Baku's stunning buildings just part of its allure
I'M IN Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea, north of Iran, at the start of a two-week tour with Peregrine Adventures through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia.
It's my first step in a longish Europe trip; in a few weeks my wife Anne and I will meet up in Prague.
I'm stunned by Baku. I knew it had some interesting architecture, but I didn't expect the innovation that I've seen.
Even the drive in from the airport was a joy: truly amazing buildings and wonderful urban design.
In the city proper there is a mix of architectural styles; some Islamic motifs, neo-classical columns, early 20th century mansions that fuse neo-Gothic and neo-Baroque elements, and timber balconies that jut out from the building facades.
Many apartment buildings even have interesting design elements that provide variety instead of dreary sameness.
The bridges have elegant balustrading, the roadside landscaping is careful and formal-ish, the street lights and some poster columns and borrowed direct from Paris; together with the street trees and some wide boulevards, there's a distinct Parisian feel.
But there are also delightful news stands or Kiosk Press that I saw in Istanbul decades ago (the word 'kiosk' is a Turkish word).
Even the service stations are designed with some flair. There's no sign of brutalist Soviet architecture here.
Just as importantly signage is muted: no huge billboards along roadsides, no large neon signs or giant screens, and no big arches at the McDonald's - it's like Noosa's design principles but on a much larger scale.
And there's no litter. The city is clean, but not sterile.
Clever up-lighting on the city's old buildings at night is exquisite.
And it has an old city too. It's a delightful walled enclave with some historical buildings, lots of little winding alleyways, some cobblestoned streets and plenty of touristy cafes and restaurants.
Yes, there's been a lot of renovation, which is ongoing, but old cities are just great.
No doubt a great deal of renovation has been necessary after the 70-year period of Soviet overlordship from 1920 until Azerbaijan independence in 1991.
And it's not crowded; you can quickly find yourself alone, and there's a gentle, casual feel to the tourism game.
I love it!
Odd fact: Baku is 28 metres below sea level, the lowest-lying capital city in the world.
My driver from the airport seemed to consider the 120km per hour speed limit inadequate for getting from A to B, and many others thought likewise.
Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia form the sub-region known as the South Caucasus, that is south of the Caucasus mountain range, which runs east-west between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. North of here is Russia. To the south are Turkey and Iran.
There are a multitude of different ethnic groups, and languages, and therefore a great deal of historical tensions and conflicts within the Caucasus.
It's been sandwiched between Persian and Byzantine (and earlier, Roman) empires; and fought over by Ottoman, Persian and Russian empires.