Baku's old city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its stunning art nouveau buildings were handed down from oil barons. Backpacker bible "Lonely Planet" gushes about the nightlife. DW's Suzanne Cords tours Baku.
Eurovision organizers are well-intentioned when it comes to tourists from the West. Every two hours, there's a free sight-seeing bus tour for the highlights in this metropolis of 2.5 million people. And the Azerbaijani tour guide promises there are plenty of highlights.
But the first thing we drive through is a construction zone for skyscrapers. Colossal steel beams wrapped in glass and uniform apartment complexes suggest how it will eventually look here.
In the middle of it all, the just finished Heydar Aliyev Culture Center, named after the deceased father of the current president. He is regarded as a folk hero who helped free Azerbaijan from Russian rule, securing independence in 1991. And people can still see him throughout the city today, smiling down at his people from billboards. He passed on his title of president to his son, and under his rule, the young country managed to retrieve its rights to Azerbaijan's rich oil reserves.
Oil booms and lovely boulevards
The oil boom began at the end of the 19th century, and Baku and its surroundings produced more oil than in the entire USA. A Swedish company called the Nobel Brothers Petroleum Producing Company built the world's first oil tankers and pipelines here. But the legendary wealth of the local oil barons ended in 1917 with the October Revolution. The Bolsheviks took over the oil reserves.
Nonetheless, Azerbaijan inherited numerous magnificent buildings that are now being renovated thoroughly.
"To your right, you can see a building in art nouveau style that was restored five years ago," intones a voice over the bus' sound system.
"And to your left, you can see a beautiful five-story house in neo-gothic style that was renovated two years ago. There is a museum inside. The building ahead of you is also being renovated. It is where a great Azerbaijani poet once lived, but now it is a museum."
We stop for a breath of fresh air in a park with an enormous fountain. The park is dedicated to the great Heydar Alijev. We pass by some more renovation projects, and then I peer into the windows of high-end shops along a boulevard: The likes of Gucci, Prada, Valentino, WMF and Daniel Hechter are profiting from the riches of this emerging country. And it's no surprise that their stores, too, have gotten a recent fix-up.
After another hour of hearing about the renovation dates of half of Baku, I begun to tune out. I almost missed the part about the country having built 770 fountains in the last decade, all dedicated to - you guessed it - the former president Heydar Aliyev.
The tour is supposed to take four hours, but I choose to depart half-way through. I don't think I can handle any more renovation dates, and a cheerful group of gay men from Spain agree.
"Being gay and in Baku - did you have any apprehensions?" I ask.
"We haven't had any problems yet, plus the ESC has always been the fest of the gays," they said with a laugh.
ESC organizers also got a promise from the government that they had nothing to fear in Baku.
The fate of a princess
So it's finally time to explore the old city, known as the Icheri Sheher, in Baku. The first thing you notice is the 28-meter-high Giz Galasi tower. Legend has it that the sultan's daughter threw herself into the sea 1,000 years ago from the tower's platform because she was not allowed to marry her lover.
These days, tourists huff and puff their way up its 131 steep steps and enjoy the city panorama. I still have the tour guide's voice in my ear, "Baku is the gateway between East and West," she announced with pride. From up here, that becomes especially clear. The futuristic Flame Towers rise up above the centuries-old fortification wall of the old city. My gaze passes over to the business district with its glass towers and to a long, freshly laid stretch of beach along the Caspian Sea that leads toward the ESC's Crystal Hall. Next to it is the world's second highest flagpole. The Azerbaijani flag defies the gusts of wind at its 162-meter-high peak.
On a hill overlooking Baku, there's an enormous TV tower and an oil rig that was established as a symbol of the city's wealth. Soon Baku will be home to the highest skyscraper in the world at 1,050 meters. If you've got it, flaunt it, as they say.
A ramble through 1,001 nights
It's at night that the city can really be appreciated, though, when the radiance of its lights is on display, and animations flit above the buildings' facades.
I get lost in the tangle of alleyways in the old city, full of magnificent Oriental relics from centuries past. Hectic everyday life and traffic noise are tucked safely behind the old city's walls. Clothes are hung out to dry over wooden balconies; women chat in front of little shops where piles of fruit and vegetables entice buyers. It reminds me that I've gotten a bit hungry.
Around the next corner, I discover a restaurant with authentic Azerbaijani food. For my entrée, I order "Tuyruk atinden sac," which the waitress heartily recommends. I end up with a little pan with a couple of chicken bones and fries on top of a tomato in an oily substance. My companion opts for a pastry. Just what the meat filling is puzzles us both. It could be mutton - or goat testicles. We decide against dessert, but do order an authentic Azerbaijani mocha coffee, which is delivered a bit too watery.
Leveling so much criticism against the local cuisine doesn't go unpunished. A few hours later, Montezuma's wrath - or is it Heydar Aliyev's - takes its toll. We have to decline taking in the nightlife. But tomorrow is another day.
Author: Suzanne Cords / gsw
Editor: Rick Fulker