A year in Azerbaijan: From spring’s Grand Prix to winter ski adventures


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Anyone who has tuned in to the Azerbaijan Grand Prix has seen a tantalizing glimpse of what the capital Baku has to offer. The race, which takes place downtown, whips through the city streets taking in sights both ancient and modern in a nation that’s on the move.

On April 30 the Grand Prix returns, and with it a host of tourists cheering on the fastest men on four wheels. But there’s so much more to Baku, and so much more to this country at the heart of the Caucasus, than one weekend every year.

From flaming springs and burning mountainsides to its idyllic coastline, the nation known as “The Land of Fire” is packed with strange and wonderful geography. This historic meeting point of cultures means there’s rich traditions waiting to be explored, in a place where world heritage sites and contemporary masterpieces rub shoulders.

Let CNN guide you through the seasons as you discover Azerbaijan’s many delights.

This year’s Grand Prix comes at the height of spring, often said to be Azerbaijan’s most beautiful season. The country comes to life to celebrate Novruz – a festival held across Central Asia. Mountain snow thaws, nature blooms and temperatures slowly rise without ever getting too hot – making it a perfect time for outdoor adventures.

Spring awakening

Falling in March every year, the Novruz festival symbolizes the arrival of spring after a long winter’s hibernation. Celebrations begin four weeks before the spring equinox, with each Tuesday representing one of the four elements – earth, wind, fire and water. The festival dates back thousands of years, so expect ancient rituals from jumping over bonfires to traditional dances. It is also the time to feast: Azerbaijan’s most beloved pastries stuffed with sweet nut fillings and spices are baked during March, and plates of levengi – a sweet-sour dish of fish or chicken stuffed with nuts, fruits and spices – are a Novruz specialty.

Hike Azerbaijan’s stunning mountains

April marks the start of Azerbaijan’s hiking season and hiking doesn’t get much more spectacular – and challenging – than here. The breathtaking scenery reaches across the whole country, from the high peaks of the Greater Caucasus to the Tolkienesque forests of the Talysh Mountains and the otherworldly Candy Cane Mountains near Baku – named after the swirling red-and-white striped rockfaces.

If long distance trails are your thing, Azerbaijan was recently included on the Transcaucasian Trail, with a route extending from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. Walkers will encounter old fortresses, religious sites and the generous hospitality of local villagers.

Exploring the streets of Baku

Azerbaijan’s capital Baku is an amazing amalgamation of old and new. Stroll through the cobbled streets of the old town – still Baku’s cultural heart – and take in the artists’ workshops, cafés and museums. Tour the 12th century Maiden Tower, Shirvanshahs’ Palace and the old mosques and hammams. Modern architectural highlights include the iconic Flame Towers and Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center.

Make sure to go with an appetite, as Baku is also where many of the country’s food traditions collide. You’ll find numerous varieties of plov, a saffron-infused rice that is widespread across the country, and dushbara – dumplings filled with lamb or mutton and served in a broth.

Wildlife spotting

Azerbaijan’s national parks come into their own during spring, blooming with wildflowers and wildlife. Go birdwatching in Shirvan National Park, in the south east of the country, where from April to June you may see giant flocks of little bustards, sometimes numbering more than 25,000 birds. The lowland steppes are also home to the iconic goitered gazelle, populations of which have bounced back significantly in the country during the last 50 years.

Closer to Baku, Absheron National Park features a mixed landscape of arid plains and coastal wetlands. It too is renowned for its birdlife and if you’re lucky, at the tip of the cape from spring to summer you may also spot a Caspian seal – one of the smallest types of seals in the world.

Summers in Azerbaijan are hot, so getting out of the city is a good idea. From azure waters to lofty peaks, the country’s varied and glorious terrain offers no shortage of ways to cool off. That’s not to say the cities empty out – the cultural calendar in Baku is heaving, and those warm evenings are perfect for throwing yourself into the capital’s nightlife.

Escape to the Caspian Sea

When the mercury rises, locals head for the coast. The Caspian Sea is the world’s largest inland body of water and experiences milder weather during July and August, making it the perfect place to beat the heat.

Close to Baku, the Absheron Peninsula has many resorts in which to kick back. Beaches along the northern coast at Bilgah, Mardakan, Pirshagi, Nardaran and Zagulba offer wide strips of golden sand with minimal crowds, while south of the capital, Lankaran is famed for its black volcanic sand. And if lounging around isn’t your thing, there are watersports aplenty. Windsurfing is popular on the south of the peninsula, while 50 minutes’ drive north of Baku is Shorabad, where you’ll find a well-equipped kitesurfing school.

Watch a grandmaster show you their moves

Chess is huge in Azerbaijan. Young and old alike are obsessed with the game, and this year interest will peak at the FIDE World Cup, held in Baku. Taking place between July and August, 206 players will line up to knock each other down. Expect locals to lend their support to homegrown grandmasters like current world number 10 Teimour Radjabov.

Get a closer look at Azerbaijan’s ancient history

Gobustan, a coastal settlement south of Baku, is home to more than 6,000 UNESCO-listed rock carvings, some dating back over 15,000 years. Depicting scenes of hunting, dancing and animal symbolism, they offer a unique insight into prehistoric life in the region. Early images include oxen and horses, while in the Neolithic era (4,000-2,500 BCE), there are scenes of sacrifice and ritual magic. In the Middle Ages Islamic inscriptions begin to emerge. The artworks are dotted around 20 locations spread between three hills in Gobustan State Reserve. To get to them one must pass the Gaval Dash – one of four “singing stones” in the reserve – named because of the hollow ringing sound the two-meter-long stone makes when hit with smaller stones.

