There is a lavish architecture in Baku of all styles from the 20th century and the reason for this is the greatest richness of the 20th century: oil. Walking by the sea front of Baku you can see the source of the wealth – the oil towers – far in the horizon of the Caspian Sea, and at the same time you can see what architectural wonders can be achieved when there are endless resources at your disposal. There are normal high-storey buildings at the hills, but they are easily dwarfed by three extraordinary skyscrapers formed like fire flames. They are created to symbolize the eternal fire erupting from the soil – the pride of Azerbaijan and its people.
But oil is not the only ingredient that make the Azerbaijani soil rich. Also fruit and vegetables grow well by the Caspian Sea and that is visible for instance in the national dish pilau – a plate with rice that in other Central Asian countries is served with meat. Chicken might be stuffed with fruit, nuts or veggies (lavang), or fish with the same delicacies (baliq). The fish of the day was sturgeon (of which the area gets its valuable caviar) but the thought of fish from the oily Caspian did not really tempt me since I had seen the oily waters in the beachfront just earlier. But I did taste piti, which was also referred to as “family soup” – meat stock with added tomato, cucumber and potato cubes. Furthermore, I tasted “monastery chicken”, which was a chicken filet covered with wild mushrooms, tomato slices and melted cheese.
The wealth of the Azerbaijani does not show in the dressing or in the being of its citizens. There are expensive brand outlets in Baku, but who buy things from them? You might get a taste of their wealth by looking at their cars, but as a tourist you need to look out for them rather than admire them. There are several traffic lanes side by side in Baku and as a pedestrian you are not very keen on crossing them when fast cars seem reluctant to stop. Even if you succeed in crossing the road, you will be fined by the police since the pedestrians are supposed to use the subterranean walkways in a city where the driver is the king! But bus tickets are cheap, maybe because the fuel is cheap in the oil-rich country.
It is easy to claim that Azerbaijan is Europe’s own Dubai with all its wealth and stunning buildings, and it just seems to wait for the tourists to pour in. For European tourists it might be comforting to know that a destination can be found so nearby, where there is a good chance of warm weather already early in spring or late in autumn.