Dr Janina Ramirez and Alastair Sooke take us on three entertaining and revealing cultural city breaks.
Part 1: Lisbon
Nina and Alastair head to Lisbon, rapidly becoming one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations. Winding through the city’s cobbled streets, from its steep hills to the picturesque shore line, the cultural riches they encounter reveal the city’s fascinating history.
From a spectacular monument to the maritime globetrotting of Portugal’s ‘golden age’ to the work of a photographer documenting the city’s large African population, they discover a complex history of past glories and a darker, slave-trading past.
Their journey also uncovers the impact of twentieth-century dictatorship on the city’s artistic and cultural life, through the work of contemporary artists Paula Rego and Joana Vasconcelos.
Along the way, Alistair also takes a boat trip on the River Tagus to discover how Portuguese sailors established the sea passage to India, an achievement that enabled Lisbon to capture the lucrative spice trade. And Nina visits the UNESCO world heritage site the Belem Tower, designed to protect the city and a symbol of 16th century Portuguese power.
Nina also explores the colourful streets and discovers a city with an obsession with tiles or ‘azulejos’, which can be seen all over the walls of the city. From church altarpieces to mythical scenes, decorative detailing and modernist geometries – collections of colourful tiles come in almost every shape and size. But the real highlight Nina discovers, is in the National Tile Museum, where she marvels at a vast panorama of Lisbon.
Lisbon’s penchant for tiles on their building make it feel as if street art is part of the city’s DNA so Alistair finds out why the walls of Lisbon have become the canvas form some the most innovative street art in the world and he meets up with the internationally renowned street artist known as Vhils, whose unique massive character murals are changing the face of the city.
And together they discover how the city’s location on the southern coast of Europe, looking out to the Atlantic, has shaped the cosmopolitan spirit of the city: in one of the city’s fado clubs, Alastair and Nina enjoy the popular Portugese folk music, whose beautiful melodies celebrate a yearning for home, once sung by sailors dreaming of their return.
Part 2: Beirut
Nina and Alastair explore Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon. This fascinating crossroads between east and west has a rich history, and a troubled recent past. It’s the most diverse city in the Arab world, with 18 recognised religious sects. Its French influence gave it the reputation as the Paris of the east during the mid 20th century. But this diversity turned to division in 1975 when the city became embroiled in a 15-year civil war.
In a place of so many identities and memories, art plays a unique role – as Janina and Alastair discover at the start of their journey, taking a cable car to the mountains that ring the city. Here, a stunning brutalist Christian cathedral of the Maronite Church overlooks the city’s suburbs. It’s an impressive expression of both the city’s unique demographic mix, and of the identity of the Maronite community – one of Beirut’s biggest minorities.
On their travels around the city they discover how art – and architecture – is confronting the past but also embracing the future. While Nina discovers how a bullet-ridden house has been transformed into an emotionally powerful war memorial, Alastair meets Bernard Khoury, the Middle East’s most controversial architect, whose visionary buildings are designed to improve the social fabric of Beirut.
At the National Museum, they discover an incredible array of Phoenician and Roman artefacts, revealing Beirut’s earliest origins. In a basement room full of sarcophagi, Nina discovers the final resting place for several Phoenician nobles, evidence that Beirut has long been an intersection of cultures, combining classical Greek sculptural details with ancient Egyptian designs.
Alastair also encounters a street artist paying tribute to an actress who united the city in times of trouble, and Nina takes tea with an elderly Armenian couple who reflect on the city’s immigrant experience. And together, they experience the hedonistic Beirut nightlife that is drawing increasing numbers of visitors from around the world.
At this fascinating crossroads between east and west, Ramirez and Sooke discover a city whose cultural life and riches offer an essential way to understand the city’s complex history and identity.
Part 3: Baku
Nina and Alastair set off to Baku, capital of Azerbaijan.
A former Soviet state, bordering the Caspian Sea, Baku offers a tantalising mix of the ancient and modern – at the crossroads of east meets west, on the ancient silk trading route. It is also an authoritarian state, where cultural life is tightly controlled. So, not their regular city break…
But it is a city looking westwards, eager to turn itself into a tourist destination. They discover a city for which oil has been both a blessing and a curse. The profits from oil transformed its architecture twice – first in the late nineteenth century, and again in the twentieth.
As a result, Baku is full of buildings that feel like 19th-century Paris, but also gleaming new structures by architectural stars like Zaha Hadid. And all around, the traces of Soviet rule offer other surprising clashes of art and architecture.
Nina and Alastair pick their way through this maze of influences and travel back in time, seeking the roots of Azerbaijani identity. Alastair visits the world’s first museum devoted entirely to rugs while Nina marvels at stunning prehistoric rock art on the city’s outskirts. Together they wander the medieval old city, discovering the early impact of Islamic culture.
And in the stunning Heydar Aliyev Centre designed by Zaha Hadid, they discover an exhibition devoted to Heydar Aliyev, president of Azerbaijan, whose government exerts a strong influence on the city’s art and culture. But Alistair also meets Sabina Shikhlinskaya, an artist with a truly independent voice.
As night falls they discover why Azerbaijan is known as the ‘Land of Fire’ when they visit Yanar Dag, a spectacular 10-metre long natural gas fire which blazes continuously. And they end their visit to Baku with a performance of Maugham, Azerbaijan’s ancient, haunting folk music as they reflect on their time in a city that has fascinated and surprised them both.