A November weekend saw a trip to somewhere which is technically classed as part of Europe (or at least a small part of it is!) – Azerbaijan. The reason for our visit to the capital Baku was not only to add a tick to our list of visited european countries, but also because we were inspired by the BBC Series Race Across the World. Azerbaijan has been an independent country since 1991 when it left the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), it was also formerly part of Iran, North West Iran to be precise, and it is that Persian legacy that is most prominent in modern-day Baku. The city is known as Baku to the rest of the world, however, the locals call it Baki, and pronounce it with a very soft k.
Flame Towers – Fairmont Hotel
We chose to stay at The Fairmont, a hotel that fills one of the three flame towers and probably the most well known landmark in Baku as it is visible city wide. It was by some distance the best hotel we had ever stayed in. It was also more than we would normally consider paying (£111 per night for 3 nights) but we were only likely to be here once!
We booked on a room only basis but our room was impressive! We booked a Deluxe King City View Room which was up to a really high standard with a great bathroom and even had perv glass in the shower! It was a good size room and very comfortable and the hotel itself was spectacular inside.
Getting around Baku
The Heydar Aliyev airport is around 30km away, and our taxi from there to our hotel at 4.30 in the morning cost £3.70. Manats and qepiks are the equivalents of our pounds and pence, with the current exchange rate being around 2:1, so any price marked in manats was simply halved to find an equivalent UK price. The hill up and down from Flame Towers to the boulevard was pretty brutal but taking a taxi for that short journey costs the equivalent of around 80 pence; well worth it in my gammy opinion. Being an oil-rich state, fuel is very cheap in Azerbaijan, with diesel coming out at around 40p a litre. Petrol is much more expensive, at around £1 a litre, (2 manats) but still, all the taxis are very cheap by English standards. Baku Taxis are state run and charge a standard fare. They should be easy to pick up or order from your phone, but Azerbaijan was not included in either (Three and O2) of our mobile network roaming tariffs, so we had to rely on wi-fi rather than a 4G signal, which is always inconvenient.
We also discovered there is a funicular which runs from Flame Towers down to the Boulevard and costs 1 manat (about 50p) each way. Again well worth it if you want to visit Flame Towers or you want to see the Boulevard.
Things to see and do in Baku
Flame Towers Light Show
We were aware that there was a light show from the towers every night but the problem with being in the tower is you couldn’t see it! We did some research to find the best vantage point to view it and decided to see it from the Hilton 360, a 360-degree panoramic, rotating bar at the top of the Hilton Hotel, which is just under 4km away. It was free to enter and we enjoyed cocktails and watched the light show in style!
Heydar Aliyev Centre
Amongst the local building highlights, was the Heydar Aliyev Centre, designed by world-famous architect Zaha Hadid famed for making some very solid materials appear to be extremely flexible. It is also a good place for some selfies! The centre hosts several competitions and events as well as Opera, art exhibitions and even held the going away ceremony for the Olympic athletes heading to the 2012 Olympics in London. It is multipurpose and fluid in its use as well as its design
NB -You will notice that the name Heydar Aliyev has already cropped up a couple of times, so who was he? Well, when Azerbaijan was part of the USSR, Heydar Aliyev was No.2 in the Communist Party, and then when the USSR broke up, he suddenly became a Democrat. Others would use another word beginning with D. Our tour guide was very careful with his words, confirming that Aliyev was indeed the third president of Azerbaijan, but couldn’t possibly comment on accusations that he was a dictator. Shortly before his death in 2003, Aliyev’s son Ilham was elected as president, a position he still holds today.
Walking the Boulevard
One thing that Baku offers is a stunning boulevard with many features along the way. There are bikes to hire but we just took a couple of slow strolls at our own pace. The Boulevard sits on the edge of Caspian Sea and runs parallel to the Dənizkənarı Milli Park.
One impressive building is the Deniz Mall (also known as the Caspian Waterfront Mall) which is on the western end of the boulevard. We had no idea what it was from a distance and it is certainly unlike any mall I had seen before. It is a 120,000sqm entertainment, shopping and dining experience which is spread across 5 floors.
Hint: We found a lovely little place to eat here on the waterfront called Bagel Bar where we had a full English for around £6.50, but as it’s a Muslim country, there is no pork and you have to accept substitutes such as beef sausages and er..beef bacon! I had some beef bacon and to be honest I could barely tell the difference. The service was good and the food was fresh and tasty.
Azerbaijan Carpet Museum
Located in very close proximity to the Deniz Mall was the carpet museum. This would not be for everyone and we decided we weren’t interested enough to warrant going inside however it was an impressive piece of architecture. We can’t comment on what the inside was like unfortunately or whether it was worth a visit.
Situated right by the Carpet Museum Little Venice is series of (manmade) waterways made to resemble Venice. As people who have been to Venice and even to the Venetian Casinos this was not the most impressive replica. Gondola trips are offered although we passed by out of season so only really saw some kayakers navigating the waterways. I’m sure in the summer it may look more inviting but have a look if you’re passing.
Crescent Bay Development
We were quite curious to check out what the horseshoe type building was visible to the East Side of the boulevard by the marina. It appears that it is a new development still in the process of being built so we weren’t able to get too close but it going to be an office block, a huge entertainment centre, residential areas and a hotel.
