Wide-open Azerbaijan

A destination not many Israelis have discovered yet.

Qobustan Petroglyphs offers prehistoric paintings and displays remains found on site (photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
Qobustan Petroglyphs offers prehistoric paintings and displays remains found on site
(photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
Israelis are always searching for more exotic and adventurous places to visit in far-off corners of the earth, but sometimes some of the most beautiful places are right under our noses and, what is more, are incredibly affordable.
It turns out that one of the exotic places that not many Israelis have discovered yet is Azerbaijan, where I was recently invited by a private tourism company as a guest. This is a small Muslim country, rich in oil, located in the South Caucasus on the Caspian Sea.
It has recently appeared in Israeli media headlines following the official visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, but not many Israelis consider the country a prime tourist destination.
That Azerbaijan is not yet a popular destination is strange, since three of its neighbors – Russia, Georgia and Armenia (with which Azerbaijan has been involved in a long and bitter conflict) – are popular tourist spots for Israelis.
Some people say this conflict is due to the fact that most Azeris are Muslim, but once you visit Azerbaijan and talk with people who live there, this seems unlikely.
The manat (AZN), the Azeri currency, is very weak, making a visit to the country very affordable for Israelis, due to the exchange rate. Currently, AZN 1 is worth almost NIS 2.
Azerbaijan and its capital, Baku, are known for their wide-open spaces, parks, monuments and breathtaking vistas.
For most Israelis, this is as close as they will ever get to the wealthy emirates, and it is common to see Arab tourists shopping, hanging out in cafés and driving around the capital in their Bentleys.
Azerbaijan Airlines operates three flights a week to Baku from Tel Aviv and has a representative office in Israel.
The three-hour flight brings you to a grandiose airport, and you begin to understand how important expressions of wealth and impressions are to Azeris.
On the 20-minute drive to the city, you’ll see endless oil extraction cranes working nonstop.
Baku is home to dozens of luxury hotels, and the one I recommend is the Marriott Boulevard Hotel, which overlooks the Caspian Sea. The hotel offers three restaurants, a spa and two pools, and is conveniently located near shops and the sea promenade. Prices begin at AZN 130 per night, which is extremely reasonable considering the hotel’s fan- tastic location.
The capital is one of the most beautiful cities in the region, and it’s obvious that considerable resources have been spent on planning and construction.
The architecture is pleasing to the eye, and the streets are extremely clean.
Baku is renowned for its monuments, including a number of imitations, such as Mini Venice, where you can go for a gondola ride in quaint canals, and the Baku Ferris Wheel, which looks like the London Eye.
In the main square, there’s a flag that waves at a height of 162 meters and weighs more than 300 kg. Just below it is a museum, with symbols and flags displayed proudly inside from different periods in the democratic country’s history, and Crystal Hall, the concert hall that was built to host the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest.
The museum is situated in a building that was designed by world-famous architect Zaha Hadid. The first wing houses private objects that belonged to Heydar Aliyev, who served as president of Azerbaijan from 1993 to 2003.
Aliyev joined the Azerbaijan branch of the KGB in 1944, and rose through the ranks until he was ousted in 1987. Another wing describes traditional Azeri culinary culture, and a third houses miniature models of famous buildings in the country.
Another really interesting museum that should not be missed is the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, which from the outside looks like a rolled-up carpet.
Inside the three-floor structure, visitors can view ceramics, 14th-century metal works, jewelry from the Bronze Age, and carpets from the 17th to 20th centuries.
The entrance fee is AZN 7.
Apart from museums, there is quite a lot to do in Baku, such as walking along the new promenade that runs along the sea, or strolling down the boulevard in the city’s luxurious shopping district.
If you’d like to make some purchases in this area, be prepared to hand over generous amounts of money at the brandname stores.
For those looking for a more authentic tour of Baku, I recommend wending your way through the narrow alleyways of Baku’s Old City (also known as the Inner City), where you’ll find small shops as well as other historic sites, such as the Palace of the Shirvanshahs and the Maiden Tower, the first UNESCO site in Azerbaijan. Its tower and walls were built in the 12th century. The city had two gates: the Salyan Gates and the Shemakha Gates, and was protected by dozens of cannons set on the walls. There’s Ali Shamshi’s art gallery and a miniature book museum with 5,500 books which you’ll need to use a microscope to read.
Of course, there is also a plethora of restaurants that serve authentic Azeri cuisine. In choosing a restaurant, make sure you pick one that has great atmosphere and lots of other diners, because that is the only indication you will have as to the quality of the food being served there. This is extremely important, because most restaurants seem to serve simple meals based mostly on bread and mini cucumbers, for which the region is famous. They do, though, make up for this with their joie de vivre and exciting music.
Despite the fact that Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, we didn’t have any trouble finding a bar for the evening. Most bars are located in hotels.
Azeris absolutely love eating out in locales that have ample space for dancing and shows, such as Sizvansah, located at 86 Asgarova Salatin.
If you’ll be in Azerbaijan for more than just a weekend, you should definitely take the time to visit areas outside the capital. The country is small, so you can reach most of the following sites by car or by taxi, which costs only AZN 30 to AZN 40. For example, you can visit Qobustan Petroglyphs, where you’ll find prehistoric paintings and a museum (entrance fee AZN 2) that displays remains found on site and information about the topography of the area. Stone etchings in the national park depict the life of prehistoric man.
Baku Ateshgah (Fire Temple of Baku) is a castle-like temple where Zoroastrians, who originated in Iran, come to worship. In the center of the temple there is an eternal flame, which is never allowed to go out. The flame used to burn from natural gas that flowed from underground, but following the massive drilling that’s been going on in the country, the gas for the flame is now pumped in.
Nearby, you’ll find a restaurant called Ateshgah, where in addition to satisfying your hunger, you can participate in a workshop to learn how to make kuttab (pita) with meat or spinach. It costs between AZN 3 and AZN 10, depending on how many people are in the group. The meal of appetizers, soup, a main course and tea costs AZN 25 to AZN 30.
Another interesting place you might want to visit is the Diri Baba Mausoleum, near the city of Maraza. Built in the 15th century into the side of the mountain, the mausoleum is the burial place of a Muslim Sufi named Diri Baba, who left his community and went out into the wilderness to live an ascetic life dedicated to meditation, to get closer to God. Pilgrims come here from all over Azerbaijan to receive a blessing from Diri Baba. Their custom is to walk in a circle around the dome over his tomb three times.
About a 30-minute drive from Maraza, you’ll find the Juma (Friday) Mosque of Shamakhi, the largest mosque in the Caucasus. The mosque was destroyed twice by earthquakes and once by the Armenians, who burned it down in 1918. During the Soviet period, the mosque stood empty, and in 2013 (Azerbaijan gained independence in 1991) it was once again rebuilt and is now quite impressive looking. The mosque has a dome at the end of the minaret, which marks it as a Shi’ite mosque.
Another site that is definitely worthwhile going to see this time of year is the Tufandag Ski Resort near the city of Gabala in northern Azerbaijan, about four hours north of Baku. Visitors can take the cable car up to the very top of the mountain, which stands at 1,900 m. In addition to skiing, visitors can go sledding or rent snowmobiles.
The writer was a guest of Mona Tours.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.