Eastern promise: visiting Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan and its capital Baku have become must-visit tourist destinations

Screenshot 2022-05-23 at 09.28.43

Baku, the city where East meets West

In Roman times, Baku was on the principal trading route of the Roman Empire between the Central Asian steppe and Europe. The Bay of Baku affords shelter from adverse weather conditions for the best harbour on the Caspian Sea. Baku is a vital part of the Caspian maritime economy between the Volga, Trans-Caucasus, North Caucasus, Central Asia and Iran, which has an annual economic output of $2.5 trillion.

It is a Muslim nation but, unlike its southern neighbour Iran, it is also a secular polity which emphasises religious moderation. It is Israel’s closest Muslim partner and supplies energy to Israel in exchange for high-tech weapons systems. As an oil and gas producer, it supplies energy to southern Italy via its Southern Gas Corridor through Georgia, Turkey and Greece, thus contributing to price competition in Europe and reducing dependence on Russian energy. For these reasons, Baku is valued by Brussels and Washington.

In partnership with China, the Baku International Sea Trade Port in Alat, a Belt and Road Initiative project, is seeking to diversify away from its concentration on oil and gas through the development of cargo and transportation services. 

As the capital of an energy-rich nation, Baku has demonstrated willingness for the country to be a good global citizen by supporting international institutions such as Unesco through the Silk Roads Programme, by hosting the Eurovision Song Contest, and by becoming the first country to host the
European Games. 

Throughout its history, Baku has been a hub for trade and cultural exchange between East and West, and this will continue to be its destiny in the centuries ahead.

Hot spots in the Land of Fire 

Azerbaijan has six international airports, but most travellers from the UK will enter the country by way of Baku’s Heydar Aliyev International Airport, which opened in 2004 and is named after the former president who was head of state for 35 years. In 2020 the airport was named for the fourth time as a five-star regional airport by international air transport rating organisation Skytrax.

The 24-hour Airport Express bus service runs every half an hour, makes three stops in the city, and the last stop is 30 minutes from the airport. Otherwise, there are plenty of taxis available as well as car rentals from Hertz, Aznur and Sixt. Hotel accommodation in all categories is plentiful.

Azerbaijan is appropriately known as the Land of Fire; it is the place where Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock for stealing the fire of the Gods. Under the surface (coincidentally) there happen to be vast reserves of natural oil and gas, which have not only transformed its economic fortunes but have also given the country a unique landscape twinned with a temperate climate

Ask any Azerbaijani living in the 20th century to write their country’s name down and, depending on their birth date, they may have done so in Arabic, Perso-Arabic, Turkic-Arabic (all three used until 1929), modified Cyrillic (used under the ensuing Soviet period) or Latin script (reintroduced from 1991 after a brief period from 1918 to 1920). 

This is just one example of the melting pot of cultures that is modern-day Azerbaijan. Take a look around the capital, Baku, and you’ll see this linguistic history reflected back at you. Russian Imperialist institutions are stamped along the streets, there’s Masud Ibn Davud’s 12th-century Maiden Tower, while futurist glass-shell structures such as the Flame Towers, the SOCAR (State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic) Tower, and the Azersu Tower decorate the skyline. There is also the Old City of Baku, or Walled City.

The Caspian Sea, the world’s largest inland body of water, laps peacefully on its eastern edge and the city enjoys a temperate climate, with average highs around 30 degrees at the hottest time of the year, in July and August. The population is just over 2 million and 90 per cent are ethnic Azerbaijanis.

Baku is a city built on the profits of oil and gas extraction and it boasts a rich cultural heritage. There is a concert hall, an opera and ballet theatre, 15 other theatres, nine museums (including one dedicated to petroleum) and three major libraries. The city is host to an international film festival, an international jazz festival, a flower festival, and a theatre festival.

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix took place for the first time in 2016 and is held on the Baku City Circuit, one of only five Formula 1 races held on a street circuit. It follows a twisty route through the Icheri Sheher old town, beneath Baku’s medieval city walls, and along the shoreline of the Caspian Sea. 

One of the most impressive modern buildings in the city is the Heydar Aliyev Centre, which was designed by the world-renowned Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid and which won the London Design Museum’s Design of the Year Award in 2014. She used only fluid shapes, with no straight lines, and the building resembles a slice through a cresting wave. Inside, there are eight floor levels, a 1,000-seat auditorium, a conference centre, workshops and exhibition spaces.

