In The Land of Fire

“Travel teaches us about the vast and varied differences that enrich the global mosaic, in landscape, creation, custom, and belief, and about the importance of each and every piece in that mosaic.”

– Don George – 

Mr Wannabe Racing Driver guns the engine of his little purple Lada, which skids across the gravel track to cut off it’s white twin to our right.

Laughter bubbles from his belly as he turns around to look me in the eyes. “You like?”

My throat is too dry to respond, and he must have taken the wild look in my eyes as a definitive yes, as I can feel the little car accelerating.

He glances back at the road, and gives a hearty laugh. “My momma doesn’t like.”

“Neither do I.” I croak.

He either doesn’t hear me, or chooses not to. He is jovial, and clearly finds enjoyment in showcasing the off-road capabilities of his car, and driving skills. I, on the other hand, can see the remnants of my life as it is speeding past me. Sandwiched into the middle of the backseat I have a clear view of the landscape in front of me. The initial dirt road splits into tracks mimicking the antics of the drivers as they crisscross one another over the flat, bleak landscape. In another attempt to slow him down I tell him that I am a grandmother, and racing like this in a country I hardly know, let alone want to die in, is not exactly my idea of fun. He laughs a laugh of deep enjoyment, and in response tells me that he has three children and has just turned 30. I want to point out that he should perhaps think about his family and slow down, but he has moved his attention to the two young German men, who appears to be having a much better time than me, interrogating them on their marital status.

“How far still?” I mumble to myself, as I am uncertain of what effect the rush of adrenaline, I usually manage to avoid, will do to me.

Michael places a reassuring hand on my leg. My brain cannot figure out if he shares my fear, or is secretly enjoying this mad ride, but before I can voice any more objections, we come to a screeching halt.

“We certainly won.” I manage to whisper under my breath, as I step outside with shaking legs, and wobble to where a motley collection of mud volcanoes bubble and gurgle, oblivious of the wild ride that brought me to them.

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Notes:

# Azerbaijan has the largest concentration of mud volcanoes in the world, consisting of around 400, and Gobustan National Park, 64 kilometres from Baku is a great place to view some of them. It is also home to interesting petroglyphs, which form part of the itinerary of one of the day tours on offer from a variety of tour companies operating out of the old city. A typical day trip like this will further include Ateshgah Fire Temple, Yanardag Fire Mountain, Bibi Heybat Mosque, and the site of the first oil well. The cost is around 90 AZN (Manat) per person, and includes a hearty traditional lunch. The tour companies also offer day trips and multi day trips to other parts of the country. Note that the companies you will find on the Internet have hugely inflated prices and are typically private ones, while the ones offering group tours will actually find you if you take a walk through the old city.

# Take a en empty water bottle with to fill with mud from one of the mud volcanoes, as it is reputed to be excellent for softening wrinkles, and curing aching joints. 😉

# The best way to explore the city is to walk, but an absolute must is to sign up for a walking tour with Azerbaijan Traveller to discover the layers and layers of stories that make up this fascinating city and country, where East and West meet. Gani is an expert storyteller, and the experience will enrich your stay more than anything else will. Note that they have different walking tours available, so see if you can do them all, as they all focus on something different. Apart from Lisbon, this is my new favourite city. (And then of course there is Rio, but that is a city defying comparison.)

# Visit the Carpet Museum, as it gives a wonderful glimpse into the beauty and history of local carpets. (Baku has a variety of museums, but unfortunately almost all of them were closed for restoration work during our visit.)

# For the best coffee in town, visit United Coffee Beans.

# Taste the local beer – Xirdalan. It is best enjoyed in one of the many restaurants that line Fountain Square, where one can people watch and enjoy the cooling breeze of the ever-present wind on a hot summer’s day.

# Pick up a local sim card from Azercell in Fountain Square. 20 AZN will get you 5GB of data and free local calls.

# For excursions outside the compact city centre, download the taxi app Yandex.

# Be aware that a taxi ride from the airport will set you back 50 AZN, so book with a hotel which includes a pick-up. For the ride back to the airport, we organized a drop-off through the hotel, and it cost us only 20 AZN, which included a tip.

# For the best croissants and desserts in town, visit Entrée.

# One of the best vegetarian burgers I’ve ever had, I found at Barista & Chef, a cozy, funky eatery.

# Visit the many wine bars to get a taste of the local wine. We loved Enoteca Meydan, where sommellier and co-owner, Teymur not only introduced us to a variety of wines, but also gave us a taste of some excellent locally produced cheeses.

Our favourite spot, which we revisited a couple of times, is Kefli. Not only do they stock an extensive range of wines (all local), but the food is excellent too. It is small and gets packed in the evening, so either book or come in the late afternoon, when they just open and it is quiet. We loved our chats with owner, Ivan, as his enthusiasm for the local wine industry is infectious.

# Take a ride on the Metro for a flashback to when Azerbaijan formed part of the old Soviet Union. Rides are only 0.30 AZN, and the metro card is the same one you will need if you want to make use of the buses. We used it to get from the old town to the Heydar Aliyev Centre, which is one of those iconic buildings one cannot miss visiting, when in Baku.

# We loved our stay at the Two Seasons Boutique Hotel in the heart of the old city with its friendly staff. It was a quiet spot with no passing traffic, and included breakfast and an airport pick-up. The perfect place from where to explore all the city has to offer on foot.

# Apply for an eVisa before the time. It is easy and effortless.

# One should be aware that Azerbaijan and Armenia are actually at war with one another over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, and if you are planning to visit that region you will not be allowed entry into Azerbaijan (a fact that is clearly stated on the eVisa application). This does not include the rest of Armenia, though. Most travellers, when visiting Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia travel either by plane or train between Azerbaijan and Georgia, as there are no direct travel links between Azerbaijan and Armenia. A traveller we met, who flew from Tbilisi to Baku did not have any problems, but two other travellers who took the train told us that the Azerbaijani border guards ripped the labels off the bottles of Armenian wine/produce they had with them, perhaps to demonstrate their displeasure with the fact that they visited Armenia.

TO READ:

Ali and Nino by Kurban Said

(Or you can watch the 2016 movie with the same name, but books are always better than movies.)

WATCH:

Baku: City of Ali and Nino for a glimpse into this fascinating city and its history.

Visited:  July 2019

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Remember to hop over to our blog chronicling our adventure of our quest to live closer to the land in Portugal, a dream that is slowly unfolding, while we still live and work in the United Arab Emirates.