Baku – the best and worst of Dubai and Moscow….it made for fascinating weekend.
I’d been to Azerbaijan before but hadn’t formally entered the country….hmmmmm, so I thought I better make a return visit.
After a 4.5 hour Friday overnight flight on Azerbaijan Airlines with not much sleep, I arrived in Baku at 6am local (3am London time) on a bright Saturday morning. The airport is stunning and modern. I hitched a ride to town to the cheap but central Bristol hotel. Too cheap to spring for the early check -in, I hit the streets for a six hour 18km stroll around the sites.
First up the old city with Maidens Tower, the Palace of Shirvanshahs and the old city walls. It was wonderfully deserted at 7am. The old city is a UNESCO world heritage site which is extremely clean and tidy, almost like it has been recreated by Disney! Punctuating the views of the old town walls and houses, were glimpses of the huge ‘flame towers’ through the gaps- these are the colossal skyscrapers which overlook Baku from the hill.
I wandered up to get a closer view! I hadn’t realised there were so many steps in Baku, and was amused to see a free funicular and some escalators for the less fit visitors. The more energetic locals were doing Rocky-like stair runs and push ups at the top. It was a stunning view!
After checking out the towers, I strolled along the poignant Martyrs Lane. The memorials are for those who died when the Red Army attacked in 1990. I sat in the shade for a few moments and made a new friend – Abdullah – a retired colonel from the army. He sat down and chatted to me for half an hour, extolling the virtues of the openness of the Azeris. I hope his word choice was an english error, versus an intentional choice, as he was describing how jews and christians were ‘tolerated’ in Azerbaijan. The graves were sombre, but I couldn’t resist admiring the array of moustaches on the headstones.
I kept strolling along the ridge line to check out the huge Nariman Narimanov statue overlooking town and then strolled down the hill back to town in search of coffee. I re-caffeinated at one of the fine establishments on Fountain Square and rested my weary feet.
After that, more strolling along the waterfront Bulvar park. I strategically stayed in the shade as it got hotter and hotter on the 4km stretch to the modern art museum. I did opportunistically pop into two nicely air conditioned malls on the way to cool down. There are lots and lots of posh shops in Baku, staffed by very thin unhappy looking women, catering largely to Arab and Russian tourists. I didn’t get much more than a passing glance from them as I wandered through in old shorts and flip-flops.
I eventually sweated my way to the Modern Art Museum. It was fabulous – lots of great Azeri art and a few Picassos. And they had some lovely beanbags to lie in and look at the art….
I wandered back to town, and finally checked into the hotel and had a wee nap for an hour. After that more strolling and an icecream. Fountain square was quite lovely to watch the people walking by.
I managed to stay awake for an early dinner at Firuze – excellent kebabs and Qutar (bread like pancakes stuffed with meat and vegetables), and then passed out to the sounds of revelling in the streets outside.
Dragging myself out of bed for Sunday morning, and after an uninspiring breakfast I headed out the extraordinary Heyday Aliyev Cultural Centre. I spent a couple of hours walking around the site. The police blew a whistle at me more than once, I guess because I was walking on the grass. Unfortunately the interior was closed for a private event, but the outside is amazing. The grounds have a weird collection of rabbit and snail sculptures and some wonderful fountains.
I wandered back to the old town for another stroll and stopped off for a few coffees. Having seen all the main sites, it was just nice to wander around and people watch. Some of the buildings were lovely – I really liked the Nizami Literature Museum. After just one more kebab, I headed back to the airport- another extraordinary building.
Baku was fun! Highlights were the modern architectural monuments financed by oil money! It was a lovely town to wander around, good food, reasonably friendly people and good icecream. Whats not to like!
Stayed at the Bristol Hotel, ate at Firuze and Kafe Araz plus a random kebab shop. Flew direct with Azerbaijan Airlines from London. Easy to get a visa online for $25, but remember to keep the paperwork for your exit – as they asked me for it at the airport on the way out.