Sunday 13 May 2012

To Baku and beyond! Eurovision 2012: Day Zero

Greetings from hot and sunny Azerbaijan!

After quite a lengthy journey (overnight via Istanbul) I’ve arrived in the Azeri capital. Baku so far, is very impressive.

Leaving on the 22.30 Istanbul flight from Heathrow on Friday evening, it was the first time I’ve flown with Turkish Airlines. To say that the staff were slow would be putting it politely. It took nearly two hours for the first trolley to grace the aisle. I’ve flown from Helsinki to Tallinn before which took 20 minutes and yet they managed to serve a cup of tea and flog duty free in that time! However the Turks more than made up for it afterwards – the food was delicious and the booze was flowing.
A highlight was when the flight attendant asked Elaine Dove whether she wanted chicken or beef. Her reply: “Gin and tonic”. She said that she didn’t hear what the flight attendant asked. We know better.
"Just the one gin and tonic"

We finally touched down in Baku around 14.00 (10.00 UK time), all of us slightly nervous about the visa registration process and what lay ahead. It was surprisingly simple, thanks to the helpful and friendly volunteers who guided us through the process.
The system itself was a bit of a faff but could have been worse:

-          Visa invite checked upon boarding plane
-          Passport checked upon arrival
-          Form completed
-          Passport and form checked
-          Passport checked once again.

Close attention was paid to what stamps were already in passports. Could it be that they were looking for anyone who had been to Armenia? Or more controversially, Nagorno-Karabakh? I like to call it Wrexham, it seems like a safer option. The guidebook advises tourists to steer clear of this subject in conversations.
The volunteers at the airport were fine ambassadors for their country; friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. They even negotiated a cheaper taxi rate for us! The journey from the airport was slightly unnerving. Drivers here don’t seem to pay much attention to lanes, stop signs or even other cars! Still, our friendly driver welcomed us to Azerbaijan and sent us on our way. We then met Yuliya, a non-nonsense Azeri who gave us the keys to the apartment. We had arrived. Eurovision 2012 here we come!

Baku as a city is very impressive although very much a work in progress. It’s clear that there is wealth here and there is a potential for it to be a Dubai of the future. High-rise buildings and marble boulevards meet designer shops and fancy restaurants. However a stroll around the city reminds you that alongside the oil-fuelled boom, poverty remains. You can turn from a plush avenue onto a dusty side street in seconds.

The venue for Eurovision, The Crystal Hall, is stunning. Situated on a peninsula on the Caspian Sea, it’s an impressive setting for this contest. The massive National Flag Square, boasting the largest flagpole and largest flag in the world (or is it the second-largest now?), overlooks the stadium (making it look tiny in comparison!) Even more impressive is the fact that it was built from scratch in just 8 months! It is of course also one of the more controversial venues for Eurovision. More on that in the coming days.

The National Flag Square and the Crystal Hall, Baku
The locals have been friendly and eager to help out during the times I’ve been lost or as I like to say "finding my way on the map". One nice Azeri man even gave me some spare change when I was buying a bottle of water so that I didn’t need to break my 20 AZN note. Very kind and a nice start to the trip - I wonder if Londoners will be as accommodating during the Olympics? Baku has certainly entered into the Eurovision spirit, the contest logo is litterally everywhere! Even on the special Eurovision taxis, which we have been advised to use as opposed to the older Ladas. I wonder why?

A Eurovision taxi

After a lovely evening meal near Fountain Square, it was time to head home. Having been up since 6.30 on Friday morning, I was more than a little tired. I don’t think I’ve ever fallen asleep so quickly or been as keen to head to bed early on a Saturday night! Tomorrow the rehearsals and press conferences begin – stay tuned!

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