It’s another boiling hot Sunday afternoon in Baku. Almost everyone’s away, still on their summer hols. We’ve done all our errands and chores and the afternoon stretches ahead of us like an open invitation. It’s too lovely outside to stay indoors but too scorching to spend much time in the sun. We decide on a little meander around Icheri Sheher, the Old Town, just 10 minutes walk away from where we live. We cross Fountain Square, taking in some of the shops, then through the ancient city gates and there we are on the cobbled streets of the old town. We stop off for a chinwag at our favourite carpet dealer’s, Sahib Mahmodov, right beside the Police Station. Winding through some of the side streets, we admire the old buildings and soak up the atmosphere.
The Old City dates back to the 12th Century, some even claim that it was established as far back as the 7th Century. When Baku was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1806, there were 7000 residents here, spread over something like 500 households serviced by 700 shops, craftsmen and small businesses. It’s hard to imagine that this, in fact, was the entirety of Baku and everything outside the city walls was the countryside. It must have been as busy as a beehive in those days! Wikipedia tells us that the old city was divided into different quarters. There was, of course, a Jewish Quarter, but ship builders and sailors, blacksmiths and clergymen, cart-drivers and oil workers, merchants and noblemen also each had their own section grouped around a mosque. There was a large bazaar, many hamams (bath houses) and two caravanserais, still in evidence as restaurants today. Plenty of entertainment was also to be had. There were wrestling contests, music performances, poetry recitals and, as today, tea houses and taverns. In my mind’s eye, I see horses clomping along, camels snorting, watersellers and tradesmen extolling their wares, moustachioed men with turbans enjoying a hookah, heavily veiled women going about their errands, barefooted children chasing each other through the alleyways, the hustle and bustle of the markets, the ancient Maiden Tower and the Shirvanshah’s palace bearing silent witness, even then. Fascinating.
These days, the Old City which was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2000, is quiet and calm. Just a few souvenir stalls, carpet shops and restaurants remind us of the busy trading that went on here in the past.
Right beside the Maiden Tower is a wonderful tea garden of the same name, Qiz Qalasi. A canopy of trees makes this a shady and peaceful place to while away some time and listen to the whispers of bygone times. On offer are big samovars of different flavoured teas which come with all the trimmings, such as sweet fruit jams which are the traditional accompaniment to Azeri Çay, but you can also just order a plain pot of tea which is brought to you on a warming stove. For those that are so inclined, there are also shisha pipes. Here, in the cool dappled shade, we sit and we talk. We wish that we’d brought our chess set. It’s a tranquil oasis with an almost zen like atmosphere. After an hour or so, we leave, our thirst quenched and our souls realigned.
Our walk takes us past the Q Gallery at 6 Gulle Street. The small shop front belies the cavernous interior. In contrast to our environment, the gallery displays some impressive contemporary works by Azeri artists. There are several pieces here that I covet and many others which I find interesting. The quality of the work is impressive and the prices reflect this. In the wake of the emerging economic status of the BRICS countries, their local artists have also increasingly gained exposure and recognition on the International art scene, so in line with this trend, I would not be surprised if, as Azerbaijan gains a higher profile and becomes more of a world player, contemporary Azeri artworks become highly investable and collectible too.
On our way home, we leave the walled city and stroll past Malakan Gardens. By now it’s almost supper time and, on the spur of the moment, we decide to grab a bite at The Bistro Beer Garden, right there on the square. This is clearly a place which tries to be all things to all people. It should really call itself ‘Jules Verne, Around the world in 80 dishes’. To start with, there’s the French/German name combo and then the Mexican musician statues by the entrance, as for the food, the spectrum spans from local dishes via Chinese, Japanese, Italian to all manner of other International fare. The menu is in Azeri, Russian and English. Some of the translations have me in hysterics, they’re so funny though I hasten to add that to my shame, my Azeri is not sufficient to read the menu in the original. Inside there are two fairly nondescript looking dining rooms, one for smokers, the other non smoking. They have TV screens on the walls every few meters. But we decide to sit outside where it’s pleasant sitting under the sun umbrellas overlooking the fountain and watching the world go by. Our expectations are not high; we’re expecting a fast food type of meal but surprisingly, it’s actually very nice. Not gourmet high temple stupendous but perfectly tasty, well prepared and attractively presented. My grilled haloumi salad comes in an edible kind of poppadom and looks delicious, though I don’t quite get why there are three singed spaghetti strands stuck into the salad for decoration. The lovely husband enjoys his spicy Chicken Mexicana and chips. Service is friendly and efficient and prices are reasonable too. It’s all good!
We pass on dessert and, instead, treat ourselves to a bag of Ponçik, simply heavenly hot mini donuts sprinkled with sugar, 10 for 1 Manat (yes, 10 Gepiks each!) from the little stall beside Sultan’s, opposite the Russian Drama Theatre. These we devour enthusiastically together with a chilled glass of wine on our balcony while the sun sets on a thoroughly enjoyable day.
www.visions.az, website of the bi-monthly magazine Visions of Azerbaijan, is a very informative, readable source on all sorts of interesting topics in respect of Azerbaijan. I have taken some of the historical information regarding Icheri Sheher from this site.
www.theculturetrip.com/europe/azerbaijan/articles/baku-for-art-lovers-10-unmissable-contemporary-galleries/ is a good site for anyone who is interested in contemporary art in Azerbaijan.