UNESCO World Heritage Site

I really did (heart) Baku. That stunning building behind me is one of the architectural wonders of the city.

To my surprise I fell in love with Baku. I’d actually been here a couple times in the early aughts when I worked for an international NGO; my memory was that Baku was OK, but nothing special. Traveling for work is a lot different from being a tourist though and during our four days here we discovered great food, great parks, and great architecture all at a fraction of the price we would pay in other big cities.

A few things to know about Baku. It’s the capital of Azerbaijan and, with a population of 2.2 million people, the largest city on the Caspian Sea and in the Caucasus region overall. It’s a boom town dependent on oil and its fortunes over the years have ebbed and flowed with the demand for oil; these days, it’s booming. And here’s some trivia you might find useful some day: because the Caspian Sea lies in a big basin Baku actually sits some 93 feet below sea level. Thus it is both the largest city in the world below sea level and the lowest capital city. File that away for when you need it.

Here we are in front of the Maiden Tower, emblem of Baku

Because the Azeri people are primarily Turkish – the two languages are closely related and mutually intelligible – they are largely Muslim. Notwithstanding their affinity with the Turks, though, who are largely Shiite Muslims, the Azeris are primarily Shia like their neighbors in Iran to the south. But – and this is the huge difference, perhaps related to the effects of being an oil boom town, perhaps in part a reflection of the long Soviet domination here – the Azeri people are pretty much non-secular. So while Iranians just a few miles away live in a theocracy, I didn’t see a single woman in a burka nor did I hear the call to prayer once. How’s this for an unexpected experience in a Shia Muslim city: in 2009 Lonely Planet declared Baku one of the top ten cities in the world to party the night away. Strange that such a difference would exist in such close proximity.

During our stay here we experienced, to some degree at least, three separate parts of Baku. The Inner City is the old, historic town declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. The Maiden Tower – a 12th century tower of ambiguous purpose – is the emblem of not just Baku but Azerbaijan itself. We climbed the tower (kind of boring actually) and poked around the Inner City. And while the ancient walls were attractive, to me at least it felt as though the Inner City had been cleaned up a great deal since I was here maybe 13 years ago, and not entirely in a good way.

One of the gates to the Inner City. The walls were beautiful and there were some good restaurants just inside but otherwise I found the old town to be a little antiseptic.

The newer part of the city dates from Baku’s original oil boom in the late 19th and early 20th century. There are some really beautiful streets with grand turn-of-the-century buildings that clearly remind you of walking in Paris or Vienna. And in those great buildings are some really high-end stores that seemed awfully empty since although there is a lot of oil money floating around by most accounts not a lot of that flows to the vast bulk of Azeris.

Just a small sample of the attractive early 20th century buildings in Baku’s newer section

And then there’s the really new part of Baku reflecting the oil boom of the 21st century. Stunning architecture, an enormous parkway stretching some four miles along the Caspian that’s extremely well maintained, an attempt at building the world’s largest flag pole, an entirely new cultural region at one end of the park.

While there is a lot of new and ongoing construction in the city, two developments really stood out. The first was the Flame Towers that dominate the city’s new skyline. They are three glass skyscrapers, each shaped like flames. (Baku’s ancient history is based on the town being founded near the spontaneous flames that would erupt from the oil near the surface of the earth. As flames are central to the ancient Zoroastrian religion, the region was considered holy.) In the daytime they’re beautiful but at night they really come alive with some 10,000 lights creating a light show that displays variously such sights as the Azeri flag, water flowing, and massive flames burning. Now if I were designing a skyscraper I might not want to evoke in people’s minds huge cataclysmic fires, but it is truly striking.

The Flame Towers looming over Baku. The light show at night truly defines the skyline.

The other almost insanely beautiful building is the Heydar Aliev Cultural Center, designed by world-famous starchitect Zaha Hadid. We knew it was supposed to be beautiful but we were genuinely blown away by it. The building was closed on Monday, the only day we had to go there, so we didn’t go inside but the exterior is simply stunning, big flowing curves and striking movement. And as a bonus as we explored the exterior the grounds are decorated with large blow-ups of National Geographic photos shot by Azeri photographers.

The Heydar Aliev Cultural Center

(How is this for a coincidence? The very morning we were planning on walking out to see the building I was reading the morning Axios political update email. And there, item #9, seemingly randomly was a picture of the building simply calling it one of the most beautiful buildings on earth. Coincidence or proof that we’re being followed?)