Apart from the 12th-century poet Nizami Ganjavi, perhaps the most famous work of Azerbaijani literature is Ali and Nino, which was first published in Austria under the name Kurban Said in 1937 and since translated into 37 languages. It tells the story of a love affair between a Muslim Azerbaijani boy and a Christian Georgian girl and is set in the years 1918 to 1920, during the time of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. Indeed, Ali dies heroically defending the republic against the Bolshevik invaders. If a nation can be said to have a national novel, this is it. But who exactly was its pseudonymous author Kurban Said? Was he really Lev Nussimbaum, also known as Essad Bey, a Jew who was born in Ukraine and lived in Baku as a child? Or was it the Azerbaijani novelist Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli? Or was it a pair of Austrians, the Baron and Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels, who held the legal copyright from the beginning? There has been a vigorous debate in recent years, with different scholars championing the claims of each camp, and an investigation into the matter was the subject of a Dutch feature-length documentary Alias Kurban Said (2004). A feature film based on the novel was released in 2016, adapted by British playwright Christopher Hampton, directed by Asif Kapadia and starring the Palestinian actor Adam Bakri as Ali and the Spanish actress Maria Valverde as Nino.

Exploring beyond Baku

Qabala, north-west of Baku, is the ancient capital of Caucasian Albania. It is host to the Gabala International Music Festival in August (encompassing mugham, classical, chamber, jazz, and flamenco), and also the International Jam Festival (jams from fruits, vegetables and flowers), in which seven countries take part, again in August. The city is a good base from which to visit neighbouring districts. On one day, for example, you might drive to Sheki, where you can visit the Palace of the Sheki Khans, the Sheki Fortress, the Winter Palace and the Sheki Caravanserai, admiring the unusual decorative technique of shebeke, a wooden lattice of pieces of coloured glass. Around Qabala itself, you can visit the Church of Kish, go hiking around the Nohur Lake, and stop off at the Yeddi Gozel waterfall. On another day, you might head back towards Baku, stopping at the ancient village of Lahij, the Ismaili Forest, the city of Shamakhi, the Gulistan Fortress, the Seven Domes Mausoleum, the Juma Mosque and finally the Diri Baba Mausoleum.

A day-long excursion from Baku will take you to the city of Quba for lunch. Driving north along the M1 motorway which connects Baku with the largest cities in Russia, you will pass the mountain Beshbarmag, near the shoreline of the Caspian Sea, which, owing to its height and shape, has been a landmark for sailors since ancient times. The holy place “Pir Hydyr Zundzha” at the foot of the mountain is a destination for pilgrims. 

Quba is a small city in a spectacular mountain setting, on one side of the Kudyal river, and can only be reached by car or bus. There are a couple of mosques, a disused hammam, and a house museum, otherwise there is the Quba Genocide Memorial Complex, which commemorates the 12,000 Muslims who were the victims of massacres by Armenians in 1918.

Across the Kudyal river is the all-Jewish mountain settlement of Qirmizi Qesebe, known as the “Caucasian Jerusalem” and also as the Red Town because of its red roofs. It is the only all-Jewish town outside of Israel and the United States, but its population lives in peaceful co-existence with the Muslim population of Quba.

Two other places that are worth a visit are Ganja and Lankaran. Ganja, in the west of the country, is Azerbaijan’s third largest city and former capital of the Ganja Khanate, which was ceded to the Russian empire at the end of the Russo-Persian War of 1804-13 and ruled from Tbilisi, Georgia. The main east-west railway from Baku to Tbilisi and Turkey runs through Ganja and there are domestic flights from Baku. With numerous parks and gardens, it contains an extraordinary mixture of architectural styles including a house made entirely out of glass bottles.

Lankaran is a coastal city in the far south of Azerbaijan, near the border with Iran, with a humid, semi-tropical climate. Again it is served by rail and domestic flights. There are several national parks nearby and the distinctive regional cuisine is derived from the period of the Persian Talysh Khanate, which ended in 1828.

The making of Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan is in the southern Caucasus, with Russia to its north, Iran to its south Georgia and Armenia to its west, and the Caspian Sea to its east. The Caspian Sea is well-named, since it constitutes 44 per cent of the world’s lustrine waters and each country that bounds it possesses maritime rights over the waters that extend 15 miles from the shoreline.

