Destination - Baku
Written by Nailya Bentley
Beluga caviar, kebabs and plovs, a stunning seaside and the old city, world-famous jazz musicians and exciting night life... You are in Baku – the city that transforms daily, yet treasures its historic past.
Not long ago, your first impression of Baku would have been completely different. An old, whiffy airport, dark roads full of pot holes...all of it is gone now, replaced by modern buildings and the new illuminated motorway into the city.
Baku has come a long way. Not many other places have lived through such dramatic changes, both physically and culturally. From the Rothschild era to Soviet times, the capital of oil-rich Azerbaijan has always been an attractive spot for foreign settlers, with each of them leaving their individual stamp on Baku.
In recent years, Baku has seen a stunning reconstruction. Like a toddler learning to walk, it has made mistakes, broken things that should not have been broken, and bumped into sharp corners. And now, through the broken glass and destroyed monuments, Baku is coming out all glitzy and shiny, extravagant and hedonistic. But having been painted grey for 70 years wouldn’t you crave some bright colours?
And yet, underneath the shiny new coat, Baku remains a historic city, full of exotic charisma and memoirs of its past. There are many spots in the city that are worth visiting for their historic value and medieval beauty. Without doubt, the heart of Baku is the Old City – Icheri Sheher and the Shirvanshahs’ Palace. With the 15th century walls casting long shadows in the summer heat, the Shirvanshahs’ Palace is an enchanting complex replete with amazing architectural details. The palace is always quiet, its beauty eerie. As a little girl, I used to wander around the palace, trying to imagine what life must have been like for its inhabitants.
Icheri Sheher, with its narrow cobbled streets, will always be a special place for every Bakuvian. For a truly authentic experience, visit Caravan Saray for traditional Azerbaijani dishes. You can enjoy plov and sip chai under the tree in the courtyard, and admire ethnic rugs hanging off the balconies above.
Many beautiful rugs are woven in Azerbaijan, with designs varying from region to region, and Icheri Sheher is the place to go to discover them. There are small and dark traditional rug shops all over the Icheri Sheher. Don’t be shy of going in and having a good haggle. Icheri Sheher also hides some interesting places to stay. The choice of quality hotels in Baku these days is one of the most dramatic changes since my Soviet childhood (when the shockingly ugly Intourist with old ladies guarding every floor was the main hotel in the city).
However, for something more authentic, right in the heart of the Icheri Sheher, some old two-storey buildings have been lovingly renovated, keeping their original character, and turned into small boutique hotels. From the flat rooftop restaurant of the Museum Inn Hotel you can admire the Maiden Tower – another symbol of Baku.
Many legends surround the Maiden Tower, the most persistent one telling of the Khan of Baku wanting to marry his own daughter. Understandably disturbed, the maiden jumped to her death from the top of the tower. Whatever the truth of the legend, it is a captivating piece of ancient architecture worth a visit if you are fit enough for the infinite spiral staircase.
Across the road from the tower is one more of Baku’s main attractions – the Boulevard. The promenade runs parallel to the Caspian Sea shore, and is over 100 years old. Just like the rest of the city, the Boulevard has had a major facelift, boasting new cafés, illuminated fountains, and exotic trees.
Whether you enjoy the new or the old façades of the city, the true character of Baku, of course, lies not just in its buildings or the beautiful promenade but in its people and their passions.
You might notice, as you walk along the Boulevard, that music is everywhere – blasting away from car windows and outdoor cafés. Especially now, with the Eurovision Song Contest being hosted in Baku in 2012, the city is bursting with anticipation and excitement. But, just as you have to look past the glitzy façades to see the true character of Baku, you need to know that, besides the Eurovision-style pop, Baku is known for its classical and jazz musicians, as well as the traditional Azeri Mugham singers.
Finally, there is the food, and plenty of it. Azeri people are passionate about their food, and love to share it with guests. Due to the unique climate and the proximity of the Caspian Sea, Bakuvians have not only been spoilt with a rich choice of herbs, fruits, and vegetables, but have also had the luxury of the sturgeon fish and caviar.
The Caspian Sea is home to Beluga caviar – the most expensive type in the world. To someone who grew up in Baku in the ’80s, caviar was something our mums would spread generously on a school sandwich. Sadly, the years of cheap and easily available caviar are long gone. However, there are still plenty of wonderful dishes for you to enjoy in Baku, such as delicious sturgeon fish kebabs, traditionally accompanied by pomegranate molasses, or narsharab. Or my personal favourite: a grilled baby aubergine stuffed with sheep fat. Try those in one of the city’s numerous outdoor cafés, listening to local music, in the shade of trees; or take a short taxi ride to a restaurant along the Baku Bay for some truly Bakuvian experiences of kebabs, watermelons, and tea on the beach.
Azerbaijani cuisine has over 40 different plov recipes. This rice dish, accompanied by chicken or meat, can be enjoyed with dried fruits, or sauces such as walnut or baby leeks. Due to its geographical location and landscape, and proximity of the Caspian Sea, nine of the Earth’s eleven climatic zones can be discovered in Azerbaijan. Ninety per cent of the world’s caviar is produced from the Caspian Sea, including from the rarest and costliest Beluga sturgeon. Other types are Ossetra and Sevruga.
Azerbaijan is home to Shebeke art, which was widely used in 18th and 19th century Azerbaijani architecture. Small wooden pieces were fitted together by hand to form an intricate window or door frame, often accompanied by varicoloured pieces of glass. No glue or nails were used. The secret of this ancient art was kept in the family, passed on from generation to generation. Shebeke is also a well-known form of the ancient jewellers’ art of Azerbaijan.
The country is also known for its metal craftsmanship that goes back 5,000 years, with the richest period in Azerbaijani folk arts dating from the Middle Ages. The Museum of Azerbaijan History in Baku displays silver plates and other utensils, distinguished by their delicate designs. From the 15th to 17th centuries, weapons and accessories produced by masters of Azerbaijan became famous abroad. A stunning shield of the 15th century is kept in the house of weapons at the Kremlin. The shield belonged to a Russian Romanov tsar. Two more samples (hoods) made in Azerbaijan during that period are now kept in the Moscow House of weapons, and in Istanbul. The second hood carries a script, noting that it was made for Shah Tahmasp in 1528.