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krisek Baku - A travel report by Krys
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Baku,  Azerbaijan - flag Azerbaijan -  Bak©
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krisek's travel reports

A very hot Caspian weekend in Baku.

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Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital city, is on the rise. Literally. It is a growing metropolis, unafraid to experiment with flamboyant, large scale architecture. Its small old town, partially walled over, seems overwhelmed. Well, progress is inevitable.


Old town city walls and the Flame Towers looming in the distance.
Old town city walls and the Flame Towers looming in the distance.
What is Baku’s current municipal architecture plan is a mystery. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the oil boom guaranteed erection of grand palaces and mansions. This is when the tiny, UNESCO-listed, old town stopped being the city’s prominent feature. Today, Azerbaijan’s capital city is busy constructing massive high rise modern buildings, made of glass and steel. And there are many futuristic structures in the plan. The break-up of the Soviet Union and the second oil boom in the early twenty-first century resulted in a steady flow of petrodollars.

How long had Baku been on my wish list is hard to say. It crossed my mind in high school, after reading the obligatory book by one Poland’s most celebrated authors, however politically motivated or parabolical it was. It was titled Early Spring (pol: Przedwiosnie), and Baku featured right at the beginning in the chapter called Glass Houses. Although metaphorical then, today Baku is boasting an increasing number of glass (and steel) houses.

The old town, which features a few interesting spots and sights dating back to the eleventh century is really small. It is a tiny maze of little alleys and stairways, but it is relatively easy to navigate. The northern and western parts of the city wall still stand, and parts are still being renovated. There are a few round wall towers and small gates. Yet, it is not as spectacular as other old towns in Central Asia. Plus, it is really overwhelmed by massive palaces and mansions constructed in the twentieth century, some of which are very interesting and some of which are not.

Favourite spots:
The seafront Bulvar at night
The seafront Bulvar at night
The seafront Bulvar, meticulously kept by the authorities, probably refreshed before the Eurovision contests earlier this year, could actually be one of my favourite spots. It is a park and promenade, which, sadly, is steadily being interrupted by the construction of shopping malls. Fortunately the malls are being constructed alongside the park and do not take the entire width of it. There is still plenty of room between the shore and the malls. Actually, enough space to put three or four more of those. The park has plenty of shaded areas provided by countless species of trees planted on swathes of curbed lawns. They include baobabs and silk trees. There are cacti and other ‘recreational’ plants as well, and every few hundred yards, there is a cafe or a bar serving cold drinks.

What's really great:
Carpets in the old town, by the Maiden Tower
Carpets in the old town, by the Maiden Tower
One comes to Baku fully aware of the Caspian oil wealth. All countries based at this sea take advantage of the natural resources. Azerbaijan is famous for its enthusiastic embrace of the oil and gas exploration. It is therefore super to see the vast oil staines floating on the surface of the Caspian Sea. It is enough just to lean a little against the railings along the shore and the blue, black, violet and green pools of oil are just there! Right in front of your eyes. Colourful, free-floating, patchy, beautiful. And when you step on one of the piers leading deeper into the sea, there are any more of them, larger and prettier.

Sights:
The Maiden's Tower in the distance.
The Maiden's Tower in the distance.
The single most important sight of Baku, or rather with the most significant historic value, the Maiden's Tower is not that impressive, actually. Perhaps the scaffolding, which covered it all when I visited, had an impact on its appearance. But it was not that big or special. At least from the outside. Yet, the tiny little old town, which is almost entirely walled over was interesting. It had a handful of handsome minarets and mosques dating back to the early Medieval times (e.g. the Cume Mosque), some of the gates and ramparts looked fine, too. There was still plenty to do there to restore the impressive palaces and mansions, and those, which were already restored were little gems.

Outside the old town, Baku boasted great buildings from time of the oil boom, massive palaces with very elaborate facades. And there is plenty of them! In addition to those, the new petrodollars have been buying massive futuristic skyscrapers. And, luckily, the much needed the redevelopment of the seafront.

