Caspian sea, oil and salt caves


Sanatorium Premium is a research project which studies culture, medicinal practices and architecture of sanatoriums and wellness centers across the post-Soviet space. The project’s co-founder Sofya Savelyeva compiled a short guide on Azerbaijan’s resort heritage for Təzə People.

The most obvious type of wellness tourism in Azerbaijan is treatment by climate. That is treatment by nature’s effect – sun, sea and air (in autumn and spring it is particularly rich here with vapors of bromine, iodine and different salts). Sunbathing on the shores of the Caspian Sea, air baths in the shadows of fig forests and vineyards and, most certainly, speleotherapy in salt caves. All this here is at an arm’s length. At the same time, all the glory of sanatorium and resort wellness tourism here was claimed by naphthalan – oil, black gold for the people who «need a fix».

The first wellness centers with naphthalan appeared in Azerbaijan in the 1920s-30s. Those were wooden hut with concrete pools filled with oil standing in the middle. There were baths for men and for women. This can be considered as the dawn of balneological resorts in the country.

But balneology is not just about being treated with oil, one would say, and that would be the absolute truth. Using mineral water – both inside and outside – is a necessary part of the program for everyone attending balneological resorts. And we are also lucky in that respect. There are over 1000 cold and thermal mineral springs on the territory of Azerbaijan. There are sanatoriums and trendy spa-hotels located in the vicinity of some of those.

In our imagination, an ideal oil treatment procedure would look like this – you are laying in a bath of naphthalan and drinking «Badamly». The bath itself stands on an outdoor terrace, and light sea breeze fills your lungs with minerals with every breath you take. We’ve not been able to find a complex procedure like that in currently operating sanatoriums, but there are a couple of interesting spots providing treatment.

The «Bilgya» cardiological sanatorium

This sanatorium is located 40 kilometers from Baku and can house up to 650 people. It is surrounded by olive plantations and vineyards. The architecture of the buildings represents a mix of «Stalin’s Empire» style and traditional architectonic. There is a myth that the location for this sanatorium was not chosen randomly. Chunks of meat were hung outside in many spots along the coast – and construction eventually began in the place where that meat had kept fresh the longest. No wonder – that sanatorium was built for political and military elite.

Wellness procedures

The sanatorium specializes in treatment of cardiovascular diseases. That is why, in the first place, you can go through diagnostics of your heart, and, based on that, choose an individual program of procedures. The sanatorium is located right on the shore of the Caspian Sea, so, naturally, we recommend to take as many sessions of halotherapy and aerotherapy as possible. Besides, you can do that without even leaving the premises – on one of the open terraces.

What else to do

Find the library. There you would see a table for spiritualistic séance, and can enjoy reading a book surrounded by traditional interiors and carpets. There is also a two-kilometer cycling path running next to the sanatorium, which connects several wellness centers along the coast. It could be an excellent addition to your procedures program.

Gastrointestinal sanatorium «Absheron»

Yet another jewel of the Absheron peninsula. The sanatorium’s architecture is of mixed-Oriental style. Panoramic windows, coved arches in dining halls and crossings – all this resembles a journey into a wellness fairytale. At the same time, the sanatorium is located in the city, on the bustling Yesenin Street.

Wellness procedures

We recommend going for the first visit with the doctor and receive guidance on what procedures you should go through – some with the most peculiar and mysterious names. For instance, mastic applications – in simpler terms, dirt treatment. Or look for Soviet-built machines with magnetic radiation, which normalize blood flow in the abdomen area. And, of course, do not forget to drink mineral water.

What else to do

Find the mineral waters gallery of the sanatorium, in its modern-day style, and try to count the number of panoramic windows and ceiling lamps in the cantines. Also, there is the Mardakyan Arboretum located right next to the sanatorium. You can read Yesenin’s poetry while walking through it, because the Mardakyan used to be the Russian poet’s favorite place of recreation. And who knows – maybe he decided how to finish his «Persian motifs» cycle of poems while standing at the exact same spot where this sanatorium was later built.

The «Chinar» sanatorium and spa-hotel

This sanatorium was named after maple trees (oriental sycamores, plane trees), which encircle the sanatorium’s site. Its construction began in the 1980s, when sanatorium recreation was at its popularity peak in Azerbaijan. In 2011 the sanatorium went through reconstruction and earned the status of a spa-hotel. Today the «Chinar» occupies 20 hectares of land and is considered to be one of the best and leading specialized wellness centers, offering the naphthalan procedures treatment.

Wellness procedures

More than thirteen departments are functioning at the «Chinar». But it is primarily the destination for those opting for the naphthalan baths treatment. Prior to the procedure, you are given a towel, a bath robe, a scrubber to remove bits of oil after the bath and paper towels to dry your body. One procedure lasts for 8-10 minutes. It is not advisable to take a shower for two hours after completion of the procedure. In order to feel the full effect, you would have to take that bath at least eight times.

What else to do

Find the sculptural composition by the local artist Azad Aliyev. It tells the story of naphthalan’s discovery. A trade caravan route ran through these lands in the ancient days. And a camel got sick in one of those caravans. The man in charge of the caravan decided to leave the sick animal behind, to avoid delays. But when that caravan was returning along the same route, they found the very same camel absolutely healthy. It turned out that all this time it was taking baths in small naphthalan lakes. That is how the medicinal properties of this oil were discovered. And if you are feeling bored, hit the town and find the crutches museum – which were left by patients in sanatoriums with words of gratitude written on them.

The Duzdag salt caves

Imagine a cave with rest spots and beds, amidst a home-like interior. That is how a proper public space of a healthy person should look like! This is how speleotherapy in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic looks like. On December 29th 1979, a physiotherapeutic center «Duzdag» was opened here, based at a salt mine. You can make a one-day trip to visit the mine, or stay at the sanatorium with the same name nearby.

Wellness procedures

The unique characteristic of the Duzdag salt caves is their horizontal position. This allows its visitors to quickly get used to the air and the temperature. During your first days here, you are simply taking a walk through the caves in daytime. Then you are moving onto the next level – staying at designated rooms from 8pm to 8am on the next day. In order to achieve the desired effect, one would have to take 10-15 such procedures. Looks like a full-time working week!

What else to do

After you exit the caves, take a car drive into the city to check out the Noah’s tomb. It is believed that he lived and died in Nakhchivan. There is also the Momine Khan Mausoleum here – the 12th century building, constructed by famous architect Ajemi Nakhchivani. And if you still have some energy left, visit the Alinja Fortress – 1500 steps up, and you can see the whole city at your healthy-feeling feet.

A trip to a sanatorium – regardless whether its just 2 days or 15 – is a very individual experience. The main characteristic of the post-Soviet sanatorium treatment is that it doesn’t really fit into the «all-inclusive» concept. Every sanatorium has its own set of unwritten rules and its own working schedule. We recommend using the information above not as a golden rule, but, rather, as an opportunity to devise your own trip. The best way to do it is through communication with doctors and sanatorium employees on the spots. Especially considering how hospitable Azerbaijan is. Because the most interesting stories and experiences are kept by those who have been working in these sanatoriums for a long time.