Pages 50-58

by Fiona Maclachlan

I´m an expat living in Baku and I would like to share with Visions readers a little of my enthusiasm for this wonderful city, and about how I came to like it. Behind its oil image of nodding donkeys, you can find another side of Baku, and another, and another... And I think this is why I like it here. A city of contrasts, and always something new to discover.
Since the break up of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijani people are rediscovering their language and culture with pride. The pace of change is rapid, and living amongst this awakening can take your breath away.
A lot of Baku´s visitors come here for business reasons, often in connection with the oil industry. This means that the city caters fantastically well for visitors on expense accounts, with a number of very modern international standard, top class hotels and restaurants. And business visitors who take a little time-out find themselves in a fascinating city.
And increasingly, Baku is becoming known as a tourist destination. Mature travellers, young backpackers and friends and family of expats working here are coming to Baku in greater numbers. I believe there are plenty of good reasons to visit Baku.

Are you a culture vulture?

Where do
Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet TheatreAzerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre
I begin? Baku is just so rich in exotic culture. Artistic talents were nurtured and encouraged under the Soviet regime, and in today’s Baku there is a plethora of artistic expertise.

Music and Dance
This is easy to find because local music and dance is performed at many of the city’s best local restaurants. Listen out for Mugham music, which is famous for its creativity and diversity. It is played on national musical instruments, and sounded strange to me at first, but I’m really getting to enjoy it.
Take in a performance at the Azerbaijan State Philharmonic named after Muslim Maqomayev. This building is truly fantastic. Modelled on Monte Carlo’s casino, its pretty, creamy yellow and white exterior is offset by its splendid position overlooking a park just outside the ancient city walls. Performances here are always exceptional. Dress up in your finery and go and enjoy a good concert. Azerbaijani and Russian composers are celebrated with pride, but European composers are enjoyed too. The Azerbaijan State Symphony Orchestra, Choir, Chamber Orchestra, Piano Trio, String Quartet, Folk Song and Dance Ensemble, and Folk Instrument Orchestra all perform here. Ticket prices are reasonable and there are a lot of young people in the audience - these aren’t stuffy performances - anyone can go.
In recent years Baku has hosted a fabulous week-long International Jazz Festival attracting well known performers from around the world, for example Herbie Hancock, with the best of the local performers playing up
Nizami Ganjavi Museum of Azerbaijani LiteratureNizami Ganjavi Museum of Azerbaijani Literature
alongside. Jazz is popular in this city and there are a couple of popular jazz venues in town, the Jazz Club and the Jazz Centre, where you can get a bite to eat as well as listen to live music.

Another treat is in store at the majestic Azerbaijan State Opera and Ballet Theatre. If you are lucky you might get to see a performance of the first opera in the Middle East, Leyli and Majnun, written by Uzeyir Hajibeyov, based on Fizuli’s poetry. Azerbaijani people love their poets and composers - come and see why!

Theatres abound in this city. Theatre has been popular and well known in Azerbaijan since before medieval times. There are state theatres, municipal theatres, private theatres and so on. Change continues unabated - there is the new Uns Theatre and the popular children’s Puppet Theatre is being refurbished - I hope they keep the wonderfully colourful advertisement boards outside.

If you visit the museums in Baku, you are in for a real treat. Many are housed in fabulous old buildings, and this instantly adds to their atmosphere and appeal.
The city’s highly regarded History Museum in Tagiyev Street is currently undergoing extensive external and internal renovation, as is the Nizami Museum of Literature in Fountain Square. The Art Museum across from the city´s
City ViewCity View
Philharmonic is certainly worth a visit.
But for now my favourite has to be the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum. I´ve been round several times and learn more each time I go. The carpets here are fantastic, and for English language speakers, a tour round the museum with Asya (tel 4932019) shouldn´t be missed. You can even dress up in national costume and have a souvenir photograph taken amongst the ancient and beautiful carpets.
Other small house museums are worth seeking out, depending on your interests.

If you visit is just a short one, then don´t miss...

Icheri Sheher
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Icheri Sheher is Baku´s ancient inner city. Here you will find the oldest part of Baku, with its unique atmosphere, inside the 12th century stone walls. New and old mingle side by side throughout Baku, but nowhere more than here, where new offices and hotels abut ancient mosques and minarets. Baku´s most famous landmark, Gyz Galasi, the Maiden´s Tower, can be
View of Ancient Inner CityView of Ancient Inner City
found here (climb to the top), as well as the magnificent 15th century Shirvanshahs´ Palace. I love exploring the winding narrow streets with their balconies covered with grape vines, and a different view at every corner. Colourful carpet shops in historic mosques, ancient baths (hamams), restaurants in old caravanserais - Icheri Sheher is pure magic.

