Oil-rich Baku is now burning bright as one of the world’s most ambitious capitals. So why is it so ahead of the curve?
The first time I went to Baku, in 2010, I flew in a construction magnate’s private jet. This may sound like boasting, but actually it was almost an economic way to travel. The one direct flight from London at that time had a starting price of £800, even in economy, which oil-company executives – the only people who needed to travel regularly to Azerbaijan’s then backwater capital – could apparently expense without blinking.
Four years on, it’s a very different story. The airfare has almost halved since British Airways took over the route, and half a dozen top-of-the-tree western hotels have opened. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, the pungent odour of oil may still hang in the air, but the dour Soviet cityscape has been more than cleaned up: it’s been transformed.
At night, the bulbs on the cladding of the Crystal Hall (an arena shaped like an Elizabethan ruff) glitter and change colour; the infinitely voluptuous curves of Zaha Hadid’s thrillingly original and arrestingly shiny whiteHeydar Aliyev Cultural Centre gleam in the moonlight; and the 10,000 light-emitting diodes on the Flame Towers flicker like, well, flames.
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