Every year, many of us sit glued to our TV screen, channel firmly switched to SBS, eagerly awaiting the results of the ever-so trashy but undeniably entertaining Eurovision Song Contest. If you were watching this year, you’ll no doubt know that the competition’s winner was pleasantly surprising, with Azerbaijan taking the cake for the first time since it joined Eurovision in 2008.
Now, in Eurovision tradition, Azerbaijan will host the contest next year in its capital city Baku. Hosting Eurovision will no doubt spark a flurry of planning, organisation and preparation akin to hosting an Olympic Games, and EU Ambassador Roland Kobia has said, “I am convinced that the organisation of this event in 2012 in Baku will be a landmark event, which will draw an increased international attention to the country”.
If Azerbaijan has piqued your interest, we’ve put together a brief guide to give you some background info on visiting the country either for Eurovision 2012, or before!
One unusual quirk of the country is that it is considered odd to smile at strangers in public
The Muslim country of Azerbaijan is welcoming of visitors, and crime rates in Baku are generally fairly low. The Australian Government’s Smart Traveller website has reported that there have been incidences of foreigners being robbed after consuming “spiked” drinks in bars and nightclubs in Baku – but this happens all over the world, so just watch your drink carefully as you normally would.
First off, to visit the country, you’ll need a passport and visa, so you should organise a single-entry visas by mail or in person from any Azerbaijani embassy offering consular services well in advance of your trip. Also, all foreign citizens staying in Azerbaijan for longer than 30 days must register with local police within three days of arriving.
In terms of getting there, there are buses that run daily from Georgia, Turkey, Iran and Russia to Azerbaijan, as well as trains that connect Azerbaijan with Georgia and Russia. However, the Russian border is closed to non-CIS passport holders, so it’s not an option for most travellers.
As for flying, you won’t be able to fly directly from Australia or many European countries, but Turkish Airlines connects Baku with Istanbul. Also, several Russian, Ukrainian, Uzbek, Iranian, and Austrian airlines connect Baku with several cities around the world, so do some searching around for cheap airfares on various airlines. (You could even book yourself some cheap flights to London – one half of the Eurovision-winning duo from Azerbaijan actually lives and performs there).
What to see and do
If you’re looking for tourist attractions, you won’t find them here. But, if you love nature, Azerbaijan offers beautiful scenery and landscapes untouched by the touristy developments of many other European and Asian countries. Southern Azerbaijan is a coastal strip full of tea plantations and citrus trees. Inland mountains are perfect for those who love to hike, and if you prefer to remain in the main city, Baku has been described by Lonely Planet as an “oasis of excess in an otherwise fairly traditional Muslim country”. Fountain Square has the best bars, clubs and restaurants around, and in preparation for the influx of Eurovision fans next year, Baku can be expected to further boost its infrastructure and accommodation options as well.
Other things to know
Familiarize yourself with customs of the country before you travel there. One unusual quirk of the country is that it is considered odd to smile at strangers in public, even when being served at a restaurant, shop or bank. Smiling in public is considered inappropriate, unless you are greeting a very good friend or family member. This may be hard, because we promise you’ll find plenty to smile about in Azerbaijan.
This week’s guest poster, Marina Pliatsikas is a writer for cheapflights.com.au.