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Baku – The City of Winds In The Land Of Fire

Baku – The City of Winds In The Land Of Fire

The Land of Fire might sound like something you could only visit in a film or a book, but it’s actually nestled between Armenia, Iran and Russia, on the border of Asia and Europe, in the country of Azerbaijan.

The country is as magical as its nickname makes it sound, with a mixture of rural countryside, impressive mountain backdrops, and dry landscapes dotted with volcanoes.

Throughout the country’s history there have also been a few fiery mysteries that have helped to form Azerbaijan’s reputation as the Land of Fire. Flames would burst not only from the mountains, but also from the ocean, and fires would burn seemingly constantly. As you can imagine, the fires of Azerbaijan were regarded with suspicion, fear and wonder, but there’s actually a scientific explanation behind them. The land in Azerbaijan is rich in oil and subterranean natural gas, which often leaks up through the earth and is then ignited, which causes a fire to burn until the gas runs out.

Azerbaijan is also a gateway between the east and the west. It is home to different cultures and industries, and the influence of different historic empires can be seen in every village, town and city. But the capital city, Baku, is where everything in Azerbaijan comes together.

Baku literally translates as ‘wind-pounded city’ and it’s known around the world as the City of Winds, thanks to the cold winds from the Caspian Sea that blow through Baku year-round. But there’s so much more to the city than its infamous strong winds.

Baku is the meeting point of different cultures and industries in Azerbaijan. As the country’s capital and a city with traces of human settlement that date back to the stone age, the city is the perfect place to visit for those wanting to taste everything Azerbaijan has to offer. Even just a short visit to Baku will be packed full of history, culture and beautiful natural scenery.

 

Setting foot in Baku
Having decided to visit the City of Winds, we flew to Baku on 11th July and were greeted by one of the most efficient airports we’ve ever flown to. There were plenty of counters open at security and, thanks to our e-visa, we practically flew through security.

After we’d collected our bags and made our way into the arrivals hall, several people approached us offering taxi services. Whilst we were hoping to get a taxi to our first hotel, we decided to play it safe and make our way to the official airport taxi counter. We hadn’t brought any of the local currency with us though, so we stopped off at the currency exchange counter and in no time at all we exchanged 20 of our Kuwaiti Dinars for 100 Azerbaijani Manat, which was more than enough to pay for the taxi fare of 28AZN.

The official taxis were easy to spot, as they were exactly the same style as London cabs, the only difference being that rather than black they were purple in colour. Inside was comfortable enough too, with plenty of space for the four of us. We were able to sit facing each other, so we could chat and enjoy the views of the city as we drove to our first hotel.

Our twenty minute taxi ride gave us the chance to take in the city and we were pleasantly surprised by how modern the cityscape was. Baku might have a lot of history but its streets are lined with modern buildings and the contemporary Flame Towers define the city’s impressive skyline. We also drove past a lot of the places we were planning on visiting during our trip, including the Heydar Aliyev Centre: a cultural centre and an architectural masterpiece by the late architect Zaha Hadid.

The Heydar Aliyev Centre was an attraction I had been excited to visit for a while and the main reason we chose Baku as our destination. The Centre is one of the most iconic buildings in Baku, its design symbolising modern Azerbaijan and its deep connection with both the past and the future. Each part of the Centre’s logo also has a deep meaning; the silver symbolising leadership, struggle and wisdom; the lines symbolising Azerbaijan’s dynamic development; and the overall logo representing Azerbaijan’s progress, future and aspirations.

With the Centre having so much meaning behind it, and with it being such a beautiful building, even just the drive past it was emotional and awe-inspiring. Finally, we had made it to the City of Winds.

Holiday Inn: our first hotel in Baku

Just a few minutes after driving past the Heydar Aliyev Centre, we approached Holiday Inn, our home for the next two nights.

The area around the hotel seemed even more city-like than what we’d already seen, with surrounding office buildings, shopping malls like Port Baku Shopping Mall, popular fashion shops and luxury car showrooms. Two towers stood tall above these buildings though and as we got closer, we realised that these two towers were part of Holiday Inn, our hotel. The two towers actually formed each side of the ‘H’ shaped building, with the lobby in the middle.

