Baku’s new image

Baku’s new image

By Sophy Roberts

May 15 2010 00:20 |

Seeking refuge from the freezing winds blowing in from the Caspian, I step
across muddy pavements and through the open doors of a 19th-century mansion
on Vali Mammadov Street in Baku’s Old City, the historic centre of
Azerbaijan’s capital. Inside, the peeling peppermint green walls of the main
stairwell reveal hand-painted murals of women in loose corsetry, showing
lost grandeur from Azerbaijan’s pre-Soviet past.

Like much of the Caucasus, Azerbaijan has suffered from the pressures of its
powerful neighbour, Russia. The Red Army invaded in 1920 and the country
only achieved independence 19 years ago. A Muslim secular country, it is
also squashed between Iran, Georgia and Armenia. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan
lie across the Caspian.

Baku can at first seem impenetrably ugly ` the oil rigs scattered across the
barren landscape, the 1950s residential architecture ` but it sequesters
numerous surprises. The city was once elegant, as is shown by the grand,
Beaux-Arts architecture lining Baku Boulevard, the main 3km-long drag
separating the city from the Caspian. These mansions were bankrolled by the
oil barons of the 1900s during the first oil boom when Baku was known as the
Paris of the east, the country’s oil fields then responsible for half the
world’s oil production. There is also beauty in the mix of 11th-century
minarets, 15th-century bathhouses, and intricately carved palaces, mosques
and mausoleums.

With some 1,500 years of architecture on display, the Old City is the
nucleus for Azerbaijan’s nascent tourism industry. It is undergoing a
comprehensive renovation programme, led by an ambitious new mayor.

As well as its history, Baku has a modern energy, with a swathe of recent
openings reflecting the country’s rapid rise to riches. Azerbaijan, with
$7bn in oil revenues in 2009, is forecast to be the world’s third-fastest
growing economy this year.

Chinar Lounge, a lively new Asian-style restaurant, opened in March. Javad
Marandi, managing partner of the owners Pasha, compares it to London
restaurants Zuma, Nobu and Hakkasan. Pasha is also the principal investor
behind Four Seasons Baku, a five-star hotel opening in July 2011, and
numerous upscale office towers and apartment buildings. He is on a mission
to improve standards in the capital. `I hear it said too often about
Azerbaijan, `Oh, it’s good enough for Baku’. But that’s condescending. Why
can’t it be the best?’ says Marandi.

I tour the Old City with Javid Verdiyev, project manager for the restoration
project. On almost every street, he shakes his head at the sight of broken
drains and botched attempts at restoration. The sight of a chipped saucer in
the restaurant where we stop for coffee leaves him agitated. `This is meant
to be the best place in the neighbourhood. And look? Look!’ he exclaims. He’s
embarrassed by the sloppiness. I, however, am rather enjoying the coffee and
warming wood fire.

Not all parts of the city are being swept along by the growing affluence,
with Baku’s old market, the Tara Bazaar, looking as miserable as any chilly,
post-Soviet example you might find from Bishkek to Samarkand ` like Baku,
old Silk Road cities.

Yet Marandi and Verdiyev, like many Azeris, have grand ambitions for the
city. `Optimism is an Azeri quality,’ Mehriban Aliyeva, Azerbaijan’s highly
sophisticated First Lady, tells me when we meet to discuss the changes.
In Baku, strips of upscale boutiques open every week. Development seems to
be all everybody wants to talk about. I hear about the new Zaha
Hadid-designed Cultural Centre, replete with three auditoriums and a museum.
I learn of plans to transform Baku Boulevard into something like the
Promenade de la Croisette in Cannes, flanked with shops, restaurants and
yachts. I visit a suite in the new 128m-tall residential Port Baku Towers
complex; 65 of these apartments have sold in the three weeks since launch,
which includes five penthouses priced between £3m and £5m each.

When I eat out, I get a reminder of the challenges Azeris still face if Baku
is to lure high-end tourists. The lukewarm fisinjan, made up of stewed
chicken and pomegranate, is not an easy dish for even adventurous palettes.
Then there is the belly dancer who accompanies the meal. When she wraps a
turquoise scarf around a diner’s neck, I feel like I’m stuck in an
old-fashioned tourist trap. Most visitors are expats working in oil and gas.

The elements are, however, falling into place. As well as the Four Seasons,
Fairmont is opening a five-star hotel next year in the so-called Flame

For now, however, travellers heading to Baku should be open to a country in
flux. There’s plenty of infectious energy, passion and potential in a nation
full of self-belief. Just don’t expect the polished cobbles you’ll find in
the historic quarters of a Budapest or Prague.

© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2010.