Monday, 30 June 2014

Back to Baku, Azerbaijan...


It doesn’t look like much beneath the wing of the plane. A sand coloured shrubless land and a low pale sky, not exactly tourist board porn, if anything it looks like a biblical landscape, old testament.


It’s been 18 months and I’ve truly missed it. Sometimes initial impressions belie the character of the place. Baku is one such place.

I step off the aircraft. There it is, the familiar fragrance of the air, a peculiar sweetly caustic smell of petroleum and the sea.  The city lies low, at sea level which means spectacular ruby sunsets. We used to stay up all night, on the beach, watching the sun rise. Slowly it would turn the sky from black to indigo before shattering through the darkness in a gradiated explosion of vermillion light. I look at the horizon, the sky is a dusty pink, it’s about to happen, the perfect welcome.

What do most Westerners know about Azerbaijan? Firstly, it ends in an –AN, a priori making it a dodgy Borat state; a large toothless peasantry wielding pitchforks and a few oil-i-garchs, and hey, presto, the cinematic vision is complete.

Well, I’m not out to right misconceptions. Nor do I write as a patriot, I’ve lived in London my entire life, so that probably makes me more of a tourist. What that doesn’t make me is unbiased.  I’ve been spoiled. Hospitality, warmth and kindness mean that for every bad word I have to say about the place, I’ve ten good. So I hope you’ll agree that it’s artifice to adopt journalistic objectivity when writing of experience. And besides, isn’t the prism of bias always more interesting? So expect plenty of cheese, cornball that I am.














The car hurtles down the butter smooth road towards the city centre. The family chauffeur  vrooms the engine antagonistically at the spunky 80s Lada trying to overtake us, a black M6 cuts between us and breaks up the petrol-head scuffle. A briney breeze is blowing off the Caspian and although it’s November it’s still warm and gentle.

The pace here is Mediterranean and easy going. Family is important. So is fun. People here don’t get lonely, everyone’s doors are always open. Friendships are intergenerational. When I’m in the city I’ll visit my grandmother’s 80 year old neighbours in their Khrushchev era homes and talk nostalgia, which for them is eerily the Soviet Union circa 1950s, over tea and candied fruit preserves. Likewise, my friends pay impromptu visits to my relatives and no matter your age, you’re never left on the scrap heap, there’ll always be someone who cares.

You don’t need the history books to understand Baku because it’s what your eyes see that tells the more compelling story. The architectural tapestry is diverse spanning the 12th century fortress and palaces at the historical core of the city, all the way through to Islamist, TsaristGrand European, Soviet and Modernist architectural styles. We drive past the Maiden Tower, a 12th century fortress shrouded in legend; a sort of pre-Shakespearian Romeo&Juliet of undying love and death.









Azerbaijan was a key stop and trading centre for the caravan routes of the Silk Road and over the centuries the country has welcomed travelers from far and wide.  It’s perhaps such century old traditions that make the place a paragon of tolerance, regardless of religion, creed or skin colour. Amusingly, the local Rabbi often complains that the Jewish have it ‘too easy’ in Baku and that the absence of any sort of religious tension means that the community is growing a bit complacent.

At night the city is aglow, the splendid 19th Century buildings bathed in a wash of gold, their ornate balustrades and intricate masonry as exquisite as the most Parisian of rues. These scenes are not a modern Disney-esque imitation of grandeur. The  baroque renaissance style buildings were built by the oil-barons during the petroleum boom of the 19th Century when the industry was in its infancy and families like the Nobels, Rothschilds and local millionaires constructed spectacular palaces, residences, theatres and halls.
















In the evenings my friends and I stroll along the sea front before settling for a dinner of sushi, pizza or you-name-it. It doesn't matter where you go, there'll be faces you know everywhere; the city is small, the crowd is not anonymous and nor are you. The restaurants are buzzy and the nightlife seasonal like on the Continent: beach clubs, yachts and rooftop parties in the summer.. clubs and house-parties come winter. All the fun happens in beautiful new monuments of steel, glass and impeccable design; happily the noughties era skyline of clouds and cranes has mellowed and development is now focused on prestige projects and improving the tourism infrastructure.

What I most love about Baku is that if you know where to go, you are transported back in time. Wander off the main streets onto the charming higgledy piggledy alleys that are still populated by apartment blocks dating back to the Soviet Empire. Walk through grimy detritus strewn corridors of peeling paint and arches embossed with the hammer and sickle and you are in a different world. Most of the residents, like my granma, are of the old generation. Inside their homes you'll find cabinets of Czech crystal from the 50s, figurines of porcelain and china, kerosene lamps, Marxist knick-knacks, furs in their wardrobes and always a story and a cake in the fridge.  Such scenes leave me sentimental and misty-eyed, but I guess I've always enjoyed having a foot in the past. Maybe that's why I find such magic in Baku; whilst it's a capital like any other, the past has not yet been lost to dusty books and dead museums, its history is still alive and beating. Told you there'd be cheese.








