I pride myself on my knowledge of capital cities and knowing where every country in the world is but I’ve never been quite sure whether the former Soviet trio of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia are in Asia or in Europe or somewhere in between. I’m currently in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, and I can only assume that I’m in Europe as at every turn I take I see a poster, banner, billboard or taxi advertising the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest which the city is hosting in May after winning the competition last year. For the uninitiated or those from other continents who are unsure of the fervour which can surround an often farcical singing competition, look no further than here. The folk seem to be more excited by it than my fellow Londoners are about the Olympics which begin in London in July. It’s hardly surprising though as Azerbaijan seems to be one of those forgotten nations where little of note ever seems to reach a global audience. Their current claims to fame are that the famous chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov was born in Baku and the world’s second highest flagpole is here too (Tajikistan knocked them off top spot last year by erecting a 165 metre flagpole, some three metres higher!).
Eurovision, then, seems to be a great opportunity to welcome the world and a chance to show how it’s changed since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 (although reducing the £176 visa fee would also help encourage visitors!). To my surprise, it has been busying itself with modernisation and the number of high rise buildings and cranes on display reminds me somewhat of Dubai – it’s just that the skyscrapers aren’t quite so tall. I’ve been to Azerbaijan’s neighbour, Armenia, before and was expecting Baku to be similarly stark and low-key but it’s far more developed than I’d imagined and the shopping areas are packed with young and old, couples and families, ‘trendy’ teenagers and even pet dogs, and all with smiles on their faces – just don’t take photos of anything as, for some reason, they don’t seem to like that.
Baku sits on a peninsular which juts out in to the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest inland body of water, and has prospered where other former Soviet countries may not have, because of its oil and natural gas industries. The oil boom began in the late 19th century and by 1910 over 50% of the world’s oil production emanated from the area. Of course, these days the percentage is far less but it is still a major global oil centre and oil exploration continues apace. Evidence of this can be seen all along the city coastal areas where many oil derricks are dotted along the wharfs making it a rather ugly looking seafront. In fact, the view from my hotel room sums this up perfectly!
Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has not quite seen the same progress as the likes of Latvia and Estonia but there is certainly a Euro vision (apologies for that!) here and the futuristic woodlouse-shaped Park Bulvar shopping mall on the main sea promenade is a striking new addition to the skyline, even managing to incorporate a mini ‘gherkin’ look like the tower in London. Inside it’s all glitz and glamour with many of the upper end clothing brands so ubiquitous to the Western European shopping centres. And strolling down the pedestrian-friendly Nizami Street you feel, at times, you could be in any European city.
So, all in all, although the rest of the world seems to have forgotten about Azerbaijan, the people here have not, and let’s hope the Eurovision Song Contest is a success for them. My vote is with Engelbert Humperdinck though, unless the Russian grannies prove to be as popular as the hype!