Billing 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 which has undergone an extraordinary transformation from the war-ravaged post-Soviet 1990s to an oil-enriched host of Formula 1 and Europa League football.
The cosmopolitan capital, Baku, rings a Unesco-listed ancient core with dazzling 21st-century architecture and sits on a balmy bay of the Caspian Sea. In the surrounding semi-desert are mud volcanoes and curious fire phenomena. Yet barely three hours’ drive away, timeless rural villages lie amid lush orchards backed by the soaring Great Caucasus Mountains.
Come quickly. Having long been overlooked by visitors, Azerbaijan's new easy visas, bargain-value hotels and close-packed range of beautiful landscapes are starting to attract significant flows of tourists, though as yet few of them from Western countries.