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August 22nd 2019
Published: August 26th 2019
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We flew to Heyder Aliyev Airport, Baku from Izmir. The airport, very modern and grand, is located a short 30 minutes from the city centre. After we (finally) located our pick up service we got driven to our hotel where we oddly changed to another hotel. On the plus side it was just around the corner from Fountain Square, which is more like a series of squares and several boulevards coming off the main fountain square. The architecture really surprised (and impressed) us. Having been to several former soviet states we were expecting more soviet-style grey apartment blocks. Instead we were greeted with beautiful sandstone Parisian-style buildings with terraces. We wandered around fountain square and the old city , Icherisheher, taking photos. As we were coming back with Intrepid we didn’t go into some of the paid sites.

The next day we took a free walking tour. Offered in many cities, free walking tours are tours with a local who takes you around the major sites of the city for 2-3 hours and at the end you give them a tip. Our guide was really good, and the photos of how the old city looked in the 19th century it is pretty much the same as now. Azerbaijan was part of the Russian Empire for 80 years up until a brief 2 year independence in 1918-1920. During this time Azerbaijan, a country with plenty of oil and gas reserves, went through an oil boom and built many of the beautiful buildings we see today. Due to the Russian influence, these buildings were built in Russian style, which was influenced by French architecture. In 1920, Azerbaijan became part of the Soviet Union until 1991. Today, Lonely Planet describes Baku as the 'architectural love child of Dubai and Paris albeit with plenty of Soviet genes floating half-hidden in the background'. With the tree-lined streets with Parisian style buildings and the modern architectural flair of the Flame towers and art-nouveau Heyder Aliyev centre, I can definitely see why. Today, Azerbaijan is a democratic republic, majority Muslim, the republic follows a very loose form of Islam due to religion being banned under the communist regime so, especially amongst the older generation, religion isn't closely followed however amongst the younger generation it is. I suppose out of cultural identity and curiosity some younger people may choose to be a bit more religious. After our lovely walking tour which ended with tea at a local coffee shop, we went to the funicular to go up to a magnificent viewpoint at Highland Park ‘Panoramic View'. It was magnificent – looking out over the Caspian sea over greater Baku with the imposing Flame Towers in the background. A local Azerbaijani singer was also filming a film clip while we were there too so there was some nice background music! Afterward, we took a nice walk along the Caspian seafront and saw the almost finished lotus-shaped building (inspired by Sydney's opera house) which will be an entertainment/dining/shopping precinct. We then walked back through the old city taking advantage of good photo opportunities before stopping for a beer at the William Shakespeare pub (nothing Shakespeare inspired about the décor unfortunately) before heading to the beautiful underground restaurant of Firuze which serves excellent Azerbaijani cuisine. We then had a night cap at one of the many wine bars close to our hotel.

The next day we moved hotels as our 3 week Intrepid ‘Azerbaijan and Georgia experience’ was to start that evening. We checked in and met one British guy on our tour. That afternoon we went to the Heyder Aliyev centre just to take some photos. Built as a cultural centre, this 21st century abstract-designed building was designed by British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid. Opened in 2012, the centre hosts a collection of exhibits and concerts. We later walked though town checking out the shopping malls before heading back to meet our new group. Our new Intrepid group is a mix of ages and nationalities (Australians, Brits, Canadian, Americans and Swiss) though I get the impression the entire group may not click as well as our previous groups (most notably our Vietnam / Cambodia trip where everyone got along fantastically). We had dinner and walked to fountain square for dessert.

The next day, our Azerbaijani guide Balash took us to the Panorama view and around the old city. We then went into the Shirvanshahs Palace. The sandstone palace was the seat of northeastern Azerbaijan’s ruling dynasty during the Middle Ages. Heavily restored in 2003, the palace dates back to the 15th century. Afterward we climbed the Maiden Tower. Our walking tour guide was right – it doesn’t offer fantastic views and the Panorama view viewing point is definitely the best. After a spot of lunch we went to the Abseron Peninsula and visited Yaner Dag – a hillside where an eternal flame burns due to the over-abundance of natural gasses in the ground. Azerbaijan is known as ‘the land of fire' due to natural gas and oil being 20-30m deep in the ground all over the country. It is said the flame at Yaner Dag was started accidentally when a shepherd threw his cigarette butt on the ground. Today, photos of Yaner Dag make it look bigger and grander than it actually is, none the less it was still good to check out. We then went to a fortress nearby and then finally to the Fire Temple of Suraxani. Zoroastrianism is the ancient religion of fire-worshipping, which in the –‘land of fire' was quite important. Here at the temple, eternal flames burn and little exhibits are in little rooms around the temple. Later that night me and Bill took some of our crew to Firuze restaurant where 3 of us shared a gigantic ‘Plov' – a pilaf encased inside a friedbread/pastry. Later we walked along the Caspian boulevard admiring Baku and the flame towers by night.

The next day we went to Qobustan to view the Petroglyphs museum and reserve. With 5 mountains and over 6000 Petroglyphs dating back over 12 000 years, its no surprise that the reserve is UNESCO heritage listed. The Petroglyphs are stick figures etched into the rock – the most distinguishable are the Petroglyphs of the dancing people which I am told was the ‘national' symbol of the people at the time. After we came back to Baku we had a free afternoon so a few of us went to lunch, and afterward Bill and I went for a spot of shopping. That evening 4 of us went to the old town for a lovely last dinner in Baku and then later there were 3 of us that went for a nightcap at a hotel rooftop bar at fountain square. Baku is an amazing city – the new city will blow you away and the old city, whilst quite different to what one may expect if you’ve seen old Ottoman cities, is also very nice and the restoration of the old city is done superbly well when compared to original photos of the city in the 19th century.

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