Remember the Morgan Freeman-Jack Nicholson starrer The Bucket List? The film sank without much fanfare but the term `bucket list' still seems to be on everyone’s lips. We all have them—from the adventure seekers who want to go swimming with sharks and climb the highest peaks, to the more culturally concerned who want to tick off architectural gems and experience something authentically local. We make lists, add or subtract things, redo them again and again till we are satisfied.
I was in Azerbaijan some months back, and despite #instatravel making the world so much smaller and seemingly closer on social media, I was blown away by Baku, the capital city. If you had to describe east meeting the west, Baku is your prime example. Tall skyscrapers and stunning architecture rule the skyline against the Caspian Sea, with Soviet-era utilitarian buildings popping up here and there; old-timey Ladas race along posh ‘London cabs’ on the wide roads; an incredible variety of dishes with origins among the various ruling cultures of the past are proudly eaten; its unesco-protected Walled City set against the natural rich resources and ever-changing scenery outside city limits; Bollywood’s popularity over hollywood, where the Kapoors and Shah Rukh Khan rule the roost; the list is really endless. Personally, Baku was a feeling. Chaotic-yet-calm, an amalgamation of sorts, and extremely unique. A young country (Azerbaijan came into existence in 1991 after the fall of the USSR), it is still trying to create its own identity while trying to maintain its past. If you find yourself in Baku, make sure to tick these places off for an authentic bucket list experience:
The Walled City
What better way to start a Baku trip than at the old Town or Icheri Sheher. It’s the historical core, the foundation of the city, while the narrow road that circles the walls is part of the six-kilometre F1 street circuit. It’s a delight to watch F1 drivers manoeuvre at turns 8, 9 and 10 where the track is only 7.6-metres wide while they drive at over 200 kmph! With the outer sandstone walls built to be deliberately smaller—giving an illusion of a smaller city—there are so many architectural gems inside, built over the medieval period, that you have to explore it on foot. It’s believed habitation in the area began from the 12th century, but some believe it started in the 7th. Some of the gems you can’t miss here are the Palace of the Shirvanshahs (the seat of power in the 15th century), the Maiden Tower (Baku’s landmark but its origins are still shrouded in mystery as some think it was used as a Zoroastrian fire temple before Islam’s dominance in the region), the 11th-century Muhammad Mosque, the various caravanserais (stone inns for traders on the Silk Route who stopped to rest) that have been preserved and turned into restaurants, the ruins of St Bartholomew’s Church (he was one of the 12 apostles), and the various shopping areas for souvenirs that also sell Soviet-era memorabilia.
The old Town has a vibrant character of its own, boasting a miniature books museum, jazz clubs after dusk, and restaurants for authentic Azeri meals. I even came across a lending library inside a small park. here, children played as their guardians stood nearby, eating fresh strawberries. Some minutes ago, a fruit seller singing Zeenat Aman’s “laila o laila” had passed.
Getting There: Nearest metro stop is the Icheri Sheher station on the Red Line; city buses 6, 18 and 65 stop on the south side of the metro station.
The Flame Towers
If the old Town speaks volumes of Azerbaijain’s rich socio-cultural and political significance of the past, the iconic Flame Towers is its present statement. The trio of skyscrapers changed the skyline of Baku when it began construction in 2007 and opened six years later. The tallest tower is 182 metres and a residential building (the views would be marvellous, I imagine), the second is 165 metres and is a luxury hotel, while the third is 161 metres and hosts plenty of offices. The trio—located on a hill near the sea—can be seen from many points in the city, including the old City. What makes these sleek towers so iconic is that they pay homage to the country’s past and present. Designed like flames, they represent Azerbaijan’s link to Zoroastrianism going back at least 3,000 years, its abundance of natural gas resources, and its new role of playing host to technological and commercial companies. Come dusk, the towers’ façades light up with millions of leD lights. They flicker to create an illusion of flames, changing to the Azeri flag and then a person carrying the national flag.
Getting There: Take a taxi or use the Baku funicular which drops off at Martyr's Lane, which is 400 metres from the towers.
If I could, I’d bring the whole museum home. Carpet weaving is one of Azerbaijan’s longstanding traditions and this museum on the seafront boulevard showcases it proudly. A family affair in the olden days, the women of the household weaved on vertical or horizontal looms with materials like wool and cotton using special techniques to create the carpet designs and patterns. The custom is so closely connected to daily life, that after independence, the government took measures to protect and promote the craft. In 2010, Azerbaijani carpet weaving was added to unesco’s Representative list of the Intangible Cultural heritage of humanity.
