Just like Belarus, I asked Michael to remind me again exactly why where we going to Azerbaijan? and of course, he had an answer. It all went back to the time two years ago when we visited Madrid and he went to an Atlético Madrid football match and came home confused that the team’s jerseys sported “Azerbaijan - The Land of Fire.” He’d never heard of a country sponsoring a first-division football club - let alone one in another country. That seemed crazy!
Spain's Atlético Madrid team all fired up!
He did further research about the sponsorship (and the country) and before you knew it, Azerbaijan was on the list for our swing through Eastern Europe and our goal of visiting as many former republics of the USSR as we could. As for why it is called The Land of fire - that has to do with ancient history and I’ll explain more about that later.
I was struggling to keep up with the itinerary, and to be honest, I hadn’t done much research at my end on this exotic and potentially dangerous sounding destination. I did find this little nugget describing Baku, the capital city where we would spend a week “If Paris and Dubai had a love child, it would be Baku.” Sounded good to me.
However this Shite Muslim dominated country wedged between Iran and Russia was on brink of all out war with Armenia and was listed as a "place to avoid." Fortunately we kept our plans, and in fact it felt more like a ritzy trip to Monaco, and no armed terrorists in sight.
The skyline is dominated by the flame towers - but there were dozens of fantastic structures.
This would be our third Muslim country during our Senior Nomad travels, the others being Turkey and Morocco. You could definitely feel a middle eastern influence in the first two - while Baku hummed with a European vibe. So European in fact they hosted a Eurovision singing contest, the first European Games in 2015 and earlier this summer held the F-1 European Grand Prix Formula. And what else? Hundreds of taxis are black London cabs... and of course the sponsorship of one of Europe's most famous football teams.
My favorite Formula 3 car driver!
The population was certainly far from stereotypical. The women were chic and fashionable - and the only Hajibs we saw were worn by Iranian and Saudi tourists (we were told this by our guides and others). Upscale bars and restaurants crowded the streets along with luxury cars, and glittering shopping malls supplanted the traditional souk.
Azerbaijan is saturated in oil and natural gas and has the wealth to prove it. More importantly, it wants the world, especially the West to know it - so it flashes it’s bling. That comes in the form of a stunning modern skyline dotted with futuristic glass towers juxtaposed against an ancient old city with the gaps filled in with newly built baroque style government buildings made of sun-colored limestone. Here's a quick look at the Flame towers in action (I climbed 300 stairs to get this shot!)
Add to that green promenades lining the waterfront (just pinch your nose against the noxious smell of pollution left over from the Soviet era’s disregard for the environment) and you’ve got one surprisingly lovely and livable city. Also one immaculately clean city. Not unlike Minsk, the fine for littering must be close to imprisonment, and there were swarms of street cleaners, park attendants and police officers out in force.
We spotted a few of these "trees" with cameras on top. Like I said - don't litter!
Speaking of parks - our Airbnb was located just across a busy intersection from one of the city’s largest waterfront parks. There was a mile long stretch of manicured gardens dotted with playgrounds, outdoor cafes and elaborate fountains so we thought we’d stroll the promendad on the way to the supermarket. It was about 11:00 in the morning and very warm when we started out. The first thing we noticed was the main road in front of our building was almost empty, where just the night before traffic had been fast and furious. Next the park was eerily void of people. We did find one other soul whom we stopped to asked for directions. He happened to be English and he laughed when we asked where were all the people? His answer was only “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” (and tourists) venture out in the blistering mid-day heat. The sensible citizens of Baku do their business very early in the morning and very late in the day - not at 11:30 when the temperature was near 95 degrees and rising.
The Haydar Aliver Cultural Center was an amazing bit of architecture.
Our latest home also turned out to be interesting. The Airbnb listing assured us of a Glamorous Apartment with Sea View. Here's the listing:
. Well, if grand meant several large, nearly empty rooms with high ceilings edged in elaborate cornices with elegant marble fireplaces then okay - we could see the grandeur of the past. We didn’t find the promised balconies - although from the dreary sun porch you could glimpse what might be water about 800 yards away across the park. And the small kitchen looked like it belonged on a 14’ runabout. The building, while maybe 90 years ago was a grande dame had become a haggard old crone over the years. However - the place has great potential and it was definitely in a “Home to the Stars” location. Our enthusiastic young host Farid has great plans for improvement and someday it will live up to the hype, so we made the best of it and used the lobby of the elegant Four Seasons next door as our living room.
Farid met us on arrival and was incredibly gracious. Actually every one we met in Azerbaijan was warm and hospitable - but Farid took it personally. Within an hour he returned with a few basics I had asked to have in the kitchen and was ready and willing to provide whatever else he could - and appreciated our feedback.
