Continuing my October 2019 trip to the Caucuses…….
Before my visit there were just a few facts that I knew about to Azerbaijan capital – its situation on the Caspian Sea and the iconic Flame Towers, a symbol of the nation’s status as a country rich in fossil fuels and the birthplace of Zoroastrianism.
The country is making great efforts to increase its profile, now holding a Formula 1 Grand Prix, staging the 2019 Europa League football final between Chelsea & Arsenal and constructing impressive stadia to hold the 2015 European Games, the inaugural holding of the competition run along Olympic lines, as well as being a host city for Euro 2020.
Azerbaijan’s dream is to hold the actual Olympic Games and I for one would not bet against it.
I should also mention that Baku hosted the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest having won it in 2011!
So what were my impressions?
We arrived by overnight train from Tbilisi (see my earlier post HERE) and the first mission was to buy some train tickets to go to Sheki later in the week and then to get some cash.
The first task was completed very easily at the station ticket office but the second proved a little more tricky.
The station ATM was not functioning and neither were the two that I was directed to by a policeman. What to do? I went back to the station and spoke to a different policeman who called over one of the many money changers that hung around the railway buildings.
Exclusively middle-aged to older males, I had assumed that they were probably illegal and undoubtedly rip off merchants. I had heard many a cautionary tale of unsuspecting travellers buying wads of out of date notes or finding a stack of worthless paper sandwiched between the inner and outer genuine notes.
The fact that an official had beckoned the rough looking chap over gave me a sense of confidence and as the policeman watched over me, I rather cautiously changed up $20 at a rate just a bit worse than the official one.
It reminded me of the time that I had been in Bangkok with Hamish and was absolutely busting for a pee. I had hunted high and low in a shopping centre for a toilet to no avail and in desperation I ventured to a security guard to ask where I might find relief.
He had me follow him outside the main building and around the side out of sight of the shoppers, tourists and business people who were scurrying about their business. He then pointed to an area of waste ground by an outlet pipe and proclaimed, “there, toilet.”
He then insisted on waiting hand on gun as I nervously relieved myself. Not quite what I was expecting, but most welcome all the same! I still half expected an on the spot fine or worse, but happily this policeman was not a crooked one.
Back to Baku. The friendly officer then beckoned over a taxi driver to take us to our hotel. Of course the 70-year old driver had never heard of the place and initially indicated that it was 50km away rather than in the Old Town. I have made a couple of booking mistakes in the past and immediately got that sinking feeling, but luckily a couple of phone calls sorted the confusion.
At least he hadn’t needed to borrow Hamish’s glasses to read the hotel details, as had been the case once in Kiev!
We managed to get over the confusion and were taken to the Sunday Boutique Hotel. The driver had to pay a 2 manat (£1) levy to enter the old town and as tends to be the case in situations like these, the elderly driver concocted all sorts of add-ons like the Fiddler character in the British comedy film ‘Carry on Camping.’
We had already agreed a fare, but charitably gave him a couple of pounds over the odds, which he respectfully accepted with a nod and a smile.
The hotel looked very nice inside, but unfortunately they had water issues that they assured us would be fixed the next day. In return for an early check-in we agreed to spend the night in their nearby infinitely inferior sister hotel.
A hot shower and a lie down were worth the inconvenience of shabby décor and lumpy beds after our long journey. We figured that we were even in the deal, even though we were to have a bit of regret later on that night as we tried to suppress the bed springs digging into our backs.
Baku Old Town (İçərişəhər)
Old towns are best wandered around with no map. The maze of streets makes map reading very tricky anyway and with our lack of skills in that direction, virtually impossible.
So wander we did throughout our stay, somehow managing to always find our way back to our hotel by a variety of different routes.
The labyrinth was a delight, notwithstanding the fact that the whole area had been renovated far more than was good for it in my opinion.
There were also more museums than you could shake a stick at. Never the greatest of museum fans, we did venture into the Museum of Miniature Books on account of it being 1) free to get in, 2) in an interesting looking building & 3) being just about the strangest subject of a museum we had ever come across.
All of the main attractions such as Masud Ibn Davud’s 12th Century Maiden Tower (Qız qalası) & the 15th Century UNESCO listed Shirvanshahs Palace had an entrance fee of 15 manat (£7.50) and suffering from ‘traveller tightness’ we shunned the chance to witness historic sites in preference of continuing to amble aimlessly.
The Maiden Tower houses a museum and a great view apparently. Not enough to entice us to make the 100 step climb to the summit. The Palace was said to be excellent and I admit to a retrospective tinge of regret in not paying up.
The walled İçərişəhər (Icheri Sheher) was pretty damned good with fine architecture, great restaurants and excellent cafes serving aromatic mint tea and tempting baklava.
However having visited Uzbekistan the previous year, everything was just a notch or two down in comparison. Still very worthy indeed, but ideally it is better to visit Baku before heading off to the likes of Bukhara & Khiva.
Outside the old town walls, the city is a modern metropolis of fantastically designed buildings, landscaped parks, millionaire mansions, wide boulevards and fountained squares.
There are a few iconic places you hear of as a youngster that live with you as exotic locations that you never dream you will ever see. Timbuktu, Casablanca, Lake Titicaca, Angkor Wat, Crimea & Patagonia to name just a few.
