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Glitzy Baku seeks to sparkle at Eurovision

Eurovision is everywhere in Baku, the easternmost city to host the annual song contest, as the Azerbaijani capital seeks to present a glitzy and sparkling front to the world for its biggest ever event.

travel Updated: May 25, 2012 12:34 IST

Eurovision is everywhere in Baku, the easternmost city to host the annual song contest, as the Azerbaijani capital seeks to present a glitzy and sparkling front to the world for its biggest ever event.

The Eurovision symbol is emblazoned on the city's new fleet of London-style cabs, flashes on video screens on metro platforms and even goes up in lights on LCD displays on skyscrapers overlooking the Caspian Sea.

Locals strolling along the seaside promenade proudly point out to sea to the city's newest landmark: the Crystal Hall, built at high speed to host the contest.

Lit up with flashing lights, it stands on a pier with the sea on both sides, lined with flowers that workers were still putting in place on Tuesday evening as guests dressed up to the nines arrived for the semi-finals.

It's best to ignore the sulphurous smell wafting off the water, the legacy of years of heavy pollution into the Caspian Sea.

Also disguised by the shiny buildings are the controversies that have marred the contest, with activists accusing Azerbaijan of human rights violations and a bitter diplomatic row building with its neighbour Iran.

Locals instead prefer to see the competition as a chance to put their city -- which already boasts fine fin-de-siecle architecture and an enchanting old town -- firmly on the European map.

Waving a flag with the Eurovision symbol on one side and this year's slogan "Light your fire!" law student Aygun, 18, took photographs with friends next to a sculpture of a globe decorated with outstretched hands and yet more sparkling lights.

"Our Crystal Hall is really amazing, it's cool," she said. "We're seeing lots of tourists, we're very proud of our city, we see they like our city, our country."

The location could hardly be more symbolic of national pride: right behind the hall is a giant 162-metre (530-foot) flagpost with a rippling 70-metre-long national flag, lit up at night with lasers.

Guarded by police, the flagpost briefly held a world record as the tallest before being outdone by Tajikistan.

Across the bay, three skyscrapers called Flame Towers being constructed at a cost of $350 million switch on a synchronised light display of the flags of all the countries taking part in the song contest and the heart-shaped Eurovision symbol with the Azerbaijan flag inside.

Eating popcorn on the promenade, English graduate Aytaj Farzali, 22, said she could not get tickets for the events, but saw the contest as a chance for Azerbaijan to put itself on the map.

"Our city is very beautiful as you see and I think that many countries don't know this. This would be a chance for us... We changed a little bit, in order to meet our guests."

"It has changed in the course of a year, in eight months it has changed," agreed English teacher Aziza, sitting on a bench with two women friends.

"There's been a lot of change, a lot of construction to hold the contest properly. Roads appeared, new buildings, huge hotels," said Kakma Koguashvili, who works for a transport company.

Little doubt is left over who should be credited for the transformation -- omnipresent in Baku is the image of Heydar Aliyev, the late president whose son Ilham succeeded him in 2003 to build a strongman dynasty.

The source of such financial bounty is also no secret. Journalists attending the contest are given a souvenir -- a perspex case holding a drop of black oil. The road from the airport passes oil derricks and the air smells of oil.

Dzhamal, 25, strummed a rock song on the promenade with friends wearing T-shirts with the Google logo and the Union Jack.

"Prices have got higher, but there is more work. There are prospects if you know how to do something," he said, adding he works in advertising.

"If you came to this boulevard three or four years ago, it would not have been so beautiful," agreed his friend Rustam. "We have managed to get a bit closer to Europe."

First Published: May 25, 2012 12:34 IST