Conceived by Zaha Hadid Architects, the elegant Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan has been awarded Design of the Year by the London Design Museum. That makes Hadid the first woman and the first architect to win the award.
The architectural marvel that looks as though it was spread into creation using white icing and a spatula is far from the only reason to visit the former Soviet country though. As well as lots of other contemporary architectural spectacles dotted among the old city, Baku is an intriguing blend of old and new, Islam and secularism, working class and opulence and just a little bit of mischief if you care to find it.
I arrived in the city with Mette, my favourite traveling partner (and favourite everything else partner too) to celebrate a combination birthday/valentines getaway from our home in Dubai.
We booked 4 nights at the very new and very charming Sapphire Inn hotel. Unbeknownst to each other, we had both been in touch with the hotel to pre-arrange some surprises for the arrival and the staff couldn’t have been more helpful in pulling off the surprises (and in keeping the secrets from each of us!). For the record Mette was much more successful in arranging her surprises.) A good base sets the tone for the start of your day and the end of your night and Sapphire Inn was perfect for both… maybe the food could use some improvement but they more than make up for it with everything else.
Baku is a great city for walking (if you consider hills, wind and stairs conducive to that anyway) and our days were spent wandering from morning to night. A stroll down through the park towards the sea for brunch and leisurely walks along the coast were a good way to start the day. ‘Old town’ was a short walk from the hotel and we found ourselves there a couple times to explore narrow alleys and seek out a couple of the cities contemporary art galleries. The ballet, housed in the beautiful and appropriately named Opera and Ballet Theatre was not too far away from ROOM, the little wine bar that became one of our favorite spots in the city and we made that walk more than once as well.
With all this walking we did become lost now and then and found people would either completely ignore our existence when we asked for guidance, or would go far out of their way to help us and even drive us places equally far out of their way.
And there was also that one time in the Parisienne styled sweet shop on FountainSquare that Mette was mocked for wearing a poufy white skirt in a city of somber grey and black attire. The judgments came from a gaggle of old ladies standing directly in front of us. There was something refreshing about their lack of trying to hide their feelings though being Mette’s birthday it would have been nice if they tried.
Baku may not be on the radar of a lot of tourists yet but it’s a good option if you are looking for something decidedly untouristy but with most of the comforts of home. There are enough ‘sites’ to keep you busy but more satisfying are the hidden gems you will find in-between. Baku does dive bars and luxurious venues equally well and each provides a unique form or entertainment depending on your mood. If you go, be sure to pack a fancy outfit along with your walking shoes.