Back in the USSR




















"I do"



18 comments:

  1. I SIMPLY ADORE YOUR WRITING STYLE. Eventhough this post was really long I was glued to my ipad till I got the the end. Baku sounds amazing.

    Sam xx

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    1. It always makes my day when someone tells me they enjoy my little scribbles- thank you xx

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  2. You look so beautifully glamorous! AND PUPPIES IN A BOX??!! I die.

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    1. I really wanted to get one :( & Thank you petal xxxxx

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  3. Baku sounds amazing. I've never thought about going there but after I've read your post, I really wants to go! When is the best time to visit - spring, summer or fall?

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  4. Baku sounds so amazing. I've never really thought about going there but now I can't wait to go! When is the best time to visit - spring, summer or fall?

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    1. I would say the best time to go is from Spring through to October, those months are warm and balmy. But if you go over the summer, remember that it gets searingly hot mid May-September, so Spring time is probably better. Let me know if you go :) xxx

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  5. I might book a flight there at some point, looks a lot more modern than I expected. Random question, do they have synagogues?

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    1. Hey there, there are several synagogues in Baku, one of the largest ones is in the heart of the city about 3 blocks from where I was born. The Jewish community is divided into Ashkenazi and Mountain Jews, with a separate leader for each group.
      Let me know if you need any advice and I do hope you come visit!

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  6. Every time I read your blog posts, I feel like I'm reading a novel, ah-mazing.
    Beautiful pictures & place by the looks of it.

    Where did you get your skirt from? I'm not a huge fan of green, but it looks gorgeous!

    Thank you!

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  7. Thanks for your reply, I am an Ashkenazi Jew and would love to attend a Shabbat service there :)

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  8. Your manner of writing took me to my childhood,moreover it made me wanna go back after 15 years and see how much the city has developed but somehow hasn't changed.This is exactly what i love about Baku,it preserves its history and tradition yet doesn't go behind any other capital booming cities worldwide.I'm especially proud of my homeland for being tolerant towards diverse ethnicities.The climate is very Haifa-Israel alike very hot and humid,but not windy and rainy few month in winter.

    Hanushka,once again i find myself in lack of words i'm trying to describe my gratitude to you for an intersting blog and a beautiful writing style with which you take us to your mesmerising realm with every post.

    Thank you :)

    Maya

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    1. Hi Maya,

      It's funny but I really understand how you feel about Baku, I don't go back all that often but every time it's like a breathe of fresh air... I do hope that after 15 years you manage to find your way back, you will be amazed by how much it's changed.

      Thank you for all your kind words, I'm really happy that this made an interesting read! xxx

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  9. Hi Hanushka,

    I have been re-reading your post as I'm due to visit Baku with my sister early May to stay with my dad who recently moved over there for work. Your beautiful photos of this city have made me excited to visit and I hope I am able to see that amazing sunrise.

    It will be our first time visiting and any advice/must sees or do's for the trip would be much appreciated!

    Nicola xx

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    1. Hi sweety,

      That's so exciting that you're father is moving there- early May is one of the best times to go.

      You must try the freshly baked tandir bread.
      Go to Eleven club on the weekends in the evenings or Chinar for great asian food and a great vibe.
      We have great beaches and Jumeriah have some lovely facilities just 20 mins from the city centre, although the sea can sometimes be temperamental so I recommend caution and staying close to the shore.
      Walk through the less developed parts of town and check out the old soviet architecture- it's what i love the most.
      Go up to the cafe on the last floor of ISR Plaza, on a summer's eve for wildly romantic views of the whole city.
      Don't eat at really random 'hole in the wall' places. Stick to chains eg Best Mangal or nicer restaurants.

      Enjoy- take loads of pics and please link me any posts on your travels! :) xxxxx

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    2. Thank you for taking the time to reply, it's nice to get some advice from someone like yourself!

      I have recently started a blog (only on post number 4 at the moment...chattynics.blogspot.co.uk) but there will definitely be some posts on this trip to link you.

      Thanks again xx

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  10. Hi Hanushka,

    I've recently returned from my 5 day trip to Baku and it is such a lovely city. Different to what I expected (in a good way). We weren't able to eat out on an evening due to family reasons so I couldn't try out your restaurant recommendations, hopefully next time we will! I've posted about the trip here chattynics.blogspot.co.uk if you want to have a look?

    I'm missed reading your posts so glad you are back from your hiatus!

    Nic xx

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  11. Molto bella!

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