Baku – An Exciting, Exotic and Mysterious Caucasus Capital

Azerbaijan – A relatively unknown country outside of the adventure travel market, but for how much longer? With the country already hosting huge events such as Eurovision, Formula 1 and recently the 4th Islamic Solidarity Games is it only a matter of time before people realise how wonderful this Caucasus country is?

My trip to Azerbaijan preceded Armenia and Georgia so it was an easy decision to tag it on to my journey, however why would you visit Baku for a city break? Well, a lot of people looked rather confused why I would even visit the country, presumably as they didn’t know where it was or the delights that await. Thankfully being an adventurer and wanting to seek out new opportunities, see exciting sights and discover local culture meant that I was in for a treat.

Where is Azerbaijan?

Often referred to as the “Land of Fire”, if you haven’t heard of it before the easiest way to describe its location is being situated in the South Caucasus region, similar to Turkey, Azerbaijan is sandwiched between Europe and Asia and sits on the banks of the Caspian Sea. Surrounded by Georgia, Russia, Iran and Armenia, this oil-rich nation is gearing itself up to become an established player in the International tourism market.

Baku – City of Lights

When people ask you where you are going on your next mini break, I highly doubt they expect you to say you’ll be heading to Baku. However, this is a crying shame and the city definitely deserves far more recognition. Something that made the city stand out compared to all the others I’ve been to was how clean, well maintained and functioning it was, they’ve even managed to maintain the old medieval part of the city, even with all of the huge new developments popping up around the city it hasn’t taken away the historic charm.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect before I arrived, but it certainly wasn’t the glamorous, modern yet traditional capital city that I discovered.

Some of the highlights from my trip to Baku

What to see?

If you only have a couple of days you’ll have plenty to fill your days with, my best advice is to simply wander aimlessly, you’ll be amazed at some of the new developments and getting lost down the narrow back streets of the Old Town.

Here’s a list of things that I wanted to see during my time;

  • Bayraq Meydani (3rd tallest flag pole in the world)
  • Azerbaijan Carpet Museum
  • Palace of The Shirvanshahs
  • Maiden’s Tower
  • Old Town (İçərişəhər)
  • Baku Eye
  • Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre

Also don’t forget to take the metro somewhere, it’s a throwback to Soviet times! It gets incredibly crowded but is very efficient, I’d read reports that people have been arrested before for taking photographs but I found the station staff to be very friendly and excited to be given the chance to speak English when asked questions.

Baku Metro – a fascinating insight into the city’s Soviet past

During my time visiting Baku in May 2017, I was lucky enough to attend a wrestling match at the 4th Islamic Solidarity Games that were being held in the city. It was fantastic to watch and I even got see the Vice-President of Azerbaijan, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, just a typical day mixing with the rich and famous don’t you know!

Vice-President of Azerbaijan First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva presenting an award to one of the Azeri wrestlers at the 4th Islamic Games.

Optional excursions

Although you’ll be kept busy in the city, don’t forget to do a day trip to visit some of Azerbaijan’s most famous tourist sites including the famous Mud Volcanoes, flaming rocks of Yanar Dag and the burning fire temple of Ateshgah. I don’t think I really believed that Azerbaijan had mud volcanoes, I seriously thought it was some sort of myth, but when I got there and I’m standing there staring at the bubbling mud on top of a volcano it was a surreal, Mars-like experience.

These incredible sites can all be visited on a day trip, a local company called TES tour offer a trip for 50AZN per person.

Don’t forget the name Azerbaijan, you’ll be hearing it a lot more in the coming years, believe me!

Let’s be honest, did you know Azerbaijan had mud volcanoes, flaming rocks and ancient rock art?

How to get here?

My route to Azerbaijan took me via Turkey, this isn’t the easiest route due to connection times but it is the most cost-effective. If I’d had more time to plan my trip I could have flown Lufthansa via Frankfurt, Air Baltic via Riga or WizzAir via Budapest.

Previously applying for a visa for Azerbaijan was rather complicated and simply put people off due to the expense and red-tape involved. You can now thankfully apply online for an e-visa and pay $20 plus $3 processing fee and you’ll receive your confirmation email within a couple of days. Make sure you print this off and keep it throughout your trip as you’ll also need it to leave the country. My only negative comment about the process is that they ask your HIV status, I know several other countries do this but I find this incredibly intrusive and a bit unnecessary in this day and age!

The national airline, Azerbaijan Airlines (AZAL) fly direct to many major capital cities including London, Paris, Rome, Dubai to name only a few. They’ve heavily invested in their fleet, when I flew from Baku to Istanbul with them there was plenty of leg room but sadly the entertainment system left a lot to be desired.