After thanking our taxi driver, we entered the hotel and found ourselves in a sleek and modern lobby. There was a long front desk, with several staff checking people in and out, and helping with any queries, and beside the front desk there was also an electronic information point.

We had arrived around midday and there were plenty of people coming, going and waiting in the lobby. That being said, the lobby was so spacious that it didn’t feel busy at all and within a few seconds we were greeted by friendly and helpful staff who helped us check-in quickly and smoothly.

After the check-in process, we made our way to our room on the 6th floor. The room had a simple yet elegant design, with a comfortable king bed and a big window offering great views of the city.

There was also a large TV, a laptop-friendly workspace and an armchair by the window to relax in. The effective air conditioning and black-out curtains also made the room the perfect place to escape from the heat for a while.

 

Venturing into the Old City
After exploring our room and unpacking some of our luggage, we decided to make the most of the rest of the afternoon and get out and about. We asked reception for recommendations on where to go for the afternoon and where to grab a bite to eat. They suggested we took a taxi to the Old City, so we did just that.

The Old City was just a ten minute drive from the hotel so the taxi fare hardly cost us anything, although we could easily withdraw money from the ATM in the hotel’s lobby.

Our driver dropped us just outside the Maiden Tower, a monument dating back centuries and one that I’d been excited to see. As one of Azerbaijan’s national emblems, and as a monument that appears on the local currency notes, it was a must-see.

I’d also heard so much about the myths and legends surrounding the tower. No-one knows exactly when or why it was built, but there are several interesting tales about the Maiden Tower’s history. In some legends, the tower was a fire temple tower, which stood amidst the constantly burning fires of Azerbaijan. One myth even states that fire actually burned on top of the tower and when a piece of this holy fire fell to the ground, a fiery haired girl arose from the flames, who then saved the slaves of Baku.

The mystery and historic value of the Maiden Tower has made it one of the most valued national emblems, so it’s now a much loved tourist attraction which houses a museum about the history of the city and also a gift shop.

Unfortunately, by the time we got to there, the Tower had actually closed for the day, but we were still able to enjoy the sight of the Maiden Tower, take our photos and enjoy the surrounding area: The Old City.

We strolled through the streets of the Old City, taking in the lively atmosphere and quaint buildings in the city’s historic centre. We browsed the shops selling gifts, souvenirs and antiques, before deciding to find somewhere to eat. Choosing a restaurant wasn’t an easy decision, as there were so many delicious looking places, but eventually we decided on the Hanimeli restaurant which had outdoor seating and a local feel. The food was even better than we’d imagined and we couldn’t have asked for a better price per dish.

After our late lunch we were pretty tired and the thought of walking wasn’t quite so appealing anymore. We took a short stroll though to walk off some of our lunch and picked up some tour package leaflets to take a look through. Then we took a cab back to the hotel so we could relax and make the most of the hotel facilities for the rest of the day.

 

A relaxing afternoon at Holiday Inn

Once we got back to the hotel, the first thing we wanted to do was check out the indoor pool. We stopped by the room quickly to gather our swimming things before heading down to the 2nd floor to take a refreshing dip.

The indoor heated pool was just what we needed after a long day of travelling and exploring in the sun. We had the pool pretty much to ourselves, so we had a good swim and relax on the rattan loungers. We could even order soft drinks, protein drinks and milk shakes by the poolside.

As well as the pool, there were also a few spa facilities, including a steam room, a sauna and hydrotherapy jets. So we were able to get the full spa experience just four floors down from our hotel room.

We also had the option to book spa treatments with the team of professional therapists. There was a whole spa menu, including skin treatments, massages, beauty treatments like manicures, pedicures and reflexology therapies.

If we’d have had the energy, we could also have made use of the fully equipped fitness centre which had all the gym equipment you could possibly imagine, including rowers, treadmills, bike machines, weights and more. There was even an on-site fitness trainer for anyone that needed any help or advice.

