Azerbaijan’s capital Baku offers something for every kind of soul.
Baku’s airport is the perfect microcosm of the city, seamlessly combining the old and the new. After settling in, I head to Iceriseher, the Old City, which is at the city’s heart. Inside the ancient walls of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, going back to the 12th century, was a lovely maze of cobbled streets. On both sides, ancient stone houses sat cheek by jowl with beautiful wooden balconies on the first floor spilling over with a profusion of colorful flowers. I wandered around, stopping at the stunning Palace of the Shirvanshahs, Maiden Tower, St. Bartholomew Church, and pretty caravanserais which served as inns when Baku was an essential part of the ancient Silk Road. There are hidden treasures such as the beautiful 15th-century Haji Bani Hammam, a bathhouse, and the Museum of Miniature Books.
Famished after a morning of wandering, I stepped into Qaynana Restaurant in the old city and feasted on a sumptuous Azeri fare of fresh vegetables and dips, dovga (yogurt soup with chickpeas), and shah plov (saffron rice with apricots and lamb baked in a case of crisp filo pastry). After the meal, I headed out of the walls and towards the waterfront to the Carpet Museum. An imposing building, it was designed to look like a rolled-up carpet. Inside an evocative history of carpets in Azerbaijan awaits visitors along with a stunning and extensive display of the various types of carpets, methods of weaving, their cultural associations, looms and implements, and even a live display of carpet weaving.
A short walk from the museum took me to the waterfront and the long boulevard that sits adjacent to the water, which has distinct shades of Europe. Though over a century old, the boulevard has had several features added over the last few years making it a very popular place. A water feature with Venetian gondolas was entertaining while a surfeit of cafés made having a cuppa a difficult choice. Parks, walkways, play areas, and even a giant chess board added to the charm of the place. I then headed to Nizami Street, a crowded pedestrian area with restaurants, boutiques, and cafés. I sat at Fountains Square to soak in the atmosphere and the jovial mood, before heading for a leisurely dinner.
After a breakfast, I headed east of the city center to the 18th-century Ateshgah Fire Temple. A four-pillared, square structure stands in an irregular, fortified courtyard inside which a fire burns from a large cauldron. It is located in a vast cobbled compound with shops selling scarves and artifacts. I stopped at the Ateshgah Restaurant for a cup of tea and couldn’t help admiring the beautiful interiors and profusion of stained glass details. About 30 minutes northwest of the temple was another fire element which is even more stunning. At Yanardag, a whole mountain seemed to be on fire courtesy of natural gas. The fire is never extinguished, and has supposedly been burning for thousands of years.
Sitting on lush green lawns in the heart of Baku is the imposing and stark white Heyder Aliyev Center whose fluid lines are rather mesmerizing. Designed by Zaha Hadid, the building was named after the country’s influential former president and has several sections and floors. Apart from an exhibition on Aliyev’s life, the center has changing exhibitions and even hosts concerts and performances. On the second floor there is an exhibition of miniatures of some of the most famous buildings in Azerbaijan.
On the last evening, I indulge myself in an elaborate Azeri meal at the Sirvansah Musey Restaurant where I had dolmas, eggplant rolls, chicken with vegetables, and a saj (hot griddle) loaded with lamb, and lamb plov. Post dinner, I headed to the Flame Towers, a set of three skyscrapers of differing heights located at one of the highest points of the city and visible from anywhere. Highland Park, is located near the towers, and is also accessible by a funicular. Before leaving the city, I strolled along the park.