I have been wanting to visit Azerbaijan since I was a 10-year old stamp collector, fascinated by the country name. It seemed so exotic. I was subsequently intrigued every time I met someone from Azerbaijan but decided to visit after
I attended EXPO2010 in Shanghai. There I saw an image of Baku, the capital city and couldn’t tell if it was a drawing of what was to come, or a photo of what had already been built. It had been built.
A few years later, after visiting Kazakhstan, I saw another image of Baku with what looked like three giant slugs superimposed on the old city skyline. Again, I honestly couldn’t tell if this was a photo montage or photo-shopped image, or real buildings. After a Google search, I realized these were real buildings.
I planned to visit a few years ago, along with neighbouring Georgia, after an assignment in Moscow. But it was difficult getting visas to both countries and so I went to Ukraine instead. However, in the subsequent years, Georgia has dropped its visa requirement, and in an effort to increase tourism, Azerbaijan issues an e-visa on-line.
While I could have flown from Tbilisi to Azerbaijan, I thought it might be more interesting to take the overnight train. After all, we rarely get to ride on trains in Canada, and I usually enjoy the experience. I had a vision of a delightful dinner with new friends in the dining car, and breakfast before arriving in Baku. I could not have been more wrong.
I won’t go into all the details, but if this is the experience you are seeking, don’t expect to find it on this train. But do be prepared for a couple of hours of delay at the Georgia-Azerbaijan border and a train that arrives three hours late, which means you have missed the car sent by the hotel to greet you.
While I often spend endless hours choosing where to stay in a city, I didn’t need to in Baku. I was determined to stay at the Fairmont which is in one of the three Flames Towers. It was an excellent choice. The room was large and beautifully fitted out. But with one exception. The shower controls were almost impossible to use. There was an excellent rain shower and European hand held. But the switching control was very difficult to turn. They need to replace the short stalk with a much longer stalk. I wasn’t the only one having problems. I overheard an exuberant Israeli tourist demanding someone fix his shower.
The dining room was elegant and the food good and the staff very friendly and accommodating. I can highly recommend it.
Azerbaijan has a very varied character. Over the years it has been an Islamic city, an elegant European-style city, the home of rich oil barons, and now a setting for some very modern, high-style buildings by Zaha Hadid and other international architects.
I particularly liked the waterfront zone, with a wide promenade and an area developed as a lagoon. I visited the new carpet museum and noted that the city has literally dozens of other museums. If I had had more time, I would have liked to visit some more.
My one regret is that the hop-on-hop-off bus that I always take in a new city was cancelled the day I had planned to take it due to early morning flooding. It could have operated in the afternoon but didn’t. Next time.in
One of the top tourist destinations is the old town within the original city wall. The narrow streets are lined with restaurants and given the currency exchange, they are very affordable. Again, I regret not having more time to try out some more.
While there are lots of other places to visit in the world, if I go back to Russia or Kazakhstan I will return to Azerbaijan. I still have some local currency, since no Currency Exchanges will take it. Next time, I’ll also consider buying a carpet. Here are a few more photos.