Once we’d finished our swim, we headed back up to our room. We connected to the high-speed Wi-Fi and used our spare time to call family and friends and share our experience and photos so far.
We then decided to make a plan for the next day, so we could fit as much in as possible. We browsed all of the tour leaflets we had picked up earlier that day and eventually we all agreed on a full-day tour of 7 tourist locations in the city. We called and booked the tour for 200AZN and suddenly couldn’t wait for tomorrow.

All of the excitement meant we’d built up an appetite, so we thought we’d try out the Holiday Inn’s room service, rather than going back out into the city. The hotel offered both a room service menu and the chance to order in from off-site restaurants, so even without leaving our room we were spoilt for choice when deciding what to have for dinner. We chose a few things from the room service menu rather than ordering in, as we’d had a big lunch. Our food arrived quickly and was just what we needed after a long day.

 

Breakfast with a view

The next day we woke up refreshed and ready for our full-day tour. We’d had the perfect sleep, thanks to the comfortable beds and our previous afternoon of relaxation. The black-out curtains and air conditioning had kept us cool during the night and stopped the sun breaking through the room too early in the morning.

There was plenty of space in the room for us all to wash and get ready for the day and the walk-in shower was the perfect way to freshen up after a long and deep sleep.

Once we were all ready, we made our way up to the 18th floor, where our included breakfast was served. When we walked into the restaurant, we were instantly stunned by the amazing views over the city. The large windows meant that we could look out and admire the view whilst eating. I’m honestly not sure what was better, the food or the view!

Breakfast was a continental buffet, with every breakfast item you could ever want or need, from fruit, to cereals, to pastries. There was so much to choose from we ended up having a little of almost everything so by the time we had finished we were absolutely stuffed!

Around us in the restaurant was a mixture of other families and tourists getting ready for a day of sightseeing, plus those traveling for business. The hotel’s facilities meant it was perfect for any kind of traveller.

 

One day, five sights

After breakfast we made our way down to lobby to wait to be picked up for our tour. We weren’t the only ones off on a day tour, as there were several groups waiting to be picked up in the lobby, all them looking as excited as we felt.

We didn’t have to wait long though, as our driver was already waiting for us and he showed us to a Mercedes Viano, our ride for the day. The SUV was modern and comfortable and the air conditioning gave us a welcome break from the hot sunny weather.

The first destination of the day was the Mud Volcanoes. These volcanoes were grey in colour and more flat-lying than most typical volcanoes. They erupt every twenty years or so, when gas trying to escape the earth ignites below the surface, causing an explosion. It sounds scary, but the mud volcanoes are quite far out from the cities, so rarely do they interfere with human life.
Our guide told us that the mud from these volcanoes can actually be used as a cure for skin problems, so we seized the opportunity to fill a few bottles with it to take home to my Mom, who struggles with skin problems.

We then moved on to the Gobustan Caves, where an English speaking guide told us all about the ancient carvings in the caves which depict prehistoric life in the Caucasus region. There were carvings of boats and battles, dances and rituals, even the sun and stars.

After the caves we went to the Bibi-Heybat Mosque, a recreation of the 13th century mosque that was destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1936. The mosque was definitely a sight to behold, its three domes decorated with turquoise and green mirrors and inscriptions from the Qur’an.

The mosque is also home to the tomb of Ukeyma Khanum, a descendent of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), and is now the spiritual centre for Muslims in this area of Azerbaijan. The mosque has become well-known around the world, thanks to Alexander Dumas and his book ‘The World’, in which he wrote ‘The mosque – a place of worship for infertile women, they come here on foot, worship, and within a year gain the ability to give birth.’

After visiting the Bibi-Heybat Mosque, we were all exhausted and hungry. Our guide recommended we stop for lunch at the MD Palace Elita Restaurant. The food was fantastic, with a range of European and Mediterranean dishes available, but more than anything we were grateful for a rest.

We then continued our trip with a visit to the Fire Temple, also known as Ateshgah. The temple is built like a castle-complex, with a pentagonal shape, and dates back to the 17th century. The temple was built above a natural gas vent, where natural fires would occur, and in the middle of the temple’s courtyard there is an altar, once used for fire rituals. When the natural gas would ignite, it would light a fire in the alter and in the rooftop corners of the temple.

