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Azerbaijan Travel & Holiday Tips

Azerbaijan, sandwiched between Russia and Iran on the Caspian Sea, remains largely underdeveloped, with a barren mountainous landscape, poor infrastructure and cumbersome post-Soviet bureaucracy. Azerbaijan isn't an easy place to navigate for the average traveller, but it's worth a few days on an itinerary of the region, if only to get a flavour of the entrepreneurial spirit thriving in the country as it seems on the verge of unlocking the economic potential of its offshore oil reserves.

Baku is one of the region's more lively cities, a boomtown again after years of Soviet stagnation.

Baku & The Coast

The medieval walled city – Icheri Sheher – within Baku has been restored, and retains a distinctly Middle-Eastern and relaxed atmosphere, with its tea-houses and busy street-life. Its attractive narrow streets and stone buildings spread up from the waterfront, where the 12th-century Maiden’s Tower (Gyz-Galasy) looks out over the bay. Locals claim that the view from the top of the tower rivals the beauty of the Bay of Naples. Nearby are two caravanserais (inns), one dating from the 14th century, the other from the 16th century, originally built to accommodate travelling merchants from northern India and central Asia. The caravanserais, with their courtyards and vaulted roofs, have been restored and now function as restaurants.

There are also a number of mosques located in the medieval city, one of which, the Dzhuma Mosque, houses the Museum of Carpets and Applied Arts, with a fine display of Azeri carpets, as well as jewellery, embroidery, woodcarving and filigree metalwork. The Synyk Kalah Minaret dates from 1093 and is the oldest building still standing in the city. Beyond the minaret is the 15th-century royal court complex, the Palace of the Shirvan Shahs. The palace, mausoleum and law courts are all open to the public.

Equally distinctive are the opulent houses and public buildings built during the Baku oil boom at the turn of the 20th century. Millionaire oil merchants indulged themselves with neo-gothic, mock oriental and pseudo-renaissance fantasies in stone, developing a local architectural confidence which spilled over into the Soviet period; the Sabuchinsky railway station for example, dating from 1926, is designed to resemble an enormous madrassah (Islamic religious academy).

A number of tourist sights are located near enough to Baku for one-day excursions to be feasible. Some 20 km (12 miles) northeast of Baku is the Surakhany Temple, established by Parsee fire-worshippers living in Baku in the 18th century. The temple was predated by a much older Zoroastrian shrine on the same site. Surakhany remained a popular destination for Indian pilgrims until the revolution. Some of the pilgrims’ cells now house a wax museum, intended to introduce the rudiments of fire worship to the uninitiated.

The Apsheron Peninsula, stretching out into the Caspian Sea beyond Baku, has several 14th-century fortresses, built by the Shirvan shahs fearing attack from the sea. Best preserved are those at Ramana, Nardaran and Mardakan. Ramana also features the remains of ancient oil fields where Zoroastrian fire-worshippers still occasionally stage ritual dances, leaping over the flames which rise from the oil-soaked ground over natural gas vents. The tip of the peninsula is a nature reserve.

The village of Gobustan, about 70 km (43 miles) south of Baku, has an unique array of rock paintings, some of them 10,000 years old and spread over 100 sq km (39 sq miles) of caves and rocky outcrops. The subject matter includes hunting scenes, ritual dances, religious ceremonies, ships, animals and constellations, and many of the rocks are further adorned with signatures and remarks added by visiting Roman soldiers in the first century AD, suggesting that the area has a long history as a tourist attraction.

The Caucasus

The city of Shamakha, 130 km (80 miles) west of Baku in the foothills of the Caucasus, predated Baku as the principal trading centre and capital of the Shirvan shahs. Repeated earthquakes, most recently in 1902, and the ravages of invading armies, have destroyed most of the ancient city which was founded in the second century AD. A 10th-century mosque and a ruined fortress dating from the same period, the Seven Domes Royal Mausoleum, and a modern carpet-weaving centre where traditional techniques are demonstrated provide the main focus of tourist interest in the city.

Sheki is located 380 km (236 miles) west of Baku close to the Georgian border. Archaeological evidence suggests that the city may be one of the oldest settlements in the Caucasus, dating back 2500 years. Tourists can still visit the 18th-century frescoed summer palace and the fortress built by a local warlord who declared Shekhi the capital of an independent khanate. Shekhi was famed for its silk, which is still produced locally, and the bazaars and caravanserais testify to its importance as a trading town. Some of the caravanserais have been restored and now function as hotels and restaurants.




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