Fountain Square
In downtown Baku, this is where everyone meets, gathers, walks and enjoys themselves. There are local and international shops, cafes, tea houses and restaurants to suit all tastes. Young and old alike enjoy the open spaces and the shade from the plentiful trees. As its name suggests, Fountain Square has fountains, lots of them in different styles. Refreshingly traffic free (except for children riding in toy 4x4 cars), this is a place to relax and watch the smartly dressed Bakuvians go by.

Try eating in a caravanserai

Eating in Baku is a treat. From local
(recommended) to international (also recommended), you can´t go wrong.
Well-known local restaurants include the atmospheric Caravanserai in Icheri Sheher, near the Maiden´s Tower. Local Azerbaijani food principally comprises the most delicious salads and the tastiest kebabs. Rice dishes (plov) are popular for special occasions. It´s impossible to do justice to such wonderful cuisine in a short article, but what amazes me is how much of the food is home-made and how much of the produce used in cooking is largely seasonal and apparently grown without herbicides or pesticides. Nuts feature widely on the ingredients lists, as do aubergines, pomegranates and many fresh herbs, notably coriander and dill. The local cheese (often eaten with salads as a starter) is generally very salty but rich in flavour. No meal is complete without copious amounts of fresh bread which really is a staple here.
Try the seasonal fresh fruit. Mulberries (’toot’) are one of my favourites, but I also enjoy feijoa, local persimmon, and the sticky fresh figs during the all too short fig season. Mouthwatering watermelons from Sabirabad are sold by the lorry load throughout the city to satisfy everyone’s insatiable appetite. Lemons from Lenkoran, apples from Guba; Azerbaijan’s countryside is famous throughout the former
Soviet Union for fruit growing.

Food from neighbouring countries
For a quick meal try Turkish - the always busy and popular Anadolu restaurants for example. Georgian food is good too, as is the food of neighbouring Iran. Try Iranian food at Bibi’s, near the New World Supermarket.
For international food, there is a wide choice. The Bann Thai at the top of ISR Plaza serves good food and has fabulous views over the city and the Caspian Sea, especially from the terrace of the adjoining Citylights Bar.
Service in restaurants is generally excellent. They appreciate a small tip give it personally to your waiter/waitress.

What would you like to drink?

Ha! Where else in the world can you drink such delicious tea whilst eating jam. Taste the flavours in the homemade jams made from mulberries, cherries, quince, walnuts, rose - ever so
Traditional Azerbaijani Tea Traditional Azerbaijani Tea
sweetly exotic.
The favourite activity of the Bakuvian is to drink tea. Everywhere you go you will see tea being drunk, and Azerbaijanis being a hospitable people, you will be offered tea in shops and so on. Just look in the shops and bazaars and you will see that the sellers always have a glass of tea close by!

Azerbaijani wines are rich in flavour and easy to drink. Try some, and after a glass or two you will be ready to understand the history of wine growing in this part of the world.

Vodka is commonly drunk at the table with a meal. Have a look in any supermarket or small shop selling alcohol (there are lots) and have some fun spotting the wonderful variety of bottle shapes that vodka is sold in. A small one makes for an interesting and often very cheap souvenir.

If you want a drink and to meet up with other people there are lots of popular bars
in town, all around the Fountain Square area, you won’t miss them. Finnegan’s, Adam’s Bar, the Caledonian, O’Malley’s, Shakespeare’s and the Camel’s Toe are all frequented by expatriates.

Flight Connections
Flight connections are good. You can fly on scheduled flights direct to Baku (Heydar Aliyev Airport, airport code GYD) from many important cities including London (British Airways daily or Azerbaijan Airlines three times a week), Paris (Azerbaijan Airlines twice a week), Dubai (Azerbaijan Airlines six days a week), Istanbul (Turkish Airlines daily, Azerbaijan Airlines six days a week), Turkey´s capital city Ankara (Azerbaijan Airlines two days a week), Georgia´s capital city Tbilisi (Azerbaijan Airlines daily), Moscow (Azerbaijan Airlines daily, Aeroflot twice daily, Domodedovo Airlines three days a week, Siberia Airlines three days a week).
Also flights to/from Kiev, Aktau, Tehran, Tel Aviv, Mineralniye Vody, Urumchi, Milan, Frankfurt, Ashgabat, Vienna, Tashkent, Surgut, Almaty, St Petersburg, Donetsk, Atyrau and Riga.
There are always plenty of taxis at the airport - and the chances are that your hotel can arrange a taxi to meet you. Don´t forget to check visa arrangements, according to your nationality
and travel needs.