The Fire Temple used to be a place of worship first for Zoroastrians and later for Hindus, but in the 19th century it was abandoned completely. The fires now no longer burn at Baku’s Ateshgah, as the land’s natural gas has been removed and exploited.

Our next stop was again fire related, as we visited the Fire Mountain (Yanar Dag). Baku’s Fire Mountain is also known as the eternally burning fire of Azerbaijan. This hill is located on top of a natural gas pocket, and with no source of liquid to extinguish the fire, the fire has been burning in this very spot for as long as anyone can remember.

This was quite a sight to see, with flames burning high into the air. Knowing that this fire had been burning for who knows how long made the whole experience even more magical.

We decided to end our tour there, as we were all exhausted after an early start and active day of sightseeing in the sun. So we hopped back in the SUV one last time and made our way back to the hotel.

The tour had definitely been a success. We’d seen more of Baku in one day than we could have managed to fit in on our own and we’d seen just how vast and varied the natural sights of Azerbaijan are.

The friendly greetings of the hotel staff when we returned made it feel like we’d come home. We’d made our way up to our room, kicked off our shoes and collapsed onto the bed. Somehow, our room felt even more comfortable and homely after a big day out. We’d had a long day in the hot sun, so we each had a much-needed shower before taking some time out to just relax in the room.
Once we had recovered from the day of adventure, we thought we’d make the most of our last night in Holiday Inn by visiting the pool again. This time though, we probably did more relaxing than actual swimming!

When we got back to the room we decided to order room service again. It was so good the night before that we couldn’t wait to have it again and we were definitely too tired to go back out for dinner.

 

Our last morning at Holiday Inn
The next morning was our last morning at Holiday Inn, as later that day we were checking in to Baku’s Four Seasons Hotel. We made the most of breakfast once again, trying the different breakfast items that we didn’t have room for the morning before. We took in the view from the 18th floor one last time and then ventured out for a stroll around the hotel.

We went to the Port Baku Mall, which was directly opposite the hotel. The mall was a huge modern shopping centre with a beautiful design and lots of designer and luxury brands. After we’d browsed the shops and taken in the grandeur of the mall, we headed back outside to continue walking around the area. Once we were satisfied we’d seen as much as we wanted to, we took a cab to our second hotel: the Four Seasons Hotel.

A royal welcome at the Four Seasons Hotel

It only took us ten minutes or so to drive to the Four Seasons Hotel from Holiday Inn. As we approached we were delighted to see that the Four Seasons Hotel was just a stone’s throw from the Old City. In fact, it was almost within its boundaries, so we were excited to be so close to the Maiden Tower.

When we entered the hotel, we were struck by the grandeur of the lobby. Intricate glass chandeliers hung above a marble floor and luxe gold ornamental candle-holders lined the walls. A grand staircase spiralled round the Roman-style pillars, leading to the rooms and suites, which we were now desperate to see.

As if the classically elegant design of the hotel wasn’t a grand enough welcome, we were greeted by a friendly team of staff, who called me by name without me even having to introduce myself. It wasn’t just one member of staff who knew my name and was expecting me, every staff member we came across greeted me personally (again using my name), making me feel like royalty. This was shaping up to be one of the most impressive hotels we had ever stayed in, with the building being an architectural work of art and the staff being so attentive.

We took a seat on one of the comfortable sofas in the lobby whilst the staff sorted our room and prepared our keys. Without us even asking, a waiter brought us all some cold and fresh water.

The hotel had a total of nine floors, and our room was on the 7th, which was one of the top floors. Above us, on the eighth floor there were more guest rooms, as well as two Presidential Suites. Above that was the much-anticipated Jaleh Spa and treatment rooms. The pool was actually on the same floor as our room, but to reach it we had to enter the Health Centre on the 9th or 5th floor to take a private elevator to it. .