This museum was designed by Austrian architect Franz Janz to resemble a rolled carpet. The first floor displays the more simple styles (woven with reed or cane), and it becomes more complex and intricate as you walk by the rich hues of reds and maroons. The second floor is dedicated to the carpet classifications developed by latif Karimov, a weaver and scientist who played a huge role in publicising his country’s cultural heritage. The third floor has more contemporary interpretations of carpets from the 20th century.
Getting There: The closest metro station is Icheri Sheher and tickets are priced 7 AZN (approx. Rs 311) for adults. The museum is closed on Mondays. See azcarpetmuseum.az
Heydar Aliyev Center
This Zaha Hadid masterpiece is an architectural landmark. When I stood in front of the 'I <3aku' sign for a photograph, the building reminded me of Marilyn Monroe’s famous white skirt. From a distance it looks ethereal, a wave of white almost frozen in mid-ripple. An ambitious and expensive project, it opened in 2012 after six years in the making. There are no corners in the Heydar Aliyev Center; everything represents fluidity to bind Azerbaijan’s past and present together. Maybe, it’s also an ode to the windy city, a structure created thanks to the force of the forceful winds. Named after the former President of Azerbaijan, the 57,500 square-metre space houses galleries, an auditorium, exhibition areas and a museum—all celebrating the history of the state, its culture and Heydar Aliyev’s life. I enjoyed making my way inside, taking in a beautifully curated weaving exhibit and an interactive space that informed of musical traditions among others.
Getting There: Closest metro station is Nariman Narimanov; city buses 1, 2 and 13 stop outside the front entrance; free entry but exhibitions are extra. Mondays closed. See heydaraliyevcenter.az
Baku Book Center
Spread over 2,500 square metres and two floors, this book store in the heart of the city opened in September 2018 in an old hospital space. In a world moving seemingly towards digital, this bookstore is a breath of fresh air. Azeri, Russian, Turkish, and Arabic books line the walls and cupboards. Don’t fret, there are english books too but the choice is limited. I picked up a traditional Azeri cookbook and a copy of translated poems by romantic epic icon Nizami Ganjavi. The bookstore also houses a café, a reading room, children’s area, stationery shop, areas for literary events and for the visually impaired, and, of course, reading nooks and corners strewn about the place. Make sure to take a picture on the staircase for the ’gram.
Getting There: Located at the intersection of Gadzhibekov St and Gogolya St. Closest metro station is Sahil. See bakubookcenter.az
Azeri food has many religious and cultural influences considering the history of the region. You must try the various plovs found in the region, my favourite being the shakh plov which has dried fruits and lamb cooked with rice inside a lavash crust. vegetables in the form of grills and roasts, and meats skewered and minced are widely consumed. Most meals are accompanied by sides: fresh salads with herbs, chorek (bread), yoghurt, and fruit-flavoured water. My days were filled with trying pide (flatbread), dolma, stuffed pancake-like qutabs, soups, meats cooked on a saj (cast-iron), and tons of chai-jam which literally translates to tea with jam—smoked walnut, white cherry, fig, quince and apricot and more. I’ll suggest Shirvanshah Restaurant Museum (86, Salatin Asgerova) if you’re looking for an authentic first meal. The restaurant is filled with old artefacts and has live traditional music. Qaynana and Qala Divari in the old City have good selections. other traditional dining options include Sehrli Tendir and Sumakh.
Getting There: There are many one-stop options from various Indian cities. Indians need an e-visa to enter that allows them 30 days of stay.
Also do not miss:
Burn, baby, burn!
Only a handful of fire mountains exist and Yanardag, 30 mins from Baku, is most impressive. A 10-metre wall of never-extinguishing flames, it's spectacular, night or day. owing to rich hillside gas reserves, this natural blaze is said to have influenced the creation of Zoroastrianism.
All fired up
A Unesco World Heritage site—about 18 kms from Baku—in surakhani, this Fire Temple was once a flourishing site for Zoroastrians. After the advent of islam, the practitioners of the faith dispersed to other regions, including india. in the 17th century, they returned for trade and renovated the complex.
Down and dirty
About 45 per cent of the world’s mud volcanoes are concentrated in the Gobustan national Park, 67 kilometres from Baku. These aren’t your lava- spewing sorts, but the cold, thick and gurgly variety. They come in various shapes and are safe enough for the adventurous to jump inside.
Ancient rock music
This rare stone inside Gobustan is important to Azeris because it can be 'played' to produce music. But don't try it yourself. set among ancient rock formations and petroglyphs, they say the two-metre stone was used for sounds during stone Age ceremonies. some liken the effect to a tambourine, some call it eerie.