An historic nexus between Europe and Asia where futuristic-looking landmarks stand amid centuries-old caravanserai, Azerbaijan is a charming paradox for the curious traveller
Words: Claire Malcolm
Known as The Land of Fire, Azerbaijan keeps its cultural identity burning bright as it continues to grow into a modern nation. From its fire-worshipping heritage to the architecturally stunning Flame Towers that characterise the Baku skyline, it offers a visual feast of contrasts in a dramatic setting lapped by the Caspian Sea and surrounded by the Caucasus Mountains. Marvel at its natural wonders, tick off a ream of UNESCO-listed sites or simply sip tea at a pavement café along the old Silk Road route to get a real feel for the place…
On the beaten track
A trip to Lahıc, the copper-smithing capital of the country, will net you some engraved, hand-beaten pieces where families of blacksmiths have been plying their trade for generations. Located at the foot of the Great Caucasian Ridge, the former mining town is also known for its brass items and attar stores that sell locally harvested mountain herbs for culinary and medicinal purposes.
Up your game when it comes to floor coverings with a silk carpet from the heart of Azerbaijan’s northwestern silk region. The small but beautiful town of Sheki has a long tradition of carpet weaving, with local workshops producing the most exquisite pieces, as well as traditional silk scarves known as kelaghayi. Closer to Baku, the Qadim Quba workshop is your go-to for naturally dyed wool carpets.
Back in Baku, a profusion of designer names (from Gucci to Salvatore Ferragamo) line the grand Neftchilyar Avenue while the city’s style set flock to Port Baku Mall on the same street for more high-end label love. There, you’ll also find fabulous kelaghayi scarves from in-demand designer Menzer Hajiyeva.
Visit a local chaykhana (tea house) for a glass of black tea, which is often served with homemade jam as a sweetener. Drink it local style with a sugar cube between the teeth as you sip
Light it up
A visual homage to The Land of Fire, dominating the Baku skyline, the triptych Flame Towers transform after dusk with a light show that switches between fiery orange to the blue, red and green of the national flag.
Power to the people
The late Zaha Hadid was the architectural icon behind the stunning Heydar Aliyev Center. Its flowing wave-like design houses a museum, gallery hall and auditorium dedicated to Azerbaijan’s past and future vision.
Weave in a spot of rug shopping on Neftchiler Avenue then pop down the road to the Azerbaijan State Carpet Museum for an insider look at exactly what goes into creating these practical works of art. Housing the largest collection of Azerbaijani carpets and rugs in the world, and representing different periods, the building was designed by renowned Austrian architect Franz Janz.
Mud, glorious mud
Home to almost a third of the world’s mud volcanoes, Azerbaijan’s sulphurous and occasionally explosive landscape is best explored in the Gobustan State Reserve where you’ll also find more than 600,000 ancient petroglyphs and the famous ‘musical stone’, which tinkles like a tambourine when played with small stones. Just follow your nose. gobustan-rockart.az
Ring of fire
A stretch of hillside that’s perpetually aflame, Yanar Dağ (Fire Mountain) is thoroughly deserving of its mysterious moniker, with Marco Polo even mentioning it in his travel accounts. A fascinating natural phenomenon fuelled by the country’s huge underground gas reserves, a nighttime visit is particularly memorable (it’s just a 30-minute drive from the centre of Baku). Close by is the 17th-century Ateşgah temple, a shrine of fire worship.
The only spa town in the world where a bath in black gold is on the treatment menu, a visit to Naftalan in central Azerbaijan to ‘take the oils’ is a unique experience. The 10-minute treatment using gently warmed oil is reportedly said to benefit those affected by psoriasis, arthritis and rheumatism.
Catch a game of chovkan – Azerbaijan’s take on polo, played with a curved wooden stick – and join in the party atmosphere by dancing to the folk music
KHANS AND CARAVANSERAIS
A tiny but exquisite remnant of Azerbaijan’s royal past, the two-storey wooden Xan Sarayı was the summer palace of the Sheki Khans and features stunning stained glass windows, 18th-century frescoes and mosaic tiles. Feel more of the noblesse oblige vibe at the even tinier winter palace. Or, for a flavour of the town’s trading past, you can also take a peek inside the Sheki Caravanserai (traveller’s inn).
There’s more fresh air on offer in the historic district of Qabala. Take a picturesque cable car ride over the valley far below at the Tufandag tourism complex and spare a few hours to explore the spectacular Yeddi Gozel Waterfall and Ismailli State Reserve.
An up-and-coming tourism hotspot, the landlocked autonomous state of Nakhchivan (Noah’s Home) is a bit of a trek (perhaps the easiest way to reach it is by catching a flight from Baku). Local legend has it that the ark landed here after the flood and Noah died here (his mausoleum is a place of pilgrimage). Be at one with Mother Nature and explore the salt caves of Mount Duzdag (its therapy caves can soothe those with respiratory disorders such as asthma) and Lake Batabat, which is perched 2,500 metres above sea level.
Take to the water in a gondola on Baku’s own Little Venice waterway. Located on the seafront Bulvar (boulevard), it’s an amusing detour from the historic tourist trail
WHERE TO STAY
Four Seasons Hotel Baku
With a coveted address behind the UNESCO-listed Old City walls, this new-build Beaux Arts-inspired hotel is all high ceilings, chandeliers and timeless luxury. Check out the breathtaking penthouse spa and go for a swim in the glass-roofed atrium pool.
Fairmont Baku, Flame Towers
The hospitality heart of the trio of iconic flame-shaped towers, overlooking the city’s cypress-lined boardwalks and café-filled streets, the Fairmont is characterised by light and space with floor-to-ceiling windows in its guestrooms. There’s an impressive collection of restaurants to choose from, including the ever-popular Jazz Club.
Chenot Palace Wellness Hotel
In Gabala, 225 kilometres from Baku, this wellness retreat occupies a scenic spot on a tranquil lake with a mountainous backdrop. Guests can check in for a minimum of three nights and set about exploring the natural landscape while enjoying the hi-tech treatments on offer (try the signature hydro-aromatherapy treatment to unwind body and mind).
The historic Maiden Tower is Baku’s original landmark, and while its architectural provenance is much debated (the general consensus is 12th century), the monument’s rooftop views over the bay and Old City make it a must-do
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Photos: Courtesy of the Representative Office of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Azerbaijan in the GCC