Till a couple of years ago, it was likely that on being asked where Baku was, very few people would be able to tell you where it was. Baku was rarely covered by the media, students barely read about it in textbooks, it was rarely in the news, so for most, it was just a name in the atlas. But that was then. Now, Baku is the place to be.
Those who have been there in the recent times say that it is the mos beautiful lovechild of Paris and Dubai. The city has her history but don’t let that fool you, her skyscrapers are what you see in some of the largest cities in the world. And with this, let’s delve into the beauty, that is Baku.
Where is Baku?
Baku is the largest and most populous city of Azerbaijan, as well as the largest in the Caucasus region and on the Caspian Sea. Interestingly, it is 92 feet below sea level, which makes it the lowest lying national capital in the world and the largest city in the world to be below sea level.
What’s the weather like?
It has temperate continental climate, also known as steppe, so you can expect a very hot summer with a semi-cold winter, as is characteristic of most semi-arid places. Expect the summers to be hot and dry and the winters to be chilly with snowfall. The amount of snowfall might differ but it’s a staple. But the proximity to Caspian Sea makes it breezy and pleasant all year round. Now that's a catch.
What language do we speak in?
Due to Baku’s Soviet past, Russian is spoken in a lot of places, however, it is always best to either know a local who is fluent in Azeri or carry a guide book with phrases that will sail you through. Its proximity to Turkey, makes Turkish another languages that you’ll notice is spoken quite a lot and there is significant presence in the culture too. English is a common language in the cosmopolitan areas however, it is best if the aforementioned are kept in mind.
Where do we go in Baku?
You could divide your tour of Baku into three halves: Old city or Icheri Sheher, the Absheron Peninsula (Baku is located at the Southern tip) and the city, itself.
Old Town (Icheri Sheher):
The Old City is within the Baku Fortress or Baki Qalasi (as the locals refer to it), which is the largest of all the fortresses in the Absheron peninsula. Built in 1138 on the order of Shirvanshah Manuchohr III (the nineteenth independent Shah or King of Shirvan), this fortress is listed as one of World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO (2000). The fortress has two gates–one that opens to the land and the other, that opens to the Caspian Sea. The stone walls are covered in Kufic Arabic poetry and will mesmerise every onlooker here.
Maiden Tower or the Qiz Qalasi:
Along with the palace, this amusing architectural structure dates back to the 12th century. It is one of Azerbaijan’s recognised and important emblems and features on Azeri currency notes and official letterheads. This bastion is symbolic of the city’s historic evolution and interestingly, is shrouded in mysteries and legends. However, history calls this structure the perfect proof of Zoroastrianism and pre-Islamic architecture in Azerbaijan consisting of the seven fire exits which is characteristic of Fire Temples. The history and legends are both equally fascinating but the structure in itself is such a fascinating sight that you’ve got to come here.
The peninsula is quite a tourist attraction with plenty of sites that catch interest and is easily accessible via taxi or the public transport that is available. The route in itself is a sight with white salt flats and natural oil pools in a desert wasteland.
Ateshgah Fire Temple
‘Ateshgah’ comes from the Persian words ‘Atesh’ meaning fire leading to the word meaning ‘home to the fire’. Interestingly, the temple had an eternal flame until it went out in 1969. Eternal flame means the lighting of fire by itself which was due to the emission of natural gases from the ground. The place ceased to be a place of worship after 1883 with the establishment of the several petroleum plants nearby but was converted into a museum and is a must-visit when in Baku.
Qala Archeological and Ethnographic Museum Complex
Located 20 km east of Baku in Gala, this museum houses artefacts that date back to the 3rd to 2nd millennium BC. Since they were originally found in this area, the entire has been set to recreate a slice of the past and give the visitors an understanding of what it was like back in the day.
In Azeri, it means burning mountain and that is exactly what it is. The emission of natural gas from the ground keeps the fire continuously ablaze and mind you, the flames can reach over nine feet in height off the thin, porous sandstone covering on the land. With fire rising off the ground by itself, Azerbaijan itself means The Land of Fire.
There is a lot that one can do in Baku and perhaps, beginning with a boat ride is not a bad idea. There are boat tours that are available from Baku boulevard and last for about 40 minutes. For an art enthusiast, there is the National Opera and Ballet and Pantomime theatre while Baku has a plentiful offering of museums-galleries.
Spending a day at a beach club could be the relaxation you might need. Baku loves her jazz and you could look into any possible jazz music events that might be taking place around the time of your visit. Baku loves her food and you would find the city filled to the brim with restaurants offering not just traditional cuisines but also continental offerings.
Teahouses or çayxanalar. You’ll find them in nooks and crannies, serving tea and sweets and locals playing backgammon. The right way to experience the local culture.
Hammam Mehellesi. Hamamlar as they are called in Azeri, this one is the oldest and is located near the old city. A little further down from here, one would fine places that offer skin peels and massages. Teze Bay Hamami, which is only for male, although pricier than Mehellesi, offers Finnish, Turkish etc types of baths.
Former USSR cuisines. Travelling to Baku is a little like taking a bite of Turkey, Russia, the USSR, a little Paris and a little Dubai.
The culture experienced here is one of a kind and needs to be lived through. It is so different from what we know and not just because of the culture but also the geography. Take your time and explore this gem of a land.
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