• Michael Knock

Azerbaijan & Georgia - 20 Day Explorer (Virtual Tour) - Day 4

We were due to be heading to Aerbaijan & Georgia @ this time of year, however, COVID-19 restrictions have required us to suspend all tours for the rest of 2020.

On this virtual Tour, you can travel with us as we explore two emerging countries - Azerbaijan & Georgia. On this Tour, we fly into Baku, Azerbaijan and out of Tbilisi, Georgia and bus, hike & funicular our way around these amazing cultures.


We met our Azeri guide, Tural, last night at the hotel, got the formalities out of the way and let him know what we would like to learn about Azerbaijan in our time here. In this regard, each member of the Tour group had different interests and we are keen to learn more about the history, the food, the architecture, the culture, where Azerbaijan fits now in the world etc. We do only have 10 days in Azerbaijan so we might not have all the time we need to discover this country but we will, at least, give it a good go.

After another great breakfast, we headed out for our walking tour - starting along Nizami Kuc (Street) and to the southwest towards the cafes and shopping of Fountains Square. We then headed into the Inner City and ticked off most of the major sites including:

- Nizami Museum of Azerbaijani Literature - an extraordinary-looking building - great photograpahed at night. A video tour can be seen here.

- Maiden Tower - a 12th Century, 29m high stone tower with extraordinarily 5m thick walls. Views over the Old City/Inner City and Baku Bay, it is one of Baku's most iconic structures (in a city of very iconic buildings and structures).

- Cuma Mosque

- Palace of the Shirvanshahs - the sandstone palace of the Azerbaijani's ruling dynasty during the Middle Ages.

- Museum of Miniature Books, Old Market Square, the Coin Museum, the Institute of Manuscripts & Historical Museum.

- Azerbaijan National Carpet Museum - a building that looks like a stylised rolled carpet.

One of the very great benefits of having a local guide like Tural is that they can direct you very much off the beaten track to samply some often local-only delights. Within the Inner/Old City he took us to Sunbul Azerbaijan Sweets which is locally famous for its halva and pakhlave - which is similar to baklava but Azeri (and Armenian and Georgian and Iranian).

Azerbaijani pakhlava are a type of baklavas made in both Azerbaijan and Iranian Azerbaijan* for Nowruz (Persian New Year) holiday, but it is now not only baked for holidays. Yeasty pastry, hazelnuts or Circassian walnut, milled clove, cardamom, sugar and saffron are used for the preparation of pakhlava. The diamond shape of pakhlava is commonly associated with a star or fire in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani pakhlava is multilayered and commonly prepared with walnuts or almonds and flavored with saffron. Turkish baklava, often uses pistachios for its filling. Whatever the method, the results are spectacular.

As a bonus, Tural has let me know that he has another local "find" in Sheki that we will explore later in the tour.

* Tural used a term today that I had not heard before - Iranian Azerbaijan. This is apparently not to be confused with the Republic of Azerbaijan but refers to three provinces in the tip of Northern Iran that border Turkey, Armenia, the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, Iraq & Azerbaijan. I started to doing a little research on it - wow, talk about confusing and that does not yet bring the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh into the equation.

After a typical Azeri lunch which could consist of kebabs, plov (pilaf - a saffron/rice dish famous in Baku), Piti (lamb/vegetable stew) or Kufta Bozbash (meatballs in broth with vegetables, we headed out to the Absheron Peninsula to explore the Atashgah Fire Temple (also writen as Ateshgah), the Mardakan medieval fortress and the Yanardagh Fire Mountain. This Peninsula is to the northeast of Baku and not far from the airport - about a 30 minute drive from down-town Baku.

Absheron/Abseron is a slightly weird place - lands that have previously been used for almond groves and sheep farms are now filling up with residential developments, oil derricks and the detritus of Baku's urban living. Interspersed with this are what we have come to see - former Zoroastrian* places of worship built by Shiva devotees - go figure that one!

This is where Azerbaijan got its name - the Land of Fire. The Yanardagh Fire Mountain - also written as Yanar Dag - is a 10metre long wall of fire that has been burning at least since Marco Polo's time (13th Century). The cause of the fire? Low-pressure gas seeping from vast underground gas/oil reserves under the Absheron Peninsula.

By the time we got back into Baku it was time for dinner and again, we were spoilt for choice. We settled on a neaby Azeri Restaurant called Sehril Tandir which, as the name suggests, is based around tandir bread.

*Zoroastrianism, the ancient pre-Islamic religion of Iran that survives there in isolated areas and, more prosperously, in India, where the descendants of Zoroastrian Iranian (Persian) immigrants are known as Parsis, or Parsees. Less than 200,000 individuals practice Zoroastrianism today.

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