Top Places to Stay
Because of the huge number of high-spending business visitors to Baku, the international standard hotels are of excellent quality.
These include two Hyatt hotels, Excelsior, Radisson SAS Plaza, Park Inn, Grand Hotel Europe, and Meridian (situated inside the Inner City).
Crescent Beach is a popular hotel just a little to the south of Baku, on the coast as the name suggests.
Just to the north of Baku there are many new hotels springing up, for example the very modern Khazar Golden Beach Hotel.
There are smaller ´boutique´ hotels within the city, many of them new. The 4* Premier Hotel, 28, Shamsi Badalbayli Street, is an excellent choice, much less expensive than the bigger international hotels, and has been very highly recommended by my guests.

Admire the architecture

East meets West
Baku was already an international city nearly 100 years ago when it was experiencing its first oil boom.
The local people who made money (oil barons) put it into property, and employed some wonderful Polish architects to design ´palaces´ for them to live in. And so we have the many beautiful buildings in the city centre, made from the local
stone, incorporating ideas from various eras and countries, thus reflecting the desire to be international.
Many of these palaces are prominent buildings in the city centre, and are now the beautiful Venetian Gothic-style Academy of Science, the City Hall, the History Museum, the Wedding Palace and so on.
So Baku feels reassuringly, well, familiar? It´s a bit like - well, that´s where I struggle. It´s like itself.
Today´s influences are also as diverse, with modern Turkish influenced designs sitting alongside some sensitive renovation of older buildings.
Of course the Soviet era added its own influence, with some splendid constructivist buildings as well as more utilitarian structures. These are gradually being replaced by a more elaborate modern Azerbaijani style. Even the old streetlights are being replaced.
Construction is second only to the oil industry as Baku continues to change.

Statues are present in cities the world over, but Baku´s statues really serve their purpose - you notice them! Leaders and poets tend to predominate, but many reflect a particular period of history.
Just look at the huge statue of Narimanov, for example, and its immense size gives you a clue to the importance and relevance of this man, a highly regarded political leader during the 1920s, to the city.
The statue of Nizami, overlooking the Nizami Museum of Literature, is a figment of the sculptor´s imagination. Although Nizami´s literature is very famous and highly regarded (Azerbaijan´s equivalent of Shakespeare, perhaps),
Carpet and souvenir shops in the Inner CityCarpet and souvenir shops in the Inner City
no-one knows what Nizami actually looked like. Look out for more, and ask your taxi driver or tour guide about them.

Baku, city of fountains? I wonder. There are plenty of them, and they are soon to be joined by more - all singing, all dancing versions with music and lights. See them in Fountain Square, or on the seafront boulevard, or in many of the city´s big open spaces. One particular eye catcher is the tall fountain which erupts from the sea at the end of a pier on the boulevard, sometimes forming a colourful rainbow. These fountains give the city a wonderful, uplifting atmosphere.

You can buy anything in Baku

Can you? Sometimes it seems like it. Baku has everything to suit every budget and taste. Without exception, all goods are imaginatively and beautifully displayed. Bring your camera!
From exceptionally expensive, smart and rather plentiful Italian designer shops through to very local bazaars crammed with cheap imported goods, you can choose the sort of shop you like -each has their own appeal.
Flower sellers create beautiful bouquets of flowers while you watch. These are absolutely delightful and can be a useful gift.
Shopping centres such as the new Sahil shopping centre are interesting to wander round, to see the colourful array of goods for sale. Azerbaijani people like ever thing to be very beautiful, so clothing and ornaments are often elaborate and glitzy.
I find the choice and variety of shoes and boots to be endlessly fascinating, and wish I had the confidence to wear such high heels with such pointy toes - and which colour or design would you like? Men’s shoes too are always very smart.
The bazaars are fantastic, always busy and jostling with buyers and sellers. The local fresh fruit and vegetables are seasonal and of high quality. Just look at the quality and abundance of the fresh herbs which are eaten by the handful with every meal!
Caviar is another local product worthy of a bit of research.
If you are buying carpets or artwork you will need to make special arrangements for export, and a reputable seller will be able to help you. You can ask Asya at the carpet museum for advice.

Hey, big spender

Bring a fistful of dollars and you´ll be fine.

The unit of currency in Azerbaijan is the Manat. In 2006, Azerbaijan changed from the old Manat to the New Manat, where 1 New Manat is equivalent to 5,000 old Manats. The new currency is similar to the Euro system, and indeed the notes look similar to Euro notes. The coins are called Qapik, and 1 Manat consists of 100 Qapiks. The value of the Manat is generally between that of the Euro and the US dollar.
Take US dollars and change them into Manats. Some of the tourist shops and restaurants will accept USD and perhaps give you change in Manats.
There are plentiful ATMs throughout the centre of Baku. And many streets have at least one place where you
can change money between currencies - commission is not charged on currency exchanges. Don’t rely on your credit cards. The big hotels will take them, but other places might not. Traditionally this is a cash only society. No big credit card bill then!

