Notes from an author: Farida Zeynalova on revisiting Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku

Returning to a native city is both a recipe for nostalgia and a journey that casts the Azerbaijani capital in a new light.

Published 30 Jun 2020, 08:00 BST, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 04:57 GMT
Farida Zeynalova is the author of Berlitz Pocket Guide Baku, and a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveller ...

Farida Zeynalova is the author of Berlitz Pocket Guide Baku, and a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Photograph by Frédéric Pinon

If you want to understand Baku, take a walk along the bulvar. One of my earliest memories is toddling along this Caspian Sea promenade with my mother, one hand holding hers, the other clutching a plombir, a milk-flavoured ice cream in a cone, born in the Soviet era. The bulvar was, as it has been since 1909, both the meeting point and stamping ground for all sorts of Azeris: musicians, ordinary families, well-dressed professors and the ubiquitous groups of men playing dominoes on rickety wooden tables. Mothers and grandmothers would gossip on benches in the shadows of the Maiden Tower, probably debating whether so-and-so’s son was a suitable match for what’s-her-name’s daughter. The smell of kebab always seemed to loiter in the air, and the view from the shore was a blanket of calm sea, punctuated by the odd rusty oil rig.

I was born in Baku in 1991, just as the Soviet Union was dismantling, and grew up in a 1970s tower block a few miles from the city centre. Back then, Baku was humble yet hopeful. It was finally free to do what it wanted. Fast forward a few decades, and the city feels like urban alchemy; the prodigious Flame Towers, a nod to Azerbaijan’s ancient Zoroastrian past, have become the symbol of 21st-century Baku; old Lada taxis have been replaced by shiny, London-style cabs — only aubergine-purple rather than black, perhaps as a testament to the nation’s love for the vegetable. The oil rigs of yesteryear sit upstaged by an offshore concert hall, a yacht club and a geometric, multistorey shopping centre, due to open this year.

“Quiet moments of contemplation don’t last long in Baku.”

by Farida Zeynalova

My most recent trip began early on a balmy Sunday morning in a taxi from the Nasimi district to downtown Baku. “They build and build and build and build,” the driver, Murad, said, shaking his head at the small cluster of new skyscrapers ahead. “But Baku has been changing for centuries, anyway. The Persians changed it. Then the Turks. Then the Russians, and now this,” he added, exposing four gold teeth beneath a mountain of moustache.

Murad dropped me at my favourite spot, the city’s UNESCO-stamped medieval quarter, Icherisheher, laden with chestnut-coloured balconies, grannies baking bread in traditional tendir ovens, and barely functioning Ladas coughing their way through narrow, cobbled streets.

As a child, I was enamoured of Icherisheher’s most prized possession, the Maiden Tower, separated from the bulvar by busy Neftchilar Avenue. This 12th-century cylindrical monument, locally known as Qiz Qalasi, is riddled with folklore; it’s been a fortress, a Zoroastrian temple and — the legend I recall the most — was where the khan of Baku’s daughter leapt to her death to avoid marrying a man she didn’t love; hence its name.

Locals strolling the city's ancient city walls with the Flame Towers piercing the sky in the background.

Photograph by AWL Images

These days, it’s an eight-storey museum documenting the city’s evolution, and a trip to Baku isn’t complete without climbing its gruelling, confined stairs. My mother first squeezed us to the top in 1994, when I was three years old; my climb as an adult is no less punishing. But here, the panoramic view is a rich storyboard of Baku’s multifarious past; minarets of mosques old and new, Tetris-like Soviet tower blocks, domed roofs of the old city’s hammams, elaborate mansions of oil barons past and, unavoidably, new glass edifices glistening in the sun — often with at least one in mid-construction.

Back at ground level, passing one of the area’s seemingly infinite carpet shops, I sheepishly tried haggling for a rug, but the dealer, twiddling his prayer beads with one hand and scrolling his iPhone with the other, wasn’t having any of it. I gave up and ducked into a quieter street, where an old woman, sweeping, tutted me as I got in the way of her straw broom; a rookie mistake by my native standards.

As the temperature rose and the streets got busier, I made my way to the shade of Nizami Park, just outside the medieval walls, picking up a şorqoğalı — a spice-stuffed, savoury pastry — en route. I sat there for a while, eating, observing, admiring, reminiscing. I marvelled at the literature museum before me, a sharply photogenic building adorned with blue majolica ogives and statues of the country’s literary greats — the kind of place guidebooks are made for.

Quiet moments of contemplation don’t last long in Baku. The buzz of nearby Fountains Square became more insistent, as if in competition with two rug-clutching men who’d begun arguing about something trivial; the merciless honking from Baku’s arterial Istiglaliyyat Street intensified with every second. My city was waking up.

My own awakening was being able to see Baku afresh, as a guidebook author. The streets where I learned to walk, talk and navigate the whims of melting plombir were now being explored by tourists from far and beyond, even if those streets look somewhat transformed these days. The shiny new skyscrapers and fancy hotels signal a city reborn, but down at its grassroots, Baku is still the most humble place I know. And I can’t wait to share all that with the rest of the world.

Farida Zeynalova is the author of Berlitz Pocket Guide Baku (Berlitz, £6.99), and a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Read our guide to Azerbaijan's capital here

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