winter, the mountains in the back country have an abundance of snow. According to the Ministry of Tourism, the two winter ski centers will be able to accommodate 10,000 skiers per day, from December to March.
The main language spoken in Azerbaijan resembles Turkish and in a similar way, the country's cuisine is influenced by its Mediterranean neighbor. Dolmas (vine leaves) are an appetizer, and qutab (crepes stuffed with lamb or spinach) are served alongside yogurt, flatbread, crudités and white cheeses like feta.
Main courses often consist of kebabs and other grilled meats, served with perfumed rice cooked to perfection and so light it could be called airy. These plov (pilaf) immediately bring Iran to mind. In fact, Azerbaijan shares with this country a flavorful cuisine, consisting largely of nuts, fresh herbs and fresh or dried fruits.
During our stay, our meals were usually served with local red wines, whose quality ranged from acceptable to surprising. (Yes, you read that right: Azerbaijan is a Muslim country with a long wine-growing tradition.)
As a dessert or snack, baklavas without puff pastry are served with Turkish coffee, tea or its world-famous espresso. In short, Azerbaijani cuisine is a unique fusion of Mediterranean and Central Asian traditions.
How to Get There?
Baku is easy to get to from most large European airline hubs, including Paris (Air France), Frankfurt, (Luftansa), London (British Airways), Vienna (Austrian Airlines) and Istanbul (Turkish Airlines.
If traveling from North America, you may choose to make a stopover in one or other of these cities, but Azerbaijan Airlines does offer direct flights from New York.
To enter Azerbaijan, it is necessary to obtain an electronic visa before arriving through one of the 50 or so accredited travel companies listed on the website azerbaijan.travel. Once printed, this visa must accompany your passport without being attached to it directly. (This is not a requirement for travelers from Turkey or the CIS.) Interesting fact: passengers taking a direct flight from New York to Baku will receive a 30-day visa upon their arrival at the Heydar Aliyev International Airport.
(Note : this press trip was paid for by the Baku World Challenge, which made the invitation.)