Azerbaijan is a former Soviet republic in the Caucasus and variously considered part of Europe or Asia. The country lies on the Caspian Sea. It borders Russia and Georgia to the north, Armenia to the west, and Iran in the south. Through the autonomous exclave of Nakhchivan, which lies between Armenia and Iran, Azerbaijan also shares a short border with Turkey. Selling itself as the ‘Land of Fire’, Azerbaijan (Azərbaycan) is a tangle of contradictions and contrasts. Neither Europe nor Asia, it’s a nexus of ancient historical empires, but also a ‘new’ nation rapidly transforming itself with a super-charged gust of petro-spending.
The cosmopolitan capital, Baku, rings a Unesco-listed ancient core with dazzling 21st-century architecture and sits on the oil-rich Caspian Sea. In the surrounding semi-desert are mud volcanoes and curious fire phenomena. Yet barely three hours’ drive away, timeless rural villages, clad in lush orchards and backed by the soaring Great Caucasus mountains are a dramatic contrast. In most such places, foreigners remain a great rarity, but in return for a degree of linguistic dexterity, you’ll find a remarkable seam of hospitality. And a few rural outposts – from village homestays to glitzy ski- and golf-hotels – now have have the odd English speaker to assist travellers.