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    • Baku is a city of enormous contrast. Phrases like ‘melting pot’ and ‘East meets West’ get used far too much in describing certain cities, but here in Baku the clichés really do ring true. This is very much where Europe meets Asia, where Muslim meets Christian, where the former Persian Empire meets the former Soviet one. Not a second passes in Baku where you are not reminded of all these different places, times and states and yet the whole adds up to produce a singular, unique, thriving, growing, fascinating and emotive mass that is far greater than the sum of its component parts.

      Around the turn of the last century, Baku was in the grip of its first Golden Age. The oil was flowing, European families such as the Nobels and the Rothschilds were here making their first fortunes. Barely a soul on the planet had not heard of Baku, one of the richest cities on the planet, where, like California in the Gold Rush, any man could make good. Enormously lavish, European-style mansions sprang up around the walls of the Old City, monumental extravagance was the order of the day for the sophisticated rich and Baku revelled in its hedonistic glory. Then, in the confusing aftermath of the First World War, came the Soviet invasion and seventy odd years of occupation did an extremely good job of wiping all trace of this desert town from the world’s collective conscience, to say nothing of leaving a huge amount of sprawling, drab and concretey Soviet construction.

      Now, however, not even two decades on from independence, the oil money is flowing once again and the second Golden Age of Baku is well under way. Old Soviet buildings – and sadly some crumbling but glorious nineteenth century ones too – are being torn down and replaced at a rate of knots. Towers of all shapes and sizes are shooting up all over the place, though quite who is going to occupy these myriad offices and apartments is anyone’s guess. For inspiration, Baku has often looked to Dubai, its sister city in the black stuff, and to its big brother Moscow. No great surprise then that it is to these two cities – and notably Moscow in the 1990s and Dubai in the early 2000s – that Baku is in many ways most readily compared. Only time will tell if Baku is prepared to look also at the mistakes these two great cities have made and avoid the problems that have blighted them both in recent years.

      Ask any Bakuvian or long-term ex-pat how the city has evolved over even the past 5 years and they will tell you that it is all but unrecognisable. Hotels, bars and restaurants are opening up demonstrating a far higher level of sophistication than encountered here for decades. Interior design is cutting edge and concept is all. The service industry is still young, so it would be churlish to expect the level of service of, say, London or New York. That being said, Azeri cuisine is rich and varied, international cuisine well-represented and foodies are extremely well catered for. Even oenophiles are in for a pleasant surprise. Aficionados of other aspects of luxury travel and especially shopaholics will find a lot more than they may have bargained for too, although they may on occasion balk at the price tag.

      As desert cities go, Baku is remarkably green and its public space would put many cities in Southern Europe, for example, to great shame. It is worth interesting to note that every ounce of the tons of soil required to develop the parks and green spaces of Baku was imported by ship. This was due to the efforts of the particularly forward-thinking Mayor Hoven, who passed a decree back in 1880, saying that every ship docking in Baku must bring fertile soil as ballast. Unsurprisingly, the amount of oil in need of export was a great motivator and before long Mayor Hoven had all the fertile soil he could want and a grand expansion program of parks and gardens began. Also around this time the sea defences were built up, allowing for the creation of one of Baku’s great landmarks, the Boulevard, now declared a National Park, allowing for more funds to be allocated to keeping the seafront (relatively) clean.

      No introduction to Baku would be complete without mention of The Caspian, the world’s largest inland sea (or lake, depending on which school of geographic thought you subscribe to). Baku lies on the Absheron peninsula, which thrusts westward into the Caspian like the hooked beak of the stooping eagle, to which Azerbaijan’s silhouette is often compared. The Caspian has about a third of the salinity of ocean water. This unique salinity gives it also a unique biodiversity, with many of its endemic species, including the caviar-producing seven species of sturgeon, unique on the globe. The Caspian’s levels have always fluctuated and in Medieval times its waters were known to lap right up to the base of Maiden Tower. It currently lies 28 metres below sea level, 3m higher than it was at its 20th century low in 1977 and the same as was recorded back in 1929. It is a sad fact also that it is seriously polluted with oil, but before we lay the blame entirely at the feet of irresponsible industrialists, we should bear in mind that oil has been leaking naturally from the sea-bed for millennia, so Mother Nature should perhaps also take some of the flack.

      The Soviets were nothing if not lovers of fountains, statues and other grand chunks of monumental and public architecture. Ten years ago most of the public space had fallen badly into disrepair and not a single fountain worked in the city. In 2001, new Mayor Hajibala Abutalibov (known as the Giuliani of Baku) started a huge city-wide clean-up, including large-scale renovation works around city. This has resulted in noticeably fewer fountains and statues (and a lot of dust), but, when works are completed in May 2010, all will hopefully be revealed, restored and in full working order. A nocturnal stroll along the Boulevard taking in the gloriously illuminated, often musical, fountains is one of the great pleasures in what by night must surely be one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

      Of course in an expanding economy and a city to all intents and purposes this young, there are many more miles to go and an infinite number of directions this could all take. That’s the excitement of being in a city like Baku at a time like this. Life here is sure as hell not straightforward and never easy, but there’s unlikely ever to be a dull moment. For now, our advice would be to buckle up, hold tight and enjoy the ride, because things are moving on up in Baku… and fast.