Throughout its history, Azerbaijan has experienced several cultural influences. Before the seventh century, Caucasian Albanian was the language and Christianity the dominant religion. It fell under the control of the Achaemenid (or First Persian) Empire, and after the Arab conquest of Iran it adopted Islam as its religion. It was later invaded by Seljuk Turks and in the 13th and 14th centuries it was part of the Mongol Empire. Azeri Turkic gradually overtook Persian as the dominant language, while the region retained the Shia Islamic faith of Safavid Persia. Back under Persian control for a few centuries, it was ceded to Russia after the Russo-Persian wars of the early 19th century. It was briefly the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic from 1918 to 1920, but thereafter became a Soviet republic until it gained independence once more in 1991.

During the brief period of the first republic, Azerbaijan was the first modern parliamentary republic in the Muslim world and the first Muslim nation to grant women equal political rights to men. Although 20,000 Azerbaijanis died in resistance to the Soviets, which was driven by the lust for oil, the 71 years of Soviet rule were not all bad. Education and living standards improved, followed by urbanisation and industrialisation. A revival of the Azerbaijani literary language, which had largely been supplanted by Persian, was promoted with the help of writers, journalists and teachers from Soviet Azerbaijan. 

In the Middle Ages, a number of Azerbaijani cities were situated on the Silk Roads and the region’s most well-known exports include carpets, silk, saffron and precious stones. Baku and Shamakhi were stops on the British routes to India and became sites of trade for spices and cashmere. As the United Nations explains: “In bringing together the East and West, the Silk Roads left traces in the political, economic and cultural development of the countries through which it passed. Travellers, merchants and missionaries exchanged cultural, scientific, educational and spiritual values.”

There was an oil industry in Azerbaijan in earlier centuries, but the industry took off in 1871, was exploited under Soviet rule and credited with supplying the Red Army’s war effort during World War II. Oil extraction is the country’s dominant economic sector. 

In 1993, Heydar Aliyev, a former Communist Party official from 1969 to 1982, was elected president, and his party, the New Azerbaijan Party, has been in power ever since, with his son Ilham leading the country since 2005. Modern Azerbaijan has been keen to assert its secular history, its Western ties (it is a member of the Council of Europe) and its religious tolerance. Although 97 per cent of Azerbaijanis identify as Muslim and most of them are Shia, this has not prevented Azerbaijan developing close diplomatic links with Turkey, a majority Sunni country. 

In the early 1990s and again in 2016 and 2020, Azerbaijan fought with neighbouring Armenia over disputed territory.

Bathing in crude oil

Some 333km due west of Baku is the city of Naftalan, on a plain near the Lesser Caucasus Mountains. There is a clue to what goes on here in its name, since the Greek word naptha means pertaining to oil and naft is Russian for oil. Naftalan is a city specialising in spa services and its unique selling point is crude oil baths. Touted as an historic practice with healing capabilities, bathing in crude oil was a practice first regularised in the 6th century. It grew in popularity during the Soviet era and at one time the city’s oil spas boasted an annual intake of 75,000 visitors. Today, the one remaining oil spa, the Naftalan Therapeutic Centre, has 1,000 beds.

Naftalan crude oil is too thick for commercial use, nor is it useful for burning, so it makes sense to use it for sanitary and therapeutic purposes. It is said to provide treatment for more than 70 skin, joint and bone ailments. The oil is warm when you immerse yourself in it – in terms of viscosity, it has been compared to a chocolate fountain. After your treatment, you’ll be scrubbed with a special brush and then led to a shower. This is a lengthy process and CNN reports that “the fragrance persists”. You’ll need another 40 minutes after this in order to rest, as bathing in crude oil is apparently highly fatiguing. Once your bath has been drained, the oil will be fed back into the central tank, ready for the next customer.

Baku in pole position again

As Azerbaijan gets ready to host its first Grand Prix with fans since 2019, Arif Rahimov, executive director of the Baku City Circuit, reveals how the city is preparing for the big day on June 12

Mace: Baku is one of the newest destinations for Formula 1 fans. The first race on the city’s  street circuit took place in 2016, but the pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 event and the 2021 took place behind closed doors. How are you feeling about this year’s race?

Arif Rahimov: We are incredibly excited to finally welcome F1 fans back to our amazing city this summer. It’s hard to believe the last time we had packed grandstands at Baku City Circuit was three years ago in 2019! 

Of course, no one could have predicted then what was to come but one thing we never took for granted was the importance of our audience. The pandemic only served to strengthen the feeling that sport is nothing without fans. 

We were proud to be able to stage a race behind closed doors last summer under very challenging circumstances. We worked hard to ensure a safe and healthy working environment for all F1 teams, drivers, and staff and to put on a great spectacle for the millions of fans watching at home. I think we achieved our goal successfully and still delivered one of the races of the season – not an easy feat considering how many exciting races there were last year!

