Art historians Dr. Janina Ramirez and Alastair Sooke take us on three entertaining and revealing cultural city breaks.
With sumptuous palaces, exquisite artworks and stunning architecture, every great city offers a dizzying multitude of artistic highlights. In this series, art historians Dr. Janina Ramirez and Alastair Sooke take us on three cultural city breaks, hunting for off-the-beaten-track artistic treats - and finding new ways of enjoying some very famous sights.
Winding through Lisbon's cobbled streets, from its steep hills to the picturesque shoreline, the riches they encounter reveal the city's history. From a spectacular monument, to the maritime globetrotting of Portugal's 'golden age', and the work of a photographer documenting the city's African population, they discover a complex history of former glories and a darker, slave-trading past. Their journey also uncovers the impact of 20th-century dictatorship on the city's artistic and cultural life, through the work of artists Paula Rego and Joana Vasconcelos. They discover how the city's location on the west coast of Europe, looking out to the Atlantic, has shaped the city's cosmopolitan spirit - in one of the city's fado clubs, Alastair and Nina enjoy the popular Portuguese folk music whose melodies celebrate a yearning for home, once sung by sailors dreaming of their return.
Once torn apart by civil war, Beirut has bounced back to rebuild its reputation as a cosmopolitan city with a rich artistic heritage and a level of tolerance and cultural freedom rare in the region. Nina and Alastair's journey takes them up into the surrounding mountains by cable car to an astonishing modern Christian cathedral. Nina is welcomed into an 800-year-old mosque that was once a cathedral built by Crusaders. While Nina discovers how a bullet-ridden house has been transformed into an emotionally powerful war memorial, Alastair meets Bernard Khoury, whose visionary buildings are designed to improve the social fabric of Beirut. 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.
In the final episode of the series, Janina Ramirez and Alistair Sooke set off on their most adventurous trip yet - 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.