One downside to the building can’t be attributed to Dame Hadid. It is named for Azerbaijan’s third president, a guy who created what can only be described as today’s authoritarian, dictatorial regime. Aliev had been a bigwig in the Soviet Union and after that government collapsed he began a quick rise to the top in his native Azerbaijan. He ruled for 10 years until just before his death in 2003 when he was succeeded by his son. And just in case it’s not clear that this is a family operation, the current vice president is the current President Aliev’s wife. With this much oil money at stake you wouldn’t want to risk letting it out of your control.

Mark & this stunning building

The only other downside to the Cultural Center – and this is shared by locations all over Baku – is that it is nearly impossible to get to on foot. This is a city meant for cars and the challenges of getting around as a pedestrian are significant. I won’t blame Ms. Hadid for that, either; she deserved all the awards she won with buildings like this.

For walking, though, you can’t beat Baku Boulevard, the huge park running along the Caspian Sea. Mark & I walked pretty much the whole distance to get to the new Yarat Contemporary Art Center with its current show of Azerbaijani artists from the post-Stalin era. The whole route was beautiful but oddly we saw almost no one out. Sure, the weather was a little misty, but it wasn’t that bad and it was a Sunday morning. For us, though, it was so nice that although we hadn’t intended to initially, we ended up walking all the way back too. And for whatever it’s worth, the next day, Monday, the weather turned nice and there were lots of people out enjoying the park then.

Just a small section of the seaside park, ideal for strolling. Along both sides were old photos, some dating back to the 1920s, showing how the city has evolved.

And so yes, there was a lot to love about Baku. The food was excellent and almost insanely cheap; our hotel was beautiful and a fraction of what you would pay for that quality in any other large city; and we loved the parks and buildings. We had debated scheduling a five-day stop and decided not to but now I kind of regret that decision. Instead we’re moving north up into the Caucasus mountains themselves, eventually into Georgia and Armenia.

The ticket booth outside Maiden Tower had these ridiculously cute kittens just hanging out. It was a little difficult to get Mark into the tower.

The Eye of Baku on a wet, moody day

There’s quite a story associate with this site, National Flag Square. At 531 feet the flagpole was briefly the tallest in the world but after just a couple months with the record it was overtaken by the 541-foot flagpole in Dushanbe, Tajikistan which itself was quickly surpassed by a 561-foot flagpole in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Worse yet, not long after it went up at a cost of $24 million or so the flag pole started to lean and had to be quickly taken down. So now they have this big monument to … nothing.

New friends Mehemmed and … I didn’t get the other guy’s name … in front of Baku Crystal Hall, built in 2012 in time to host the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest. These guys were just walking along the parkway as I was headed back and wanted to chat and practice their English. They were interesting and fun, curious about why I was in Azerbaijan. When I told them we were traveling through the Caucasus, including a week in Armenia, their mood quickly changed. Azerbaijan and Armenia, you see, are mortal enemies and have been for eons. Armenians, you see, are Christians while Azeris are Muslims. And even if they’re all secular they are still regional enemies. As far as Mehemmed and his friend are concerned, Armenians eat their children and rape their daughters. Maybe not that bad but he honestly couldn’t understand why someone who seemed civilized (me) could want to go to Armenia. Strange how hate can permeate a culture.

Out beyond both the Flag Square and the Crystal Hall was the Yarat Contemporary Art Center. We went out there to see an exhibit of post-Stalinist Azeri “masters” which was a pleasant little trip. That’s me down there while Mark was up on the second floor. It was the kind of art museum I like: reasonably small, good descriptions, and free!

“Marine Monuments of the Caspian Sea” by Nadir Qasimov, one of Mark’s favorites

“In the Flowering Garden” by Farhad Khaliov, my favorite

On his way back from the Contemporary Art exhibit Mark stopped at the national rug museum. It was in a very cool building but he describes touring it as 20 minutes of his life he’ll never get back.

There are a LOT of fountains in Baku and – unlike so many cities in the U.S., they always seem to work

More pictures of Zaha Hadid’s amazing work

It was masterful from every angle

Oh yeah, there was food too

Another night, another great (and cheap) meal

Pickle and vodka, the proper way to start any meal in this region

And produce

The seaside park after the weather cleared up

A strange bicycle ride, where authorities closed off this massive street in front of the main government building for a pretty ragged bunch of people

And those damned cute kitties

Rhodes – an amazing medieval town made even more atmospheric in a rainstorm

Three years ago Mark & I spent a week on the island of Rhodes and fell in love with it. So when Bart & Ann suggested they wanted to experience one island in addition to Crete we leapt at the chance to go back. The bad news was that because of scheduling issues we only had three days to enjoy it; the good news it was at least as beautiful as we remembered it.

