Oil boom gives Baku a Parisian facelift
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.