Oil, History, Islam and Tea

MT
No city likes to be compared to another. Cliches like "a smaller London" and "a second Venice" may be intended as compliments, but they still make a city sound small and second-rate. So it is with great convenience, but with a little lack of tact, that the most apt and concise way of describing Baku is to refer to Istanbul. On the surface, it is clear why.

Geographically, both cities are on the same latitude and on the sea (Istanbul on the Sea of Marmara and Baku on the Caspian) and this plays a major role in their climates -- hot and humid in summer and damp and windy in winter. Islam is the dominant religion in both, and the languages are described as mutually intelligible. Also, the cuisines -- with a predominance of heavy meat dishes -- have undeniable similarities.

It is the historical events of the 20th century, however, that end any other close resemblance. Istanbul is a Western-like city with strong Middle Eastern ties that grew up in the Republic of Turkey formed in 1923, whereas Baku was reared with Soviet minders for some 70 years, until 1991, leading to rather strange social imbalances. For instance, unlike in Istanbul, very few women in Baku choose to don the traditional headscarf, and they wear just about anything they choose. Smoking is a national pastime in both cities, but in Baku it is strictly for men, as is the public consumption of alcohol.

Politics and culture aside, an outstanding contrast between the two cities is in their ability to attract tourists. Azerbaijan's tourism industry is still in its infancy -- or even in its pregnancy, when compared with Istanbul's. And yet, there are attempts to woo tourists to this now rapidly developing country. Persuasive advertising on international television channels has been effective in creating intrigue about a country that remains well-known to few foreigners beyond oil-company employees and winners of geography prizes.

Baku is a solid two-day destination, and a tourist can be fully engaged in the city for a whole weekend -- although for those with more time, a longer visit traveling further afield is well worthwhile.


John Wendle / MT
Balconies and winding streets make for quaint strolls in the old neighborhoods.
A do-it-yourself visit to Baku is not too much of a challenge. The quickest way of obtaining a visa is directly at the airport upon arrival, before passing through customs. For a visit of up to 30 days, two passport photos and about $100 (depending on your nationality) will have your visa ready in less than half an hour.

The center of town is compact and the best way to get around is on foot. Even the steeper hills shouldn't deter the visitor -- especially in the historic part of the city, as the atmosphere is both enchanting and vibrant. For a Muslim city, there is a surprisingly small number of mosques -- the result of massive demolition in the 1930s by the Soviets.

Buildings in the center are reminiscent of pre-Revolutionary times, and many have been carefully restored, including the Opera and Ballet Theater, the Philharmonic Hall and the Town Hall. There is, of course, a pedestrian thoroughfare, Nizami Street (still widely known by its old Soviet name, Torgovaya Street), with the usual international brand-name boutiques -- but for those who are intrigued more by local color, a seat in Fountain Square is the place for people-watching.

Beyond that, there is the Old City, which is a fortress, including the Palace of the Shirvanshahs and the Maiden Tower as well as some impressive local craft shops offering beautiful and exquisite fabrics and rugs at surprisingly good prices -- especially if you know how to cut a bargain.


John Wendle / MT
Large houses and palazzos built by Baku's rich merchants at the end of the last century still dominate Baku's city center.
The central promenade with its arcades and vendors is not of much interest, but provides a nice view of the Caspian. The best view and the ideal place to take in the scope of the whole city, however, is on the territory of Martyrs' Lane, although the lines of gravestones of those killed in the 1990 assault on Baku by Soviet troops have a rather sobering effect.

A day on the town is incomplete without trying the local cuisine. Meat, and in particular lamb, is ubiquitous on most menus. All local restaurants offer some form of plov -- of which there are more than 100 varieties. Dolma, or minced lamb wrapped in grape leaves, is also prominent and well worth trying.

Getting There

By plane: Daily direct flights on S7, Aeroflot, Azerbaijan Airlines and Domodedovo Airlines all cost about 13,000 rubles return -- independent of off-season fares.

Where to Stay

The Hyatt Regency is a five-star luxury hotel opposite the pretty Izmir Park and close to the exhibition center. Rates start from $241 a night including breakfast.

1 Bakikhanov Street (+994 12) 496-1234, www.baku.regency.hyatt.com

The Absheron Hotel is a centrally located hotel right on the expansive Azadliq Square and opposite the Caspian. It offers modest rooms with great views at rates starting from $76 without breakfast.

674 Azadliq Square, (+994 12) 493-2056, www.hotel-absheron.com