We've been quite harsh on Baku and Azerbaijan lately. It might seem we didn't enjoy our time in Baku, but we did. It's time to look at the bright side of Baku!
Well, yes, we have been pointing out that we were not too happy about the propaganda in the contest this year, culminating in the kissing of the Azerbaijani flag in the interval act during the final. We also doubted if Azerbaijan has gained their votes in a respectful way during the last three years. The fact that oposition is non-exsisting in the country and the human rights situation is strongly critisized by organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch made us uncomfortable. And yes, we have been critical on some other fields too, and we don't regret that. But we can add some positivity too!
"1" | "The people of Azerbaijan are so friendly!"
A Eurovision circus, was something, the locals in Baku didn't seem prepared for. On the evenings of the semi finals and the final many Eurovision fans crossed the centre of Baku waving flags, dressed in national outfits or wearing feather head dresses when the fans happened to be Dutch. This passage through town wasn't an easy one, because virtually everyone wanted to be photographed together with as many of these wicked fans. On all other days, we couldn't count the many friendly greetings by locals. "Hello, my friend" was a sentence frequently heard. People seemed to be truly proud to welcome us in their town.
"2" | "Uhm, we felt quite safe!"
Well, let's face it, a large percentage of Eurovision fans are gay. Not that it matters, but still. Knowing that we were traveling to a country neighbouring Iran and with the knowledge that even though there is no legal ground in the country to make it difficult for gay people, we've heard the stories that it surely is no paradise either when it comes to gay-friendliness. But during the two weeks we spent in Baku, we didn't notice any direct hostility. Sadly, some sites got hacked because of gay content and Iran strongly critisised Azerbaijan for allowing this - in their eyes - gay event called Eurovision to take place in their neighbourhood. But not being scared to cross the town centre in the middle of the night after having visited a local gay bar is a good thing.
"3" | "Baklava!"
I'm a vegetarian, and most of what I have seen of Azerbaijani cuisine was definitely meat based. There was so much meat that I was expecting to see bits of pork floating in a glass of orange juice. So I can't really judge Azerbaijani food objectively. One thing I liked though was baklava, the sweet pastry I already knew from Greece and the local Turkish bakery stores in my town. In Azerbaijan it is at least as tasty as anywhere I have tried before, if not better. Especially the karavanserai in the old town that I visited (somewehere between traditional and touristic) served divine sweets! And as for food... as a vegetarian the Georgian restaurants in town really made me happy.
"4" | "The Crystal Hall and press centre"
Never before have we seen a more beautiful view from the press centre than in Baku. Both the Crystal Hall and the press hall where we spent many hours during the Eurovision weeks were situated on a kind of peninsula just behind the tallest flag in the world. The view from this location was stunning! I've been going to the Eurovision Song Contest since 2004, but never before we had such a marvelous view as this year. The sea, the skyline of the city and sometimes some dramatic cloudshapes even added to the effect. Wow!
"5" | "The Song Contest"
This was a good Eurovision year. Every year, one has to get used to the annual Eurovision songs, this year was no exception. But this year it went quite fast. In the end, I tend to like most of the songs, but this year, this went surprisingly fast. i really liked many songs this year. Some excellent ballads (Estonia, Spain, Serbia, Albania), some hardcore (Austria, Georgia, Montenegro), some fun ethnic songs, well one actually: Russia, some modern pop songs (Germany, France, Sweden and Norway), a nice Amy Winehouse impersonation (Italy), some good pop-rock (Switzerland, Hungary, Belarus), some camp (Ireland), some Eurotrash (and I have to admit, I like that too: Greece, Cyprus, Moldova) and a great Latin party song (Romania). And let's face it, technically the shows were amazing, this year. Never have I been more impressed by a stage and video walls than this year.
"6" | "The Euroclub"
Well, actually, I was not too positive about the Euroclub. The problem started when one of the Eurovision DJs made the mistake (well, in the eyes of the authorities) to play a Armenian Eurovision song, and then Eurovision music was no longer tolerated really in there. And in the end that is what most of us want to hear during our annual Eurovision vacation. But I do want to say some positive words about the venue too. It looked smashing, with the giant video walls. Drinks were free at several occasions. The local DJs were great to cooperate with. The barmen that were mostly Georgian went wild whenever Anri's Joker song was played.
"7" | "Architecture"
The city of Baku is quite impressive. The flame towers, three buildings built in a flame shape with huge LED effects at night, towering over the city were amazing! Most of the inner city surrounding the central fountain square looks real posh. If it were closer by it could really do well as a weekend destination.
"8" | "The boulevard"
Being situated at the shore of the Caspian sea, Baku has quite an amazing coast line. The level of the Caspian sea has gone down in the last century making room for more land between the old town and the sea. this room has since then been used effectively as a big park / boulevard area. Dozens of fountains, cool cafés, statues and a kitsch mini Italy village make the boulevard area a very pleasant area to hang around. Baku has big plans with this area too. Right now the boulevard has a total length of approximately six kilometres, plans are to extend this to 26 kilometres in the nearby future.
"9" | "Clean!"
It was hard to find any grafiti in town, and littering is not a national tradition in the Azerbaijan either. We were pleasantly surprised by the clean inner city.
"10" | "Taxi"
Most local taxis seemed to have a problem with their meters. They were either not switched on or appeared to not be working, which did lead to some unpleasant surprises at the end of a taxi drive. One kind of taxi was completely safe though, the Eurovision branded London cabs that were imported for the occassion charged reasonable prices for taxi journeys. A 15 minute trip from the old town to the Crystal Hall normally didn't cost more than 3 Manat (which is about 3 Euros). The London cab drivers apparently all got some English classes in the months before Eurovision, but that didn't really work out well. Most of them didn't understand a word, not even the names of some of the biggest attractions in town, like 'Old Town', 'Fountain Square' or even 'Crystal Hall'. Mentioning the name 'Tooji' made one of my taxi drivers lick his lips in joy, so maybe people understood something.
"11" | "The TV Tower"
Towering high above the city, the TV tower was a must see tourist attraction. Security was severe, but it was worth it. The view from the tower was magnificent. The restaurant at the top was a bit posh, charging 8 Euros for a cappuccino, but the fact that it was slowly spinning around made it a unique experience. The crew in the restaurant even pointed out to us, that we didn't even have to drink or eat anything. Just walking around and taking pictures was excepted too. Walking back to the city centre afterwards, we saw the cow that is in the picture above.
"12" | "The weather"
Let's hope for a bright future for this country!