At around six hours flying time from London, Baku, Azerbaijan is not quite a weekend destination but add a couple of days and it becomes very attractive indeed.
This vibrant modern city of Baku was a sleepy backwater until the Nobel Brothers, searching for wood for rifle barrels, stumbled across oil here in the 1870s. They partnered with the French branch of the Rothschild banking family, and by 1900, Azerbaijan was producing more than half of the world’s oil.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, money from that same oil has fuelled a building boom in Baku. There’s a spanking new airport looking like a crystal goldfish bowl and, on the way into town, the buildings lining the wide boulevards are all lit up. I’m overwhelmed by a skyline of thrusting high rises, in particular the iconic Flame Towers which dominate the city from every angle. Perhaps the most impressive is the Heydar Aliyev Center, designed by Zaha Hadid, a sea of waves and crests, changing from whichever angle you view it.
Baku sits on the shores of the Caspian Sea and along the seafront runs the Baku Buvar. It’s a wide promenade planted with palm trees and home to soviet era cafes complete with backgammon players. Pleasure boats pull up here offering sunset cruises, while lovers gaze out over the water. 55 km from the coast sits a derelict city of interconnected oil wells known as the “Oil Rocks” by the Russians.
Of course, it was revenue from this black gold which financed the first architectural boom here in the late 19th century. Grand buildings, known as Baku Gothic sprung up all over and include what is now the Azerbaijan History Museum and the Baku Municipal Duma, both designed by Polish architect Joseph Goslavsky.
A prime example of Soviet architecture is Government House, started in 1938 and dominating the Boulevard like a majestic wedding cake. But recent buildings really are a shock of the new. At Crescent Bay, opposite Port Baku, the Crescent Hotel is shaped like a gigantic upside-down crescent moon with its points almost touching the surface of the Caspian Sea.
Thankfully the old city, a stop on the ancient Silk Road, has been preserved. Enclosed inside medieval walls, its narrow winding streets and mosques and monuments are UNESCO listed, although much has been reconstructed in recent years. Pride of place is the Maiden’s Tower, right next to the sea and the place where rich nobles stored their valuables in times of war. Its five meter walls were virtually impregnable, hence its name, and from the top there are comprehensive views over Baku Bay and the Old City.
The Cry of the Mother
This nine-metre high monument was inaugurated on 26 February 2008, on the 16th anniversary of the Khojaly massacre – a tragic event in Azeri history where around 600 people, mainly mothers and babies, were killed by Armenian soldiers. It’s made of bronze and black granite with a sculpture on top depicting a mother wearing a nightgown, holding a dead child close to her chest. The pedestal below has representations of the actual victims including women, children and the old.
Azerbaijan is known as the “Land of Fire” because of its oil and gas reserves and a few kilometres north of the city is Yanar Dağ or Fire Mountain. It sounds grander than it is but gas has been coming out from the base of the rock and burning since before the time of Herodotus. The 10m strip of fire is overlooked by viewing amphitheatre where they stage musical performances with an impressive flaming backdrop.
Just as impressive is the Ateşgah, or House of Fire, a temple constructed by worshippers of Zoroaster or Zarathustra around the 13th century. The central building, complete with a central burning flame and four chimneys is surrounded by monastic cells, where they’ve rather imaginatively erected mannequins doing what the monks are supposed to do. Of course, the people are very dark, supposedly blackened by the fire, although these days the flames are provided by gas.
70 km west of the city is the area known as Gobustan. It’s home to over 4000 rock carvings dating back 12000 years which depict people hunting, boating and fishing and even dancing at the Stone Age disco. The locals lived in cave shelters and, when explorer Thor Heyerdahl saw depictions of cane boats, he came up with the idea that perhaps the Vikings came from here.
Below the carvings, they’ve built an excellent museum which gives you a glimpse into the lives of the Stone Age people who lived here. They’ll even provide guides to help you spot the various figures in the landscape as they lead you on trails across the rugged ridge.
Dasgil Mud Volcanoes
Nearby are the mud volcanoes of Dashgil. You cross the railway tracks and climb up a dirt road to what looks like a post-apocalyptic landscape. All is quiet here apart from the belching and farting of volcanic mud pools bubbling out of cone-shaped mounds. Each has a constant stream of mud down the sides and, just like lava, it solidifies as it flows. Beware that when it rains this area turns into a deep mire and is completely inaccessible.
INFO: Azerbaijan Travel has information about the country.
GO: Azerbaijan Airlines flies direct from London Heathrow to Baku.
STAY: The Winter Park Hotel is a comfortable base in the heart of downtown and has good food.
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