Of course one of the reasons we love Rhodes is because there are cats everywhere

There were definitely a few bumps in the road (bumps in the Rhodes??) for us. First, when making the reservations for two rooms a couple months ago Mark made a mistake. He booked the first room (at Spirits of the Knight, a hotel we loved three years ago) just fine but then somehow booked the other room for a week earlier. They graciously canceled that early/erroneous reservation but didn’t have any rooms at all our first night. Instead we had to stay one night at a different hotel before moving to Spirits of the Knight the next day.

And then our arrival was all messed up. We’d arranged with our hotel to pick us up at the airport but they didn’t show up. Traffic, they said. So we took a taxi to the town gates where they were supposed to meet us because ordinary taxis can’t come into the old town. They didn’t show up there either. Very frustrating.

And then as though those annoyances weren’t enough we had more rain our first days than we’ve ever seen in Greece. OK, it seems as though it never rains at all in Greece though apparently the weather saves it all up for one huge burst. Over several hours it just poured, water running like a river down the cobbled streets as we tried in vain to avoid getting our feet soaked.

In other words Rhodes wasn’t perfect. It was damned good, though. The hotel we spent our first night – the oddly named In Camera Art Boutique Hotel – turned out to be even better than the Spirits of the Knight that we’d loved three years ago. They weren’t great at that whole “transfer from the airport” thing but we had a beautiful room. And even in the pouring rain the old town is simply beautiful, one of the best preserved medieval towns you’ll find anywhere in the world. In breaks in the weather we had opportunities to just wander, to walk at length in what was once something like a moat separating the town from the exterior walls, and to walk on top of the historic walls themselves.

There are some serious medieval remains here

Then there are two of the things we loved the most from three years ago. On our first visit we stumbled onto a dentist office just as it was time to get our teeth cleaned and thought he was really good. So this time we went back. The dentist, one Victor Panagiotakopoulos if you can believe that name, lived and studied for a while in the U.S. and just does a great job. I wonder if there are any other tourists in the world who look forward to going to Rhodes so we can get our teeth cleaned.

Mark and Victor Panagiotakopoulos, with Mark’s newly cleaned teeth

And finally there was one day at the beach. After some pretty intense thunderstorms the weather cleared for our last day so Mark & I headed to our favorite beach from our earlier visit and enjoyed it – and the little Greek taverna at one end of the beach – just as much as we remembered it. Bart & Ann wanted to go to something more remote (and they did) but we had such great memories of that urban pebbly beach with the diving platform that there was no way we would miss it on our one day of beach weather.

The diving platform anchored well offshore from our favorite beach. And just in case you don’t recognize me, yes that’s me mid-jump.

The three days went fast and then Bart & Ann were headed back to the States. This was our third stay with them during this adventure and they are just so easy and fun to travel with. It’s good enough that we ended it considering trying to schedule a bike trip next spring in Bart’s native Netherlands during tulip season. We’ll see.

Meanwhile Mark & I are off for a short stop in Athens before continuing on to Azerbaijan. I mean, who hasn’t always wanted to go to Baku?

One of the entryways into the old town

The narrow streets of the Rhodes

A view across the rooftops from the city walls

The main square during a downpour

Cats love Rhodes too

At the airport in Rhodes we saw this sign telling tourists that establishments are required to accept credit and debit cards and they don’t have to pay if they don’t get a receipt. Bart observed that this is probably a requirement of the European bailout of Greek debt, caused in no small part because of tax avoidance. Mark and I are always annoyed when restaurants claim their credit card system isn’t working, since we figure it’s just a way of avoiding the fees and/or taxes, so we liked this sign.

More beauty in the old town

Mark walked a long time in this area between the exterior walls and the old town. I was being lazy.

Eventually, yes, the sun came out

Feels very olde-fashioned, no?

The old town is chock-filled with great sights like this

And yes, cats

Flowers and beautiful architecture – we loved Strasbourg

I got a little behind here, apparently having too much fun to post pictures and so on. After our stops in Germany, though, we moved on to two two-night stays each in Strasbourg & Nancy, the major cities of the historic regions of Alsace and Lorraine, respectively.

Strasbourg was definitely the star of the show, simply one of the most beautiful cities anywhere. Just across the Rhein from Germany it has been a bridge between France & Germany for centuries, a fact reflected in the architecture, churches, and cuisine. The historic city center was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 1988, the first time an entire city center was so designated, and it sure seems to warrant the honor.

