So here we are in Baku, after packing last night, been busy with a (2nd) cousin’s wedding, and family coming over from overseas, we barely had time to think about this trip. The flight was fine (felt a little longer than it was because there wasn’t much entertainment for the little guy who got a bit restless – and for his age, who can blame him. At the airport we got our bags a little late which was a bit annoying, especially since my son was pleading for water and/or milk. Eventually made it to the hotel room which was as expected – very nice – and all was well. After a quick period of recovery, headed for an authentic Azeri dinner (way pricier than expected; but no regrets) at the “Karavan Saray” where the atmosphere was awesome and the entertainment in the background was great. The biggest regret of the day (other than the price of the dinner) was forgetting the Traveller’s Baku book that I had so extensively studied and researched for this trip, I tagged the crap out of it for some tips. Luckily I printed the itinerary which came out from reading the book. Looking forward to day number two and our tour guide (who works in the hotel; we met him today) seems friendly. So far no disappointments and having a nice time bonding with the family. (Sultan Inn Hotel, April 5, 2015, 11:32pm Baku Time)**
Our beautiful hotel room
Karavan Saray dinner
Today was the first full day, and jam packed as expected. Started with a nice hotel breakfast, on a great terrace with amazing views and good food. Moved right into the tour with a trip up to the fire mountain to see this thousands years-old natural fire fuelled by gas from inside the earth. Something really cool. It was a cold day but standing next to the flame, I felt like I was being cooked. We moved on to the cluster of tourist sites (traps) with a couple of surprises, went into the open air museum which had traditional pottery and some nice rug making demonstrations, there was also bread making (interrupted by our little guy wanting to pee, now a reoccurring element of the travelling landscape for us). We ended up seeing some animals, a lonely beautiful black donkey, some curious and confused sheep, and Bactrian camels (one of which gave birth in front of us!) a horse and a pony, all of them terrifying our kid (I think we realized in this trip that he is anti-animals).
Burning mountains, castles, camel birth, and winding stairs – oh my
The camel birth was something else, and to see the baby camel trying to stand up and the reaction of the other camels and the protective mother; it was such an unexpected highlight. The sheep were hilarious with their constantly confused looks and bundling up with each other. We moved to a surprisingly interesting (for me anyway) metal museum, i.e. a museum housing a collection of mainly samavahs (Russian tea kettles) with some other unique things like swords, irons, goblets, trays, etc. all with handmade metal work primarily brass and copper. After that we headed out to the “qala” and walking up the stairs yet again reinforced my lack of fitness – we did get a good view of the area but had to scoot back down before being attacked by a large herd of visiting school students (which we bumped into on a couple of occasions earlier already). We made our way to Mardakah Castle (which really wasn’t much since we couldn’t access the actual castle just the surrounding walls, but going up the thick walls gave a decent view and walk around – despite my wife’s issue with heights). Through the narrow curvy stairs our little guy decided to act out because his tiredness began to catch up – on we went though.
The second nice surprise (after the camel birth) was being invited, apparently impromptu but I have my doubts, by the castle guard for tea…. which evolved into desserts, and then to lunch! So we found out that the main son studied in Egypt and speaks Egyptian Arabic which was an unexpected surprise – almost fluently. He had a rough time breaking an engagement there with an Egyptian woman, the mother is a class 7 cook who worked in an orphanage, the father a historian, was showing us old pictures of his army days, and their beautiful black cat (with my son being so neurotic proving yet again his anti –animal bias). Sweets and tea were lovely and handmade (nicely interrupted by our kid’s constant pee requests, which he dealt with pretty well despite the oriental (hole in the ground) toilet, but not so for the misses who “kept it in”. The lunch was simple but filling with lots of good bread, homemade fries, and meat mini-fillet steaks.
They gave my boy an Azeri flag button, a “Cars” car and a sheep piggy bank (a tad random that last one and they keep saying it is the year of the sheep – I think they mean Chinese new year). It was interesting to hear the stories and get a different perspectives on life in Azerbaijan, less polished, less positive, much less hopeful, and more realistic I think. After a solid three hours there we headed back with a very tired kid, and as I type this he is napping with mother in the hotel. Might take it easy tonight with a stroll to fountain square and having a light dinner there. Before we head back to sleep off the day – tomorrow will be another busy one I bet. (Sultan Inn Hotel, 4:54pm, Baku Time)**
Bright Baku @ night
After the last entry we headed out towards what I thought was fountain square, we had a nice dinner at a place called “Mugam Club”, which had great food like Fasanjun, a walnut made sauce with lamb, which was the best we ever had, and sweet pilaf with apricots, raisins and chicken, it was equally exotic and great. We ended off with the usual great Azerbaijani tea and complimented by the thick bread we have grown to love in our trip here. We walked around Istiggiyal Street after walking out of the old city gates. Nice walk that helped us digest the food, got to explore the city and saw it at night which from what we saw was full of bright lights and had a very strong European feel, akin to Paris. The roads and paths were the cleanest we have seen in any city we have visited. Finishing the day with the dessert we packed up from our visit with the Azeri family earlier in the day. After the usual sleep with my son banging his head against mine and him kicking his mom in the stomach (yes he sleep-abuses).