Accommodations:
An executive suite number 2113 at the Hilton Baku
An executive suite number 2113 at the Hilton Baku
I was allocated an executive suite number 2113 on arrival at the Hilton Baku. It was located on the 21st floor with sweeping views towards the Freedom Square and far into the Caspian Sea. It had two rooms, massive bathroom with centrally placed bathtub, and an extra toilet room adjacent to the the lounge. Two flat screen TV sets, minibar and all other five star hotel amenities. The king size bed was nicely firm and the sheets were luxurious. Such a bed is a trap, as it is hard to get up and leave it for the whole day. Breakfast was included in my rate and served in the executive lounge on the 17th floor. It was not the best Hilton breakfast collection, actually. The scrambled eggs looked very suspicious and the cold cuts looked miserable. Fortunately, there was plenty of good cereal, fruit, and Danish pastries. Orange juice was fresh and the machine cappuccino impressive. Hilton’s best features were location, terrace restaurant on the 24th floor and very well stocked bar on the 25th.

Nightlife:
Entry to one of the old town restaurants
Entry to one of the old town restaurants
Maybe it was odd, but the Baku nightlife seemed exceptionally low profile. I browsed the city at night, but I did not spot anything obvious in terms of nightclubs, bars or discos. Definitely nothing in the old town within the walls. Well, actually, there were a few bars around, including the open-air bars. The city was not completely empty at night, either. I spotted loads and loads of people walking up and down the seafront boulevard, occasionally stopping at cafes, bistros, bars and restaurants nearby. In fact, even after midnight, the promenade and the bars were buzzing! Perhaps this was the Baku nightlife? All the upscale hotels had bars (although some closing at around 1 o'clock in the morning) and some had nightclubs and casinos, which were open into the wee hours of the morning.

I have to admit that I never ventured too far into the city at night. I lingered around the old town and the seafront. Maybe further afield there was more nightly action.

Hangouts:
People at the seafront Bulvar
People at the seafront Bulvar
Okay, this may sound a little repetitive, but the seafront Bulvar was the very spot to hang out in Baku. It was at least the case for the locals. They went there in their thousands! Together with their girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, lovers, kids, entire families. They simply walked up and down the promenade. Up and down. Some of them stopped at the cafes for simple snacks or lagers. The snacks were just pizzas or little baskets of chips, or their thinner version called French fries. At the time I was visiting Baku, the London 2012 Olympic Games were in full spin, so the open air cafes at the seafront park had flat screen TV sets showing mainly the wresting competition, as the Azerbaijanis were rather good at this game. Given the time difference, some of the fights were running late into the night.

I personally liked the bar on the rooftop terrace at the Hilton. It had good selection of drinks, very professional service and wonderful view over the city.

Restaurants:
Terrace restaurant at the Hilton Baku
Terrace restaurant at the Hilton Baku
The terrace restaurant at the Hilton Baku hotel cooked tasty dishes, but the view of the city from the terrace was the real deal, it was incredible. One should drop by only to see how Baku looked from the top. The dishes were great and simple, but the volume did not necessarily mean good value for money. I guess one was paying for the professional service and the view.

There were a bunch of eateries at the seafront promenade, along the main avenue running parallel to the shore, although one block away from the sea. They were located at the ground floor of some great mansions.

There were only a couple of inviting restaurants in the old town. One just steps away from the Maiden's Tower. It looked very Medieval, if a little touristy, and the service was almost adequate. The menu concentrated on the Eurasian cuisine.

Other recommendations:
A small bath house in the old town
A small bath house in the old town
The Baku International Airport is about an hour’s drive from the city centre, depending on traffic. The road is in excellent condition, but it passes through both residential and business areas. There are taxis right outside the arrival hall, but it is hard to tell, which of the taxis are genuine and which are just the regular taxi bandits, who prey on the visitors to overcharge them dearly. When arriving late at night, it is probably best to pre-arrange an airport pick-up with a hotel or a hostel. They can arrange that very easily with one of the radio taxi companies. A standard taxi (most of which are the world famous London Taxis) would cost approximately 20 AZN (€22) at night. The official taxi drivers are rather friendly and they tend to know how to avoid traffic and make it for your flight.

Published on Thursday February 28th, 2013


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Fri, Mar 01 2013 - 11:16 PM rating by horourke

I am very interested in this report because it includes so many different threads of thought. The reference to eggs that are less than attractive reminds me of a colleague's reaction to bacon and eggs especially placed on the menu for us in Krasnodar but bearing little resemblance to the rustic version common in Ireland.
Thank you for a very much for a fine piece of literature

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