At the time it felt like a leftfield mini-break choice: Baku, in Azerbaijan, to see the Eurovision Song Contest. Yes – I’ve said it in print and, following the expectation-busting weekend I had, I’m actually not ashamed (yes, really).
The welcome I receive at the visa desk on arrival is friendly, and the gracious curiosity of the locals soon becomes a running theme. At one point, driver after driver toots and waves at my bus tour – and no, I don’t think anything naughty was written in Azerbaijani along the side.
Indeed, I may well have seen the largest city on the Caspian Sea at its apex. A reported Dhs2.9 billion was spenton the lights for the Eurovision show alone; I can only imagine how much was doled out to ensure the rest of the city looked its best.
Once the visual shock of the omnipresent Eurovision marketing and the people’s hospitality wore off, the third most overwhelming thing about Baku is that, to borrow F Scott Fitzgerald’s phrase, its ‘voice is full of money’. While the sound of oil being pumped may not be instantly discernable, the effects certainly are, whether it’s the predominance of Mercedes on the roads, the number of people with gold teeth or the skyscrapers shooting up like daffodils across the landscape, including the beginnings of the city’s own Trump Tower.
What to see
Flame Towers In May this year the outer shell of these three residential structures – which reportedly cost Dhs1.2 billion to create – were just about complete, ready for images (mainly of flames) to be projected across them. Sat atop the city, they make quite the spectacle.
Crystal Hall This 23,000-capacity venue was built amid some controversy in just eight months, ready for the arrival of the Eurovision whirlwind, along with the 2km concrete road leading up to it. While it looks like a flan from the outside, lasers matching the colours of the national flag of the country performing on stage shot into the night sky during Eurovision. Expect similar displays for the Jennifer Lopez, Shakira and Rihanna gigs this autumn, announced just last month.
Fire Mountain Head to Yanar Dag, just outside the city, to this self-explanatory site. Yes, flames burn constantly on the natural gas seeping from the ground. Become mesmerised from the nearby teahouse.
Things to do
Fountain Square and The Boulevard Mooch around the city’s main pedestrian square, boasting a hub of restaurants and shops within well-kept 19th-century architecture. Then enjoy a wander along the seaside Boulevard, currently being extended to become the longest boulevard in the world, at 26km. Sound familiar?
Old Town Marked by the Maiden’s Tower (a 12th-century fortress that you can climb for a photo opp), the Old Town is all cobbled streets, alleys and markets. Stop at the courtyard ‘caravanserai’ for a drink (try Mugham Club, 9 Rzayeva Street, +994 12 492 4085).
Caviar It’s cheaper when purchased locally, and apparently Baku offers some of the best in the world. Head to Taza Bazaar, a block south of the Blue Mosque on Vurgun.
Fantasia Hammam While Baku has a busy nightlife scene (see www.azerbaijan.com for more), my preferred cuppa came from the faded Victorian Fantasia Hammam, with jam and not a word of English. (From the state of the treatment rooms, I’d avoid having an actual hammam). You’ll find it on 114 Dilara Aliyeva Street (no number).
Need to know
Getting there Flydubai flies direct to Baku from Dhs1,022 return. www.flydubai.com.
Where to stay Caspian Palace Hotel It’s fairly central and basic, yet boasts sweet service. www.caspianpalace.com (+994 12 436 71 00).