Azerbaijan — a country that was on no one’s mind a mere week ago until a television audience of millions watched it soar to glory in the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest on the weekend.

But where is it? What will next year’s Eurovision contestants find there when they visit Baku to perform?

With the ink on its name barely dry on the victor’s podium, Crikey gets the jump with the following definitive list of the greatest things about visiting the country.

Wander Baku and be surprised. It looks a whole lot more like Paris or Geneva than it really should, given that it’s actually between Turkey and Iran — the legacy of a misspent youth as an early oil baron.

Wandering around the city centre, you could easily be anywhere in Europe. Albeit a Europe which hadn’t had a good clean in sometime. Think old European apartment blocks with grand stone facades, balconies and large ornate gateways and you wouldn’t be too far off.

See the cave paintings. Gobustan, about 60 kms from Baku, is home to pre-historic petroglyphs (cave drawings, for the uninitiated) dating back to tens of thousands of years BC. The guide book assures me that seeing them will “change your life”. It hasn’t yet (as far as I can tell) but there’s still plenty of time. On this time scale, anyway.

Ride the metro. The Baku Metro is at least as much a tourist attraction in its own right as a means of transport. The stations are all decked out in individual styles, some of them with fantastically ornate and garish designs and features worth an entrance fee. The 28 May metro station, below the main Baku train station, features a number of interesting terracotta-style plates depicting scenes from Azerbaijan’s history. Elmei Akedemiyasi station features quite astonishingly garish chandeliers. Nizami station is decorated with large, colourful scenes from the life of its namesake, a great Azeri poet of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The murals are all done in tile mosaic, a style reminiciest of biblical tales.

See environmental degradation taken to a whole new level. The derelict oil fields by the Caspian sea have to be seen to be believed. Huge rusted hulks of oil ships lie rotting in the shallows, surrounded by oil slicks, slime and various kinds of sludge which would really upset you if you dwelt on it too much (particularly when eating the fish which come from the same waters). It all looks a bit post-industrial modern art, really. If only you could package it up and name it something like Man’s Inhumanity to Man, you’d make a fortune.

Worship fire. The area being something of a reserve of fossil fuels and all, there are a few places where natural gas just comes out of the ground, and forms natural flares. They’re not enormous, but they are definitely flames. They’ve been burning for centuries, and possibly millennia. One started burning around the 6th century AD, which quite excited the Zoroastrians from India, who happen to worship fire. They came from all over to worship these amazing flames coming from the ground, and built a temple around it. You can still visit the huge temple complex, and see the rooms where they used to do such things as hang huge bits of heavy metal from themselves and lie on beds of hot coals as a form of worship (which someone decided was a good idea.) One day, some hundreds of years later, the fire went out, and they all went home. They still have the temple complex there, but the fire now comes from the mains. Even knowing that, it’s still pretty neat.

Commit crimes against fashion with impunity. Clothes-wise, pretty much anything goes. Three quarter length pants ending just above knee high boots with 10 inch stiletto heels, jumpers with all manner of spangly things on them, jeans with bizarre lacing criss-crossing the sides, anything leopard skin, huge fur coats with the hoods worn up and none of the girls seem to leave the house without industrial strength make-up. If I were a career guidance counsellor, I’d advise podiatry as the profession to go for, as ridiculously pointy-toed boots with implausibly high heels are de rigueur — not terribly practical given the state of the footpaths here, but practicality doesn’t seem to be the order of the day.

Channel Moses. The hill of fire, a bit further on from the fire temple, is a wholly normal looking hill. Oh, except it’s on fire, and has been for thousands of years now. If that’s not cool enough (which it is), it’s just sort of stuck in the middle of nowhere. I rocked up to this eternally burning hillside, expecting some sort of entrance fee, interpretative billboards, eternally burning hill snow cones, or some such. There was just a guy with a few plastic tables and chairs who’d asked me if I’d like some tea. Then, since it was a bit chilly, he moved the chairs a bit closer to the burning hill, and I sat, being warmed by the flames coming out of the ground, and had a cup of tea. Then I went home.

Pick up a few facts about Azerbaijan to astound and amaze your friends. Like that Gary Kasparov is from Azerbaijan, and learned to play chess on the foreshore of the Caspian in Baku. Or that it was Azerbaijani oil that Hitler was after when he started the push east which lead to World War II. Or that the Garden of Eden is supposed to be in Azerbaijan, albeit a bit of it which is now officially in Iran.

Or that, on 15 May 2011, Azerbaijan’s Ell/Niki won the Eurovision Song Contest, with their song, Running Scared. This means that Eurovision 2012 will be held in Baku in May 2012. Leading to my final tip…

Get in early and see it before the crowds descend. It can’t stay one of the world’s best kept tourist secrets for much longer.

Jay Martin is a travel writer and editor from Canberra who has somehow ended up in Warsaw, Poland. You can find more of her writings here.

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