Heydar Aliyev International Airport and the national flag carrier Azerbaijan Airlines

Where to stay?

Baku is not short of luxury accommodation, one of the most unique places is the Fairmont Hotel located in one of the famous Flame Towers. I was lucky enough to stay here as a treat to myself, usually I opt for a homestay or budget hotel but I’d already seen the view from other people’s photos and I knew that I had to experience it for myself.

After being lucky enough to get upgraded to an incredible Caspian Sea view I couldn’t take my eyes off the beauty of Baku, forget Dubai, this place is absolutely awe-inspiring!

Fancy visiting yourself? I highly recommend staying here, to book your stay go to Booking.com and search for Fairmont Hotel, Baku. Click here using this link!

Fairmont Hotel, Flame Towers

Further Information?

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.

All images copyrighted, if you wish to use any images produced in this blog article please contact me.

My 48 hour Staycation in Liverpool

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My heart sinks every time I say this, as the Great British Pound is at its lowest for over 30 years, now is the time for you to discover how amazing some of our UK towns and cities really are. Liverpool is a place with an incredible history and it’s even home to some world firsts and maritime gems.

7 Scouse Facts:

  • Place of the world’s first railway, Liverpool and Manchester Railway
  • Home to Europe’s oldest Chinese community
  • Liverpool was previously described as the “New York of Europe”
  • The city was the first in the UK to operate an airport from 1930
  • Home to the first lending-library, arts centre and theatre
  • James Street and Hamilton Square stations are the oldest deep level underground stations in the world
  • Apart from London, Liverpool is the most filmed city in the UK used as movie and TV sets to depict Moscow, New York and even Rome

Where should you visit?

Don’t expect spectacular sandy beaches or pristine sunshine weather, however what Liverpool does offer in bucketloads is culture and history. Before visiting I had no idea that the city is home to the most museums outside of London and thankfully most of them are free!

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Museum of Liverpool

This place has everything! A really well laid-out museum that features information about the Overhead Railway, Liverpool’s Chinese community, The Beatles and even about the products that used to be shipped in from all around the world.

I’d recommend that if you don’t know much about Liverpool’s past, this would be the best place to start. You’ll feel absorbed into its past but also be intrigued by what will happen in the future.

The world’s very first train, The Lion, is housed here. It was built in 1838 and was used on the Liverpool to Manchester Railway, an incredible achievement for the city.

Liverpool OverHead Railway poster

Sadly the Liverpool Overhead Railway no longer exists but these incredible posters are featured in the Museum of Liverppol

St Johns Beacon / Radio City Tower

This place is an absolute must-see whilst visiting the city! At only £5.50 (2016 prices) it is such a bargain and if you pick the right day you’ll see as far away as the Blackpool Tower and even North Wales. When I visited there was barely anyone there which I thought was rather sad given how sunny it was. At less than a quarter of the price to visit the Shard in London and with a much better view make sure you add it to your to do list.

Liverpool Cathedral

If you follow my blog you’ll know I’m not religious, however I do like visiting places like this and discovering the history. Liverpool’s Cathedral was completed in 1978, so it isn’t particularly old but it does look incredible sitting on top of St James’s Mount.

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Maritime Museum

I genuinely didn’t know that the Titanic was a “Liverpool ship”, nor did I realise I could discover all about it in Liverpool. This museum is smaller than the Museum of Liverpool but is well worth seeing as with most museums it is free!

Make sure you check out the International Slavery Museum too, it’s linked to the Maritime Museum and even though incredibly sad it’s also a fascinating look into our past and how slaves helped drive the fortunes of not only Liverpool but the UK as a whole.

Albert Docks

After the docks finally closed in 1972 most of the area fell into disrepair and was in urgent need of some TLC, thankfully in the early 1980’s the area was given a regeneration makeover and is now the most visited multi-attraction site in the UK, outside London.

I found the Albert Dock to be the perfect blend of old vs new with its well-maintained heritage but also striving forward with new buildings like the Museum of Liverpool. I only remember the Albert Dock from when I was little and the TV show This Morning used to be broadcast from here, well it has certainly changed since then.

Make sure you check out the cute historical vehicles that are now used by food vendors.

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Visit the homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney

Sadly I didn’t get the chance to visit either of them, but I thought I’d add it here for any Beatles fans amongst my readers.

Hidden Gems!

Often described as England’s finest Victorian city, Liverpool is home to more than 2,500 listed buildings and more Georgian houses than the city of Bath, isn’t it time you checked it out?

For me, Liverpool is home to a buzzing cafe culture and thankfully due to its history and multi-cultured society I was able to experience everything from Jamaican to Thai cuisines.

