It is the strangest feeling in the world to walk around and semi-recognise your home city. I’m sitting on the Boulevard, across from one thing that hasn’t changed so much, our Caspian. I remember during one of our school outings, our teacher told us that the fluctuating levels of this sea made it seem like it’s breathing. It has stuck in my head ever since. The Boulevard on the other hand is a vision that anyone who left Baku more than 10 years ago would hardly recognise if its current picture was shown today.
Little Venice, with a mosaic orca peeping from the dark green water, is transformed into this modern Venice with crystal clear water and real gondolas, not that old blue wooden boat we used to think was so funny.
A line of Ferris wheels gave way to fountains and exotic trees, bushes and cactuses brought from all over the world. There is even a baobab tree here. A single Ferris wheel though deserves to be mentioned: it is a recent addition, which people adorably call the Baku Eye (undoubtedly influenced by the London Eye), but I don’t seem to see a lot of people there. They are all probably racing their bikes. You can rent them or bring your own. The generous space of this side of the Boulevard has been thoughtfully divided; there are bike lanes, which for Bakuvians don’t mean a thing of course, they walk everywhere anyway. You can cover a decent mileage if you ride from one end, from Crystal Hall and State Flag Square all the way to Port Baku Mall and further. A little clarification here, Crystal Hall and State Flag Square were additions made for Eurovision in 2012 and both are roughly where the Baku Flotilla used to be. All the boats were relocated and the shore waters have been cleared. Now that the Boulevard has been extended, the Bayil area has become a very hot for hotel/restaurant building, and within another 10 years I imagine it will look totally different.
No fences, no oil extracting machines, only the astounding view and the sound of the Azerbaijani flag, the second biggest in the region
Between what you remember as the original Boulevard and the extension towards Flag Square, there is another building that astonishes the inflow of tourists - the Carpet Museum. It looks like an unrolling carpet which, in true Azerbaijani architectural fashion, surpasses the ordinary, outdoing prior incredible constructions. It is right next to the Sports Palace, which you should remember because structurally the building is the same, only the façade is new. Right across the street from the Sports Palace, there used to be a Lukoil gas station and nothing else. Well, the gas station was ruined by a landslide many years ago and since then that area has been reinforced by a concrete wall and hundreds of trees have been planted. Still on this side of the road, the Intourist Hotel has just been re-introduced to the city again. For a very long time there was just a bus stop and a fire station next to it.
And the narrow roads of Bayil are gone for good. The new highway is a dream come true: it is what makes all the difference regarding our good old Bayil traffic jams. It is wide, modern and opens up a beautiful view of the Boulevard. No fences, no nodding donkeys, only the astounding view and the sound of the Azerbaijani flag, the second tallest in the region.
I don’t know if I told you, but there’s going to be a Formula One race held in Baku in June. The track is already in place, meaning that they have redone most of the roads in the city. To be honest, I was certain the race would be somewhere within the range of that new Bayil highway, but the architect had a more culturally inclusive vision for the Grand Prix in Baku. The race will start and end on Azadliq Square (ex-Lenin Square) in front of Government House, and that is where all the temporary garages and pit stop are already installed. The spot is conveniently located between two new hotels, the Hilton on the left, where all related press conferences will take place, and the JW Marriott or renovated Absheron hotel, where the drivers will be staying. Taking the first left from Government House, the race will move against the traffic on a newly asphalted road, sans all the traffic lines, not to confuse the racers. Turning again on wide Pushkin Street, the cars will race for about two blocks or 300 metres, until they reach Khagani Street (formerly 9th January Street). The houses by the road are all still there, the only difference being the upgraded façades and new boutiques here and there.
After the third turn, passing the Rashid Behbudov Song Theatre, the cars are on Bulbul Avenue (formerly Kirov Avenue) for about 240 metres. The fourth turn will greet drivers with Sahil Garden. All the roads have been recently resurfaced; I would never have guessed the track could be so carefully woven into the city, creating a not only exciting, but also picturesque drive. From there the stream of cars will turn onto Zarifa Aliyeva Street, formerly known as Azerbaijan Avenue, the road right behind the Museum Centre, although some still call it the Lenin Museum. Turning left and we’re on Neftchiler Avenue (formerly Stalin Avenue), where we get the first glimpse of the Flame Towers on the hill, three buildings that look like flames and light up at night... I can only imagine what their electricity bill looks like. Again, the buildings have changed mainly in their façades. On the right side of the road – high-end boutiques such as Emporio Armani, Gucci; on the left the magnificent Boulevard and Puppet Theatre, the only feature of which that has changed is the colour – it is now yellow. Here, again against the traffic, the cars will turn onto Aziz Aliyev Street (formerly Injesenet, Zevina Street) and go up the 12% incline towards what is the narrowest part of the track not only in Baku, but the narrowest in the history of the Grand Prix. The cobbled road has been covered with a protective layer and tarmac, the sidewalks removed for the duration of the race. Driving right past the city walls, the course follows Istiglaliyyat Street, past Sabir Garden and the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences, Azerbaijan State Economics University on the left. Also on the left, Baksovet metro station has gained not only a new name, Icherisheher metro, but also a brand new building. Reminiscent of the Louvre Museum, an elegant pyramid welcomes hundreds of people daily. Another lefthander follows right after the Filarmonia (Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Hall), and again the colour of the building has changed from blue to yellow. The cobbled road down the hill is also covered with a protective layer and the racers had better be careful not to forget about the driving as a beautiful view of the Caspian opens up in front of them. School No. 6 on the right is no longer recognisable, neither should it be, since the original building was demolished completely. The current building bears very little resemblance to the old school, but looks stunning nevertheless.
The Heydar Aliyev Foundation building next to the State Oil Complany of Azerbaijan Republic is another addition to Azneft Square. Right across the street from it, the cars will zoom by the new Four Seasons Hotel, whose perfect location provides all rooms with a beautiful view. And then we’re back on Neftchiler Avenue, passing one of the most famous symbols of Baku, Maiden’s Tower and then straight to the finish line, 1500 metres away. There are nine grandstands throughout the racetrack, all already in place.
While we’re at the finish line on Azadliq (Lenin) Square, just a little beyond the JW Marriott (Old Absheron) Hotel there’s a new development worth mentioning on this imaginative tour. Whenever we used to say ‘city centre,’ we meant one area – Torgovaya or Nizami Street. In the last 10 years foreign companies have invested significantly in Baku, which has resulted in the expansion of the city, consequently creating several centres and effectively a new city model. Still along the coastline, but moving away from the Old Baku centre, we move slowly towards the premises of Ag Sheher (White City). This is the modern development that starts with the Marriott Hotel, the first modern-looking building after Government House, built in 1924. It is still in development but already looks more like part of a foreign city. There are many coffee and bookshops here, the former usually being more packed than the latter.
I have to say it took me a while to imagine how Formula One is going to adapt to the specificities of our city. It doesn’t look like Monaco, but it sure will look unique with the cars racing by Maiden’s Tower and by the ancient walls of the inner (old) city. Architecturally, there are so many influences from different eras and from all over the world, so it would seem like racing through time, from the walls of ancient towers, faceless Soviet era apartment blocks to new futuristic high-rise buildings of White City.
... it would seem like racing through time, from the walls of ancient towers, faceless Soviet era apartment blocks to new futuristic high-rise buildings of White City
To someone who hasn’t seen the city for a long time, it might seem like a foreign place. But I’m hoping that even under the new façade, you’ll recognize and rediscover our home city, on the rooftops and in windows of the remaining buildings, in the streets that have changed the names but not addresses, in the calm breath of the Caspian…
See you soon, Camilla