Keep cool in the mountain air

If you’re not going to the coast, the best way to keep cool in summer is to head for the hills. The north-westerly city of Gakh is the gateway to mountain villages like Ilisu. Once a sultanate, Ilisu features quaint stone houses and thermal springs that are said to have healing properties. Head south from Gakh and you’ll find the historic city of Sheki, once a key trading point along the Silk Road. The main attraction is the ornate Sheki Khan’s Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in the 18th century using the finest materials from France, Russia, Iran and the Ottoman empire.

Fall can come as a welcome break from Azerbaijan’s sweltering summers. There’s still plenty of sunshine, but temperatures drop and the country’s rich rusty hues emerge. Venture to the lakes and national parks and indulge in Azerbaijan’s juicy fall produce, from pomegranates and persimmons to the local wines.

Sample honey and wine

While it may not be as famous for its wine as France or Italy, Azerbaijan is considered one of the ancient cradles of winemaking, with grape cultivation dating back thousands of years. The grape harvest takes place at the start of fall, so it’s the perfect season to visit the country’s wineries. Göygöl winery in northwestern Azerbaijan dates back to 1860 and offers tastings in its original cellar, or visit the Ismayilli region, on the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus mountains, which is home to Azerbaijan’s last functioning collective farm. Its grapes are used to make the “Ivanovka” brand and the area is also famous for its delicious honey – a winning combination.

Groove at Baku’s Jazz Festival

In October, Baku swings into life with its annual international jazz festival. Founded in 2005 by the Azerbaijani musician Rain Sultanov, the festival consists of 10 days of concerts and jam sessions, and has been attended by legendary global artists such as Herbie Hancock, Charles Lloyd and Diana Krall. It’s an opportunity for Azerbaijani jazz musicians to perform for the international crowd, and for visitors to listen to a diverse range of styles at venues across the city, from concert halls to cocktail bars.

Feast on pomegranates

Pomegranates are considered a culinary treasure in Azerbaijan and hold a deep symbolic meaning in the country’s culture – associated with productivity, abundance, love, passion and eternity. Goychay, a region in central Azerbaijan, is famous for growing the fruit, and it’s here that the annual pomegranate festival, Nay Bayrami, takes place in October, attracting tens of thousands of visitors. It’s a taste sensation, with the rich fruit added to everything from jams and cakes to dumplings and stews. There are also competitions for the biggest pomegranate and who can juice a pomegranate fastest by hand.

Wonder at Lake Göygöl

“Göygöl” translates as “blue” which makes sense when you see the color of this spectacular lake located at the foot of Mount Kapaz in the Göygöl National Park. It is considered the centerpiece of a series of lakes formed as a result of a huge earthquake in 1139. Surrounded by forests, it’s a beautiful place to visit as the leaves begin to turn. There are hiking trails all around the beauty spot, and the area is rich in wildlife, including wolves, jackals and bears.

Wrap up, because even at its coldest Azerbaijan still has plenty to offer. The Caucasus Mountains come to life with skiers looking for the perfect run, and “The Land of Fire” has a wealth of breathtaking geographic phenomena for visitors to experience.

Ski in style

The Caucasus offer plenty of terrain for intrepid skiers and snowboarders. Shahdag Mountain Resort, in the shadow of mighty Mount Shahdag, is the go-to for winter breaks and has the biggest ski area. Lifts take visitors up to 7,713 feet (2,351 meters) with 14 miles (23 kilometers) of pistes available. Temperatures can dip below minus four degrees Fahrenheit (-20 degrees Celsius), meaning if the snowpack is suboptimal, the resort’s snow canons have no issue keeping the slopes whiter than white.

See why “The Land of Fire” got its name

Thanks to its natural gas reserves, Azerbaijan has some extremely unusual natural fires. On the Absheron Peninsula, gas rising to the surface at Yanar Dag (“burning mountainside”) is said to have stayed alight for 4,000 years, come rain or shine. Ateshgah Fire Temple near to Baku is also worth a visit, even if the gas there is now supplied by the mains. But if you want to have your understanding of the elements totally turned on its head, Yanar Bulgag fire spring is a must. The spring, close to Astara in the south of the country, produces both water and flames – or rather, the water is flammable because of its methane content. People travel from all over to collect the water, which is said to have health benefits.

Cut a rug (on second thoughts, best not)

Did you know there are seven schools of Azerbaijani carpet weaving? Now you do. You’ll learn much more at the Azerbaijan National Carpet Museum in Baku. The museum, which, naturally, is shaped like a rolled-up carpet, contains over 6,000 artifacts that the institution calls the “nation’s most valuable heritage.” Visitors can read up on the history and cultural significance of carpets and see traditional costumes, ceramics and jewelry. Keep an eye out for guest exhibitions, which highlight the best and most important textiles from around the world.

Bathe in bubbling mud

Azerbaijan may be famed as the land of fire, but it is also the land of mud. There are more than 400 mud volcanoes in the country, including the world’s largest. To witness these gurgling oddities take a day trip to Gobustan, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from central Baku, where you can clamber up the sides of the volcanoes, and in some cases even take a mud bath (although avoid the ones that contain radioactive material).