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


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CNN  — 

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.