Eurovision starts at the airport. The gangway is plastered with ESC posters embellished with hearts that prompt visitors to "Light your fire." DW reporter Suzanne Cords is on location.
Young Azerbaijani women clad in red ESC t-shirts and smiling broadly are waiting at the passport inspection point, ready to help with visa applications and baggage and then guide us to the taxi stand. Mighty winds, which had already caused turbulence during the flight, push at us from behind. Now we know why Baku is called "City of Wind."
A few language skills go a long way
"You have to take the London taxis; they're the only ones that can give you a receipt," says 20-year-old Aziza in perfect English. The huge cars look like something straight out of a film adaptation of an Edgar Wallace novel, and are decorated all the way around with the ESC logo. Since the driver's knowledge of English is rather modest, I'm pleasantly surprised to find that my eight semesters of evening Turkish classes help more. He can understand us; Azerbaijani is closely related to the language of the neighboring country.
Everything is illuminated
The feeder highway into the city resembles highways in Belgium; everything is illuminated. But here, a Eurovision heart - itself lit up - hangs from every lamp. Large buildings line the streets to the left and right like on the showy boulevards of Paris, but here, they alternate with richly decorated, Oriental-style palaces. Rather than crash barriers, walls ornamented in "1001 Arabian Nights" style rise up between the four-lane highways. Despite the darkness outside, you can't miss them either since they too are lit up.
On one building, a poster shows Azerbaijan's President Aliyev smiling, while next to it, a huge Eurovision poster covers the rest of the wall. Our hotel looks as though the Alhambra were the force behind it. Less impressing is the interior with the tacky charm of the bygone Soviet era. The hotel's friendly personnel makes up for all that, and of course they speak perfect English and Turkish.
The happenin' place
One hour later, we're sitting in a London-style taxi again - this time, on our way to Crystal Hall, where the Eurovision Song Contest is being held. Once there, we're to get accredited as part of the press guild and watch the first semi-final of the competition.
On the way to the city center, the first cracks in the ESC facade reveal themselves. Police cars are everywhere, and the left lane leading to the hall is blocked off. Our taxi driver argues with traffic guards at five different barriers, pointing out that he has the press in the car and what kind of impression would this make? The scolded officers, wearing grim expressions, glance at us in the taxi, but wave us away. Only at the sixth barrier are we allowed to pass through - and only our taxi. "Is there a problem?" I ask. "No, everything's fine," the driver says.
A feeling of unease
Pressing the matter is not appreciated, even at the press center. "Everything's fine; the police are only here for your protection," is one response. Later, foreign journalists discuss the rumor going around that Islamic fundamentalists had threatened to instigate a terrorist attack on the decadent spectacle. Iran, after all, supposedly called back its ambassador since - among other things - the Eurovision Song Contest "falsely depicted Islam."
Somehow we feel a little imprisoned. Fences and new control points pop up all over the hermetically sealed off area; bags are x-rayed like in airports just to get into the Media Center, much less into the Most Holy Place, the Crystal Hall. Once in the press center, Russian colleagues are jumping around in front of the television screens, waving flags back and forth and celebrating the Babushki representing their country.
The first round
Drinks such as cay-tea, ayran, water and brightly-colored sugary swill called Gülistan, as well as pastries, are laid out for free. But there's no beer, the western European colleagues complain. It can't all be perfect anyway.
The first semi-final is over at two o'clock in the morning, local time. The Russians are still celebrating, while those who didn't make the cut leave in a somber mood. Trippy acts like Rambo Amadeus from Montenegro and Trackshittaz from Austria didn't stand a chance; mainstream is the way to go.
The journey is the destination
Toll-free buses drive back and forth across the compound, taking the pack of press people from around the world to the London taxis - the ones that give receipts. "What's your hotel called? Qafqaz Park? Of course I know where it is - but not exactly," one driver says, and consults a colleague. "Oh, okay." A half an hour later we're standing in front of a hotel, which is indeed called Qafqaz, but without the "Park." It also doesn't look like the Alhambra, but more like a pre-fab building.
It's the right place, the driver insists. But we remain firm: it's not our hotel. I give him the card for our hotel and ask him to call for directions. Unfortunately, he's somewhat elderly, so I dial the number myself. He's insulted when I now ask him if he knows the way.
During the next endless half hour, we also see the darker sides of the city. The buildings are in ruins, and there are no ESC hearts to be found anywhere. In ever-shorter intervals, the driver's wife calls, demanding he come home. After all, it's already three o'clock in the morning. Even from way back in the huge car, we can hear her screaming through the phone.
We drive to three different hotels. Is it this one? Or this one? Or perhaps this one? Which direction do we need to go? At some point, we're quite familiar with the neighborhood and then I suddenly see this futuristic-looking building that looks vaguely familiar. Did I see that earlier from my hotel room window? Bingo.
The driver cannot understand the request for a receipt. He suddenly no longer understands Turkish, only Russian. Good thing I've taken some classes in that, too. But the driver still doesn't have his receipt book. He'll have to bring it by tomorrow.
Author: Suzanne Cords / als
Editor: Rick Fulker