I really enjoyed trying the tasty sweet delights at East Avenue Bakehouse in the RopeWalks district and also trying out the amazing poached eggs at Cheese & Co. opposite the Queen Victoria Monument.

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Although not necessarily hidden, they are a gem. I love seeing all of the old vehicles that are now being used to serve street food and ice creams. A really nice touch.

Liverpool has to be one of, if not the most-friendly city I’ve visited in the UK. Ignore the pre-conceptions you hear, it is safe and very much welcoming to tourists.

Top tip: If you’re looking to buy property for investment in the UK, I’d strongly suggest Liverpool as this place is definitely on the up!

Liverpool LGBT scene

Don’t expect the gay scene hubs of London or Manchester, however you can encounter an intimate affair in the designated LGBT quarter. Stanley Street is where you’ll find bars including the Lisbon and the Curzon to name only a few places to visit.

With many other gay scenes in the UK slowly dying of death, Liverpool prides itself on being the first city in the UK to identify its LGBT quarter by installing rainbow street signs to highlight the area as gay-friendly.

Probably the most famous Liverpudlians in the world. The Beatles

Probably the most famous Liverpudlians in the world. The Beatles

Visit Liverpool for yourself

I highly recommend a visit, to book your stay go to Booking.com and search for Liverpool.

Click here using this link!

How to get here?

Liverpool is one of the easiest cities to visit in the UK, situated on the west coast of England it is ideally situated to arrive by air, rail, ferry or road.

Air: Liverpool John Lennon Airport is one of the fastest growing in the UK in terms of passenger numbers, thankfully there’s plenty of domestic and international connections, mostly from Eastern Europe.

Rail: Liverpool Lime Street is the main hub with regular trains from London, Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham and North Wales.

Road: At the most Western point of the M62 (a.k.a the biggest parking lot after the M25) it’s really simple to drive to the ‘Pool.

Sea: The Port of Liverpool offers regular ferries to the Isle of Man and Dublin, you’ll also have access to a wide variety of exotic cruise destinations.

Further information?

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.

36 Hours in Qatar

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Qatar is a tiny peninsula in the Persian Gulf that now has the glamorous title of being the richest country in the world. It can’t be that good though…can it?

Most people I’ve spoken with said there’s nothing to do in Qatar and that I’d be bored. Were they right?

What to see in 36 hours in Qatar…

Doha

Qatar’ rapidly expanding capital city, Doha is fast becoming the place to visit in the Middle East. Seen as a safe destination, it’s not difficult to see why tourism increased 7% in 2015. With 40,000 Brits visiting annually and this number only set to increase, it’s time to take a look at why you should visit Doha.

  • Souq Waqif (traditional old market)
  • The Pearl
  • Villagio Mall
  • Corniche
  • Gold Souk

What Doha lacks in reputation, Qatar certainly has the money to ensure this city is put on the map. They are spending huge sums of money on securing top worldwide events including the controversial World Cup in 2022.

Similar to Dubai's Palm island, "The Pearl" is currently being built and will look incredibly once finished.

Similar to Dubai’s Palm island, “The Pearl” is currently being built and will look incredibly once finished.

Zubara Fort

As Qatar is a relatively new country, this fort was only built-in 1938 as a military outpost, mostly to be used as a Coast Guard station. It was once a thriving pearl fishing and trading port but has since been turned into a museum.

Sadly for me, I visited on a weekend and therefore the museum was closed so I didn’t see a huge point in travelling 105km just to see it without being able to go in. However, if you get the opportunity definitely add it to your itinerary.

Khawr al Udayd/Khor Al Udeid (Inland Sea)

Situated next to the Qatari border with Saudi Arabia, this isolated corner of Qatar features one of the country’s premier tourist attractions. No, there aren’t any high-rise skyscrapers here. Just simply an inland sea.

You’ll only be able to reach this place by four-wheel drive, it is strongly advised to hire a guide in this uninhabited area.

Key Facts to know when visiting Qatar

  • As a strict Islamic country you must dress appropriately (i.e. no shorts/bikinis)
  • Alcohol is banned unless you are at 5* hotel or have an import license
  • Timing is key, as Qatar is a desert country temperatures can reach 50C
  • The weekend falls on a Friday and Saturday
  • If you love McDonalds you’ll find the McArabia burger sold nowhere else but in the Middle East, or you could try something more local i.e. roast camel
  • Speaking of McDonalds, it is more expensive to buy a meal than fill up your car

Entry Requirements for UK citizens

Thankfully Qatar has a relatively easy visa entry system that allows UK citizens to purchase a visa on arrival, this can be paid by credit card or cash (from specific windows only) and costs 100 QAR/ £20 approximately.