For me the Caspian Sea is up there in that category. A mystical ‘Trivial Pursuit’ answer (largest lake in the world), somewhere so remote & far away that it could easily have been a mythical legend.
Forty-odd years later the reality is somewhat different of course, but I still had that wonderful warm glow when I first set eyes on the expanse of water that the caviar producing sturgeon calls home.
The view today is very different to how it would have looked in the Soviet era and indeed less than a decade before. Marvellous high rise buildings such as the twin Port Towers, the SOFAZ & SOCAR Towers, the Trump International Hotel and Tower, plus of course the Flame Towers, have changed the skyline forever.
Throw in icons in the making such as the Crystal Hall that hosted Eurovision, the almost complete Deniz Waterfront Building (a 120,000m² entertainment, retail, leisure & dining destination over five floors with eight star-shaped wings inspired by Azerbaijan’s national emblem and already nicknamed ‘The Death Star’), plus the Carpet Museum with its structure shaped like a roll of carpet, and the view is quite breathtaking.
The Caspian promenade also houses the world’s second largest flagpole with a flag measuring 70 by 35 metres flying on 162 metre high pole. It was briefly the tallest, but in the game of biggest, tallest, broadest one-upmanship, it was soon overtaken by the 165 meter Dushanbe Flagpole in Tajikistan.
Further afield you have the likes of the Zaha Hadid designed Heydar Aliyev Center, the prominent Hilton Hotel (great rooftop bar view and home of the Grand Prix pits) and the National Stadium that housed the Europa final, which all add to the sense that Baku is going places fast and will not stop until it reaches its goals.
Baku Flame Towers
The trio of skyscrapers dominate the skyline from all around the city, with the tallest tower being 182 meters. The flame-shaped towers symbolise fire as a sign of Ahura Mazda in Zoroastrianism (more about the Fire Religion in an imminent post) and to commemorate that Azerbaijan was the birthplace for the prophet Zoroaster.
The Flame Towers house a hotel, apartments and offices and are completely covered with 10,000 LED screens that display the movement of a fire visible from the farthest points of the city. The light show transitions from giant flames, the colours of the Azeri flag, a figure waving the national flag and giant tanks of water being filled.
We took the funicular costing a whole 1 manat up the 450 metres to the landscaped Alley of Martyrs for magic views of greater Baku and the Flame Towers themselves.
Those unfortunate chaps & chapesses from the BBC show ‘Race Across the World’ had to run up the adjacent steps wearing heavy rucksacks to complete a leg of the race by land and sea from London to Singapore (with limited budget and smart phones not allowed), due to the funicular not running.
Walking up unloaded would have been bad enough, but their efforts would probably have done for me!
The Alley of the Martyrs is a final resting place and memorial to hundreds of Azeris who lost their lives in the Karabakh hostilities. An eternal flame flickers underneath a large ceremonial dome stands.
After taking in the sunset, we alighted by funicular and filmed the towers in all of their illuminated glory. Watch the show on my YOUTUBE channel.
Baku Summary & Practicalities
Is Baku worth visiting? Definitely yes. For me modern Baku outstrips ancient Baku in the ‘wow’ factor, but as mentioned that is probably more to do with unfair comparisons with Uzbekistan than Baku lacking in great sites.
2-3 full days is enough (unless you simply adore museums!) and you are pretty much guaranteed a great time should you go.
I will be writing a couple of posts soon about some excursions from Baku, so look out for those.
Getting to Baku
You could fly direct to Baku from the likes of New York, Paris, London, Frankfurt, Milan, Moscow, Berlin, Istanbul and indeed Tbilisi, but airfares can be pretty pricey as low cost carriers are yet to muscle in on the act.
A fairly low cost option that we took was flying Buta Airways from Baku to Istanbul and then Fly Pegasus to London. £150 for the two legs.
If you have time, the 12-hour overnight train from Tbilisi is great fun, or if you are feeling really adventurous, how about taking the 51-hour journey from Moscow or even the 59-hour one from Kiev!
There are plenty of boutique style hotels in the old town at very reasonable prices. We stayed in the Hotel Sunday with a twin room costing less than £40 per night, including breakfast.
If you like upmarket, all the luxury brands are catered for too, with the Four Seasons perhaps the priciest, but also the closest to the old town.
There are just loads of restaurants & cafes. Atmospheric Azeri restaurants are plentiful in the old town and just outside, near Fountain Square, there are dozens of Western style places with many of the brands that you will be well used to.
Finally, there are 4 or 5 decent tour operators in the city that will sell you city tours, Caspian cruises and excursions. If you go anywhere in the old town, you are most likely to be approached by young tour touts who will escort you to their employers and ply you with tea & baklava, whilst gently trying to extract cash from you.
Finally, most nationalities will need a visa. This is available as an easily obtained e-visa for $23. Take care when searching on-line as other visa companies may come up first in the search and charge an exorbitant commission for simply filling in your form for you. Use this LINK.
My Train Travel Books
Azerbaijan will feature alongside all of the other former Soviets (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania & Estonia) in a future book in the Wilbur’s Travels series.
Part One detailing my travels by train across the Balkans is available now from Amazon.