72 Hours in Baku
There are places on this planet that are a complete surprise, a striking contrast of cultural norms, ideas and beliefs — places with a turbulent history little known by the outside world, with influence beyond their size and ambitions that defy expectation.
As a country undergoing metamorphic change Azerbaijan is one such place, determined to shape its destiny on the world stage. So when the phone rang with an offer to visit, I jumped.
The purpose of the trip for me and several other travel journalists from around the world was to participate in a 3-day tour of the capital city. Our host was The Baku World Challenge, part of the Blancpain Sprint Series, an international motorsport event in Baku.
This is a Muslim country that identifies with Europe, proudly referring to the capital of Baku as the “Paris of the Caucasus.” Under the current president, Azerbaijan is projecting itself as the next Dubai or Singapore.
The country is slightly larger than Austria or the state of Maine. Despite its size, the Baku region has punched well above its weight since 1929 when it was producing half the world's oil supply!
It was a prize Nazi forces desperately wanted in WW II, ultimately thwarted by the Soviet army at the battle of Stalingrad further up the Volga. A birthday cake for Hitler showed Baku as dark chocolate on a map. Hitler boasted that with the Caspian Sea in his grasp he would show the world what he could really do.
A video promoting tourist sights was playing in the baggage area at Heydar Aliyev International Airport, complete with a flying carpet as part of the fantasy.
Oil still rules in Azerbaijan. You can smell it in the air when exiting the airport terminal. The strange thing is that after that first whiff, you seldom notice it. Together with natural gas deposits, black gold is what fuels the economy, literally and every other way.
The country has raised its profile by hosting notable international events such as the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest. It’s currently organizing the First European Games in June this year and is one of the host cities for the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship.
The pace of development has even prompted the New York Times to include Baku on its list of 52 Places to Travel in 2015.
I've always thought it would be fabulous if guest rooms matched the grandeur of lobbies like the Kempinski Hotel Badamar. My room was somewhat smaller. The hotel is a 10-15 minute ride from city center, and would be home for 3 frenetic days.
Next morning's tour of the old world style Baku State Museum of History surprised me by having descriptions of many exhibits in both Azeri and English.
A street view near the museum contrasts the chic architecture of the 'Flame Towers' by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid with early 19th century Parisian-style facades. Next on our schedule was an upscale lunch of traditional Azeri cuisine at Nakhchivan (right and below).
The Heydar Aliyev Centre (the opening photo of this story plus 3 below) is another creation by Zaha Hadid. It's become a symbol of redevelopment in Baku with an auditorium, a museum of Azeri crafts and an exhibit devoted to the late president whose name it bears. Ironically, a planned reception for our media group was cut short when we were ushered from the building due to an impromptu visit by his son, the current president.
A demonstration run of cars in the Blancpain Sprint Series had vehicles whizzing past the historic Maiden Tower while we watched from the curb. You can see from a UNESCO plaque that the race, if held centuries ago, would have passed directly through the middle of the ancient town.
A walking tour of the the Old Inner City (Icheri Sheher) doesn't take long — unless you stop to bargain for a carpet or two. This area plus the waterfront have become oases of calm amid the pace of modern life and traffic.
Some cities have stray dogs, some have cats. Baku has cats. This little one showed me the best location to photograph the Maiden Tower. (Photo by Evelyn Kanter)
Contemporary architecture blends seamlessly with old stonework at the periphery of the Inner Town. A subway station glows in early evening light while views from the Shirvanshah Palace complex dramatize the changes.
William Louis-Marie (from France), Director of Communications for the First European Games, filled us in on preparations for the June 12- 28, 2015 events. Here are a couple of slides from his presentation. En route to one of the game venues I spotted some sexy street promotion for The Baku Challenge taking place that weekend.
Azerbaijan is pulling out all the stops for the upcoming Games. Olympic-size facilities are being rushed to completion in a frenzy of construction between the airport and city centre. Illuminated at night, the structures are quite spectacular. We dropped in on some of the girls' gymnastic training, then the National Stadium where worker Erdal Demirbulak (below) and his colleagues showed us the site for opening and closing ceremonies.
For anyone with interior design sensibilities or an interest in historic crafts, the National Carpet Museum is a "must".
Azerbaijani carpet making is a centuries-old tradition, and the museum, though small, has some impressive pieces.
For serious purchases, you'll have to contact a local merchant. Here's a link to a useful blog about how to buy a carpet in Baku.
Some of us followed web directions using a cellphone to find The Clansman, a Scottish pub in the center of town. Publican Hugh Cochrane came to Baku for a short time, met an Azeri woman and never left. It's the only Rangers Supporters Club in the country, he says. Their events are held downstairs where I photographed Hugh and Nata.
Just like Europe, there's a dedicated pedestrian zone for walking, shopping and relaxing. Lots of designer clothing stores too. In one of the public parks a group of young men asked me for a photo; I was glad to oblige.
Dinner one night was at the trendy restaurant lounge Pasifico which transforms itself from restaurant to nighclub as the evening progresses. Many places in Baku just use Facebook and other social media instead of having their own website. Hey, it's free promotion, right? This link is to Pasifico's FB page.
The Teze Bazar, a food market, unlike nearby 28 May Mill Shopping Center, is not part of a regular tourist circuit. These farmers bring their produce into the city on a regular basis, sometimes from a considerable distance. They're genuine, self-confident and can be refreshingly direct with questions for strangers.
All that fresh and prepared produce was making us hungry, so 5 of us hopped into a former London cab — they're very popular in Baku — to Imereti Restaurant, just off the main pedestrian street near town center, for some Georgian cuisine. No website, but I've linked Tripadvisor's page. The meal turned into a "foodie" shoot in our upstairs room before ending with goodbyes to a family that was celebrating a special event on the main floor.
The Gobustan petroglyphs, a UNESCO site, lie 65 kilometers (40 miles) southwest of Baku. On a clear day (not on my visit) there's a magnificent view of the Caspian Sea (plus, oddly enough, a prison) just below the park.
The significance of the primitive rock art is outlined in this compact museum at the base of a rock-strewn landscape that was formed over millenia by earthquakes.
My new Malaysian bud, Eddie, hamming it up outside the museum before the tour.
Once Is Not Enough. Although barely visible in the distance, a more recent human project remains: the film set for the chase scene in which James Bond is pursued by a giant saw slicing through endless oil derricks. But don't worry — he gets away.
Photos, text and layout © 2015 by Gary Crallé
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