More of Strasbourg’s beauty

The city’s cathedral, Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, in its late-Gothic style is certainly the highlight. Topping out at 466 feet it claims to have been the world’s tallest building from 1647 to 1874, but my sense is that other buildings also claim to have been the tallest in that pre-modern period as well. It is pretty well documented, though, that it is the tallest building standing today built entirely in the Middle Ages.

Me and Mark with Mat outside Notre-Dame de Strasbourg

Awe-inspiring certainly describes the cathedral and for us it was particularly fun to watch Mat’s face as it came into view. We’ve seen a lot of these old cathedrals but if you’re from a small midwest city and haven’t been around the world a lot, it is pretty awesome. And of course if you can climb the spire you must, so we did. Great views and not really that hard.

Otherwise Strasbourg is just a fabulous city to walk around in. The canals and the flowers and the buildings are all just beautiful. The weather was perfect. There’s a great modern art museum If you walk just a little way out of the historic city you come to the European Parliament, right in the same area as the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. We found it poignant to be here while our President appears hell-bent on destroying all of it.

Outside the European Parliament. We think the world is a safer, better place when European countries collaborate rather than wage war. Apparently the President disagrees.

Strasbourg is definitely worth a longer stay, but as we knew Mat wanted to see lots of different things we stopped for only two nights before moving on to Nancy, the historic capital of Lorraine. I have to admit, after the beauty and excitement of Strasbourg, Nancy was something of a letdown. It is certainly beautiful, with the UNESCO-recognized Place Stanislaus, built in the 18th century by King Stanislaus of Poland who was also Duke of Lorraine, taking the place of honor. We had the disadvantage of arriving there on the holiday of the Feast of the Assumption which inexplicably means that nearly everything is closed. (I was reminded of our stop in Poitiers four years ago, now, when I needed to go to the emergency room on the Feast of the Assumption and got lousy service from the skeleton crew available. Note to self: avoid France on August 15!)

King Stanislaus of Poland, also Duke of Lorraine, stands in the center of Place Stanislaus. Strange to think of this very, very French city being ruled by a Polish king.

So after a fairly dull first day in Nancy we decided to take a day trip on our second to the nearby city of Metz, the modern capital of Lorraine. That worked out well; the train ride was, as always in Europe, gentle and relaxing. The city was interesting; the recently opened Pompidou Center-Metz, an extension of the major modern art museum in Paris, was fun to tour, and St. Stephen’s Cathedral was another stunner. The latter has the largest expanse of stained glass windows in the world, including not just glorious old windows but also windows by the modernist Marc Chagall. Impressive.

And then again, after just a two-night stop it was off again, this time to Paris.

Did I mention that I think Strasbourg is beautiful? Here it looks more French than German.

Mat discovering the beauty of an Aperol Spritz

Even the entry to our hotel was beautiful

Notre-Dame de Strasbourg

Imagine the terror of walking down the streets of Strasbourg, enjoying the flowers, and stumbling onto a crocodile!

Some of the ornate work inside Notre-Dame

Getting ready for a little lunch

Gustav Doré was a 19th century Strasbourg native, to whom a room in the modern art museum was dedicated. We both liked his stuff, particularly this Calvary scene.

And then there was this, umm, hunk of metal that spoke more to Mark than it did to me…

There was art out on the street, too

This spooky guy was looming over us at dinner one night

These flowers were all over Strasbourg

As we left Strasbourg, Mat wanted to leave ashes of his late brother Dexter in the canal. Dex died just a couple months ago and the wounds are still pretty raw so this was perhaps more powerful than the picture makes it look.

This is a view of Notre Dame de Strasbourg, with all its flying buttresses, on the climb up the bell tower.

Me, en route up to the top. We loved the way the stairs were almost out in the open.

The view of Strasbourg from way up high

Nancy is also important as the first time Mat tried steak tartare. He was an exceptionally adventurous eater, particularly for a 14-year-old. And he certainly seemed to enjoy this dish!

Mat & Mark outside the golden gates to Place Stanislaus in Nancy

More of Place Stanislaus

St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Metz, site of the world’s largest expanse of stained glass

You don’t see a lot of modern art stained glass windows in great cathedrals but here we have some Marc Chagall windows

And more modern art

Metz is also home to an extension of Paris’s Pompidou Center, the major modern art museum in France. One “piece” on display while we were there was the Dream Room, which was pretty dreamy.

Mat learned that he liked this kind of art

And the kind of art that consists of huge strands of spaghetti that you can walk through

Finally, Metz’s attractions included an area with all sorts of guys like this hanging out, just waiting to make friends