Baku in the (old) USSR
Chalkmarks Baku

HIGH up in the 360 Bar, the view of Baku is unmissable and unstoppable. I can feel the hairs rise on my neck.

You don’t need to wonder what’s new down there. It all is.

The three skyscraper Flame Towers with their curvy flicks at their highest point dwarf everything around. They are the latest attraction and currently the tallest in Azerbaijan.

At night they are ablaze – lit up like a burning fire in a light display that changes to giant men waving the Azeri flag and then to the national colours blue, red and green.

It’s this radical transformation that’s making this city the new European capital must-see.

You don’t need to wonder what’s new down there. It all is!

All eyes will turn here this summer with the countdown already underway for the first ever European Games. It’s such a big deal, they’re calling it the 2015 Olympics.

There will be 17 days of competition starting on 12th June and ending on 28th June.

They have spent more than £5bn on infrastructure and built five venues including the National Gymnastics Arena, BMX Velopark, Baku Aquatics Centre, Baku Shooting Centre, the colossal National Stadium and an athletes village all situated in and around the city centre.

Thousands are expected to attend the opening ceremony with rehearsals already a well guarded national secret.

And on a Friday night I’m burning the midnight oil in a bar that’s not only up in the air but is also rotating. The razzle dazzle skyline gives me butterflies in my stomach.

It’s such great a photo opp that by the time I get around to ordering a drink it’s almost 10pm.

I take a careful sip as the room slowly spins around to reveal the Caspian Sea where the world’s best caviar comes from. I have to eventually take a seat as the floor turns and wait to see what appears next.

This city is on an adrenalin rush. It is riding the crest of a wave that follows the success of hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012.

At just 23 years old, this is an ex-Soviet Republic that’s after a fresh start. The nation sits with Russia to the north, the Caspian Sea on the east, Iran to the South and Armenia and Georgia to the West.

Being oil rich they have embarked on an extravagant refurb with plans to build something out of science fiction. Instead of creating monuments to their past they are designing a rock star city for the future with 30 skyscrapers planned every year for the next 15 years.

Already they have built the Heydar Aliyev centre with its ski slope roof – designed to look like the president’s signature.

Known as the windy city, it’s also aiming to blow others away with world firsts.

The Carpet Museum – with a roof the shape of a rolled up carpet – not only catalogues the country’s heritage of weaving but also houses the largest collection of carpets and rugs in the world.

Up until recently Baku claimed the tallest flag pole recognised by the Guinness Book of Records in 2011 measuring 162m (531ft) – the same height as London‘s Walkie Talkie building – but in 2014 Jeddah in Saudi Arabia erected a pole reaching 170m (558ft).

Not defeated, its ambitions have turned to building the world’s tallest super-skyscraper with 189 floors on an artificial island in the Caspian Sea.

Some worry that too much development will change Baku but that’s not really possible. The true star will always be its bare-bones beauty best seen in the undisturbed walled Old City in the centre.

The 7th century maze of narrows cobbled lanes filled with street sellers and teahouses kept me busy all day.

Inside this fortress, which became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2000, I climbed the 110 original stone steps to the top of the Maiden tower. It’s rumoured that centuries ago the ancient maiden threw herself into the sea to escape the King. It’s all a bit eerie. As I leaned over the side I felt a shiver go down my spine.

I quickly continued in to the 15th century Shirvanshahs’ Palace belonging to the dynasty of the same name. Containing dozens of rooms, courtyards, a crypt, cistern, bathhouse, and mosque. The medieval complex was in its time another show of great wealth.

During the Spring festival Novruz, you can sing with the crowds, dance in the street and watch the fireworks during the two-day celebration in this preserved inner city.

To step even further back to yet era, Gobustan National Park, just half hour by car, also has a Unesco outstanding universal value listing for its deserted mud volcanoes and prehistoric rock carvings made from early man dating back at least 10,000BC.

At just five hours from the UK, Baku is a melting pot of old and new, Europe and Asia.

I stayed in the peaceful Five Star Hyatt Regency, where all my creature comforts were met from the huge bath, exquisite restaurant and spa. I’d never be bored on a rainy day.

Also, known as the land of fire because of their continuously burning mountains and hillsides such as the one at Yanar Dag, the nation’s passion for flames has turned into an obsession.

Even when I head out for dinner at Manghal Steak House the waiters cause a commotion when they bring the meat and the flames straight to our table for a lightening show.

I feel very at home here especially towards the end of a night as I can hail a London Cab, which are all distinctly purple rather than black.

Baku’s fire shows no signs of going out any time soon. You couldn’t say that about any other city.  I get that fluttery feeling again.

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Baku in the (old) USSR

Book it

A return flight from Heathrow to Baku with British Airways start from £480. To book visit ba.com.

A room at the Hyatt Regency cost from £130. To book visit www.baku.regency.hyatt.com

Tickets for general sports events cost between £1.50 and £3. Prices to the Opening Ceremony cost £13 and for the Closing Ceremony £6 GBP.

Visa restrictions were lifted during the Games for those holding valid tickets.

(March 2015 prices)

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