Azerbaijanâs capital on the Caspian coast does not hit the headlines often. That is one of its charms: it is a friendly, relaxed place without excessive ostentation. Even the Eurovision Song Contest (winners 2011, hosts 2012) seems to have passed without doing too much damage. That may be about to change. Be ready to see Baku on the front and back pages more often.
Next summer, June 2015, Baku plays host to the first ever pan European athletics championships. Formula 1 hits the cityâs streets â literally, Monaco style â in 2016. The World Chess Championships are the same year, and the Islamic Games follow in 2018. Soon you will be able to add skiing and eco-tourism to your to-do list.
Have you thought of a sojourn in this ancient and modern city? There are plenty of good reasons to come. At 40`N, the seaside city is a little south of Sochi, the Crimea and Monaco; on the coast, and a handy three hours flight from Moscow. The climate is agreeable, the prices and politics both tolerable. Be ready for pleasant surprises.
Letâs dig a little deeper. Oil and now gas are key. No need to dig: the first oil seeped to the surface to be used centuries ago, and natural gas flares remain one of many quirky tourist attractions. For a long time, Baku was the worldâs largest oil producer, but mercifully the forest of smelly derricks of the 1900s have long departed, and âThe City of Windsâ blows the air clean quickly. The Soviet economy depended on Baku oil, and so did Hitlerâs plans: the defence of Stalingrad was a miracle that saved us all. The old oil economy of Baku lives in the fields of nodding donkeys in the suburbs and surrounds. But the new wealth of the city comes from huge offshore oil and gas exploitation, deep under the Caspian. This is hi-tech specialist work, and so the city now has four working tongues: Azeri and Russian, universal English, and increasingly Scots. As I type, the sun is shining bright across the Caspian, and the fishy silver sea is dotted with distant oilrigs and tankers bringing the bounty back across the brine.
Azerbaijan has two thousand proud years of history, and longer of pre-history. The Caucasus (as in âCaucasianâ of course) is a cradle and crossroads of humanity, and the city has seen caravansaries passing along The Silk Road, waves of differing sects of Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Islam, and foreign investors and adventurers. Proud independence and strength have alternated with Persian, Turkish, Russian and Soviet flags atop the ancient citadel walls. Perhaps that is why the current renaissance was celebrated by erecting the (briefly) worldâs tallest flagpole. Inevitably, regional squabbles and power struggles result from the impossible chequerboard map of peoples, languages, religions and traditions across the Caucasus, just like the Balkans. Their pivotal location, sandwiched between Turkish, Persian and Russian empires, with occasional eruptions from Greece, Arabia, Mongolia and others, makes for a rich and confusing history, ethnography and architecture. The Azeris are both proud and tolerant, and they are happy to adapt and interpret all strands together.
Baku is not quite Istanbul, even if Azerbaijani is the grandfather of modern Turkish, but all these threads can be traced in the city streets. The warm sandstone city walls have 1000 yearsâ stories etched into them; the greats of culture and history (no proscription of figurative art, in an essentially Islamic culture!) have labels in mixes of Azerbaijani-Turkish, Cyrillic, Persian, Arabic and English. Writers, poets, musicians and thinkers take pride of place in historical Baku. The current post-Soviet republic credits the founding president, and father of the current leader, with tributes in photos, monuments, place names, airports, streets and stadiums.
The tightly packed little lanes and alleyways in the walled city are as delightful as any Aegean village. Iconic wooden balconies push the thin line of sky to the limit. Come and visit soon, as too many of the traditional districts around the old town are being razed for modernity. All life is here, from washing and gossip to backgammon and chess; home grown fruit and vegetables being sold in front rooms and slipping onto the lane; and armies of small children playing vying for space with free range cats and kittens.
The city centre has been given a complete makeover, with the Caspian shore and central Fountains Square chic and stylish pedestrian areas, perfect for a stroll and a coffee, or better, chai. It is a bustling but relaxed place by day. Lonely Planet awards Baku the dubious title of the worldâs 11th best nightspot. A bit OTT, surely, but there are plenty of watering holes and music venues for varying tastes (and no taste) of a weekend evening. Glassy skyscrapers are lifting the skyline with curious shapes, most famously the wobbly curves of the âFlame Towersâ business centre, and the signature swooping slopes of the Heyday Aliyev museum.
In short, Baku mixes long history with modern vision, has a welcoming smile and an agreeable climate. Russian or English will make communication easy. The urban, littoral and rural landscapes are rich in interest and can be explored on foot. (Or take the mini-Moscow Metro, or a ride in a purple London taxi). A mini-Moscow by the seaside? You decide: join a modern caravanserai and explore for yourself.