We landed at Baku's impressive international airport at 3.30 am after a flight from Munich via Moscow (what were we thinking!). Strangely enough there didn't seem to be a lot of flight options into Azerbaijan from Europe. Most landed at very unfriendly times early in the morning. Maybe I wasn't looking at the right booking sites.
We were met by a very nice gentleman, courtesy of our Peregrine Tour people. He spoke no English, but that seemed fair enough as we spoke no Azerbaijani. The trip to our hotel was memorable. We were nearly involved in a serious crash only once and narrowly missed hitting a street sweeper in the early morning darkness. Our driver preferred to straddle two lanes and make a last minute choice to avoid obstacles. I noticed when we arrived that I had been clenching my fist for the whole journey and prised it open before waving him goodbye.
What a difference a shower and a couple of hours of sleep makes! Mid morning we set out to explore on foot. Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is a surprisingly interesting place.
Its fascinating architecture has obvious European, Turkish, and Stalinist Russian flavours. A lot of money has been spend here with an aim to impress.
We left our hotel and headed down to the shore line. Baku is a port on the Caspian Sea and the cargo ships anchored offshore reminded me a little of Istanbul. The shore is lined with kilometres of parkland with paths and gardens, kiosks and carnival rides. On this Sunday morning though, few people were out to enjoy it with us. It seems the place comes alive with outdoor restaurants and promenading crowds towards mid afternoon.
I was surprised that in this muslim country Sunday appeared to be a rest day. No offices were open and traffic was light. Speaking (again) about traffic: it s a good idea to be careful when crossing roads. Drivers seem to operate with a take no prisoners policy. There are magnificent underpasses that let you avoid the busier roads. Once you reach the shoreline though, you can relax and wander through a wonderland of trees and grassed areas that is obviously a source of local pride.
Be prepared to pay tourist prices in this foreshore area. We paid 16 manat (about 15 euros) for the three beers we drank at a beautiful shady outdoor bar. You will find almost no English spoken and may fare better with Russian, but German struck out with no takers. This is part of the appeal of the place for me. So many parts of the world are so used to western tourists. Baku is not yet saturated by gum chewing monolingual English speakers and that is a delight.
There is always a fly in the ointment. On our way back to the hotel we were accosted by a uniformed policeman (at least I think that's what he was) who demanded we pay a two manat 'fine' for not crossing the street at the correct place. He was obviously dodgy and we walked away without paying. The Baku authorities will need to stamp on that sort of thing. It does nothing to engender good relations with foreigners.
I'm looking forward the the next few days in and around Baku. I did not expect such a fascinating mix of cultures and architecture in this exotic city on the shore of the Caspian Sea.