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Azerbaijan, a hidden gem on the Caspian Sea

Azerbaijan is nation most often associated with sporting events such as the 2019 Europa League final between Chelsea and Arsenal and the Baku City Circuit Grand Prix.

It’s also known for its involvement in the Eurovision song contest, which they won back in 2011 and subsequently hosted the following year.

So, people have heard of Azerbaijan, but pointing to it on a map is a different matter. It’s located on the western side of the Caspian Sea, which in fact isn’t a sea, it’s the world’s largest lake. Bordered by Iran to the south, Armenia to the west and Georgia and Russia to the North.

It’s a nation steeped in culture and history, one that played an instrumental role in the Silk Road. The Old City in the capital, Baku is a Unesco Heritage Site dating back to the 7th century with the legend of the Maiden Tower still causing speculation across the wider city today.

Azerbaijan was under Soviet Union rule for nearly seven decades until 1991 when Azerbaijan reclaimed their independence.

Azerbaijan is still thought of us as hard-to-reach, far-flung destination, yet it is a mere five and a half hour plane journey from London Heathrow on a direct flight with Azerbaijan Airlines. I recently visited the capital to explore its meeting and conference offering and of course, try the country’s expansive variety of dishes.

Eating is a huge part of Azerbaijani culture, breakfast alone is a mammoth feast with several kinds of cheese, bread, fresh fruit and local honey. Sweet treats such as Turkish baklava are also favoured in Baku. Being so close to the Caspian Sea, fish features on a lot of menus and there are more than 100 versions of the national rice dish, pilaf. After dinner, it’s customary to finish with sweet treats and tea. Lots of tea.

Beyond food, the incentive market is booming in Baku with the newly opened Dreamland Golf Club on the outskirts of the city and the Baku Shooting Centre – popular with Middle Eastern markets.

Cultural and history are plentiful too, with the Nobel Brother’s home being one of the most exclusive event venues on offer in Baku. The capital is also home to the world’s first and only carpet museum which happens to be shaped like a rolled-up carpet.

For an immersive cultural experience, head to one of the city’s converted historical hammams which now operate as restaurants and museums to enjoy authentic food and traditional music in a true Azerbaijani setting.

The contrast between old and modern can be seen throughout the city, with the Heydar Aliyev Centre, designed by Zaha Hadid and the Flame Towers serving as perfect examples.

For now, Azerbaijan is a hidden gem, mostly unexplored by event agencies in the west, but I don’t think this will be the case for much longer.