Oil boom gives Baku a Parisian facelift

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - JACQUELINE HA­GAN

The Rus­sians left Azer­bai­jan fol­low­ing the breakup of the Soviet Union 24 years ago. Azer­bai­jan is on the west side of the Caspian Sea and the east­ern­most coun­try of the three that make up the South­ern Cau­ca­sus. To the West are Ar­me­nia and then Ge­or­gia ad­join­ing the Black Sea.

In Baku, the cap­i­tal, the party soon be­gan. In 2013 the city held the Euro­vi­sion Song Con­test and now it is host­ing the Euro­pean Games, which open on Fri­day. With money from the oil in the Caspian Sea theirs to spend as they wish, Baku­vians have been giv­ing their city the facelift it de­serves. Dreary Soviet build­ings have been swept away from the fore­shore to cre­ate 9km of board­walk be­side the Caspian Sea and Baku Bay.

As we walk down one of the many traf­fic free-boule­vards from our ho­tel to­wards the sea we are im­pressed by the public open spa­ces. There are large squares with foun­tains and well-tended parks. All the pearly white Baku stone on the fa­cades of build­ings, many from the Soviet era, has been re­cently cleaned; the stone typ­i­fies the ar­chi­tec­ture of the city and is quar­ried from nearby moun­tains, and has been used for sev­eral hun­dred years.

Pre-Soviet build­ings were built by oil barons dur­ing what’s known as “the first oil boom” from about 1880 to 1920. Our guide Fa­tima tells us th­ese men made so much money be­cause oil was still be­ing drilled on the land and the roy­al­ties went to the own­ers.

Once they had built a beau­ti­ful fam­ily house, they threw them­selves with huge civic pride into cre­at­ing a beau­ti­ful city. Wide boule­vards were con­structed, lined with academies, the­atres, schools and art gal­leries. This boom was the orig­i­nal source of the wealth of the No­bels of peace prize fame. Now in “the sec­ond oil boom”, the coun­try has the roy­al­ties and the same pride to re­vi­talise the city for the 21st cen­tury.

Evenings in Baku are truly ro­man­tic. Traf­fic-free boule­vards look mag­i­cal with large chan­de­liers suspended over­head. There are beau­ti­ful win­dow dis­plays in Euro­pean designer stores. We email our daugh­ter-in-law a photo of the city at night and she replies in amaze­ment, “It looks like Paris.”

We go to Restau­rant Firuza for my hus­band’s birth­day and eat grilled stur­geon with pomegranate and wal­nut sauce fol­lowed by a lo­cal pi­laf and a salad with twigs of fresh herbs. All the food tastes de­li­ciously dif­fer­ent.

We love our time with Fa­tima. She is 24, a mod­ern young woman and proudly Azer­bai­jani. Her mother is a med­i­cal pro­fes­sor, her fa­ther a high-rank­ing politi­cian. She has a de­gree in lin­guis­tics and is study­ing to be a diplo­mat. She speaks English, Rus­sian and Turk­ish as well as Az­eri, of course. She loves to shop and spends her money from guiding on jew­ellery and designer clothes. She is glued to her mo­bile phone and as­sumes her fam­ily will ar­range her mar­riage although she ad­mits to a lit­tle in­no­cent dal­liance with some­one the fam­ily “may think suit­able but of course know noth­ing about”.

Azer­bai­jan is mod­er­ately Is­lamic af­ter 100 years of sec­u­lar­i­sa­tion by the Sovi­ets. It is rare to see a woman in a head­scarf yet vir­gin­ity is heav­ily prized. Many mosques were re­built in Baku af­ter their de­struc­tion in Soviet times yet we don’t hear the call of the muezzin. Fa­tima shows us loy­alty to Azer­bai­jan is first with re­li­gious and eth­nic dif­fer­ences fol­low­ing far be­hind. It’s to be hoped such har­mony can last with Iran on the doorstep.

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