The first course before lunch in the garden with our new friend.
Then, he not only helped Michael get a ticket to a Europa League football match between Baku’s most popular team Qarabag and Sweden’s IFK Goteborg, he and his cousin went along to the match to make sure he was safe and had a good experience (the most dangerous part was driving in Baku's notorious traffic). He also arranged for two press interviews for us with a major television station and a popular online news website.
Michael with Farid and his cousin before the match.
The TV interview was certainly a cultural experience. Two very nice young women, the anchor and the producer met us in the Old City with a camera crew. They had us walk around together and pretend to shop and see the sights in the midday heat. Thankfully we sat in a shady park for the interview. Regardless of what I said earlier about the lack of stereotypes - when it came to answering questions Michael was hooked up to a mic on his lapel and was asked most of the substantial topic questions while I looked adoringly on - able only to nod and smile. Then the mic was switched to me and I was asked to speak briefly on the beauty of the city and on the shopping. It was really weird - here's the link:
Playing tourist for the camera.
Later that evening we meant two more young women (one a reporter the other a translator) from a popular news website. We had a great time together and as you can see from the picture below, it was entertaining - especially for Michael. The story ran the next day and a woman on a bus kept looking at us and then flashed us her phone showing us on the screen. She enthusiastically said “Welcome Nomads to our country!” and showed the phone around to fellow passengers. Here's the link:
That was fun.
I'd just said something to tickle Mr. Campbell's funny bone - but I don't remember what!
Two days later the young woman who translated spent a day with us and we took in more of the city. We especially enjoyed the fascinating Azerbaijan Carpet Museum housed in an elegant building shaped like a rolled-up carpet. We also had a leisurely lunch at her favorite restaurant in the garden courtyard where we ate very well and learned more about daily life in Azerbaijan.
We almost gave the carpet museum a miss - but it turned out to be a highlight.
It was mesmerizing to watch master carpet makers at work.
Of course we also took a free walking tour of the old city and that’s where we learned more of the history behind The Land of Fire slogan so I’ll include this summary. But basically, because of the natural gas deposits all through the region, flames would spontaneously flare from the ground and thus a fire-worshipping culture was born.
The magical Old City sits tucked behind walls dating back to the 12th century.
“Azerbaijan is a geographical name. On the one hand this name is linked with the population, which lived in this region for thousands of years before our era, and who were mostly fire-worshippers. Local population considered that fire was their God and so they worshipped the fire. "Azer" means fire. The Turkic name "Azer" was used for this territory for a long time. The word "Azer" consists of two parts - "az" and "er". In Turkic languages, "az" means a good intention and a fate of success. Thus, the word "Azer" means "a brave man", "a brave boy", "the fire keeper". The word "Azerbaijan" originates from the name of an ancient Turkish tribe, who resided in those territories.”
In more recent history, after the collapse of the USSR Azerbaijan was ruled by yet another autocrat, President Heyday Aiyev - he was a popular leader who was actually instrumental in bringing the country to its new prosperity. His son, Ilham Aiyev, aged 54, took over after his father passed away in 2003. The Washington Post reported in October 2013, that their last elections were neither free nor fair, and that “election officials released vote results a full day before voting had even started.” He's now working to lower the age a person can become president to assure his now 12 year old son can step in at age 18. Fairly elected, of course.
The happy first (and potentially forever) family of Azerbaijan.
Sometimes we have ended up in parts of the world where neighboring countries aren’t the best of friends which can make things a little tricky- as in not knowing what to bring-up, or not, in conversation. That was the case in Azerbaijan with the
situation. Azerbaijan and Armenia are at war over this disputed territory so when we were in Baku we didn't mention our upcoming stop Yaravan, the capital of Armenia. We just skipped over it and talked about Georgia.
The roots of the bitter conflict go back all the way to World War I. While we were in Azerbaijan, we got “their” version of the situation and we knew that when we got to Armenia we would hear “their” version as well. Again, one of the most fascinating aspects of our travels is talking politics with our cab drivers, tour guides, hosts and anyone else Michael can engage on the topic.
A map of the region - you can see why I was concerned about conflict.
Since I had no real expectations of Baku other than a slight apprehension, I was more than pleasantly surprised by this beautiful city. You can easily get to many interesting archeological sites as well as beautiful Caspian Sea coastline from there. You can certainly shop, eat, and party well - and the people we met were the kindest, friendliest yet.
I would definitely return to this beautiful city with it's ancient roots and modern dreams.
We journeyed on to Tblilsi, Georgia on Qtar Airlines. I have always wanted to fly the #1 Ranked airline in the world - too bad it was only for an hour and a half. I did have high expectations for Georgia. Unfortunately, they weren't met. More on that next time.
Thanks for following along,
Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads