The beauty of Baku’s Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is that you can see it in all its restored glory without fighting your way through touts, storekeepers and busloads of tourists. I’ve never seen such a beautifully restored world heritage site with so few tourists, and truth be told I really enjoyed it.
My first experience of the Old City was actually on my first night in Baku. I was there for a wedding, and the bride’s cousin offered to babysit me while all the ladies went on a girl’s night. So we drove into the Old City for dinner and ended up at the Art Garden restaurant, a building that was literally excavated and rebuilt from the ground up fairly recently.
Old City Eating
Inside the walled entrance, we walked through the large covered terrace and headed straight for the private rooms at the back, each individually decorated by famous Azeri artists. We took the one that paid homage to Azerbaijan’s ancient history. It reminded me a lot of the cave paintings we have in South Africa, but apparently you’ll find similar ones only an hour or two outside Baku. It was a room for six, but we had it all to ourselves, and with the door closed to keep the cold wind out, we had the cosy, vaulted chamber to ourselves and all we needed to do was push a discreet buzzer every time we wanted the something from the waiter.
To kick things off we ordered drinks, a bottle of unwooded Azeri chardonnay. I was told it wasn’t the best one, but it was light and easy drinking and went down well. Suitably warmed, I was excited to try Azeri food, so my host helped me make sense of the menu. I learned that Plov is a signature Azeri dish in upmarket restaurants. It’s a saffron rice dish served with meats, onions and prunes on the side and there are more than 40 varieties. I also learned that meat is a big thing, but lamb is the most popular.
Azeri Food, Wine & History
The table was filled with the same dishes every Azeri table is filled with to begin; a plate of green leaves and veggies called goy, plenty of chorek (bread), salat (a tomato and cucumber salad), qatik (yoghurt) and pendir (cheese). I tried Qutab, a type of pancake stuffed with cheese for starters, while my host had the ubiquitous minced lamb dolma (vine leaves).
My main course was the popular, and recommended, grilled sturgeon kebab with a sweet pomegranate sauce. It was a natural choice seeing as we were right on the Caspian Sea, the home of sturgeon and its more famous fish roe; caviar. It’s the first time I’ve ever tried this fish, and the sauce made it tasty, but personally, I found sturgeon way too fatty. The other option was Beluga kebabs, and I can’t imagine how fatty that might have been. I guess the water is cold in the Caspian.
My host and I chatted a lot, and I got a great insight into Azerbaijan and its history. We spoke about the first oil boom that helped build the wealth of the Nobel Brothers and the Rothschilds. We spoke about Baku being Stalin’s playground, how the mayor is trying to maintain the delicate balance of restoration and private homes in the Old City, and how Baku itself is probably the least attractive part of Azerbaijan.
Once dinner was finished and our black tea settled, we drove around the Old City and I saw some of the private homes and eclectic range of restored mansions built during the first oil boom. It was a fascinating night and the perfect welcome.
The following day Baku lived up to its Windy City name, and the rain swept in off the Caspian, practically drowning the city. So we all spent the day cocooned in the luxurious JW Marriott Absheron, and were very thankful the following morning, to be able to wander down the Boulevard back into the Old City.
Strolling Inside The Old City
Built on a site inhabited since the Palaeolithic period, The Inner City (Icheri Sheher) is one of the few surviving medieval towns in Azerbaijan and has preserved most of its 12th-century defensive walls. It is widely accepted that the Old City, including its Maiden Tower, date back at least to the 12th century, with some claiming that construction dates as far back as the 7th century. This has never been settled though.
Back in the day, the Old City was divided into several quarters, which also served as social divisions. Sometimes, the divisions were named after their mosque, but there were also other quarters I found really interesting, including Aghshalvarlilar, a quarter of city nobles, literally ‘those with white pants’. And Noyutchuler, a quarter of oil workers, Juhud Zeynallilar, a Jewish quarter and Bozbashyemeyenler, a quarter of ‘those who do not eat meat’. These days, those quarters may not be quite as evident, but the Old City still retains all its charm, with cobbled streets, narrow alleyways, ornate balconies and tiny courtyards.
We entered the Old City next to the The Maiden Tower (Giz Galasy), which also dates back to at least the 12th Century and is believed to have been an observatory or a fire tower, so it’s no wonder it was undergoing a bit of restoration when we were there.
Just alongside the Tower, an area has been excavated, and from a raised platform we looked down on some of the ancient foundations on display. We walked up past the carpet sellers and handful of souvenir stores and the owners politely asked if we wanted to take a look. No high-pressure tactics or smooth talking, it was all very refreshing.
We passed the Art Garden, where I had dinner, and wound our way through as many side roads and back alleys as we could find hoping to run into some undiscovered treasures.
Palaces, Private Homes And Oil Boom Mansions
Unfortunately we didn’t find as much as we’d hoped. Aside from the odd food kiosk, antique store, or resident’s courtyard that we tried to peek into, there was very little else. We couldn’t understand why everything seemed so quiet on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, but later we realised that Baku itself doesn’t draw a large number of tourists. Expatriate oil workers and businessmen they have plenty of, but actual tourists are still relatively few and far between.
The main historical treasure within the walls, and top attraction, is the palace of the Shirvan-Shahs, complete with a harem, mosque, family mausoleum, and the Shah’s supreme court. The Shirvanshah’s Palace was built in the 15th century when Shamaha was finally abandoned as the capital in favour of Baku. It was damaged very badly by the Russians back in the 1800’s, but has been restored to its former glory.
In 1806, when Baku was annexed by the Russian Empire, there were 500 households and 707 shops, and a population of 7,000 in the Old City (then the only neighbourhood of Baku). Just after this, the city started to expand outside the walls for the first time, and the Outer City began to develop. Obviously the Old City is now just a tiny part of Baku, but there are still plenty of private residents living inside the walls.
The entire Old City is beautifully restored, and if you love architecture, you’ll find it fascinating. It is unique because it combines the historic with the modern; East with the West, and everything from the Zoroastrian temples to art noveau buildings. The crescent of the Old Town is also ringed by a wide range of the oil boom mansions I mentioned earlier. The oil tycoons went a bit crazy with money and the ostentation, so you’ll find a range of styles from Moorish to Persian to Italian Renaissance.
Not finding much in the quieter back streets, we meandered our way back past the boutique hotels, gourmet restaurants, oil companies, and diplomatic buildings on main thoroughfare where we found a quaint coffee shop, traditional clothing stores and a police station.
Browsing done, we took a seat at the charming wooden café, next to the Maiden Tower to give our feet a rest and enjoy the sunny outdoors. We didn’t exactly have to fight for a table, which was great. So we rested under the trees next to a table of nuns and drank our strong coffee before leaving the peaceful Old City for the more manic Outer City of modern Baku. All in all, it was a quiet and very enjoyable bit of sightseeing through a very significant historical site. Made all the more special by the lack of tourists, I doubt I will find many more World Heritage sites in a city that I’ll be able to enjoy at my own pace and in such peace.