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  A confluence of old and new

A confluence of old and new

Published : Sep 17, 2016, 11:19 pm IST
Updated : Sep 17, 2016, 11:19 pm IST

Azerbaijan, called the land of fire, is filled with beautiful landscapes and enchanting cities.

The caravanserais or rest houses dotted all over Sheki and Baku
 The caravanserais or rest houses dotted all over Sheki and Baku

Azerbaijan, called the land of fire, is filled with beautiful landscapes and enchanting cities. Once a part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Azerbaijan is today a confluence of old and new, the east and west. Located in the Caucasus region between Europe and Asia, the country is surrounded by Armenia, Georgia, Iran, Russia and the Caspian Sea to the east.

After landing at the Heydar Aliyev International Airport in Baku, the capital city, it is apparent that Azerbaijan is a hidden gem waiting to be explored. The airport is an architectural marvel in itself.

A secular state Although the population is predominantly Muslim, you hardly see women donning hijabs or abayas in Azerbaijan. Instead, women flaunt the latest international fashion trends in Baku. Azerbaijan is a secular state and ensures religious freedom to all. Despite tensions with their neighbouring country Armenia, the country is safe and people are warm. Baku Baku amazes you with its exotic Soviet style architecture. Ancient mosques and modern buildings are architectural masterpieces. Driving around Baku, I saw the city’s newly-constructed tallest skyscraper called Flame Towers. It is built in a contemporary style and is a testament to Azerbaijan economy, which is mainly generated because of its vast oil resources.

Baku is a great city for walking. I spent a whole day walking on the cobblestone roads of the old city or Icherishahr, along the stretch of tombs called Martyr’s Lane. At the end of the lane is a fire memorial, set against a beautiful view of the Caspian Sea.

I saw huge portraits of Heydar Aliyev, the country’s former president, who commands a cult following even after his death. I loved the Maiden Tower, a great place to buy authentic local souvenirs. The best place to relax with a cup of black chai is Targovi, a pedestrian avenue with a cluster of cafes and restaurants. Baku has several original caravanserais or rest houses, where you can dig into some delicious local food, and enjoy some live music. At dusk, the entire city is illuminated with thousands of lights, bringing the city to life. The countryside An easy day trip from Baku is Gobustan, home to the world’s oldest petroglyphs, dating back to 4,000 years. The drive also gives you a peek at the famous oil refineries and rigs in the Caspian Sea. Locals and some tourists ride the rickety marshrutka, a cheap and efficient form of intercity transport. Gobustan is also known for its wonderful mud volcanoes, which are only a few feet high and spew lukewarm mud. Ateshgah Fire Temple Located in Surakhani, a suburb of Baku, is the Ateshgah Fire Temple, a historical pilgrimage spot. Here, you can also learn about Zoroastrianism and see an eternally burning fire in the temple premises.

Lahij Lahij is a quaint village, with cobbled streets and stone houses, nestled in a broad valley. Getting there is not easy as the road is narrow and winding. The Persian language is more dominant here than Azeri. Lahij is famous for its coppersmiths and carpet weavers. The most popular products are the water jars that are typical of mountainous Azerbaijan — elaborate engraved ewers, bulky samovars, and finely decorated copper trays. Sheki — ancient city of Caucasus Sheki is an ancient northern city, close to the Georgian border. Set in a picturesque mountain area, it has narrow gorges and green valleys, waterfalls and mineral water springs, all framed by dense vegetation. A must-visit is the ancient Sheki Khan’s Palace, built in the 18th century, and assembled without a single nail. The palace is filled with magnificent wall frescoes and paintings. Numerous caravanserais or rest houses dot Sheki as it lies along a popular Silk Road route. The sheki halvasi, akin to the Greek baklava, is a specialty here.

Quick Facts Capital City: Baku

Languages Spoken: Persian, Azeri Getting There: There are international flights into Baku’s Heydar Aliyev International Airport from Dubai and several European cities. You can also travel to Azerbaijan by land from Georgia. Fuel is cheap, so renting a car is possible. Visa is required and can be applied for online.

Food: Azerbaijan is a meat-eating country, but the classic rice dish called pilaf is similar to Indian pulao. Kababs and shashlik are made from marinated ingredients. Qutab is a sort of pancake with different stuffings. Dovga is a traditional yogurt soup cooked with rice and chickpeas. Shekerbura, a dessert, is a sweet pastry filled with dry fruits. Best time to visit: April through June The writer is a travel enthusiast