In this week's issue

Baku beckons

A modern metropolis, a UN heritage site and a former Soviet territory, the Azeri capital is a fascinating blend of the old, the new and the in-between

  • By Sharmila Dhal, XPRESS Senior Reporter
  • Published: 17:00 February 1, 2013
  • Tabloid on Saturday

  • Image Credit: Sharmila Dhal/Gulf News
  • Flame Towers, the symbol of modern Baku.
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Baku isn’t one of those places that immediately come to mind when you’re planning a vacation. But if you happen to be there, you’ll wonder what took you so long coming.

A recent media tour organised by the Jumeirah Group and Flydubai had me convinced that the Azeri capital in Eastern Europe is a perfect getaway for an extended weekend. It is barely three hours away from Dubai, with the lowest return fare on Flydubai costing just Dh1,195 (inclusive of taxes).

There are a number of hotels to choose from in the main business district of Buku, but as a guest of the Jumeirah Bilgah Beach Hotel, 10 minutes away from the airport, I couldn’t have asked for more. It gave me what the other hotels couldn’t: a five-star city resort experience with a private beach and sweeping views of the Caspian Sea from my 10th floor deluxe room (The room rates start from euro 125 [Dh741] for a standard deluxe king room, subject to 18 per cent tax).

Designed by the Azerbaijaini architect Nazim Valiyev, the resort has a modern, yet classical touch. It also houses the world’s longest chandelier: a stunning 58-metre gold and silver ensemble with 72,000 LED lights.

The hotel has so much to offer that it needs planning to do justice to its facilities. A water park with 11 slides, outdoor and indoor pools, a Talise gym and spa, a happening night club, five specialty restaurants, a bowling alley, a football field, basketball and tennis courts — the list could go on. The highlight for me was my time at the sun-kissed Bilgah beach and of course, the spa. A 60-minute Balinese massage that combined acupressure and skin rolling left me completely rejuvenated.

There’s a lot to explore in Baku. A tourist’s paradise, it is a modern metropolis, a Unesco World Heritage Site (walled city) and a former Soviet territory — all rolled into one.

A land of silks and carpets, its rich texture unravelled itself as I wound my way through the stoned walkways of the old city. Centuries-old caravanserais, baths and monuments such as the Shirvanshah’s Palace and the Maiden’s Tower lent themselves to a fascinating study in medieval history, even as the three glitzy prongs of the Flame Towers, the symbol of modern Baku, vied for my attention in the backdrop.

It is this blend of the old, the new and the in-between that defines Baku. The city’s architecture, variously classified as Gothic, Renaissance, Polish and modern, is striking. From the Academy of Sciences and the Solemnization Palace to the Philharmonic Hall and the Puppet Theatre, there are many places to cover. And if you’re lucky like me, you could even catch a Nino Katamadze, belting out jazz live at the Green Theatre.

But what’s Baku without a trip down Soviet memory lane? Azerbaijan was part of the USSR until its dissolution in 1991. But today, on the face of it at least, I found that its people don’t quite dwell on their communist past. They’re happy where they are. The country has diversified away from its oil wealth and this has thrown open a sea of opportunities for them — in tourism, construction, manufacturing, industry and agriculture.

But as a tourist hungry for a slice of romanticism, I was able to get a taste of Soviet nostalgia by scratching the surface. Locals like the elderly grocer at the Fountain Square opened up: “There was more security in those days when we worked in factories. We felt safer leaving our children out to play. But it’s okay, life goes on ...”

You can get your fill of history in other ways too: by buying souvenirs of Soviet medals, badges and caps — many of which are passed off as originals — or like some of my friends, by visiting nostalgia bars whose owners tell you what you want to hear.

Our most authentic Azeri experience lay in its national cuisine. Whether it was the Mugam restaurant in the Old City or Qala Bazaar on the outskirts, we were treated to a veritable feast: from a cold mezze of cheese, green salads and eggplant to dyushbaras (meat dumplings), dolmahs (minced lamb in vine leaves), sinjan (chicken in nuts) and pilafs (flavoured rice). If you’re a vegetarian like me, you’re options are fewer in the main course but you can always ask for a green pilaf, with lobya chyghyrtmasy (fried string beans) or just kyukyu ( a veggie pie). The taste lingers, making your trip to Baku well worth its while.

BOX:

Jumeirah Bilgah Beach Hotel: Fast facts

• 10 minutes from airport, 30 minutes from old city

• 176 sea-facing rooms and 14 cottages (Room rates start from Euro 125 for a standard - deluxe king room, subject to 18 per cent tax)

• Private beach, water park with 11 rides, indoor and outdoor pools

• Tennis, basketball courts, football field

• Fitness club and Talise spa

• Five restaurants, three cafes and a nightclub

FARE FROM DUBAI:

• Lowest return fare on Flydubai from Dubai to Baku is Dh1,195 (inclusive of taxes).

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