Baku had been on my destinations list for quite a while now. From the moment the city opened up to the world’s attention, I had wanted to go there and yet, time after time, some reason would come up preventing the trip from happening. Azerbaijan is just outside the “short weekend” range, so making a Friday-to-Sunday exploration would bring little more than a LOT of time on an airplane and very little chance to experience the city; and every other longer break would end up with some other – equally exciting – plan winning out. So no Baku for me.
And yet, time after time, something would come up which would remind me of my desire to go there. A friend travelling for work reasons; the city hosting Eurovision; a football match I’d lazily watch on TV; or the European Games (you guessed it, lots of sports – did you honestly expect anything different from me?) – something would rekindle the idea. I was only too happy, then, to find out I’d get to spend nearly a full week in Baku. Time to right this particular wrong and explore Azerbaijan’s capital city – with no shame, no plan and no idea on what to expect.
Indeed, while I pretty much know a lot about my usual travel destination before I even get out of the plane (fail to prepare, prepare to fail and all that), this was always going to be a bit of a shot in the dark. Land, find your bearings, figure out the details later – and so it proved to be.
Many other countries that owe their recent fortunes to oil/gas/llamas (delete as applicable) and try to gain a place at the big boys table do so by flaunting their riches and their modernity, often at the expense of their traditions (and of basic human rights). Some of the friends who had visited before had told me tales of glass-fronted skyscrapers and international hotels, and I must admit I feared ending up disappointed by another Dubai-by-the-Caspian that would look like a carbon copy of many others. Luckily, that was not to be.
Do not get me wrong, part of the city may follow the blueprint of some petroleum-backed Gulf countries, bulldozing their way around to create swanky new districts in which skyscrapers mushroom. This is, incidentally, where most international hotels are, meaning business guests to the country with little time or inclination to explore only end up seeing that. But, thankfully, that is but one part of the city. And a small one, at that. Delve deeper, move out of the bubble and Baku is surprising in its mix of tradition, modernity and outlook to the future.
Out of the financial centre, where you can also find some grandiose government buildings, the two main areas are the Old Town, a pretty citadel clinging onto high ground, to the south of the city centre, and downtown proper – a vibrant, lively area that wouldn’t look out of place in Paris, Berlin or any other European capital.
Busy at any time in the day or night (save when the shops are closed, and that seemed to be rare… and I’m a late walker), downtown is where you’ll find schoolkids flirting with each other on park benches, families – ice creams at hand – strolling around and older gentlemen intently watching road works, hands behind their backs. Pretty much, standard fare for a regular city centre. Fountain Square (“Fəvvarələr meydanı” if you speak the lingo, which I do not) is the heart of the city, even though the collections of fountains, built mostly under Soviet times, make it look a bit confusing (as in – where is the ACTUAL centre point? Which fountain outranks the other fountains? Is there a sense to all this?). The water sloshing out of all the various features keeps the air cool on hot summer days, which by itself is a good reason to visit, and you find the country’s first McDonald’s (not that I went).
While downtown is where you’ll find the locals going around their daily lives, the Old Town is where you’ll find all the tourists. Perched on top of a hill, the UNESCO World Heritage Site İçərişəhər looks straight out of a movie set, with it pretty stone buildings, mosques and the towers that dot the landscape at every turn. Heading out in the early morning, before the growing numbers of foreigners head out for their al fresco lunches, I walk for hours in a silence broken only by the meowing of stray kittens (they’re everywhere, and the locals will leave little mounds of kibble at street corners to feed them). It’s a world apart and, while I do all the touristy stuff (take a photo of the Maiden Tower, the unofficial symbol of the city; visit the small souvenir shops, pretty much the only souvenirs you’ll find ANYWHERE in town; etc), the highlight of the experience is to tackle the maze of small alleys where elderly men play backgammon and old rugs hang from the windows to air.
When it comes to food, Baku has a lot to offer – and it gets extra points for keeping its restaurants open until well after midnight. The local cuisine shares a lot with the locals’ Turkish cousins further west, but with some distinct eastern flavours owed to Iran and beyond; from döner kebabs sold from hole-in-the-wall rotisseries (the choice of fast food for the locals, and I was happy to join in) to elaborate meals of grilled meats, dolmas (stuffed vine leaves) and qutabs (stuffed, turned over pancakes) accompanied with pilaf rice, the choice is vast and – judging by my experience – the portions are huge. My kind of place 🙂
All in all, visiting Baku did not disappoint my expectations, no matter how inflated they were by the wondrous stories I had heard before. With plenty to see on foot (my favourite method of transportation), lots of food options and welcoming locals, not to mention a fairly cheap cost of living, it’s definitely one of the places I see myself coming back to.