Baku old town is everything any decent, respectable tourist could ask for: a UNESCO world heritage site with nice old buildings, impeccably clean narrow winding streets and posh cafes. I am not however, a decent, respectable tourist and the more I walked around the less I liked it. Objects protected as if in glass cases are fine for museums but a town needs life, soul and vitality. This was a sterile exhibit, stripped of its context and interaction with humanity. Barely a washing line or a pot plant disturbed the idealised vision of the past: if people ever lived there in the past, or still do so you would hardly know. Certainly there were no poor people to disrupt the image, obviously any beggars seeking to exploit the tourists had been gently persuaded to move elsewhere at the nudge of an assault rifle.
It was almost a relief to see some graffiti in a gloomy, back alley way, at least it meant that some kind of life form existed. Extensive wanderings down cramped passages eventually revealed that at least some people lived there but appeared to be under curfew restrictions and may only dash briefly to one of the handful of little shops. Nothing resembling any social space, such as a traditional tea shop, exists for the residents.
Although the new buildings have been created in a sympathetic style to the originals, closer inspection reveled that many old buildings rather than being restored were simply resurfaced with a modern copy, further adding to the sterility. In 300 years everything will have probably weathered in nicely but until then much of it remains an elegant replica.
Perhaps it’s having too much money to spend is the problem, the modern part of the city positively reeks of oil money: an invasion of shiny 4×4 monstrosities and sports cars that will never attain even a fraction of their performance capabilities given the level of traffic. Every designer label you can think of has an outlet and despite being a fairly secular Muslim country you will see the occasional Muslim mum, in designer headscarf, pushing a designer pram with a designer baby to match.
Western architects brought in to create a slew of modern structures must have been caressing their genitals at the prospect of design briefs that probably extended little further than: “we want something modern and don’t care how much it costs”. One can assume that the government let them get on with it, without making design suggestions, as by and large they have avoided the Disneyland ethic of the Gulf countries. I suspect they did have a hand in the neon addition to a trio of immense sky scrapers, shaped like the buds of a petal: at night the entire surface lights up with images of flames or an image of a figure waving the Azeri flag.