Visit Qatar for yourself

I highly recommend a visit, to book your stay go to Booking.com and search for Qatar properties.

Click here using this link!

Further Information

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.

Discover why your next holiday should be to Macedonia

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Officially the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), definitely not to be confused with the northern region of Greece also known as Macedonia, this country is certainly in the news a lot at the moment thanks to the refugee crisis hitting Europe.

Many Brits have yet to venture into Eastern Europe, particularly choosing not to visit Albania, Kosovo or Macedonia as these countries are often referred to as the final frontiers of tourism in Europe. However, the Balkan tourism industry is booming with Croatia, Bulgaria and Serbia all reporting incredible rises in visitors, I wonder when will it be Macedonia’s turn?

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Exactly where is Macedonia? 

FYROM is a landlocked country situated north of Greece, the Republic of Macedonia shares a large part of its population with ethnic Albanians who are also their closest neighbour.

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Why don’t more tourists visit?

There’s absolutely huge potential for Macedonia, they could easily rival countries including Switzerland and Germany when it comes to outdoor activities and spectacular scenery. Sadly for them the only problem is funding the projects, being one of the poorest countries in Europe means the infrastructure just isn’t there and is unlikely to be built on a large-scale anytime soon.

Macedonia features within the Top 10 least-visited countries in Europe, find out why.

I guess the general consensus is that it’s still quite “rough around the edges”, however for the adventurous traveller there are so many fantastic places to discover that haven’t yet been touched by the mass tourism curse of the likes of Croatia or Montenegro.

Seven fun facts you might not know about Macedonia

  1. They produce some of the best quality wine in Europe, however sadly very little is sold outside of the country (I made sure I brought a few bottles back)
  2. Mother Teresa was born in the Macedonian capital Skopje
  3. Of all the Yugoslav territories, Macedonia was the only one to gain independence peacefully
  4. Macedonia is one of the most mountainous countries in Europe (34 at last count)
  5. The Kingdom of Macedonia was once the most powerful state in the world whilst being ruled by Alexander the Great
  6. Macedonia was the first country in the world to have full access to wireless broadband (very random!)
  7. Residents often choose to park their cars on the pavements rather than on the actual road
Very random, residents would park their cars on the pavements instead of the roads...everywhere!

Very random, residents would park their cars on the pavements instead of the roads…everywhere!

Skopje

The capital of the Republic of Macedonia is currently undergoing a facelift, the project dubbed “Skopje 2014” already provides confirmation that they are well-behind schedule as the city is still undergoing an extreme makeover. By trying to compete with some of their neighbouring capital cities, Skopje is potentially losing its rich history.

As one of the cheapest cities to stay at in Europe, Skopje is well-worth visiting for a city break or long weekend, however you won’t discover the real charm of Macedonia until you visit the countryside.

Skopje in 2015

Skopje in 2015

Ohrid

Ohrid is definitely not ‘orrid! Sorry I couldn’t resist adding that, you also pronounce it like oh-kreed.

For a landlocked country Lake Ohrid is simply the jewel in its tourism crown with its full potential thankfully not yet recognised. This will definitely not last long, with new direct flight routes opening up during the summer months this small town will definitely become a Balkan hotspot in the years to come.

I really enjoyed my time in Ohrid, it was clean, friendly and welcoming to tourists. As I don’t drive, thankfully I was able to book on several tour excursions using Ohrid Holidays, many of its customers are Dutch whilst British tourists are currently few and far between.

Lake Ohrid and the spectacular cliff-top church of Saint Ioan Kaneo

Lake Ohrid and the spectacular cliff-top church of Saint Ioan Kaneo

Other places to see

Sadly as I only had a very short amount of time to visit the country there’s quite a lot I missed, although this gives me a good excuse to go back. Other recommended places to see include Bitola, Mavrovo and Pelister National Parks.

How to visit FYROM from the UK

Direct flights with Wizz Air from the UK leave London Luton airport five times a week to Skopje, currently on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sundays.

Seasonal summer flights were started from London Luton airport direct to Ohrid with Wizz Air, these flights only started in June 2015 and ran for four months.

You may find alternative flying routes via Sofia (Bulgaria), Thessaloniki (Greece), Tirana (Albania) or Pristina (Kosovo) might have more options to fly into. You’ll then need to take a bus which will take you straight to the capital for as little as €10.

Flying into Ohrid is a great opportunity to see the amazing mountains in Macedonia.

Flying into Ohrid is a great opportunity to see the amazing mountains in Macedonia.

