Forget London, New York, Paris; Baku is where it’s at these days. The ancient Phoenix of the Eurasian republic of Azerbaijan is emerging from the flames, pristine and ready for international fun and games. It is a spectacular new metropolis, bejewelled by the glittering Caspian and rolling in money.
“Azer where?” I hear you ask. Perhaps you remember the Eurovision Song Contest, which took place here in the impressive Crystal Hall in 2012. Azerbaijan is a small eagle-shaped country nestled in the southern regions of the Caucasus, and is bordered by Iran to the south, Russia to the north, Georgia to the northwest and Armenia to the west. It’s known as the land of fire and the cradle of Zoroastrianism. Historically and culturally, it is on the crossroads of Europe and Asia and was, of course, an important trading station on the Silk Road. Impressive Paleolithic cave paintings in Gobustan, just outside the capital Baku, bear witness to human settlement as early as the Stone and Bronze ages. Later, the area became part of Alexander the Great’s Empire while King Midas, too, allegedly ruled here. The Grand Khan’s palaces, some lovingly restored, still remind us of the era of independent Khanates, with turban-clad khans and sultans autocratically reigning over their subjects. After 1813, Azerbaijan was incorporated into the Russian Empire. A brief time of independence in the early 20th century was followed by an unhappy period of Soviet occupation until 1991, after which Azerbaijan has once again been truly independent and has been going from strength to strength in its own right. Interestingly, Azerbaijan was the first Muslim nation to accord women equal political rights with men as early as 1918 and the Baku State University was the first modern style university founded in the Muslim East in 1919.
Azerbaijan is a very wealthy country with substantial oil and gas reserves. Politically stable, its president Ilham Aliyev and his family are popular, his father, the previous leader, Heydar Aliyev, positively revered. It has a population of about 9 million, mostly of Turkic and Iranian origin, some of Russian extraction, and an expat community of around 10,000 people of many different nationalities, most of them, in one way or another, associated with the oil industries. The main religion here is Islam but these are vodka-drinking Muslims and certainly in the cosmopolitan capital Baku you rarely see headscarves or even hear calls to prayer. It’s all very relaxed! Baku, on Azerbaijan’s Absheron peninsula, is a most attractive city with stunning architecture, a mix of old (think Prague) and brand spanking new (think Dubai), much of it developed over the last five years or so – with more in progress. There are many well designed large open public spaces with some interesting street art scattered about, and the city’s position right on the Caspian Sea makes for some beautiful vistas. A long seaside promenade, the ‘Bulvar’, is home to a plethora of International top-drawer designer clothes shops, some super-smart international five-star hotels, some very impressive museums and art galleries and plenty of eateries, cafes and restaurants for all budgets and tastes. Expats and visitors with discerning tastes and very deep pockets are well catered for!
Icheri Sheher, which literally means old town, is the ancient part of town, surrounded by old city walls. With cobbled streets, small souvenir shops and old caravanserais, it is dominated by one of Baku’s emblems: the Maiden Tower, shrouded in legend and dating from the 12th century. Lit up at night and reflected in the sea, it makes for a very pretty sight indeed. Behind the old town is the commercial centre around Fountain Square and Nizami Street where you will find the majority of offices and shops, including familiar names such as Next, Mothercare, McDonald’s, KFC, etc… The three magnificent Flame Towers, another emblem of Baku, and one of them home to the luxury Hotel Fairmont, light up the skyline at night. The streets are clean, the underpasses gleam with marble and Baku overall is incredibly safe, especially compared to other large International cities. There’s no denying that Baku is very expensive, even by London standards — and that’s saying something! Expect to pay around five Euros for a cup of coffee, imported items often come with a 30% premium and property rental rates can bring tears to your eyes. Petrol and cigarettes are cheap, however, and everyone seems to smoke anywhere and everywhere.
Eurasian women have a reputation for being beautiful and the young generation of Baku beauties certainly do this justice. Dressed in designer dresses with enormous high-end label handbags and vertiginous clackety-clack heels, they shop till they drop but are expected to be ‘good girls’ and home by 8 p.m. The young men, shirt collars flicked up and tasseled loafers, love their motors. Maseratis, Ferraris and top of the range 4x4s abound, their deep-throated engines revving at every opportunity. Whether Lamborghini or Lada, the stereo systems are turned to maximum volume, day and night. The traffic here is something else, though! It takes a brave soul to drive here and most expats have local drivers. It’s completely chaotic and involves recreational horn blasting. Glossy and sophisticated as Baku is, service provisions are still catching up with the stellar development of the city. Taxis may look like purple versions of the typical London cab (and these are the only metered taxis) but you cannot expect them to know where you want to go, even if it’s to a well-known tourist landmark or an International hotel. There is a running joke in Baku: ‘New to the city? Don’t know your way around? Become a taxi driver!’ Part of the problem is the language barrier. Only about 30% of Bakuvians speak English, favouring Russian or their native Azerbaijani. However, this is gradually improving. A discreetly proffered tip oils the wheels in most situations. June 2015 will see Baku hosting the inaugural European Games at which 6000 athletes will compete. In 2016, it will be the venue for the Grand Prix of Europe, its first Formula One race, and the city is gearing up for both events with great enthusiasm. The F1 race will be on a street circuit around the centre of Baku, taking in its medieval old city, its imposing landmarks and partly running alongside the shore of the Caspian Sea. Like other significant events, Azerbaijan’s government is funding the Games and the race to raise the country’s global profile.
