Baku is a beautiful city – historic and modern, lively and quiet, green and urban.
A pleasant warmth oozes from the ground, complemented by the fresh breeze coming from the Caspian sea. You can easily walk the streets of the Old City without feeling tired for hours on end. Ancient stone houses line the alleys, or should we say the alleys line the houses, since they are so scarce amidst the swarm of stocked up buildings. One could even say the alleys are passive onlookers – it is really the houses in charge of the streets. They are all uniquely different yet have some similarities overall, as though they had stepped out of a painting of a large royal family. Their rectangular bricks are smooth and even, their oval windows pointed at the tip, some adorned by metal or wooden carved panes.
What strikes you most are the little wooden balconies perched on the edges of the buildings, acting more like apartment extensions than a simple stands to watch the streets from. They are curiously independent, the grown children of the houses themselves, eager to explore the world on their own. Although it seems like they could fall off anytime, in reality they are firmly and confidently rooted to the houses that support them.
Vines roll and curl along the walls, through to the balconies, through to the roofs, giving the impression as though they are on some far-reaching journey to check up on the old buildings which must have been there for centuries.
The Old City seems to have a calmness about it, as though it is wise and experienced, which of course is true since it has experienced so much, having been there for centuries. In the little streets the most you can hear was the distant rumble of the roads, the rustle of the many leaves and the low hum of men playing checkers outside. You only have to turn a corner to find yourself on the busy market streets where vendors sell dainty slippers with golden-red threads, thick woollen carpets and metal crockery of all shapes and sizes. There is an astonishing number of art sellers as well, selling original oil paintings with thick, bold brushstrokes.
You can hardly walk past the restaurant or ‘tandir’ without having eager waiters pull you inside to eat or drink tea on the terrace, yet they do so in a pleasant, undemanding way, smiling all the time and looking straight into your eyes. All of them speak Russian and have dark almond eyes, their demeanour warm and friendly, as though they were age-old family friends.
You ask them for the menu, but they shake their head and say they will choose the food for you, since they know which dishes are the freshest and which specialities one must try. And when the food arrives and the whole table is covered in it, the aroma of freshly baked flatbreads, chargrilled vegetables, meat and fish wafts into your nose, making your mouth water.
When you ask for ‘chai’, you are inevitably presented with pretty glass cups and strong black tea accompanied by luxurious crystal bowls filled to the brim with all kinds of jam – white cherry, watermelon, feihoa and even black olive jam, as well as traditional Azerbaijani pahlava which is so sweet it makes your teeth ache.
After such a meal all you could really do is wander the streets and meet as many cats and kittens as possible. These felines roam the streets, dozing on the pebbles, peering at you from behind beaded curtains or playing with each other in the shadows.
The Shah’s old palace is located in the heart of the Old City – a huge stone complex of churches and praying grounds. Once you step inside the coolness of the palace you understand why it was the elite who resided here. You imagine the royal family lounging on expensive carpets, eating grapes and listening to music. The servants, meanwhile, lived underground, and at the very entrance there is a round clay pot with an open bottom, where those living upstairs could shout orders to those downstairs. The rooms are all filled with gold and silver cutlery, plates and beautiful ornate knives and daggers, whilst the walls are lined with blue-green hand painted tiles of differing geometric shapes and patterns.
The cobbled streets wind their ways upwards, towards the large stone wall which preserves the Old City, protecting it from the modernising forces coming in from the newly built tall and handsome skyscrapers.
The flame towers curve elegantly upwards, reaching for the sky and glistening in the sunshine, the glass panes reflecting the brightness in a coolly metallic, almost serpentine way. At night, the marina is bustling with laughing people dancing traditional Azeri dances, mostly men strutting and whirling round and round and round. The Caspian sea gently laps the shore, the three flame towers light up. Their clarity is astounding as you see them all the way from the marina, with orange, red and yellow flames intertwining each other and fighting competitively for the top, moving and flickering like a real fire would. Occasionally, the silhouette of a strong man proudly holding the flag of Azerbaijan leaps along the towers, perhaps representing the people of his nation who love their country for what it is, and signifying this people’s external bravery and determination to bring their country forward.