We could barely contain our excitement as we opened the door to our room – we definitely weren’t disappointed! The room had more space than we knew what to do with. It was as elegant and luxurious in design as the lobby had been, with a gold frame around the huge bed, fresh flowers in a delicate vase and matching armchairs, foot stools and ottomans. Tall glass double doors opened out onto a balcony where we could take in the beautiful view of Baku’s water promenade and, for the evenings, floor length drapes could be pulled across to block out the light. The moment we saw the view we were thrilled to be on the highest possible floor.

There was also a generously sized desk with a swish and comfortable office chair and a useful desk lamp, so had we been traveling for business, the room would have been perfect for work as well as leisure.

Once we’d finished marvelling at the luxury of our room, we took a look at our bathroom. We were already in love with the Four Seasons Hotel, but after seeing the beautiful bathroom, we didn’t ever want to leave! A gold framed mirror filled the space above the two silver-tapped sinks and two lamps either side of the mirror lit up the bathroom perfectly, making the silver and gold shine in contrast with the sleek black surface tops and marble panels. We had both a rainfall shower and a bath with complimentary toiletries fit for a King.

After taking in the splendour of our room and the view, we freshened up, unpacked some of our luggage, then headed out for lunch. It was tempting to just spend the day enjoying the hotel, but we only had a couple of days left in Baku and wanted to make the most of it.

The friendly team of staff on the front desk recommended that we try the Burc Qala restaurant in the Old City. The restaurant had a historic theme, with stone walls and tapestry-style seats inside, and an al fresco seating area covered with a trellis. This was by far the best restaurant we had visited in Baku. The food and the ambience were perfect and the location couldn’t have been better.

The staff were friendly, welcoming and helpful and despite the prime location, the price was very reasonable.

After lunch we took a short walk before visiting the Carpet Museum that we’d heard so much about. The Carpet Museum was directly opposite the hotel and displayed different Azerbaijani rugs, carpets and weaving styles. The museum has the largest collection of Azerbaijani carpets in the world.

From the museum we walked back to the hotel, using the underground subway. The second we entered the hotel, we were hit with the loveliest fragrance you can imagine. Everywhere we went in the hotel, even in the elevators, this fragrance filled the air making each moment sweeter.

We had seen a little of the area outside, but now we were keen to explore the pool and the spa, so we gathered our swimming things from the room and made our way up.

We stopped by a balcony overlooking the indoor pool before making our way down where we were amazed to see that it was absolutely huge. In fact, it was probably the best pool we had ever seen inside a hotel.

The high ceiling seemed to be miles above the pool, making it feel even grander, and the window-shaped arches in the wall were filled with gold paintings of trees, making the pool feel connected with the outside world. There was also sun loungers around the pool’s edge were we could sit and relax or read after a swim.

Once we’d had a swim and enjoyed the pool area, we made our way back to the room where we were able to catch one of the FIFA matches on TV. We didn’t want to miss the finals, so were more than pleased that we could watch the football on our large flat screen, whilst relaxing on our comfortable beds.

Once the match was over we got up and went back out to explore the city some more. We walked for around fifteen minutes to Fountain Square, which turned out to be a busy and interesting place, with lots of people gathering to enjoy the good weather.

We walked around the area for a while, taking in the atmosphere before grabbing a quick burger from one of the food trucks. We then decided to call it a day and headed back to the Four Seasons to get a good night’s rest.

 

Visiting the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre

We woke up feeling a little reluctant to leave our beds as they were so comfortable, but we were excited to see what the Four Seasons had in store for breakfast, and today was the day we were going to visit the Heydar Aliyev Centre.

Breakfast was held in Zafferano’s, an elegant dining room, with the same luxe gold theme as the rest of the hotel. There was plenty to choose from at breakfast, with a continental breakfast buffet, a separate Zafferano’s breakfast buffet serving both hot and cold items, a bakery section, egg dishes to order and more.

As you can imagine, we made the most of breakfast and took our time enjoying the delicious food and friendly atmosphere.

Once we were satisfied we’d eaten enough to set us up for the day, we took a taxi to the Heydar Aliyev Centre. Even though we’d driven past it on our journey from the airport, we were still amazed by the beauty of its design when we approached it for the second time. The curved design blended so seamlessly with the city that it seemed just to rise out of the pavement.