Maiden Tower and the Old Town
Maiden Tower is around 2,600 years old and houses a museum which portrays the evolutionary history of Baku. It is also on the UNESCO Heritage list of Historical Monuments as Cultural Property.
Both the museum and the surrounding Old Town are worth a visit for its souvenir shops, tour starting points, and many restaurants, and if you enjoy the Muslim call to prayer, you’ll certainly hear that here. Our tour guide told us that the call to prayer was now illegal, but we heard it loud and long in the old town.
The Azerbaijan Grand Prix is a Formula One motor racing event that was held for the first time in 2017. It is held on the Baku City Circuit, a street circuit in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. The event is due to take place at the Baku City Circuit until at least 2024 and the next event is being held 28-30th April 2023. There are clear signs of the Grand Prix around Baku including the Pits and various signs advertising it. The circuit is 3.37 miles long and encompasses the old and new towns as well as running adjacent to Baku Boulevard.
The Hilton is also a good vantage point for those interested in Baku’s Formula One Street Circuit, because the pits are between The Hilton and The Marriott Hotels, with each current driver having their own, permanent garage there.
Day Trip to Qobustan & Mud Volcanoes, Fire Temple and Burning Mountain
We booked the trip through Viator costing £67.14 for both of us which considering the full day itinerary we thought was reasonable. We were picked up on time at 10am by minibus and headed off to our first stop Qobustan, (pronounced Gobustan).
Qobustan is the site of cave drawings believed to range from between 5,000 and 20,000 years old and is located about 40 miles southwest of Baku. There are apparently over 6000 drawings in this UNESCO World Heritage site which depict people, animals, battle-pieces, ritual dances, bullfights, boats with armed oarsmen, warriors with lances in their hands, camel caravans, pictures of sun and stars.
We were given a tour by our guide around the drawings. I have to say that you had to have some imagination to make out what some of these drawings were meant to be. Historically however, it was impressive that these were even visible after being created so long ago and we could see the cultural significance.
We headed off to the site of the mud volcanoes but unfortunately we were unable to get up close. There had been significant rain which led to the whole area being a mudbath! We stopped on the road just outside and even then it was slippery.
Instead our guide decided to add in another stop before lunch to a mosque he informed has historical significance on the outskirts of Baku.
Bibi Heybat Mosque
We were dropped at Bibi-Heybat, a replica Mosque of the original 13th century model which was destroyed during Stalin’s reign in 1936. It was reconstructed and reopened in the 1990’s to what is standing today. What makes this so unique is that it is the only religious building destroyed in Azerbaijan that has ever been rebuilt and is the spiritual centre for muslims in the area.
Lunch was a payable option at 12 Manat or £6 each. It was an interesting experience, we walked in and were sized up by the waiters who appeared to decide who they wanted to serve by their nationality. We then stood at a counter and picked out what we wanted. Understandably english is not widely spoken here and when we asked what some of the dishes were our waiter replied ‘beef’ to everything including salad! We both had safe and easily identifiable chicken dishes which were very nice. Despite our guide informing that tipping was not expected here our waiter clearly was disappointed when we followed this advice! After a 45 minute break we hit the road again.
Fire Temple- Ateshgah of Baku
Next was on to the Fire Temple which is a castle like building on the outskirts of Baku in Surakahni. This temple is thought to be around 500 years old and natural gas oozed to the surface leading the ‘eternal flame’. This flame unfortunately went out in 1969 due to the exhaustion of natural gas through extraction by the soviets.
It appears that based on Persian and Indian inscriptions, the temple was used as a Hindu, Sikh, and Zoroastrian place of worship.
Yanardag, the site of “The Burning Mountain”. Someone possibly got paid a lot of money to create a marketing campaign for this site. The burning mountain wasn’t so much of a mountain, more of a kids’ playground sandpit. It was burning though and has been for about the last 700 years, being fueled by natural gas which escapes through the soft sandstone rocks. (or is it limestone?)
Our guide informed that the burning mountain was much more impressive previously but over recent years has shrunk in size. Apparently it used to take over the whole of the mountain side.
All in all it was a good trip and we are glad we did it and saw a little more than just what Baku had to offer. It was a long day; we left at 10 and got back at 6.30 but an enjoyable one nonetheless.
In terms of places we had visited previously, it reminded me of a cross between Istanbul, with the mosques and history enshrined there, and Dubai, another oil-rich country where building magnificent skyscrapers are easily affordable to them. The brutalist Soviet architecture is still around, but barely, with more prominence given to beautiful modern architecture, such as the building that dominates the skyline, Flame Towers.
Our tour guide, Samir told us that Azerbaijan currently suffers from two major problems; Corruption, an oil-rich country with a great deal of money around, so much that it corrupts people at the top, and traffic. The roads were very jammed throughout the day, not only at ‘rush hour’, and in a not unrelated matter, we noticed it was a city of very few traffic lights. Far more numerous were the impatient drivers, with scores of horns being blasted at any given time. Food in Azerbaijan very much reminded me of Turkish cuisine, with doner kebabs easily available, among American fast food chains such as Mcdonald’s and KFC.
In conclusion, we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Baku and is a place we would recommend to everyone. It is a unique place with a mixture of the old and the new and a very interesting place for a weekend break.
Carol & Nigel x