This year the focus is on maintaining our high delivery standards and welcoming back the whole world of F1 – drivers, teams, media and, most importantly, fans – to Baku.  We can’t wait to see full grandstands again and the return of our stunning Boulevard Fan Zone which stretches along the shores of the Caspian Sea. The fact the race will be in June is another bonus as we are guaranteed to have ideal warm weather that will add to the awesome fan experiences on and off-track. 

From a sporting point of view, we have so much to look forward to.
F1 is as competitive as ever and the drivers will face a new challenge racing our circuit in the new, bigger F1 cars. It will be an amazing sight witnessing them negotiate the narrow castle section of the track as well as pushing their cars to the limit along the high-speed main straight – still the fastest section of any street track in the world! 

In addition, we take pride in the fact that our race is the least predictable on the calendar. Indeed, we have so far had a different winner every year and with Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen both leading the charge for the title this season, there is a high chance that run will continue, should either of them claim their maiden victory in Baku. 

Alternatively, perhaps Lewis Hamilton or Sergio Perez will become the first driver to win twice in Baku. I really can’t wait to find out.

Together with Monaco, Baku hosts one of the few F1 street circuits, meaning that the race doesn’t take place on a permanent track, rather on the city’s public roads. The city is a captivating blend of culture, history, great cuisine, and startling modern architecture. How does this make the Formula 1 experience unique for fans visiting Baku?

From the very beginning it was clear to us that any race hosted in Baku needed to be on a street circuit. As we enter our sixth race weekend, I feel this decision has been fully vindicated. Not only are we able to deliver exciting street racing but we can also use the city circuit as a way to showcase our beautiful city to the world. 

For us this has always been a far more appealing prospect than constructing a circuit on the outskirts of Baku that would fail to show off the wonders of our great city. 

Attending spectators and viewers at home are able to witness an incredible event taking place against one of the most stunning backdrops in all of sport as the drivers race around the picturesque streets of downtown Baku, incorporating the city’s Unesco-protected Old Town as well as its modern skyline and beautiful Caspian Sea vista.

The track itself is full of surprises that have challenged even the best drivers, including the likes of Hamilton and Leclerc. 

The street pattern has obviously determined the nature of the track quite a bit, ensuring that the drivers face a number of singular challenges, including the tight 90-degree turns and of course the famously narrow, winding uphill sequence of turns along the Old Town walls that always test their skills to the very limit – even more so this year in the new, wider cars.

In addition, our track still has the record of having the fastest section of any street circuit on the planet, a feat achieved when Valtteri Bottas – then in a Williams seat – reached speeds of 366km/h on the main 2.2.km straight during the first race weekend in June 2016.

Off-track, what makes this race so unique is its location in the heart of the city. The seaside boulevard is the setting for the most unique Fan Zone of any F1 circuit while each of the grandstands are only a short walk from the city’s bustling centre, packed with a great selection of bars, restaurants and shops for fans to enjoy when the day’s entertainment has ended. Everything is within walking distance, making it one of the most accessible and enjoyable circuits for fans to visit.

Sports bring people closer: the Azerbaijan Grand Prix has brought worldwide attention to Baku and Azerbaijan, attracting Formula 1 audiences, fans and visitors from across the world. How has the city and its people embraced the most exciting motorsports event of the year?

When F1 first came to Baku we knew that one of our main challenges was to win over the Azerbaijani audience, many of whom were not very familiar with the sport. 

Since then, we have been delighted with the way the interest in the sport – and this event in particular – has grown among our own audience. To achieve this, we have developed a regular series of domestic workshops and educational activations throughout the past six years to generate further enthusiasm, awareness, and knowledge of F1 and motorsport among the Azerbaijani population, in particular the youth who are the future of the sport’s success in this country. 

Obviously, in addition, no one can discount the incredible impact Drive to Survive has had on growing the F1 audience across the globe, and Azerbaijan is no exception here!

Most importantly, we are now detecting a real sense of pride and ownership of this race among the domestic fanbase. People are beginning to realise the incredible impact that hosting this event has had on the country in economic, cultural, and reputational terms. The world now knows Azerbaijan and associates it with one of the best and most spectacular events on the global sporting calendar. Moreover, our people are incredibly warm and welcoming, something that the rest of the world is now aware of as a result of visiting Baku every year.