There were two parts to the building, the first part consisted of five floors, and the second had four floors, so there was plenty to explore. Even just the first part was packed with displays, exhibitions and information. The ground floor housed a photo and art exhibition, whilst the next floor was full of miniature models of buildings in Baku. The next floors had exhibitions on dolls, fashion from different eras and other art exhibitions.

After we’d made our way through everything in the first part, we moved on to the second part, where we saw exhibitions and displays dedicated to the history of Baku and the personal life and achievements of Hayder Aliyev. After this, we walked along to the museum of miniature books – the only one of its kind in the world.

It had been a busy and tiring day so far, so we made our way back to the hotel and ordered food to the room.

A pampering afternoon at the Four Seasons Spa

That afternoon, I had booked myself in at the spa for their famous Jaleh massage. This massage used pressure techniques and Moroccan Argan oil to relieve stress. I can definitely say, I felt amazing afterwards! Travelling is obviously a lot of fun, but it also involves a lot of walking and planning, which can build up tension in the muscles, so this massage was just what I needed.

After the treatment I was able to relax in the spa and health club. The 9th floor Jaleh Spa was even more luxurious than what we’d seen of the rest of the hotel. There were windows offering the best views in the whole hotel, comfortable heated loungers to relax on, a Jacuzzi, and a Turkish-style hammam. It’s safe to say that when I left the spa, I felt more relaxed than ever before.

 

Our last full day in Baku

The next day we decided to try and fit a few things in, as it was our last full day in Baku. I was feeling rejuvenated after my spa afternoon the previous day, so I was raring to go and excited to see more of the city.

The first thing on the agenda was Upland Park, which was fairly close to the hotel. The park is one of the most picturesque places in Baku. There were lots of steps to walk to the top of the park, but it was definitely worth the climb. We had a great view of the city and the Flame Towers from the top and we were able to take some amazing holiday photos.

After the park, we visited the National Museum of History, which was split into two parts, much like the Heydar Aliyev Centre. We started with the first part which was a museum about the history of Baku and Azerbaijan, before moving on to the second part which focused on the life of Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev, an Azerbaijani national industrial magnate and philanthropist.

From the National Museum of History we took a taxi to the second largest mall in Baku: the Ganclik Mall. The mall was modern with a glass ceiling, several floors and lots of international brands to browse. We had lunch here in the food court, as there were so many different restaurants to choose from, before returning to the hotel to relax and watch the FIFA finals.

After the finals, we went for a walk to the Boulevard Park, which ran alongside the seafront. We enjoyed the evening breeze as we walked along the promenade in the City of Winds. We couldn’t help but feel a little sad that this was our last evening in Baku.

We walked to the Old City to have dinner at the Mangal Restaurant before heading back to the hotel to prepare for our flight the next day.

 

Saying goodbye to Baku

The next day we had a leisurely morning, taking our time to get ready and have breakfast. We weren’t in any rush so we ordered some of the cooked dishes from the breakfast menu, which, no surprise, were delicious.

When we left the breakfast dining room, the staff recommended that before leaving we visit Hi-VIP, Baku’s best sweet shop, to buy and try some local sweets, so we headed out into the city one last time, on a mission to find some tasty and sweet souvenirs.

Hi-VIP definitely lived up to our expectations. The owner of the store was friendly and helpful and recommended different sweets to us. We bought some local sweets including Shekerbura and Pakhlava, to take home for friends and family, before getting a taxi to the airport.

 

Our time in Baku had been amazing, but it was now time to say goodbye to the beautiful city, and catch our flight home.

 

 


Holiday Inn Baku Keykab Khanim Safaraliyeva Street 5, AZ1010,
Baku – Azerbaijan
Phone: +994 12 599 1105
Fax: +994 12 599 1101
www.holidayinn.com


Four Seasons Hotel Baku, Azerbaijan
1, Neftchilar Avenue, Baku, AZ1095, Azerbaijan
Phone:+994 12 404 2424
Fax:+994 12 404 2425

Email: contactus.baku@fourseasons.com

www.fourseasons.com/baku

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