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BAKU TO THE FUTURE; The capital city of Azerbaijan offers a fascinating mix of old and new .. as well as world-class sporting action.

Byline: with MELANIE HARVEY m.harvey@dailyrecord.co.uk

THE volcanic surface is bubbling away ominously at the top of the mountain.

A gruesome viscous liquid is dripping over the top of the ridge and gradually seeping down the hill, just a few feet from where I stand.

It's an awesome spectacle, but I'm not in Iceland or Polynesia staring into an active heap of magma.

Instead, I'm in rural Azerbaijan, on the very eastern tip of Europe, enjoying the amazing natural wonder of the nation's famous mud volcanoes.

deals from Wednesday, nights Sunconnect half Just an hour from the fizzing capital city of Baku, the stunning Lokbatan volcanoes in Gobustan National Park are just one of the amazing attractions of Azerbaijan, the Land of Fire, which make this relatively new nation a fascinating and gorgeous place to explore.

from Thursday, nights Hotel 469. Glasgow The eyes of the world are on the former Soviet republic this month as 19, nights Castello half Baku plays host to the first European Games, a major sporting event which it's hoped will put the bustling oil city on the map outside of the petrochemical and Eurovision community.

.Italy, on 20, at 4* Du half . BT.

and other visit your call.

The city itself, easily accessible via London and regular BA flight connections, is something to behold. Part of it is the beautiful ancient city dating back to Baku's days as a key stopover between Europe and Asia on the Silk Road.

The walled city and gorgeous Maiden's Tower of the old town, as well as the endless narrow lanes and streets decorated with tea houses and salesmen, all fill you with the romance of this port and trade capital's past.

But just a few feet away, shiny and sky-piercing hotel blocks, offices and designer shops decorate the promenade next to the Caspian Sea.

It's easy to say Baku is a city of contrasts, because they are everywhere. The country, which is sandwiched by Iran, Russia and the stunning Caspian Sea, has plentiful gas and oil reserves - and they have been cashing in.

Bentley, Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton and Donald Trump have all moved in for a piece of the glitzy action, and there are amazing hotels, bars and restaurants everywhere you look.

Apart from hosting 6000 athletes and officials for the inaugural European Games, Baku is also home to a significant Scots population thanks to its booming oil industry.

About 100 more Scots have joined them in the country to work as temporary staff during the Games, which kick off today and feature 20 sports, from athletics, swimming, shooting and cycling to beach football, 3x3 basketball and the Russian martial art Sambo.

The city has built a set of stunning new venues, including an athletics stadium and aquatics centre, for the event, which is the biggest they've hosted since the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012.

Next year, it will also hold its first Formula 1 race, and Baku will be one of the 13 host cities during Euro 2020.

It all adds to the feel of a place on the move.

In the city, which has been compared by some to Dubai, ancient streets, towers and mosques dovetail massive skyscraper hotels and office blocks, while the bazaar markets compete with the Versace, Bentley and Armani stores on the seafront.

You could spend days exploring the old town, with the stunning walled castle home to many tiny shops, elaborate tea rooms (a bit like non-alcoholic speakeasies) and beautiful ornate architecture.

The Maiden's Tower is worth climbing for the views and the history of tragic lost love, and you can enjoys hours walking the lovely streets near the Caspian shore.

The modern side of the city is less weighty but still worth seeing.

The Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre, . Flying nights all-Spa, three, PS. For these or visit www.

named after the former president, is a stunninglooking curved modern exhibition hall designed by Zaha Hadid.

She was also the architect behind the Riverside Museum in Glasgow, and you can see the similarities.

Dominating the city's skyline is Flame Towers, a three-pronged glass skyscraper designed as licks of fire. It houses a hotel and offices - and at night amazing art and designs are projected on to the walls.

But it's also well worth getting out of the city. Apart from the fascinating mud volcanoes, the prehistoric cave paintings in nearby Gobustan will blow your mind and are another must-see.

Also unmissable is Yanar Dag, a shrine not far from Baku where the gas pours out of the hillside, and once ignited burns away all day.

This dramatic display of the Land of Fire's natural resources is a spectacular sight - and just one more of the genuinely breathtaking highlights of this fun, quirky, friendly and incredibly exciting destination.

. ? For these and other deals, call 0141 222 2223 or vist www.barrheadtravel.co.uk Latedeals? Flying from Edinburgh/Glasgow on June 24, 11 nights all-inclusive at three-star Checkin Bungalow Atlantida , Tenerife, PS659pp, PS1799 for family of three, PS2319 for family of four.

. ? Flying from Prestwick/Glasgow on July 7, nine nights at the three-star Turbo Club, Gran Canaria, PS519pp, PS1319 for family of three, PS1729 for family of four.

. ? Flying from Edinburgh/Glasgow on July 20, 10 nights all-inclusive at four-star Beatriz Playa & Spa, Lanzarote, PS929pp, PS2199 for family of three, PS2699 for family of four.

. ? For these and other deals, call 01698 425444 or visit www.holidayandflightcentre.com FLAMING WONDER Brian at the gas-filled Yanar Dag hillside FASCINATING Mud volcanoes go back in time IMPRESSIVE SKYLINE With Flame Towers CREATING A SPLASH The crater at the mud volcanoes Latedeals ? Flying from Glasgow on September 26, seven nights all-inclusive in Calas de Mallorca, Majorca, at the three-star Club Cala Romani from PS399pp.

. ? Flying from EdinburghJune 21, seven nights full board in an inside cabin on the Norwegian Epic Western Mediterranean Cruise from PS597pp.

. ? Flying direct from Glasgow on November 29, seven nights on Barbados at the three-star Time Out Hotel from PS697pp.

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. ? Flying from Glasgow on May 16, 2016, seven nights Las Vegas room only at the four-star Luxor Hotel & Casino from PS997pp. ? For these and other deals, call 0141 222 2223 or vist www.barrheadtravel.co.uk Facts ? The Baku European Games are held from today until June 28. For more information, visit www.baku2015.com ? You can follow all the action on BT Sport.

. ? Brian flew to Baku with British Airways, ba.com, with return fares from Glasgow starting at PS578.45.

. ? Brian stayed at the Hyatt Regency Baku, with rooms from PS150 per night, room only.

Latedeals? Rhodes flying from Glasgow, Wednesday, June 17, seven nights at the 4* Sunconnect Kolymbia Star half board, PS419.

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. ? Lake Garda, Italy, from Glasgow on Saturday, June 20, seven nights at 4* Du Parc, Sirmione, half board, PS579.

. ? For these and other great deals, visit your nearest Stewart Travel store or call 0800 091 2757.

CAPTION(S):

CREATING A SPLASH The crater at the mud volcanoes

FLAMING WONDER Brian at the gas-filled Yanar Dag hillside

FASCINATING Mud volcanoes go back in time

IMPRESSIVE SKYLINE With Flame Towers
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:9AZER
Date:Jun 13, 2015
Words:1240
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