Our last-but-not-least stop on the Caucasus itinerary was Baku, the glamorous and cosmopolitan capital of oil-rich Azerbaijan on the shores of the Caspian Sea. "The new Dubai," Tepper calls it, "but with history and character." He wasn't exaggerating when he said it was like nowhere else. Air connections from Tbilisi are frequent and easy, as are those from Istanbul or Moscow, making it an interesting add-on to a longer itinerary (13-hour, nonstop flights from Baku to New York on Airbus-340s with the national carrier Azerbaijan Airlines began in late 2014). Since its independence in 1991, Azerbaijan has been using its ample petro dollars to become the economic engine of the region as well as a fledging cultural center, and if its dazzling array of futuristic architecture and urban planning is any indication, the pace of trailblazing has hit warp speed.
I flew into an airport that would not have been out of place in Qatar and was whisked along a waterfront boulevard lined with parks, splashing fountains and recently opened luxury shops, including Celine, Tom Ford, Ferragamo and Versace. My destination was the new Four Seasons Baku, which could effortlessly keep company with any of Paris' deluxe palace hotels.
A guestroom of the Four Seasons Baku in Azerbaijan. The new property could keep company with any of Paris’ deluxe palace hotels, and is just steps from the Old City, which was recognized in 2000 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo Credit: Paul Thuysbaert
This is Azerbaijan's second oil boom. At the turn of the 19th century, the country was the world's largest oil producer, attracting Russian and European investment. The Rothschilds and Nobel brothers (brother Albert of Nobel Prize fame would stay behind in Norway) together with local "oil barons" built opulent mansions thanks to immense fortunes amassed by Azeri oil. Their philanthropy was responsible for a Monte Carlo-inspired opera house that was the first in the Muslim world.
The mazelike Old City was kept intact within its crenellated, honey-colored limestone walls and in 2000 was recognized as a Unesco World Heritage Site. It has a lived-in energy, home to some 1,000 residents and provides the nicest way to spend an afternoon wandering its winding alleys, shopping for carpets and visiting mini-mosques, a 15th century palace complex and ancient caravanserais, some of which have been converted into atmospheric restaurants where local dishes (a delicious mixture of Caucasian, Turkish and Iranian influences) can be enjoyed.
From here, and just about everywhere, you can see the three new skyscrapers shaped like flames (one of them houses a Fairmont hotel). It is said that Azerbaijan translates from Persian as "The Land of Fire," and Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of fire worship, was practiced here.
Azerbaijan is an Islamic state, although resolutely secular, and relaxed dress is the norm (think miniskirts and platform shoes). Young couples hold hands at Parisian-style cafes, defying Muslim stereotypes. Most visitors come for special events, such as the prestigious inaugural European Games that were taking place during my stay in mid-June. Much of the futuristic architecture on view was completed in time to impress delegates from 40 European countries and the media that followed them. Without a doubt, one of the most eye-catching is the Heydar Aliyev Center by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, a concert hall and exhibition space that has been likened to a space-age Bedouin tent.
Nearby, the new home of the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum resembles the shape of a rolled-up carpet. Within the last three years, a host of five-star hotels have opened to accommodate some of the 2 million tourists who arrived in 2014. The Four Seasons is, hands down, the classiest, a calm oasis in a land of over-the-top glamour and glitz.