Baku – this city can only be described as a place of constant contradictions, with different things to see around every corner. It is at once modern, yet still crumbling in places. It is technically European, but feels Asian. Our tour guide challenged us to make up our own mind about Azerbaijan and its place in either the East or West as we spent a few hours exploring this city.
We arrive in Baku in the late morning, after catching a very long overnight train, which featured a rather stressful border crossing (as a consequence of us having Armenian stamps in our passport – but that is a story for another day!).
We unwittingly booked a very bad hotel that was a few kilometres out of the city centre. It was walkable, and we enjoyed walking through the rather grey and Soviet area we found ourselves staying in.
It wasn’t long before the iconic flame towers of Azerbaijan appeared.
Our first stop was lunch. Almost all of the restaurants we ate in were cavernous underground affairs that were decorated quite extensively. Despite looking tacky, all of the food we ate in Azerbaijan was excellent, with a far broader variety of options than anticipated.
We joined a free walking tour, which took us through the ‘old city’ of Baku. Our tour guide was excellent, and offered many insights into the complexity of Azerbaijan’s identity. The above statute represents the competing ideals of European and Asian culture in how Azerbaijan sees itself.
The old city is a walled area within the city centre, with meandering laneways and older, traditional buildings. The former palace of kings past remains, in addition to mosques, sulphur baths, and rather colourful terrace buildings.
The contrast in architecture further exemplifies the cultural clashes of Azerbaijan.
Parts of Baku feel incredibly European, at times giving the feeling that one could be walking down a Parisian street. Our guide told us that once the oil boom brought wealth to Azeris, their children would study abroad in Europe and bring back grand ideas about how the city should look.
After an afternoon of explorations, it was of course time for more Azeri food. One of our favourite dishes was sadj, a kind of hot plate that comes out still sizzling. We typically order the vegetarian one, though meat options were available. Oh, and bread and dolma were obviously mandatory with every meal.
The city centre of Baku was easy to explore in half a day, with extended stops for food. It was amazing to walk around the city and be walking along a modern shopping mall in one moment, the passing by a mosque, before turning down a European street, which ended near a Soviet building. You can sense so much of the history of this nation just from walking around and taking in your surroundings.