Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan is very small, but it’s incredibly rich: ancient villages and futuristic architecture, there’s something for every traveller

 

You have to see it to believe it, this country is extremely rich due to its oil exploitation and especially its offshore drilling in the Caspian Sea. My arrival in Baku is memorable. The only flight from Aktau, Khazakhstan is at 3:00 am, with the jetlag, I set foot in the Azeri territory at 3:00 am.

Azərbaycanı salamlayıram! Mənim adım Kristina, mən fransızam. Sizinlə görüşmək üçün gözəl!

 

The first impression of Azerbaijan is a real shock: I feel like I’m in Paris

 
The contrast with Aktau (Kazakhstan) is striking. From the airport, you have to cross the sleepy city to get to the city-centre where one of my favourite hostels is waiting for me, nestled in an old Haussmann-style building.
I am amazed by the architecture of the city: modern buildings with the craziest design. In the twilight, the flame-tower, three imposing metal and glass flames rise up the hill. Further on, there is a carpet museum… in the shape of a carpet. The most impressive is the Heydar-Aliyef cultural centre, inspired by the signature of its former president.
 
The whole is intimately mixed with the historic old town dating from the 12th century, “Russian”, “Parisian” and typically Azeri districts.
This blend is remarkable because it is very harmonious. There are few countries that know how to give in to the temptation of the modern without disfiguring the cities, Azerbaijan does this with mastery.
 

The Azerbaijan I discover in Baku has style and elegance

 
When I arrive in Baku, I have China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan behind me.
These countries cannot be visited in suits and high heels right? After a few hours of sleep, I run into the city, discovering its pedestrian streets, its boulevards, its seaside promenade. The shock is great. The women of Baku are not only of great beauty, but above all of great elegance. They walk like dancers, with light feet and straight backs. But above all, they are dressed in pretty dresses of good cut, veils, silks, lace. Nothing to do with my special big desert canvas pants, my tired T-shirts and my trekking shoes.
 
Impossible to walk around Baku dressed like a begger: operation dressing!
What I visit first then, is a big ready-to-wear store to refresh my traveler’s wardrobe. I shave the walls and rush into one of those shops that I normally dislike, but hey, the end justifies the means. It’s either that or look like a homeless.
Two dresses, a pair of light tennis shoes, a simple Bermuda shorts and a few freshly coloured T-shirts later, I’m transformed, finally ready to conquer Baku.
 
Baku is Paris by the sea and much smaller
 
It is a city that has all the assets to seduce its visitors. The sea, the sun, nice restaurants, shady terraces, lively pedestrian streets, museums, parks. Yes, I’m still talking about Baku, Azerbaijan.
The only thing he misses is swimming. The Caspian Sea doesn’t allow you to jump in.
In the heart of its historic centre, this city is clean, bright and rich. You have to get lost in the small districts further away from the centre to discover another architecture: the Caucasian style. The contrast with the rich side of the seaside is not so violent as that because these districts are quiet, full of charm and very pleasant azéris.
 

Azerbaijan has World Heritage Sites

 
The palace of the shirvanshas, the tower of the Virgin, the great Juma mosque, the Mehellesi Hammam are classified as World Heritage. Apart from the official titles, the theatre, the old town, the university and many other old buildings deserve the traveller’s full attention. 

Azerbaijan is a Muslim country but it’s not obvious

 

Islam is the religion of reference. But Azerbaijan is a secular state and there is very few sign of religion there

 
Azerbaijan defines itself as one of the least religious states in the world because its inhabitants do not practice religion strictly.
The Azeris are quite proud of that. When I ask one of them if I can wear light clothes here when I see groups of women in burqas, the answer is brutal: “This is not Azerbaijan women, these women are tourists from Saudi Arabia! No burqa in our country!“. 

Every evening, on the seaside, facilities are made available for everyone to sing, dance and make music. Everyone is allowed to perform there. The Azeris meet there as a family or as a couple and dance together, women in skirts, men in trousers. The exchanges are cordial, fraternal and very respectful. 
 

It is possible to eat and drink well in Baku: alcohol is available everywhere but no sausage in sight

 
Another surprise is that Azerbaijan is itself a wine producer of which it is very proud: the country has been a member of the International Organisation of spirit and Wine since 2013. The country is keen to regain its noble titles, which were undermined by the massive uprooting of all its vines during the communist occupation (1985, by Gorbachev). 
Historians are formal, viticulture has been present in this country for at least 7000 years. Azerbaijan works to produce quality wines in which it puts all its heart… and its money. We wish it success in this new adventure!
 

In Baku, the restaurants are chic, the food is fine and the tables are well laid out

 
Gastronomy sounds familiar to our ears. We find a strong similarity with Turkey present in all the menus: kebab, kyuftas (meatballs) and baklavas but also with Greece with its dolmas and yoghurt. As everywhere else in the world, we find ravioli filled with beef and mutton served in a broth: dyushbara and gyurza.
The modernity of the country means that in Baku you can eat whatever you want. International restaurants offer dishes from all over the world.
 

And apart from Baku, what else is there to discover in Azerbaijan?

 

Nothing less than the beautiful Caucasus

 

What landscapes, what mountains! It takes no more than a few hours by bus to get there and discover another face of Azerbaijan. Nestled in the Caucasus Mountains, the country is rich in small perched villages. Here traditions dominate, herds of sheep are guarded by shepherds and villages seem frozen in time. An incredible calm, just the mountains, a few bleats and the wind.
The beautiful adventure is to return to Xinaliq, sacred highest village in Europe aboard a tiny Lada. The car is a real antique, but it is fast and easy to drive on the dusty mountain roads. Getting there is a bit like arriving at the end of the world. A grocery store, a café, chickens in the wild, a few placid donkeys and all around the imposing Caucasus, like a monk in meditation.

Shaki, Quba, Khinalug: discovering the beautiful Azeri villages

 

The villages of the Caucasus are worth every detour. They are easy to get to and difficult to leave. Travellers in search of sensationalism will not be well served. Here it’s rather calm weather, discovering a caravanserai, an Albanian church or a horse ride in the mountains. It is precisely this authenticity that makes Azerbaijan so endearing. It is in these modestly sized cities, far from the elegance of Baku, that you will make the most beautiful encounters. The Azeris are very welcoming and hospitality is an important value in the culture.

Təşəkkür edirəm, vida, tezliklə görəcəksən!

Azerbaïdjan, Best Of

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Next trip: let's dicover Iran!

Iran is a safe trip, which requires a very reasonable budget and what the traveller will see there goes far beyond the architectural beauties: Iranians are the most beautiful things to visit here!