Azerbaijan, little known even to the well traveled, conjures up images of the exotic, perhaps a little “wild and wooly” and as only being for the intrepid traveler. What’s it like? Images tell it all along with some fascinating facts about Azerbaijan travel.
But first, where is it? South of Russia, North of Iran, with the Caspian Sea to the East, and Georgia and Armenia to the West. On a recent visit , I was totally surprised by the modernity of its capital Baku with eye popping architecture that ranges from ornate contemporary to futuristic, as in the acclaimed cultural center designed by Zaha Hadid; the prosperity bred by its oil; and the ease and comfort of travel. People are welcoming, I felt entirely safe traveling alone, and you won’t find the hordes of tourists which are sadly overwhelming many global tourist spots. And yet, with its fortified Old City dating from the 12th century, distinct cultural traditions embracing music, food and crafts that are from the Turkish culture (not Arab as I had thought, this country in the Caucasus), Baku is unlike any other place I’ve been and the crossroads to a part of the world with totally different, exciting travel experiences.
The population of Azerbaijan is over 9.7 million; however, more Azeris are in Iran owing to the fact that in 1828 after the war between Russia and Persia the territory of Azerbaijan was divided into two parts: Northern Azerbaijan (modern-The Azerbaijan Republic) and Southern Azerbaijan ( a part of modern Iran). Azeris’ native language belongs to the Turkic family of languages (called Azerbaijani) unlike that of the Iranians who speak Farsi.
Though the majority of the population is Shia, owing to Soviet domination for such a long time, the country became more secular. Over several days I saw one Burqa clad woman and few with head coverings, there were few mosques, and I never heard the call to prayer, though it was Ramadan. There’s a Catholic and Jewish community in Baku which survived Russian dominance intact. Some of Russia’s oligarchs hail from this community.
For over 70 years the Soviet Union dominated Azerbaijian as they did all of the Caucasus. Before the Soviets, Azerbaijan was The Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan between 1918 and 1920 and gave equal political rights to women. It regained its freedom in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union.
A Trump hotel was being built in the 90’s. The project was sold before the US election and is still under construction.
How it Looks: The Old City is enclosed by a 12th century wall,. Some of the grand houses with their enclosed wooden balconies and incongruous art nouveau balustrades recall the mid-century and the oil barons. Also find shops, old houses converted into hotels, the 15th century Palace of Shirvansakhs filled with artisanal treasures and a miniature book museum with 4,000 books.
Caravanserais, now converted into restaurants, were roadside inns for traders along the Silk Road, attesting to Azerbaijan’s place as a mid point of the route. Flanking the Old City and the White City (old and new architecture) is an eight mile beautifully landscaped seaside promenade.
Food: Azerbaijani food is some of the most exciting and delicious I’ve ever had. A mixture of influences of Turkey, the Middle East, Iran, Central Asia and India, it’s based on fresh, seasonal ingredients from the interior of the country which boasts nine climatic zones (there’s even skiing!). The tomatoes in particular were extraordinary. In fact, on a menu in Moscow they listed Baku tomato as a selling point.
Prized luxury ingredients black caviar from the Caspian sea, saffron and sturgeon also hail from here. There’s also a selection of international cuisine at the finer restaurants and numerous very good local wines.
The arts: Find opera, ballet, classical music, and traditional folk music (“Mugham”) that is unchanged for centuries. The “hot ticket” is a concert in the hall designed by Zaha Hadid. Puppet shows are popular too.
Crafts: Foremost craft is the prized carpets, from nine carpet schools. Find them on display in the Museum of Azeri Carpets that looks like a rolled up carpet. There are 10,000 pieces including carpets and rugs representing all the schools, traditional costumes, embroidery and more.
Lodging: International chains including J.W. Marriott, Fairmont, Hilton and Four Seasons are all here, along with a selection of old homes converted into hotels in the Old City. Foremost is the Four Seasons right next to the Old City which is sumptuous yet tasteful, with a top notch spa with Grecian swimming pool and hammam, Italian restaurant, and exceptional service.
Prices: Baku is a bargain, a place for quality and value. The Four Seasons Baku starts at $347 USD a night plus tax. You can eat very well in most leading restaurants for $50 for two, and taxis are dirt cheap. The currency is the Azerbaijani Manat.
Guide: If you decide to go and need a guide, I highly recommend Narmin Musabayova. She’s well steeped in the history and culture and is a delight besides. Her email is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Getting there: Azerbaijani Airlines which has a modern fleet and good service flies nonstop from New York to Baku twice weekly. It also flies frequently between Moscow and St. Petersburg which makes for an add on to a trip there, and service to many major European capitals.