It was 5 AM, when I reached Azerbaijanian ground. I had spent the entire flight sleeping very tightly after staying awake for two days, so I didn’t even realize that we had landed, until a guy woke me up just as everyone was getting off the flight.
Because it was so early and I was still extremely tired, I decided to camp out in the airport for a few hours, before finally catching a bus into Baku at 8 AM.
I still had six hours to wait for check in time at the hostel, so I decided to spend that time by exploring the city a bit. From where the airport bus dropped me off, I walked a few hundred meters down to the ‘Bulvar’, a wide boulevard along the shores of the Caspian Sea. This was a great way to start the sightseeing, as I could see the entire skyline from there, most noteworthy the three characteristic flameshaped towers!
I was starving after not eating since the pizza at the Coffee House in Moscow, so I went to the busy Memmedemin Resulzade street, where I found another coffee house and had another pizza. No such thing as creativeness when it comes to food for me, haha! But I did try a white hot chocolate for the first time in my life, and it was delicious and my first of many of those!
Close to the street is the old town, the very heart of Baku and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This tiny part of the city used to be all that Baku was until about 200 years ago, when the city started expanding due to newly discovered oil wealth, and today the old town is surrounded by tall, modern buildings and skyscrapers.
Thus, this inner core of Baku is a window to the past, dating at least back to the 12th century, although some researchers believe that some of the buildings date back to the 7th century.
The old city is surrounded by a wall that encloses all the historic buildings and monuments of the city, as well as the homes of 3000 people, numerous restaurants, hotels and shops. The two most interesting sights within the old town, at least according to UNESCO, is the 900-year-old Maiden Tower, a tower which is full of mystery and legends rooted in the history and national culture of Azerbaijan, and the Shirvanshahs’ Palace, built in the 15th century by the Shirvanshahs, the rulers of Shirvan, which was located in modern Azerbaijan from the 9th to the 16th century.
I spent a few hours exploring the quaint streets of the old town, climbing the Maiden Tower to get a panorama view over the city, and talking to countless street cats.
I met many healthy cats, but there were also a few cases of really sad sights. I was happy to see some locals feeding the cats, but I wish more would be done to help these poor souls. I really loved when I was talking to a friendly small white and black cat, wishing that I had some food to give him, when this young 15-16-year-old boy came around the corner with two packs of cat food! He opened them, poured it out for the cat and then said “bye” and left. I shouted out “thank yooou” to him, but I don’t know if he heard it. I think I just met an angel!
Unfortunately, I also had a less fortunate encounter with a cat that bit me and I then had to start a treatment against rabies… But that story deserves a post for itself.
Baku is famous for having the third tallest flagpole in the world, so naturally, I had to see that. I’ve seen the world’s second tallest in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and the world’s fourth tallest in North Korea seen from South Korea. When the flagpole in Baku was built, it was the world’s tallest flagpole for a few years, until it was overtaken by the Dushanbe Flagpole in Tajikistan.
The flag is (or was?) located in the National Flag Square, but stupidly, I thought it was the flag located near Little Venezia, Baku’s tiny version of Venice. I later learned that the flag had apparently been dismounted back in October, so I didn’t get to cross that one off my list!
Tired as never before, I decided to call it a day and headed to my hostel, Cheeky Carabao Backpackers Hostel. On the way, I walked through the Fountain Square, where I found something AWESOME – potato twisters!!!
They were my favourite new food of 2016 (haha, forgive me) after finding them in Khujand, Tajikistan, and I even included them on my Best Travel Moments of 2016 post. Despite being full from the pizza, I HAD to get one, and munched on it all the way to the hostel.
When I got there, I quickly checked in, had a hot shower and went to sleep in the middle of the day! It was so good to finally sleep in a bed for the first time in 52 hours!!
I left Baku early the next morning to head to Sheki, a mountain village in the north of Azerbaijan, but two days later, I was back in the city and ready to explore it some more.
A volunteer at my hostel, Miri, had told me about this place called Dagüstü Park, from where the view of Baku is amazing (better than from the Maiden Tower!). It’s located right beside the Flame Towers, and to spare people’s feet and legs there’s actually a funicular that goes to the top from the boulevard.
I decided to walk up, mainly because I couldn’t locate the funicular. It didn’t take long until I was surrounded by more tourists than I’d seen all week, as well as several locals all enjoying the panorama view from the platform. Dagüstü Park isn’t your typical green park, instead it’s a platform with countless benches and a fancy restaurant located at one of the highest points in Baku.
Miri was definitely right, the view was spectacular and I was able to see far beyond the city limits and across the Caspian Sea.
The golden hour proved to be the perfect time to go up there, as a light show came on on the Flame Towers as soon as it turned to dusk! It was quite a spectacle, showing the towers in flames, with the Azerbaijan flag, with athletes holding the flag, with water etc. If it hadn’t been so cold, I would’ve stayed up there for much longer to watch it!
But I decided it was time to head down and back to the hostel, and rather than walk, I thought it would be fun to try the funicular on the way back down. But boy was I going to regret that decision! I paid 1 manat, which is next to nothing, but then I had to wait for 30 minutes along with a woman and her two small daughters before the thing finally got moving! The doors were open, so we were all freezing. It wasn’t until the mother of the two girls actually got out to ask them to get it going that it did…
Baku is quite a wonder, it’s very different from any city I’ve ever been to before. It’s like a mix of Mediterranean seaside village atmosphere, Persian architecture and art and elements you’ll only find in Azerbaijan, such as the interesting Flame Towers.
The city is very unique and doesn’t become just another one of those similar looking capital cities around the world. Baku is definitely something else.
It’s also a funnily diverse city. You’ve got the center with the old town, the boulevard and the Flame Towers, which is kept VERY neat and clean. Cleaners are seen all over this part of town, leaving no spot with trash or even fallen leaves.
And then there’s the outskirts, such as where my hostel was located. It’s only a few hundred meters from the city center, but still, the contrast was enormous. Trash lined the uneven pavements and the buildings looked like they were about to collapse.
What made my experience in Baku extra special was staying at Cheeky Carabao Backpackers Hostel. I’ve already written about this hostel experience in a few previous posts, but I have to include it here too, because it really was THAT great! The owners went above and beyond what one would expect and helped me through a tough situation, when I had to start the rabies treatment.
The hostel was also a lovely place to just relax and have some fun with the other guests. To me, staying there was a big part of why I loved Baku so much, and also why I know that I will be back, because I simply cannot not go back there!