“It’s the love child of Paris and Dubai,” my friend said down the phone.
I don’t know why she felt she needed to convince me to travel to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. There are few times I won’t say “I’m in” before someone finishes a sentence that starts with, “Do you want to come to…”
I later realised it’s because, like me, she also knew absolutely nothing about the place and had pinched Lonely Planet’s elevator pitch. The only people I’ve met who know anything about Baku are avid F1 Grand Prix followers. Most can’t find the country on a map.
Baku is the most easterly point in Azerbaijan, jutting into the Caspian Sea across from Turkmenistan. The architectural contrast is wild. Its famed trio of Flame Towers glitter silvery-blue behind the Unesco-listed Old City, much of which is surrounded by original 12th-century defence walls. Perhaps Baku’s most famous building is the Heydar Aliyev Centre, a cultural centre with museum and exhibition halls designed by renowned architect Zaha Hadid, who didn’t use a single straight line.
The disparity of new and old is what makes Baku unique. The designer boutiques and hotels of Nizami Street contrasted against the local market, Taza Bazar. Traditional crafts being touted around the corner from contemporary artist’s studios. Even the carpet museum, a contemporary building in the shape of a rolled carpet, contains 17th-century relics.
These juxtapositions are the result of a booming city at the tail end of rediscovery – Azerbaijan only became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. It’s fascinating seeing small but diverse religious pockets emerge following the unofficial Soviet no-religion policy and a new generation of winemakers eager to catch up to Georgia across the border.
Azerbaijan’s healthy oil supply and fertile land breed healthy international relations. Just don’t mention Armenia; the two have clashed for more than a century now. The food is a fascinating mix of familiar, but t the same time completely its own. Azerbaijan is home to the freshest herbs I’ve ever tasted, through to what is surely the best rice dish in the world. Besides, any culture that eats jam by the spoonful is all right by me.