Visit Macedonia for yourself

I highly recommend a visit, to book your stay go to Booking.com and search for Macedonia properties.

Click here using this link!

Further Information

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.

9 reasons to visit Diyarbakir, Turkey

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Nestled in the far Southeastern corner of Turkey, this part of the country is very much off the tourist trail but has recently featured in the news thanks to its close proximity to the Syrian border.

*Turkish Kurdistan is an unofficial reference to the Southeastern region where Diyarbakir is situated. Although not officially a region, the majority of people living in this part of Turkey are Kurdish.

Diyarbakir is the largest city in the area, located on the banks of the River Tigris and surrounded by a set of almost intact city walls. Here’s my 9 reasons why you should visit Diyarbakir.

1. The latest UNESCO World Heritage site

The fortified city of Diyabakir and its surrounding landscape have just been granted World Heritage status. Due to Diyabakir’s location it has always been an important centre throughout the Roman, Islamic and Ottoman periods. You’re able to walk along parts of the wall, however UNESCO will need to do quite a few restorations.

Diyarbakir

The historic walled city of Diyarbakir

A typical house in Diyarbakir

A typical house in Diyarbakir

The beautiful gardens of Diyarbakir

The beautiful gardens of Diyarbakir

Diyarbakir Fortress

Diyarbakir Fortress

2. The most beautiful city in Southern Anatolia 

To be fair this probably isn’t difficult, however Diyarbakir has some charming places to explore and will likely be cleaned up as a result of the UNESCO World Heritage listing for the fortress and gardens.

3. Friendly locals

I know it’s a cliche but some of the people I met here were just amazing. They had very little money and few possessions but were just genuinely happy to see tourists visiting their city. One lady who lived next to the very steep City Walls was cooking bread and she gave us some to try, but refused to take money when offered. It’s nice to still find genuine people in the world.

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Friendly, kind and welcoming to tourists

Some locals were a bit camera-shy!

Some locals were a bit camera-shy!

If I have to provide one negative it’s to simply be very aware of the police who are Turkish, I was almost arrested after taking a photograph that just happened to include a police vehicle. Let’s just say heavy-handed tactics left me with a bitter taste in my mouth for Turkey.

This is the photo I almost got arrested for, well fuck the police because this is all I took!

This is the photo I almost got arrested for, well fuck the police because this is all I took!

4. There’s history wherever you turn

Located at a strategically important crossroads, it’s no wonder why Diyabakir and Southeastern Turkey has so much history. Aside from the fortress you can easily visit one of the oldest mosques in Turkey and also gain an understanding of Diyarbakir’s historic architectural style, this includes some of the city’s houses made from an indigenous type of dark basalt stone.

5. Fresh, tasty food

If you look once you’ll think some of the places look dirty, look again and you’ll discover an array of fresh meat, fish and salad. I was quite surprised to see the markets brimming with produce that was all local and clean.

I’d strongly advise for you to check out the street stalls, this includes sampling the many baklava delights. Each piece was roughly 1 Turkish Lira which roughly equals £0.25! So cheap and tasty…

Brightly coloured, fresh and healthy at this market stall

Brightly coloured, fresh and healthy at this market stall

Even though Diyarbakir is nowhere near the sea you can still buy fresh fish!

Even though Diyarbakir is nowhere near the sea you can still buy fresh fish!

6. Rough around the edges but altogether charming

Although it’s true that the city is located close to the conflict zones of Syria and Iraq, the Turkish government heavily influence this area and it’s relatively safe to explore.

The city itself is rather fun just to simply walk around and explore, it’s quite small so I wouldn’t spend more than a few days here.

7. Affordable 

My return flights from Istanbul to Diyarbakir cost £60 with Turkish Airlines in 2014, that’s an incredibly cheap price!

Whilst visiting Diyarbakir you should be able to pick up dinner for as little as £3, all meals are often finished with mint tea so be sure not to miss out on one thing I hugely enjoy when I visit any Middle Eastern countries.

8. Central location for the rest of S.E. Turkey

Diyarbakir is the perfect location to base yourself whilst exploring this part of Turkey, there’s several other important sites you should check out including;

  • Hasankeyf
  • Batman (great for a photo next to the sign!)
  • Mardin
Hasankeyf

Hasankeyf

9. Direct buses to Iraqi Kurdistan

If you wanted to extend your trip you can easily visit Iraqi Kurdistan by a local bus company called Can Diyabakir. They were clean, efficient and affordable but whatever you do don’t give the driver your passport at the border stop!

Discover my Iraqi Kurdistan adventures by reading my blog article here.

Further Information

If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.