Baku, Second Time Around

September 2014: This was my second visit to Baku, where Chris has worked on and off for the better part of the last 14 years. I must say, this time the weather was a big improvement. I don’t recommend a Baku vacation in the middle of winter. The Siberian winds are too cold. And it snows! September is so much better, with hot days and pleasant evenings.

The weather wasn’t the only change I noticed. Azeribaijan’s capital city has been undergoing a radical facelift in the last few years. A lot of oil money is being put to work renovating old stone mansions from Baku’s first oil boom, lighting up the buildings at night and working on the roads in the center of town, which suffer from horrendous traffic jams.

Unimpressive buildings from the Soviet era are being demolished to make way for the new, like housing and sporting venues for the European Games that will be held here next year, new greenspaces and new cultural centres and museums. The city barely resembles its former self. It’s clean, bright and increasingly modern with new architectural masterpieces popping up all over the place, from the trio of Flame Towers, to the new Heydar Aliyev Centre which Lonely Planet calls “a cross between a space station and a gigantic science-fiction snail.”

Baku is certainly a city of contrasts. The old and the new. The traditional ways and the modern outlook. The phasing out of the Soviet influence in favour of more European aspirations. The dry desert and the lavishly overwatered green spaces. The overwhelming opulence and the high walls built to tuck away the unsightly.

Here are my top five picks in the center area of Baku. Some of these I visited this time, some last time.

Baku Boulevard

Azerbaijan is one of five countries bordering the Caspian Sea, along with Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran. Baku is located on the southern shore of the Absheron Peninsula, around the horseshoe-like shaped Bay of Baku. Stretching for several kilometres along the bay from National Flag Square to Freedom Square is the National Seaside Park (Dənizkənarı Milli Park) or Baku Boulevard.

This has to be one of the best waterfronts of any city I have been to, although I must admit that I am rather partial to the Vancouver waterfront. And yet Baku might even top that one day, as there are plans in the works to extend the boulevard up to 26 km around the Bay of Baku. That would make it the largest in Europe.

From big fireworks displays at New Year’s Eve to couples strolling and kids enjoying an ice cream, this is one of the most popular places to be in Baku. There are several restaurants and tea houses, numerous fountains, kids play areas, a giant cactus garden, lots of trees and benches to sit in the shade, Venice-inspired canals complete with boat rides and the International Centre of Mugham (traditional Azeri folk music).

The new National Carpet Museum, housed in a building along the boulevard that is shaped like a gigantic rolled up carpet, opened just a few days before I arrived. We meant to go there but ran out of time.

Icheri Sheher (Inner City)

The Walled City of Baku is one of only two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Azerbaijan.

I noticed a big change here from my last visit. There has been a lot renovation in the quarter, some might even say over-renovation as the worn, crumbling stones are replaced and the medieval-era wall and buildings look practically new. Despite the changes, I quite happily spent hours wandering around the old walled city, exploring the maze of narrow streets, drinking tea or shopping for carpets and souvenirs.

Inside the walled city there are several interesting places.

Qız Qalası (Maiden Tower, 7th-12th Century): The Maiden Tower is the symbol of Baku. Not a lot is known about this 29 meter tall stone tower. It was built sometime between the 7th and 12th centuries and may have served as a fire beacon, defensive fortification, astronomical observatory or Zoroastrian temple. You can climb up to the roof for a view over the old city and the Baku Boulevard, which I did on my first visit to see everything covered in snow.

Shirvanshah’s Palace (15th Century): This sandstone palace complex was the seat of northeastern Azerbaijan’s ruling dynasty during the Middle Ages and was built around the same time as the fortified wall around the inner city.

Caravansarai: A caravanserai is an inn where travelers could rest and recover from the day’s journey. In typical style, there are a series of small stalls or chambers set around an open air courtyard. Access is through one large gate, big enough to allow entry to heavily-laden camels. One old caravansarai in the inner city now operates as a restaurant, another one houses carpet shops.

Other Places of Interest: Around the Maiden Tower there are archaeological diggings of ancient baths and buildings dating back to the period of the Shirvanshahs and the site of an old market. Definitely worth a wander.

Heydar Aliyev Centre

Construction of this new cultural centre, named in honour of Azerbaijan’s past president, hadn’t even started on my first trip to Baku and only opened in 2012. I heard that no straight lines or sharp angles were used in the centre’s design. We visited the Heydar Aliyev exhibit, which traces the history of Aliyev through his communist days, where he rose to become the head of the KGB’s branch in Azerbaijan, to leader of Soviet-era Azerbaijan from 1969 until 1982, to president of Azerbaijan from 1993 until just before his death in 2003.

Nagorny Park (Upland Park)

This is a place I visited in 2006. A funicular ride takes you up the hill to Nagorny Park. Here you find Martyrs’ Lane, a cemetery and memorial dedicated to those killed by the Soviet Army during Black January and those killed in the Nagorno-Karabakh War with Armenia. New since I was there is the addition of the three Flame Towers. At night the flame towers put on a spectacular light show, which we could watch from the balcony of Chris’ apartment.

Fountain Square

This is the pedestrian-only center of Baku that runs for several blocks in the heart of the shopping and dining district. Chris’s apartment overlooks Fountain Square. I spent more than a few hours shopping for end of season deals on summer clothes with frequent breaks at small cafes lining the square. It’s another great place for people watching too.

This concludes the Azeribaijan series. Next up, we take the overnight train to Tbilisi for the start of our Georgian adventures.

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