A long-weekend in Baku, Azerbaijan
The patchwork history of Azerbaijan (and the fact its land has been the site of conflicts involving Arabs, Turks, Persians and Russians) means its capital Baku feels like the exact point in the globe where East meets West (even more so than Istanbul). Here’s how to explore this vibrant city on the Caspian Sea…
THINGS TO DO
The sandstone, walled Old City (Icheri Sheher) is mightily impressive and is smack-bang in the centre of Baku and so easy to access. The wall that surrounds the medieval town was built in the 1100s, and the streets of the 12th century neighbourhood are winding and confusing. But stroll around long enough and you’ll stumble across some delightful finds. Here are a few essential things to do.
Ali Shamsi’s Studio
Ali at work (this is the actual painting he let us have a go at)
Head down Little Castle Street and you’ll see a tree with a woman’s face painted on it. Stop here, as the house right next to the tree is the studio of eccentric local artist Ali Shamsi. Pop into his studio and it’s a safe bet that within five minutes he’ll have you painting on one of his watercolours and talking about the meaning of life.
Palace Of The Shirvanshahs
The palace at dusk
In the 15th Century the rulers of the Persian-Arab Shirvanshah dynasty moved their capital to Baku after an earthquake and built a palace and place of worship in the centre of the Old City. Today, historians still argue over whether the palace was built as a residence or a memorial, but either way it’s an evocative place to visit: even more so due to the bullet holes that riddle the walls from the 1918 conflict between the Armenians and Azeris.
The What’s On team on the watermelon jellies
In the 15th century many traders from East Asia would find themselves in Baku as they travelled along the Silk Road. They would take shelter in caravanserais, the bed and breakfasts of the Middle Ages. Today you can take tea, watermelon jelly and shisha in these warm private rooms. The windowless cocoons feature open fires, ancient carpets and are magical places to relax. Make sure to ask your waiter if you can check out the underground part of the caravanserai, where traders from Oman, Guangzhou and Kathmandu would park their camels.
Shrouded in folklore, the 29m stone tower stands in the Old City. Legend has it that a heartbroken ‘maiden’ ordered the tower to be built simply to jump to her death. Don’t let that gory story put you off visiting. There’s a cracking city view to enjoy. She was probably just too preoccupied to appreciate it at the time.
There are many carpet shops in Old City, but locals recommend one called the Flying Carpet Shop. Expect to pay around Dhs400 for a small silk Shirvan design.
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Baku gets sticky hot in the summer and bone-chilling cold in the depths of winter (thanks to those Caspian Sea winds). April would be a nice time to visit, but a winter break is lovely provided you bring a warm jacket, especially if you want to do a bit of skiing in Shahdag.
Did you know
– Azerbaijan most recently became an independent country 25 years ago: it was part of the USSR until 1991.
– Azerbaijan was the first Islamic country to give the women the right to vote in 1918 (the first in the world was New Zealand in 1881).