It was among the most memorable and pleasant experiences of our long overland trip from Japan to Europe when we arrived in Azerbaijan. Strolling through the Old Town of Baku, we realised we had missed European culture and history.
On the ferry between Asia and Europe
At 5 in the morning, still tucked into our sleeping bags in the filthy cabin of the Mercury ferry boat, we hear the anchor chain being lowered into the port basin. In the red sky of dawn we have a first glimpse of the skyline of Baku; some of our Turkmen fellow passengers are almost moved to tears.
We can only speculate why exactly, but after five days of transit in the (then) realm of Mr Turkmenbashi, „the father of the Turkmen people“, we have an inkling. He even named the port city where we embarked after himself.
In 2006, we were on our way back to Europe overland. Coming from Turkmenistan we had to cross the Caspian Sea to get to Azerbaijan. From the time of landing it took another 6 hours until the authorities finally allowed us to leave the ferry and enter Baku.
We walked with two fellow passengers, a quiet Russian businessman and a gaunt, somewhat shabby guy with a baseball cap, along disused railway tracks until we found ourselves in the centre of town.
The Old Town of Baku became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. It is composed of cute winding streets with old houses with wooden covered balconies. They offer a fantastic mix of different buildings from the Persian, Ottoman and Russian periods, all within 12th-century defensive walls.
Walls, towers and a palace
The Maiden Tower, also 12th-century, is built over earlier structures dating from the 7th to 6th centuries BC. The 12th–15th-century Shirvan Shahs’ Palace is actually a rather charming representative building that must have been an attempt at hipness in its time.
Much smaller in reality than it had looked on the pictures, it features a somewhat asymmetrical Four Iwan courtyard. This is an architectural component common to Medressas but not to private palaces.
Funnily enough the room inside has recently been renovated. Now it looks more like a modern community centre with wall-to-wall carpet, ample sockets and neon lighting.
Apart from these two most famous sights there are other mosques, hamams and caravanserais from the 18th to 20th century to see.
A new and modern world
After month in China and Central Asia Baku feels incredibly European, in spite of the eclectic architecture. We buy three books at the English bookstore, half a library to us, roam the streets, buy feta pastry and watch people enjoying themselves in the park. Very relaxed.
The people are apparently keen to leave the past behind, especially the Soviet past. „You have to learn Azeri here, we don’t speak Russian anymore!,” the woman at the corner shop reprimands us and immediately starts with the first lecture „Yumurta means egg“.
We wondered why it is that many of the cities we like start with “B” – such as Berlin, Bogota, and Brig (a small town in Switzerland). We did not come up with an answer, though. Natascha was so smitten with the Old Town Baku that she started scanning the online job classifieds. To her great disappointment she found that only drilling engineers and oil platform workers are wanted in Baku. In any case, our visa was only valid for a week and we had to leave Azerbaijan for Georgia – also a great country to visit.
Why visit the Old Town of Baku?
Baku has a very pleasant and lively atmosphere and historical architecture to match. The Old Town is at the intersection of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Indeed, we felt it offers the best of all these regions. If you are unlucky, we were told, there is a strong smell from the oil fields all over town; but we didn’t notice any.
How to get to the Old Town of Baku?
The ferry from Turkmenistan is not a very reliable means of transport as it runs irregularly several times a week. Also, getting a visa for Turkmenistan is a difficult matter. From Georgia and Iran, there are regular train connections, and Baku has an international airport.