Better-known for its oil and gas industries, Baku in Azerbaijan is hardly the first choice for a city break. But the destination is opening up to leisure tourism,
I cautiously approach a fire which has been burning for at least 50 years on the side of a mountain outside Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan.
Tendrils of flame, several metres high, leap menacingly from the base of an outwardly unremarkable rocky cliff face.
Underneath the red sandstone of the Yanar Dag, methane gas from a split in the earth fuels the flame and leaves a rich sulphuric smell at this open-air fireplace close to the shores of the Caspian Sea.
I now understand why Azerbaijan is known as the Land of Fire.
Bar a couple of surly dark blue-suited police officers, I’m the only person at the tourist attraction.
It provides my introduction to the Zoroastrian legacy of a country nestled in the Caucasus Mountains.
The 3,500-year-old religion, which teaches that fire represents God’s wisdom, has only a couple of hundred adherents in this tolerant but predominantly Muslim country between Georgia and Iran.
One of the focal points of their worship is the 17th century Baku Ateshgah temple, a museum and shrine to fire with a courtyard surrounded by dark cellar-like rooms for monks and traders.
It attracts pilgrims from across the world but primarily India and Iran.
A stone ‘altar’ in the middle draws the eye to the main flame, accessed by a couple of uneven steps, which radiates an inviting heat on a chilly but sunlit morning.
It is fuelled by a gas pipeline which the Soviets rerouted for industrial purposes during their hegemony in Azerbaijan.
The country’s contemporary creator of fire is its rich oil and gas supply.
Huge yellow and white pipes line many roads, while a metal forest of drilling infrastructure grows on bare rocky land containing the natural resources which have driven the country’s prosperity.
The ‘deal of the century’ signed in 1999 to open a pipeline transporting oil from Baku to Western markets led to enormous riches, and that wealth is reflected in the capital’s myriad neo-classical cream-coloured museums and government buildings.
One of the most recognisable pieces of architecture is the Heydar Aliyev Centre, with its beautiful and flowing lines.
Its startling white minimalism is the vision of Iraqi-British architect Dame Zaha Hadid.
I climb the gently curving steps to the first floor, devoted to chronicling the life of the country’s former president, the eponymous Heydar Aliyev, and Azerbaijan’s achievements.
One symbol of prosperity is the arrival of luxury hotel chains catering for tourists who marvel at the nearby UNESCO world heritage site of Gobustan, with its Bronze Age limestone engravings of fish and bulls.
The HOK-designed Baku Flame Towers, rising nearly 800ft, contain the Fairmont Hotel spread over 36 floors.
I drink a mojito in the lounge on the 19th floor, daring myself to near-vertigo by focusing on car headlights below, which look like a haze of neon, they’re so far away.
The Inner Town, which includes the ruined Palace of the Shirvanshahs and the stone dervishes representing Zoroastrianism, was a stop on the Silk Road for centuries.
Inside one of the traditional lodgings or caravanserais, I enjoy a traditional lunch of delicate herb-filled savoury pancakes (kutabi) and lamb and rice wrapped in starchy grape leaves (dolmas).
Later, as I visit the quiet and solemn Martyrs’ Lane memorial in Baku, I notice the fitting centrepiece is an Eternal Flame, with a plume of fire swaying gently in the breeze.
British Airways operate to Baku from London Heathrow. Three nights at the five-star Fairmont Baku, on accommodation only basis, costs from £899 pp. Travel is valid from January to October. To book, visit ba.com or call 0844 493 0758