Baku to the future
The Azeri capital is playing host to the Eurovision: Thomas Breathnach took advantage of rare visa laxity to pay a visit
'Press one for English, two for Azerbaijani". After three painstaking months of trying to acquire a visa to the Caucasus nation, I was beginning to think I would have had more luck by pressing two.
Gaining entry to Azerbaijan is notoriously difficult, and expensive: this is a country, after all that sees fewer Irish visitors in a year than Spain does in one afternoon.
But with the Eurovision Song Contest cavalcading into the capital, Baku, this week, Azerbaijan is experiencing tourist numbers, not seen since the age of the Silk Road.
But what can visitors expect from the elusive city? I took advantage of the two-week Eurovision visa-relaxer and headed to the Land of Fire to find out.
Seven hours of flight-time (and four time zones) after my departure from Dublin, I touch down at Baku's Heydar Aliyev Airport, under a deep Eurasian twilight. As official Eurovision minions swarm around to welcome EBU officials, I shimmy on by and made for the already bustling visa desk.
Then, along with a knockdown €60 fee (having the exact amount will speed you on) and a bit of obtuse chit-chat, I was finally given the nod -- I was in. I replied with an indifferent thank you, but inside, I was Riverdancing.
In the chaotic arrivals hall, flamboyant Eurovision billboards provided the backdrop to herds of nonplussed taxi drivers, all touting for the first fare of the day. It's indeed this transfer that is the first intro to the country's Olé Oligarchy style of admin.
The Azeri government allows just one taxi firm to operate at the terminal, so unless you want to brave the Lada boys of Baku who run from outside the airport, prepare yourself for some hefty fares.
I coughed up the 40 manats (1AZN = €1) and teamed up with a superbly moustachioed driver, who welcomed me to "beautiful Baku" while flicking open his carton of slim cigarettes.
The 25km ride downtown swept me through an arid landscape of palm trees, oil wells and futuristic petrol stations. Drawing closer to the city, masses of flashy new apartment complexes all created a Middle-Eastern feel of petroleum providence, with the unintentional pomp of a Las Vegas boulevard.
Far from the horror stories as the world's dirtiest capital, however, Baku's pre-Eurovision makeover is immense. Every route has a sterile immaculateness, aided in no small part by the scores of women out scouring the highways with birch brooms.
With the Eurovision bumping up hotel rates all across town, my budget base was the Caspian Hostel on Asef Zeynalli St. The charming host-mother, Ipak, directed me towards a no-frills dorm, where sleeping heads peeped out over blankets. Given the budget cutbacks of much of visiting delegations this year, I could be just about to bunk down with the entrants from Moldova. Or Marty Whelan.
The hostel was marvellously located in Baku's Old City, Icheri Sheher. I spent the morning exploring within the enchanting walls of the Unesco site: strolling around its medieval mosques, visiting the 800-year-old Maiden Tower and admiring the Ottoman timbering of old merchant houses. The city's narrow lanes have an Aladdin's cave allure, and in the small squares, traders were already beginning to pull out their wares.
In utter contrast, meanwhile, was the city's blingy premier avenue, Neftchilar, where Porsche Cayennes park up outside chestnut-shaded Bulgari and Dior stores: clearly the Caspian Tiger, as least, is still in roar.
It was indeed the haze of the mighty Caspian that beckoned me towards Seaside Boulevard, Baku's ever-expanding promenade. And every local seemed to be making the most of the morning sun: joggers, cyclists, volleyball players, yoga enthusiasts, even a wrestling team were being drilled through a testing workout session.
For a morning pick-me-up, and some continued people-watching, I stopped at one of the boulevard's informal cafés to partake in the shared Azeri activity of tea-drinking (choosing a café with old men as patrons is a good rule of thumb). I sipped on my delicious brew (black tea served with lemon and dried fruit is the norm) basking in sudden novelty of 25°C sunshine.
Soon in need of some sea-breeze, I made for Baku's pier-side (near Freedom Square), and joined a group of Russian children and loved-up couples for a short cruise across Baku Bay (€2). Merely dipping our toes in the world's largest lake, we set off on a body of water the size of Germany.
There were no horizons, no coastlines, just lonesome boats in the distance, trawling the sturgeon-rich waters (this is caviar country). As we returned to the pier, a group of intrepid tourists were boarding a cargo-ferry for Turkmenistan.
As a Turkic state, hamams play an important role in Azeri daily life. For some afternoon-pampering, I headed to Hamam Aga Mikayil in the Old City to experience the city's oldest bathhouse (€19).
Following a lazy sauna steam, I received a lengthy massage by Vüqar, whose light and shade repertoire ranges from "Incy Wincy Spider" on the lumbar area, to a bone-cracking full nelson manoeuvre. Ulimately, it was blissfully relaxing: I may have even nodded off for a moment.
Baku's best panorama can be seen from Nagorny Park, reachable by the city's rebooted funicular car (which is supposed to be up and running by Eurovision week.)
As an alternative route, I scaled the hillside up the adjacent steps, peering behind to find the city's hazy mass expanding with each step.
From the rose gardens above, the panorama was immense: Baku's bay horseshoed around a high-rise cityscape, none more spectacular than the Flame Towers, the city's new landmark skyscrapers which flickered and shimmered in the distance.
Down at the marina, the 75m Azeri flag waves majestically atop what was once the world's tallest flag pole (Tajikistan pipped them last year), while below it lay the Eurovision's purpose-built Crystal Hall.
Press pass in tow, I made my way down to the arena, to experience the marvel of the 25,000-capacity pop-up diamond up close. "No filming!" barked a policeman to a German television crew, just as we were about to enter. The arena's opening had been postponed for a day. But it, like much of this crane-dotted city, is a work in progress.
Baku is listed as one of Lonely Planet's Top 10 Cities for nightlife, so I ended my evening savouring the vibe of the party in this very surprising city. Sipping on syrupy Azeri red-wine on Fountain Square, all of the city seemed to be in celebration.
Families, friends, couples, the non-stop honk-honk of party goers, Baku heaves with people at night. But just don't expect conservatism here: although the capital of a predominantly Islamic nation, in truth, Baku would make Istanbul blush.
By the time Ipak's father had risen the following dawn to do my airport transfer, some sense of serenity had been restored to the city again. The road-sweepers returned and the honking had ceased. Jedward, however, were said to arrive within hours.