Get to know Baku a little better

OK, so you’ve decided to stay awhile. Baku is such a fascinating city with such a wealth of treasures. What can you do to really find out about this city?
One idea is to plan your days around themes. It’s so easy here because there are so many interesting possibilities. Build in good toilet stops and lots of opportunities for drinking that famous Azerbaijani tea. Use English-speaking guides (ESG) where available.

Some of my well tested favourites are:
A day in the inner city,
Icheri Sheher:

First stop, the Maiden’s Tower (ESG). Lunch at the Caravanserai in the shady courtyard. Follow lunch with tea and jam. Then have fun getting lost as you navigate through the narrow streets to the Shirvanshahs’ Palace (ESG) for the afternoon. So atmospheric and a real touch of Asia.
Extension for active guests: walk down to the boulevard, out to the tea house at the end of the
Maiden’s TowerMaiden’s Tower
universe (big long pier), maybe take in a ride on the Ferris wheel. Then walk up into town and have a cheery evening meal at the popular Anadolu restaurant.

Art Day
Visit the National Gallery Art Museum. It’s not touristy, and English information is limited, but the atmosphere is fab, somewhat quaint, and the works of art are undoubtedly great treasures. Saunter down to somewhere like ISR Plaza for lunch and loos. (Pop up to the top floor for views.)
Then visit one or two of Baku’s wonderful art galleries where you can view local artwork that’s for sale. My personal favourite is Q Gallery, near the Maiden’s Tower. The staff are friendly, speak enough English, and will happily let you look around. They have an ever changing selection of pictures and sculptures by some top local artists, and they are able to advise on the process of taking art work out of the country. Browse in the adjoining touristy shop and you might be tempted to buy a few souvenirs.

Zoroastrian Day
Get back to basics here in the land of fire, where Zoroastrianism began. First stop is a trip to the
Yanar DagYanar Dag
Surakhani Ateshgah Fire Temple (ESG). This is a major stop on any real tourist trip to Azerbaijan. I don’t quite warm to it, but it’s interesting enough and for me the fact that Dimitri Mendeleyev, who invented the periodic table, worked nearby, is more interesting. He even invented the standards for manufacturing vodka.
And then bring it all to life with a trip to Yanar Dag, the burning mountain. Don’t be too optimistic about this one burning ditch is a more realistic description, but hey, the flames are real and the heat awesome. If you want to toast marshmallows then take some long handled skewers (and some marshmallows). You can be served tea and jam, and very good it is too.

Shopping Day
Window shop in the exclusive designer stores and marvel at the fashions. In summer the local people discard their ubiquitous black, and will amaze you with the most provocative colours and styles.
Go to a bazaar. Try on some of the amazing shoes and find a cheap pair to take home as a souvenir. One favourite for shoes is downstairs in Sharg Bazaar. Have fun haggling and don’t buy anything expensive -
Azerbaijan State Philarmonic named after Muslim MaqomayevAzerbaijan State Philarmonic named after Muslim Maqomayev
you’ll only regret it later.
And of course stock up on the latest DVDs and CDs from one of Baku’s many outlets.

Local Produce Day
Don’t do this on day one, it can be a culture shock. But do go to Taza Bazaar and take in the smells, colours and banter. Taste the cheeses, please buy, show interest in the stall holders and ask them where their produce came from. You will be amazed, home made cider vinegar, all sorts of natural remedies for every ailment. Find out about caviar and you can go home as caviar experts. If your Russian or Azerbaijani is poor, then take a local guide /translator. Ask him/her to tell the stall holders how much you like their produce and see their smiles - it’s worth it! Praise the wonderful displays, praise anything and everything that you see that you like. And buy, buy, buy. Don’t miss the part of the bazaar with the household goods -so many door handles, so beautifully arranged.
I could go on and on about theme days, but you will have got the idea by now.
Carpet Day (Carpet museum followed by a carpet factory), Silk Days and Caravanserais (wouldn’t a silk/silk route museum be a wonderful addition to Baku?), Oil Day (take a trip down amongst the nodding donkeys, look at oil baron architecture), Boulevard Day (Ferris wheel, puppet theatre, candy floss and a boat trip around the bay), History Day (Shehidlar Xiyabani sets the scene, provides beautiful views of the city, and the option for a ride on the Funikyulor).
Depending on the time you have, you can extend your stay to trips out of Baku to see the many fabulous sights that Azerbaijan has to offer.