Baku is certainly a stunning setting for these events and the infrastructure to host an international audience is also smoothly sliding into place. A variety of five-star hotels such as The Fairmont Hotel, the Four Seasons, The Absheron Marriott, the Hilton, the Hyatt and the donut-shaped Kempinski, which is just now being completed, are ready to welcome guests and fulfil high expectations. Chic shops and department stores are throwing open their doors and offering all manner of desirable shopping opportunities. However, having the sales assistants following you around, not because they suspect you of shoplifting but because they want to be helpful, still takes some getting used to. Sleek and trendy restaurants serve up gourmet delights, from exquisite sushi to traditional shaurma, not forgetting affordable local caviar and the ever sunshiney-tasting fresh local produce. Exclusive beach clubs just outside the city are preparing to cater to stylish sun worshipers. Liberally sprinkled among all this glitz and glamour is a wonderful sense of history, well-restored old buildings, traditional fruit and vegetable markets, carpet sellers, shisha bars, tea houses, toothless old men in black suits, scowling matrons, fountains and more fountains, rickety side streets and plenty of colourful Azerbaijani idiosyncrasies.
Much like the city itself, the art and music scene are continually evolving. From traditional Mugham music to contemporary jazz and pop via opera and concerts, it’s all available for the visitor’s enjoyment. Classical Azerbaijani poetry and literature and a rich heritage of stories and legends invite you to engage with the local culture. The Museum of Modern Art and the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre, a fabulously undulating wave-like building by International star architect Zaha Hadid, display Azerbaijani contemporary art at its finest. Several local artists have garnered International attention and, increasingly, offer a good investment to collectors. First and foremost among them is a young artist named Faig Ahmed, who was nominated for the Jameel Prize and who has several International exhibitions under his belt, including at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He intriguingly marries up traditional Azerbaijani carpet weaving with contemporary concepts. If your heart desires a more conventional carpet, you will certainly find top quality examples to buy in Baku but be aware that exporting an antique rug from Azerbaijan is not easy and will come at a considerable cost.
If you are more of a sports afficionado rather than a culture vulture, worry not: the National Azerbaijan Golf Club in Quba, roughly 200km from Baku and managed by Troon, is an 18-hole championship course with ‘challenging changes of elevation and breathtaking views over the hills and mountains.’ If you stay overnight at the associated Hotel Rixos, you can also enjoy tennis, skiing in winter, archery, mountain biking and various other fitness programmes. In the same northern area close to the Russian border is The Shadag Mountain Resort in the Shadag National Park which also offers top-notch skiing. In Baku, football matches against local or international teams can be great fun to watch. Spectators are noisy and very passionate but always friendly, giving lots of smiles and high fives, even if you are a supporter of the opposing team. The big hotels all have excellent gym facilities but the Club Port Baku on the street locally known as ‘Fashion Street’ is the most impressive, although not just one but two scrumptious bakeries directly opposite it can make you waver in your resolve to burn those calories! Chocolate Éclair, anyone? Still, there’s nothing that a good jog along the long waterside Bulvar can’t fix!
You prefer a good pampering session? Well, there are plenty of choices in Baku! The award winning ESPA spa at the Fairmont Hotel, the Absheron Marriott Hotel spa and the Hotel Four Seasons spa are arguably currently the best, offering a wide range of fabulous treatments from Indian head massage to reflexology and anti-aging facials to slimming body wraps. It’s easy to spend a whole day there just being spoiled rotten, enjoying the saunas and steam rooms, chill-out areas and pools, with some wholesome nibbles and fresh juices to assuage your appetite.
Then there are the excursions: Quba, Sheki, Gobustan, and Lahij are just some of the fascinating destinations worth visiting. Some can be reached easily from Baku as a day trip, others further afield require overnight accommodation. Azerbaijan is very security conscious. Considering its geographical position and incredible riches, this is just as well. No Muslim Brotherhood terrorists or Russian separatists or, for that matter, any other undesirables can thankfully gain even the slightest foothold here due to Azerbaijan’s stringent visa restrictions. Most foreign nationals have to undergo a somewhat laborious process of application to enter the country. A letter of invitation, passport photos, a copy of the passport itself and a fee of around €100 has to be submitted to a local Azerbaijani Embassy and can take a couple of weeks or so to come through, although this can be sped up, at a cost. Baku has a super modern airport and this year current flight schedules will be further enhanced to 60 airports in 22 countries. Flights to and from Europe take between three and six hours.
Initially appearing reserved and possibly even a bit dour, Bakuvians soon warm up and are hospitable, helpful and friendly. The key to their hearts is appreciation of their city and just a small effort to speak their language. Azeri, quite similar to Turkish, is not easy to learn but let’s face it, anyone can manage a ‘Salam’ (Hello) or ‘Sagol’ (Thank You/ Goodbye) and a smile. It will be richly rewarded! Dubbed ‘the Windy City,’ winter in particular can bring some strong gales, icy winds and occasionally snow, although the temperature doesn’t often fall below zero. From April to October it’s mostly sunny and warm; July and August can be positively scorching. Winter or summer, the skies are almost always blue.
Riding high on the cusp of Europe and Asia, Baku is a city of intriguing juxtapositions: ancient and modern, rich and poor, rural and urban, simple and complex. It is all these and more that will in turn enchant you, surprise you, occasionally frustrate you but mostly, simply blow your mind. To paraphrase Dr. Emmett Brown from the film ‘Back to the Future’: “The way I see it, if you’re gonna build a time machine into a city, why not do it with some style?” And this, precisely, is what they’ve done with Baku.