With deft painter touches, the slightly sterile grand architecture was springing in shadows, uplifts, mystery, blazes of light and the velvet night overlooking. A crowd of street sweepers, night wanderers and me gathered spellbound at the last two of a school of art students who had set up little easels all over town and were dipping a river flow of paint to bring night street buildings off the mixed and muddy pools on their pallets and onto their canvases.
The magic they created from street-lit building sums up how Baku has swivelled and taken depth for me, how it seems like home and welcomes me with familiarity, if not love, on my third visit..
The best night was Sunday, with a fellow guest from my hotel, a beautiful dancer with straight back, bright eyes that always talked of sunshine, and discussions of shows in Glyndebourne, New York’s Met and Bolshoi ballet. Both stressed by our long Sunday hours of work despite hot sunshine and cheerful crowds beckoning tiresomely out of hotel windows, we had a date and headed towards the smelly sea and breeze and relaxation with eagerness.
She said a boat would take us across the harbour for two manat and it was so. While we chatted and waited for the long boat to slip its moorings, we listened to the nearby screams, not bolshevik massacres but a funfair, tipping rows of teenagers upside down as it swung them into the evening sky and the treetops. Soon a white shirted crew flipped the heavy rope and obediently it curved off its bollard like a well trained python and he furled it as the boat bucketed backward.
No ordinary harbour crossing this, the boat headed for the distance Caspian horizon, the oily bay glistening in the evening light and tall glass buildings glistening and aflame with the last kisses of the sun god. I felt my fear of heights and glanced nervously as babies clambered towards the railings but soon was too entranced by her talk and the darkening Baku skyline, blazes of lights stringing the shoreline park boulevard into rivers of fire against the evening.
As we strolled through the trees, loud classical music bellowed through the trees and buffeted across the cafe tables. “Carmen” she said and it was so, but as we walked into a square a crowd was gathering entranced. There in front of us was a large square fountain, the jets of waters dancing high into the night with computer synchronization to the swell of the music. In between the soaring jets, bellows of gassy flame, the very spirit of Azerbaijan and the dawn of human religion, leapt from square steels set in the pond. The waving or high jetting waters soared and crescendoed with the music, the puffs of flame like an orchestra of underwater dragons, and when the music closed the last drops fell from the sky into the pond and behind stood the national flag and a high stack of ministerial offices.
The night hours rushed past in Tosca restaurant, amazing meal she selected and red wine that started sharp and soon slid down in happy bliss as stories bubbled forth, her travel adventures usually trumping mine. I grimaced at the humping Indian bus conductor and was amazed at inventiveness in teaching feral kittens to purr at human touch in a New Cross cats home so they could get adopted soon. Dancing and stretching and ageing was inspirational, how the body responds better when you treat it with love and gentleness and how she could do more now than when she was a year or two younger.
Beds at 1am seemed much too early, so we walked to the eerily atmospheric theatre she was rehearsing in with a local ballet and she told stories of the crumbling upper floors and the charming Russian-speaking ballerinas, support teams and deeply involved dignitaries.
My day was complete with a run, along the long boulevard with the wind whipping foam-mouthed white horses off the bay and scattered the oil films. Up stairs and alleys to the TV tower, snapping vistas on a small camera and heading for my prize, a nodding oil donkey at the top of the high ridge, nestled next to villas, the ultimate garden accessory that the Jones will never match unless they marry an oil heiress too. Down the funicular railway to snap a statue of a stern knight in knee britches mistreating a writhing and splay footed dragon with his manly grasp and curved scimitar in the middle of a spreading fountain. 19th century giant oil mansions gleam in the evening sunlight as night creeps onward. Tomorrow I will watch entranced again as lo, the hunter of the east will loop the Baku TV tower in a noose of light.