We had our breakfast and off with the tour guide we went to Gobustan, an ancient historic site with cave markings over 30,000 years old, and a quick trip to the nearby museum. Wifey was panicky and paranoid as usual, especially after she saw snake signs, and was told there could be scorpions….so you can imagine her comfort level. She was looking upside, sideways and holding for dear life plus the height issue. Regardless she was a good sport and it was an interesting adventure for me, amazing to be this close and touch these markings. Then we visited the Bibi-Heibet mosque which was serene and relaxing. Followed by the Shervanshah palace, my little demon acting out capped it off a bit quicker than usual, but just before his fit we visited the miniature book museum which was a quirky and an unexpected treat.
When we got back and said out goodbyes to the guide, we set out to eat in an Old Baku restaurant based on the guide’s recommendation. Unfortunately, hunger got the better of me and we settled for a geographically closer restaurant, Tandir (which was the original restaurant I wanted to try). Although it was a short term disappointment (in terms of atmosphere and look) the food ended being very traditional, delicious and cheap – the best qualities I find in a restaurant. We then headed back to the hotel and I ventured out to go up Maidan Tower. What amounted to my biggest disappointment on this trip, the tower was closed for works at the top floor (I may try my luck again tomorrow, our last day) but local kids asked me to wish their classmate a Happy Birthday in Azeri in a video on their phone.
More to see in this City!
For now, we are settling in before heading out to the real fountain square and walking along Nazimi Shopping street. Hopefully we’ll be eating at the Old Baku restaurant which should cap off the things I wanted to see for today…. crossing fingers. (Sultan Inn Hotel, 6:05pm, Baku Time)**
Having walked around Fountain square, Nazimi Road and a whole lot of nice (from an urban planning perspective) square, plazas, and pedestrianized roads it was great working up an appetite. We went into “Manqal” restaurant in the old city (just could not find Old Baku Restaurant, no matter how hard we tried). Good food, nice modern décor, and witch live Azeri traditional music, topped off with the best Azeri Baklava we had. Other than a minor incident where little satan hit his throat against the table edge because as usual he wouldn’t sit still – all went well, and made our way for some more R&R in the hotel. Tomorrow is expected to be easy going spent mainly at the Bulevar (boulevard). (Sultan Inn Hotel, 10:25pm, Baku Time)**
Delicious food and views at Manqal
Truly a nice relaxing day, a great way to end the trip. Had a nice walk along the Bulevar under chilly but sunny morning weather, walking along the Sea, all the way to the mall. The park and landscape was impressive, and at the mall my better half made her purchases and we got the souvenirs for everyone we knew, basically mostly Azeri Tea and some Azeri Honey. We left our little guy (naively so) in a play area in the mall for an hour. Up to the last five minutes he seemed fine, but we got a call (international rates no less, and under my “lovely” roaming costs) saying that he was crying – I guess he had abandonment issues. We felt bad for him, but the break was good for us despite the result (selfish parenting on full display here). After a nice lunch at “Zeytoon”, with impressive views of the sea we walked back. After the little guy had a nice sleep, and me checking again with disappointment the Maidan tower, which was still closed for work, we headed to the hotel room to refresh. On the way got my gift to myself, an unnecessary but unique and hard to resist backgammon board and pieces (I am sure I got ripped off at 40 Manats, about 140 dirhams). Did another stroll along the boulevard, but this time the other side towards Baku Eye, which we went on for some nice views.
After some good exercise in what ended being a hot afternoon, but a chilly and windy evening we had dinner in close proximity at the hotel – and a good idea that was. Firstly, we got 10% discount as hotel guests, the views at night were dramatic and excellent (compared to the usual morning ones we have for breakfast), and following a sidebar incident were our kid held up the men bathroom queue for taking a dump like a trucker – we finished off our trip with a very classy dinner with delicious Fasanjun and Chicken stuffed with nuts and meat – the tea and apple baklava with vanilla ice cream (apple turnovers really) were incredible.
Bye Bye Baku
Now relaxing and packing last minute items to make our journey back to the hustle and bustle of Dubai and back to the stress and routine of everyday life. The trip was great, lots of memories such as the Camel giving birth, 30,000 year-old cave art, being guests at the Mardakan Castle guard’s house and hearing their stories, and of course our bonding time. Felt like a great trip and was really impressed with the country. A much needed and a nice respite – great decision it was to come see the country, and even though I am probably not coming back – who knows – it felt easy and familiar as a country to navigate around (overall English communication was lacking but we got by fine). (Sultan Inn Hotel, 10:23pm, Baku Time)***
Have you guys been to other “Caucas” countries? How do they compare?