William Blakeâs 1803 poem was not referring to the Caucasus or the Caspian, but it fits beautifully. He never had the chance to paint Azerbaijanâs almost infinite variety of landscapes, vistas, scenes or people, sadly. But we can â so lets enjoy them.
Azerbaijan sits astride the mountains that separate the Black and Caspian Seas to west and east; and the steppes and deserts to north and south. From -22m to over 4400m altitude, and from a desiccated 200mm to a jungly 1400mm of rainfall, the compact country squeezes in almost every climate/vegetation zone. Technical words include Tundra, Steppe, semi-desert and rainforest. But a more appetising word set lists the local crops and livestock: cows, buffaloes, sheep and goats, hens by the million and even pigs by the thousand, wine grapes, oranges and tea, apples and lemons, cherries and strawberries, potatoes and tomatoes, and three sorts of mulberries, for silk and dessert. Village fields, urban gardens and best Baku street corner stalls are packed with lovely, fresh, seasonal cheap fruit and veg.
Man was here early to profit. If you ticked âCaucasianâ on a census form, chances are your ancestors hail from here. Thor Heyerdahl, of Kon-Tiki and Ra fame, is convinced that Scandinavians (and their longships) were born by the Caspian. Some of the earliest domesticated horses hail from Azerbaijan, as did the distinctly non-domesticated mighty Urus/Auroch, wild ancestor of our cattle.
Azerbaijan is only the size of Scotland (or Tasmania or Portugal), though with nearly double the population â not entirely due to the number of Scots in Baku, or on the Caspian. But when you explore the vast empty vistas you might think you are in Scotland, or the Alps, or Malta, or North Africa. You choose.
Baku & The Absheron Peninsula.
You are bound to start here, so get a window seat on the way in, and get a quick scan over the Caspian, with oil/gas platforms, saline lakes, flat roofed villages, and the rusty wreckage of soviet heavy industry. If you drive in to the centre in daylight, you will see broad avenues, the new Euro Games stadium, and pass under the shadow of Socar. The State Oil Company casts a long shadow, or rather their ever-unfinished new HQ does. A tall green glass edifice which divides opinion: graceful flame shapes, feminine curves or priapic boasting â take your pick. Central Baku is uber-modern, and the seashore Boulevard is a delight: tree shaded ambles enjoyed by all on a summerâs eve.
The High Caucasus.
As high as the Alps, but rising straight from the Black and Caspian Seas, the mountains are vertiginously awe inspiring, whether from close by, or for a distance â snow-topped even in early Autumn. Deep in the ravines, or in the sunny villages and pastures, it feels like the Alps might have done a century or more ago. Khinalug and Lasa are your lofty destination goals.
The forested, farmed foothills.
Azerbaijan is a fertile farming area. On the slopes of the mountains are both the best views and the most typically historic villages. Key among these are Sheki and nearby Kish. Sheki is the ancient soul of Azerbaijan, and hosts the original âcaravanseraiâ, the gathering place for merchants and adventurers at the start of The Silk Road. It is still working, and is THE place to stay on your own journey. This is not scientific, but it seemed to us to have the largest proportion of locals with bright blue, dare I say Nordic, eyes. Up the valley is the remote and isolated village of Kish with its cobbled back streets, and arguably the oldest church in Europe, built by C.4th Albanian Christians.
The Dry Lands.
An hour from both fertile Sheki and the populous Caspian coast, the road plunges into desert. An astonishing change. The bare hills invite examination as to geological structure and climate. The view changes constantly, and is full of oddities and surprises: here and there a rusting oil derrick, then an aero generator or two, and oddest of all, on a dry col and bend in the road, several people selling ducks â which I always had as a water bird, not a desert dweller.
Is that all? By no means. I have saved a visit to the humid, tea-growing southeast, by the Iranian border, for a future visit, and have spared you the fascinating but depressing views of the wreckage of soviet heavy industry, which have so far defied clean up efforts. They are likely to be there long enough to remind us of industrialisation gone wrong. But letâs end this little tour with two of the best sights in Europe, if not the world.