We feel very confident that the Azerbaijani population has embraced F1 and that the interest in our event continues to grow – especially so after a three-year fan hiatus. As we approach the 2022 race weekend, we are already seeing a strong uptake in ticket sales with Azerbaijani Formula 1 fans excited and eager to return to the Baku City Circuit to witness this incredible spectacle live and in person.

As the global pandemic now seems to be behind us, how has the Baku City Circuit prepared this year’s race to take place safely and responsibly?

The health and wellbeing of the Azerbaijani people as well as all visiting Formula 1 media, staff and championship participants will again be our main priority throughout the staging of this year’s Grand Prix. As we do every year, we have been working hard to make everyone’s visit to Baku this summer a pleasant, memorable and safe one. 

While the pandemic has eased somewhat, we are still operating with maximum caution and responsibility to deliver a safe and enjoyable event for all visitors. While we take our health and safety remit very seriously, I really want to stress that when it comes to enjoying the best racing in the world and the many different entertainment activities on offer in the Fan Zones, we do not want to place restrictions on fans’ enjoyment. 

My message is clear: come to Baku and enjoy the party!

Wines of fire & passion

In the medieval period, Azerbaijani wine was more like syrup made from fermented grapes and would be diluted with water before drinking. Travellers praised the sweet wines of the region, but in the early 19th century, German immigrants introduced a more European wine culture.

During the Soviet period, which lasted from 1920 until independence in 1991, wine production moved forward by leaps and bounds, but the result was mainly low-quality, sweet wines that were exported to Russia. When Mikhail Gorbachev clamped down on the social evil of alcohol, production was greatly reduced and many Azeri vines were uprooted and destroyed. This paved the way for a resurgence post-2000, in which western grape varietals were introduced to complement the native varietals and a greater emphasis was placed on quality.

To put the Azeri industry in perspective, it produces around 60-80 million bottles a year. That is ten times more wine than England but ten times less than neighbouring Georgia.

There are three wine-producing regions, all in the northern part of the country and closer to Russia than Iran: Ganja and the Lesser Caucasus, Shirvan Valley and the Greater Caucasus, and the Caspian shoreline. These break down into eight sub-regions.

The western grape varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah, Muscat, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat. There are 450 types of wild grape that have been used in wine-making, but of the 54 “active” indigenous grape varietals, the most dominant are Saperavi and Madrasa (meaning Muslim school) for red wines, and Rkatsiteli for white wines. Local folklore maintains that the first vines planted by Noah after the flood were Rkatsiteli.

Saperavi produces intense, deeply coloured, full-bodied reds that often have the rich, velvety qualities of a new-world Malbec, and it is often combined with Matrasa, producing richly coloured and structured red wines and lemony rosés with a long finish, while Saperavi and Madrasa blends produce mildly tannic dry reds with notes of berry and black cherry.

There are currently ten wineries and vineyards. Perhaps the most famous is Chabiant Winery, which is located in Ismayilli, close to the Goychany river basin, which meanders its way between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus. In some places its vineyards rise to 800 metres above sea level, affording profound daytime temperature variations that enhance ripening time. Aside from the gaseous and volcanic influences, the significant limestone and calcium deposits in the soil lend complexity to the wines, enhancing their taste.

The wines produced at Chabiant by Italian winemaker Andrea Uliva are reassuringly familiar yet enticingly different. The white Bayan Shira has a floral, almond, citric texture and a compelling freshness. It is reminiscent of the Garganega varietal used to make wines in Italy’s Veneto. The red Madrasa is all black cherry, sloe and spice, with a hint of the Southern Rhône valley, maybe old vine Grenache; it is bottled nicely balanced with one third having spent time in oak barrels. The Saperavi-Cabernet Sauvignon blend has lovely soft strawberry and cherry flavours with a warm spicy and clove finish.  

The acreage available for grape cultivation and the quantity of wine being produced increases every year and the government has ambitious plans to produce more wine for export. Key target markets for Azeri wines are Japan, China, the USA, Poland, the Baltics and the UK.

To sample these wines while visiting Baku, try the Port Wine & Grill (Vinoteka). This suave restaurant has great food and a long wine list that covers many Azeri vintages by Fireland and Savalan. Otherwise, you might want to consider a wine tour. Wine Tour Qabala offers a full-day gastronomy tour to the Savalan Valley, where you will enjoy wine tasting at Savalan ASPI Winery, plus admission to the on-site wine museum. Nasimi’s Wine Tours offer tours in Baku, Shamakhi, Aghsu, Ismayilli, Qabala and Ganja. These range from short excursions to multi-day tours including accommodation and fine dining.

23rd May 2022