Just like Belarus, I asked Michael to remind me again exactly why where we going to Azerbaijan? and of course, he had an answer. It all went back to the time two years ago when we visited Madrid and he went to an Atlético Madrid football match and came home confused that the team’s jerseys sported “Azerbaijan - The Land of Fire.” He’d never heard of a country sponsoring a first-division football club - let alone one in another country. That seemed crazy!
|Spain's Atlético Madrid team all fired up!|
He did further research about the sponsorship (and the country) and before you knew it, Azerbaijan was on the list for our swing through Eastern Europe and our goal of visiting as many former republics of the USSR as we could. As for why it is called The Land of fire - that has to do with ancient history and I’ll explain more about that later.
I was struggling to keep up with the itinerary, and to be honest, I hadn’t done much research at my end on this exotic and potentially dangerous sounding destination. I did find this little nugget describing Baku, the capital city where we would spend a week “If Paris and Dubai had a love child, it would be Baku.” Sounded good to me.
However this Shite Muslim dominated country wedged between Iran and Russia was on brink of all out war with Armenia and was listed as a "place to avoid." Fortunately we kept our plans, and in fact it felt more like a ritzy trip to Monaco, and no armed terrorists in sight.
|The skyline is dominated by the flame towers - but there were dozens of fantastic structures.|
|My favorite Formula 3 car driver!|
The population was certainly far from stereotypical. The women were chic and fashionable - and the only Hajibs we saw were worn by Iranian and Saudi tourists (we were told this by our guides and others). Upscale bars and restaurants crowded the streets along with luxury cars, and glittering shopping malls supplanted the traditional souk.
Azerbaijan is saturated in oil and natural gas and has the wealth to prove it. More importantly, it wants the world, especially the West to know it - so it flashes it’s bling. That comes in the form of a stunning modern skyline dotted with futuristic glass towers juxtaposed against an ancient old city with the gaps filled in with newly built baroque style government buildings made of sun-colored limestone. Here's a quick look at the Flame towers in action (I climbed 300 stairs to get this shot!)
|We spotted a few of these "trees" with cameras on top. Like I said - don't litter!|
|The Haydar Aliver Cultural Center was an amazing bit of architecture.|
Farid met us on arrival and was incredibly gracious. Actually every one we met in Azerbaijan was warm and hospitable - but Farid took it personally. Within an hour he returned with a few basics I had asked to have in the kitchen and was ready and willing to provide whatever else he could - and appreciated our feedback.
|The first course before lunch in the garden with our new friend.|
|Michael with Farid and his cousin before the match.|
|Playing tourist for the camera.|
Later that evening we meant two more young women (one a reporter the other a translator) from a popular news website. We had a great time together and as you can see from the picture below, it was entertaining - especially for Michael. The story ran the next day and a woman on a bus kept looking at us and then flashed us her phone showing us on the screen. She enthusiastically said “Welcome Nomads to our country!” and showed the phone around to fellow passengers. Here's the link: qafqazinfo That was fun.
|I'd just said something to tickle Mr. Campbell's funny bone - but I don't remember what!|
Two days later the young woman who translated spent a day with us and we took in more of the city. We especially enjoyed the fascinating Azerbaijan Carpet Museum housed in an elegant building shaped like a rolled-up carpet. We also had a leisurely lunch at her favorite restaurant in the garden courtyard where we ate very well and learned more about daily life in Azerbaijan.
|We almost gave the carpet museum a miss - but it turned out to be a highlight.|
|It was mesmerizing to watch master carpet makers at work.|
|The magical Old City sits tucked behind walls dating back to the 12th century.|
In more recent history, after the collapse of the USSR Azerbaijan was ruled by yet another autocrat, President Heyday Aiyev - he was a popular leader who was actually instrumental in bringing the country to its new prosperity. His son, Ilham Aiyev, aged 54, took over after his father passed away in 2003. The Washington Post reported in October 2013, that their last elections were neither free nor fair, and that “election officials released vote results a full day before voting had even started.” He's now working to lower the age a person can become president to assure his now 12 year old son can step in at age 18. Fairly elected, of course.
|The happy first (and potentially forever) family of Azerbaijan.|
The roots of the bitter conflict go back all the way to World War I. While we were in Azerbaijan, we got “their” version of the situation and we knew that when we got to Armenia we would hear “their” version as well. Again, one of the most fascinating aspects of our travels is talking politics with our cab drivers, tour guides, hosts and anyone else Michael can engage on the topic.
|A map of the region - you can see why I was concerned about conflict.|
|I would definitely return to this beautiful city with it's ancient roots and modern dreams.|
Thanks for following along,
Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads