New Seven Wonders - Cities

Recently, I've been obsessed with bucket lists and whether or not I agree with the findings of votes (or committees) who decide what goes on these rolls of honour. When I was looking at The Seven Wonders of the World, the 'New Seven Wonders - Cities' list caught my attention. The Swiss Foundation managed vote suggested: Durban, South Africa, Vigan (Philippines), Havana (Cuba), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Beirut (Lebanon), Doha (Qatar), La Paz (Bolivia).

This is a weird and eclectic collection. Maybe it's designed to be alternative. They're all interesting cities. Well, nearly all. Durban I just don't get. Nice beaches, theme parks and a lot of crime. Though it has been renovated, since I was there, in 2003. Give me Cape Town any time. Vigan's a gorgeous colonial city, but there are plenty of those, especially in Latin America. I'm not sure it stands out.

Havana has colonial architecture and more modern communist era buildings. And that mid last century vibe. La Paz: witch's market, colonial architecture and that wonderful gondola transport system. Beirut: 'The 'Paris of the East', a mix of religious buildings, pavement cafes and a pretty corniche. But lots of renovation, still ongoing, to repair war damage. Doha - ultra modern, with a tiny old souq and falconry area. I'll take Abu Dhabi instead. (Dubai is too large and artificial.) Kuala Lumpur, again a mix of colonial and modern. But, it's not my favourite Asian city.

What criteria do you use to choose a favourite (or Bucket List) city? I suppose for me its a mixture of beauty - aesthetic appeal, general vibe, interesting things to do and see (galleries, unusual buildings, monuments, sculptures, living history and lovely things to eat.

Here's my list. There's no way I can stick to just seven, so I've come up with a cunning plan. I'm going to incorporate the latest fashion for dupes, or duplicates (usually at lower cost). The idea annoys me instantly, of course, Not least as it's a silly word which implies you've fallen for some con trick. No place has a duplicate. But some are more similar than others...

Beautiful Cities - Venice

Let's start with beauty. It might be a cliche, but it has to be Venice. It wasn't love at first time. The first visit was classically crowded and smelly. But the second time I went, in the Time of Covid, Venice was bereft of tourists. I actually got to see what the city looked like. It was utterly gorgeous, sublime, despite the ghoulish Don't Look Now images, which intrude, as I wander the canals. There's absolutely no duplicate for Venice, but there's always Florence (or Bologna, or Milan, or the cities of Sicily. Not to mention Rome.

Feasts of European Architecture - Vienna (Budapest and Prague)

Staying with European cities which are historically and architecturally interesting. All of the European capitals (and many other cities, such as Munich) warrant a visit. but three cities on rivers stand out here, the first two, on the Danube. It's hard to beat Vienna, the capital of Austria, if you like somewhere stylish to wander around. Baroque buildings, palaces, museums and gardens to admire, The Prater Park (Harry Lime on the wheel) and a plethora of coffee shops. And nip up the Danube, in a boat, to Bratislava, a pocket city that's a mini Vienna, just over the border, in Slovakia. Two for the price of one.

Further east on the Danube, Budapest, capital of Hungary, makes for a great stay, with the old and new cities, again plenty of interesting architecture, (Disneyesque crenellations), vibrant edgy quarters and lovely food.

Prague, capital of Czechia, is closer to Bratislava (for some time they were in the same country) but it's on the Vltava River. The waterway divides the city, as it does in Budapest and again it's a veritable feast of architecture, right through to modern day and The Dancing House, castles, museums and eateries.

Colonial Cities - Cartagena, (St Louis, Granada, Antigua, Willemstad)

Further afield, but still with architecture, it's generally the Spanish colonial cities, which delight the eye. Cartagena in Colombia, has to take the crown. But sadly it's on the cruise circuit and the streets are too often too crowded to properly enjoy. Otherwise, head to Latin America. Granada, in Nicaragua is gorgeous (thrown in Leon too), Antigua in Guatemala (not the island) is another strong contender (go during Easter week for the celebrations and carpets of flowers). I've already mentioned Havana and Vigan.

French colonial atmosphere - try the Caribbean or Vietnam. But it's strong in Africa, perhaps most notable in Saint Louis, in Senegal, the old capital of French West Africa. It's a satisfying contrast, to the bush and rainforest, with its shabby chic and overflowing markets. My other pick is Willemstad, in Curacao, for its (almost toy town) clusters of bright pastel painted Dutch colonial houses.

All of these cities are on the UNESCO World Heritage list, except for Granada, which has been hovering on the tentative list, since 2003

Culturally Enchanting Cities - Samarkand (Esfahan, Varanasi, Fez)

Cities which draw you into their culture through their beauty and ambience are perhaps my favourite. I've chosen Samarkand, in Uzbekistan. The Registan ensemble of Islamic buildings is an absolute must see. It's also home to other glorious mosques and complexes, as well as ancient Samarkand. (Don't miss Bukhara and Khiva while you're there.)

Esfahan, in Iran, offers a very different Islamic experience, with its souks, palaces, squares and amazing domes. Fez, in Morocco, has one of the most authentic and winding souks in the Arab world, though the sour smell (some would say stink), in the world renowned tanneries may prevent you from staying in that section overlong.

For an unforgettable spiritual experience, then it's Varanasi. Like much of India, it's uncomfortably crowded, dirty and overwhelming at times. But take a boat trip on the Ganges, watch the hugely spiritual cremation ceremonies on the ghats, take in the astonishing light, at dawn or dusk, and listen to the inspiring music.

Cities With Beautiful Settings - Cape Town, (Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, Vancouver, San Francisco, Tel Aviv)

CIties voted to have the most beautiful setting almost inevitably have natural harbours. Cape Town, South Africa, Sydney, Australia, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Vancouver, Canada, and San Francisco, U.S.A, all qualify here. And they all regularly feature on best city lists and best places in the world to live.

Except for maybe Cape Town, as South Africa still has a reputation for crime and violence. But I'm still going to make it my number one. The beaches are gorgeous, the food and architecture are great, there's a huge amount to see in the vicinity, from wildlife to wine estates, the view of the Twelve Apostles backdrop is stunning and Table Mountain is iconic, from above, or below.

I'm also going to sneak in Tel Aviv-Yafo. It may not have the same mountain scenery, and only a small harbour, but The Big Orange, in Israel, has a long string of lovely beaches, the old city at Yafo (Jaffa) and plenty of cafes, museums and an extraordinary amount of Bauhaus architecture, in The White City area, to explore.

Mega Cities - New York (Chicago, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Singapore)

And then there are the mega cities, the ones which offer history, diversity and an endless list of sights and experiences and one visit just won't do. New York often tops best city in the world lists for good reason. We get to interact with all those landmarks we've seen on TV. And there are some great panoramas and fabulous restaurants. Though I've never rated the shopping.

Chicago is another close contender, with its 1930s vibe. Further south, Buenos Aires is another city you can walk for days, taking in the barrios from up market Palermo to La Boca, home of the tango.

Istanbul is mostly in Europe (it's the largest city of that continent), but it spills over the Bosphorus into Asia, making it unique and exciting. And Singapore, the city state, which continually reinvents itself: China Town, Little India, The Bay Gardens. It's one huge theme park. I'm not sure if I like it, but there's plenty to do.

The City That Has it All - London

So many contenders. Ghent, in Belgium, some of the Dutch cities. I really wanted to include Lisbon (and Porto). You may have noticed that I've missed out Paris. It's undoubtedly a lovely city, in parts, but its also very one dimensional and urban in other areas. Romantic? I'm not sure. And I've never had a good meal there. I think it's had very good PR.

But one city has to get the final mention and that's London. The place of my birth frequently tops polls for best city in the world, and with reason. It's historic, once the largest city on earth, vibrant, hugely diverse, both in terms of population and architecture and city areas. The food is great (if expensive) and you never run out of new things to see and do. And, apologies, that makes eight.

What would your Cities of the World Bucket List be?

Colombia?

Colombia, I’m told, is now more peaceable than it was and safe to visit. Well, most of it. And it’s a big country. I'm supposed to be on a group tour of Colombia for two weeks, but there is only one other person in my group. Richard is clearly somewhere on the autistic spectrum and it's like travelling with a very self centred demanding child. I think he's also gay. This is not going to be a romantic liaison.

I got here (to encouragingly named El Dorado Airport) via Madrid and I’ve been trying to spot the drug cartel mobsters on the plane. The glitzy ones up front I assume. I was assured that Colombia is much safer nowadays and is gearing up for tourism. That might be true and there is certainly a lot of restoration, but I’ve already seen a knife fight in the road (from the safety of a car) and been warned not to walk round Bogota on my own (great when I’m travelling alone - as I don't think I can count Richard). Apparently, muggings are almost a given in certain areas.

Colombia, the Gateway to South America - in a Nutshell

  • Colombia has territories in North and South America, as it stretches into the Isthmus of Panama, the land bridge joining the two continents. This was the only route south, so, as a result Colombia has a very diverse population. Colombia has been inhabited by various indigenous peoples, since at least 12,000 BC. Today’s heritage reflects various Amerindian civilisations, European settlement, forced African labour, as well as immigration from Europe and the Middle East
  • Colombia is named after Christopher Columbus, who ’discovered South America’. Colombia was initially intended to refer to the whole of the New World. The area now called the Republic of Colombia was known as New Granada, when it first became independent.
  • Colombia achieved independence under the renowned Simon Bolivar, who was the country's first president and is much venerated. But the years since then have been plagued by various forms of civil war. American influence led to the secession of the department of Panama, which became a country in its own right. (The Americans wanted to build the Panama Canal). Internal conflict then became more centred around the drug cartels, who were more firmly established in the last decades of the twentieth century.
  • Colombia has the second-highest level of biodiversity in the world, with areas of Amazon rainforest, mountains grasslands and deserts. It is the only country in South America with coastlines and islands along both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Wow.

Bogota, Capital of Colombia

New Year in Bogota

Bogota, the capital of Colombia, is a pleasant surprise though; a strange juxtaposition of old and new. My hotel is in colonial La Candelaria, all cobbles and red tiles, interspersed with plate glass for optimum views. Bogotá was originally founded as the capital of the New Kingdom of Granada in 1538, by Spanish conquistador de Quesada.

The main square, Plaza de Bolivar, celebrates the Great Emancipator. Around it, are the Palacio de Justicia, the Mayor of Bogotá’s offices, the oldest school in the country and the Casa de los Comuneros, named after the leaders who began the movement towards independence from Spain.

Fernando Botero Angulo who was born in Medellín has a dedicated gallery. His signature satirical style, mainly consists of people with generous proportions, and is known as "Boterismo". Zona G is for eating ( Zona Gourmet) and the Zona Rosa (or T) is for shopping centres, pubs, cafes, fashion boutiques, jewellery stores and night time entertainment. There is also a feast of museums: emerald, gold (astonishing with a permanent exhibition of some 32,000 pieces of gold, 20,000 stones, ceramics and textiles), churches (of course) and a rainbow of street art.

Montserrate

And a funicular up sacred Montserrate - I've been told not go to to the bottom of the lift area on my own - and especially not at night. The sunmit rises 10, 000 feet over Bogotá, Up top, are beautiful mountain views across the Andes, as well as those back across down town. And the winding paths lead to a church (built in the seventeenth century), with a shrine, devoted to El Señor Caído ("The Fallen Lord"). The track is edged with illuminated sculptures - this is how the Colombians celebrate Christmas and New Year,

Salt Mine Cathedral - Zipaquera

Now, I'm off exploring Colombia. Our first stop is a visit to a very new, huge, cathedral, carved out of the tunnels of a salt mine 200 metres underground in a halite mountain. This is the Colombian attempt to rival Poland. The name Zipaquirá refers to Zipa, the leader of the Muisca tribe and the chief of these rich salt mines. The bottom part has three sections, representing the birth, life, and death of Jesus. The icons, ornaments and architectural details are hand carved in the halite rock.

There are some interesting illuminations, but for me, this place is totally devoid of any spirituality. Apparently, the cathedral is a functioning church but it has no bishop and therefore no official status as a cathedral. Perhaps that explains it. There is more atmosphere on the roads, where the holiday traffic is terrible and the driving manic.

Villa de Leyvva, Colonial Colombia

Through pea green cattle country, to the dry glowing aridity of mountains and restored whitewashed towns, like Villa de Leyva. Located away from major trade routes, in a high altitude valley of semi-desert terrain, and with no mineral deposits nearby to exploit, Villa de Leyva has undergone little development in the last 400 years. As a consequence, it is one of the few towns in Colombia to have preserved much of its original colonial style and architecture. The streets and large central plaza are still paved with cobblestones, and many buildings date from the sixteenth century. There are museums dedicated to battles for independence from Spain and statues of Simon Bolivar.

Everyone thinks I'm married to Richard so I'm hastening to put them right. His laptop screen has been damaged and it is all he has talked about for the last three days.

Valle de Cocora

The next destination, driving from Bogota, is the Valle de Cocora. It's located in the central mountains of the  Parque Nacional de los Nevados and the home of the “Quindian wax palm”. This is the national tree of Colombia.  A wander is scheduled, so that we can marvel at the palms, but Richard has heard that there is rare bird life. So, we have to wait while he lugs his huge tripod with him, along the narrow muddy tracks. beside the river. Some of the trees reach a staggering 60 metres. But there's not a bird in sight.

Colombia Coffee Country

New Year is to be spent high in the mountains in the coffee region of Colombia. We're visiting the traditional towns of Salento ( Plaza de Bolívar with vividly painted balconies, handicrafts shops and a Cocora viewpoint) and Filandia (Plaza de Bolivar, coffee shops. viewpoint, colonial homes and viewpoint). I detest coffee, so I'm not participating in plantation tours. But the views (from the many viewpoints) are gorgeous and the villages here are more colourful and Caribbean in style. I think. I can’t see very well as the streets are piled high with bodies; the locals clearly enjoy a New Year drink.

The Colombian people are incredibly friendly (those that don’t want to rob you or run a cartel anyway). The hotels so far have been very atmospheric, although the plumbing is creaky. I'm in a beautiful old bougainvillea covered hacienda today, tiny vermilion birds zipping across the swimming pool. And a maintenance man has just walked along my veranda, carrying a sink pedestal.

An interesting last night in coffee country, as I find myself eyeballing a cockroach on my bedside table. I try to spend the rest of the night with all of me, including my head, well tucked under the sheet.

Getting to Pasto

A flight – business class this time – I assume cattle class is full – to Pasto for the Blancos y Negros carnival. Made even more interesting, as the baggage truck servicing our plane catches fire. First of all, they try to put it out by swatting at it and then they find some small extinguishers. These still don’t dampen it down fully and flames keep licking up again; a fire engine arrives ten minutes later and sorts it out. No-one thinks to move it away from the plane. Thank goodness, the bags are already loaded.

Pasto, Carnival in Colombia

In Pasto (in the south of Colombia) for four nights, my ‘small group tour’ gets really interesting. The itinerary bears little relation to the original programme I was given. We have now been included in a group with over 40 Colombian tourists. We have our own very helpful guide, who promptly goes sick, to be replaced by another, who is also lovely, but very young and inexperienced.

Initially, we are transported on a large bus, with the other tourists too (and told that our next transfer will be on a public bus) but I protest and we get our own car. Nevertheless, we still have to wait and do everything with the whole group and eat mass produced tourist food with them, which rather defeats the idea of small group travelling. My hotel room has no window - just a skylight. It's above the kitchen, which runs every machine known to man, from six in the morning till 10 at night. Then, my new 21 year old guide tells me I must have been very beautiful when I was younger. I'm confused. Is this an insult or a compliment?

On the plus side, the carnival is amazing - fabulous colour and music. It is obligatory to wear ponchos, paint your face and indulge in foam fights using giant aerosols. Unfortunately, Richard takes to this rather too enthusiastically and provokes large numbers of locals by squirting at them. Consequently, I spend rather too much time trying to escape the inevitable retaliation. We visit twice. The first procession celebrates Familia Castañeda, who journeyed to the Sanctuary of Nuestra Señora of Las Lajas (see below). The procession of the master artefact makers, on the last day, takes four hours to go past.

Laguna de la Cocha

In addition, we get to do several things that aren't even mentioned on the programme - like a visit to a lake high in the mountains. This is Laguna de la Cocha or Lake Guamuez. There's a boardwalk alongside a little port, with picturesque bridges and traditional wooden houses with flowers trailing from the balconies. And gardens with guinea pig farms.

Then, a boat trip from Isla Larga with with its floating trout hatcheries, to the tiny Sanctuary of Flora and Fauna, on the island of La Corota, where we tramp in single file along the circular trail.

Sanctuary of Nuestra Señora of Las Lajas

Next surprise event, an excursion to a church built into the rock in a canyon of the Guáitara River - the Sanctuary of Nuestra Señora of Las Lajas. (It's lit up at night, when it's a little gaudy). According to my Columbian guides, it is classified as the second wonder of Colombia and was designated the most beautiful temple in the world in 2015 by The Telegraph. Really?

This is a very popular pilgrimage site, for Christians from both Colombia and neighbouring Ecuador (as I'm about to discover), due to a purported apparition of the Virgin Mary here in 1754. Amerindian Maria Meneses de Quiñones and her deaf-mute daughter Rosa were caught in a very strong storm and sought refuge between the gigantic Lajas (slabs of stone). Rosa then saw a lightning-illuminated silhouette of Mary over the laja. As if this wasn't enough, a brightly coloured image of the Virgin, appeared inset in the wall of stone. There was no explanation and it is believed to have been created by divine intervention.

I can't decide whether this story or the Telegraph claim is the most credible. But the site is crowded with happy pilgrims.

Tulcán Municipal Cemetery - in Ecuador

The sanctuary visit is part of a side trip to a cemetery in Ecuador, which is fun, but a surprise to say the least.

Ecuador? We just sail over the border from Colombia, no passports required.

A cemetery? Well, it’s a very grand and elaborate one.

The caretaker, Josè Maria Azael Franco, in charge of Tulcán Municipal cemetery, took his work very seriously and created ‘a jaw-dropping topiary wonderland'. Huge marble tombs surrounded by amazingly intricate clipped hedge figures, cascades and statues. Franco died in 1985 and is buried, fittingly, in the cemetery. As he said, 'it's a place, so beautiful, it invites one to die.'

The scenery on the journey is extraordinarily beautiful, This area is known as "Tapiz de Retazos” (the Patchwork of Tapestry). There's a song about it. Most of Colombia is stretched across the Andes. This also means that I'm gasping for breath every time I go up a flight of steps.

Food in Colombia

The food in Colombia is an education. Nearly everything comes with queso - cheese - including the fruit, (especially bananas) and the delicious flat doughnuts. The specialty around Pasto is cuy - roast Guinea pig. We have been made to pay for lunch, which was supposed to be included and we have been given several lunches we didn't expect. Twice, we have been told that dinner was paid for - to my surprise - only to be told it wasn't, after we ordered it. Glorious confusion!

Getting to Popayan

The transfer to Popayan is fraught. We are told we will leave at seven, as it is a long drive. That gets changed to eight as the driver is wanted elsewhere first. He eventually turns up late, in a tiny car. It’s a real battle to get all four of us in, with our luggage (the driver and the guide don’t have any). I reflect that the public bus might have been more comfortable after all.

Imagine my astonishment, when we finally arrive in Popayan, after a six hour drive, to be asked where we want to stay. The guide insists that no accommodation has been booked and that we have to choose. I indicate our programme and the hotel listed therein. So we drive to that establishment. The guide goes in and returns shortly to say they are full. I ask has he checked for our names and he insists adamantly that he has.

The Tour of Popayan

We chase round town for half an hour, trying to find a hotel that isn't full and end up in a very nice five star place. We check in there and get settled in, only to then be told by the guide, that we should pay for this ourselves. I explain again that we have already paid for a hotel and will not be paying again, if someone has made a mistake. Many phone calls follow and a great deal of wasted time. It transpires of course that we had been booked in at the first hotel all the time. Our guide had just asked for vacant rooms when he called in. There aren’t any, as we have already booked them.

So, we have to do the walk of shame, out of the very nice hotel, receiving pitying glances from the porters, to this one, where the receptionist is rude and the walls stink of paint and only the worst rooms are left. It is now late and it is also bucketing with rain. The driver takes us up the hill to see the view, which of course we can’t see at all. And that is the whole of our tour of Popayan - which is reputed to be gorgeous.

A Night in Popayan

I spend the night without water in the basin and no hot water in the shower and no one prepared, or able to do anything about it. Our packed breakfast is one chopped up mango. I want to use Google Translate to complain to the staff on duty, but I can’t, as Richard is using it, to obsess over the lack of an f on the Spanish keyboard. The guy at the desk laughs when I eventually get to ask for a refund. 'We have your money - you're not getting it back'.

I have only a little Spanish - though enough to understand the driver moaning that he won’t get a tip because I am a typical woman, upset about a little hassle. So he doesn’t get one!

I’m now stuck at the airport in Popayan, ironically because of the bad weather. It seems that virtually all the planes on the country are grounded. Bogota airport is on the news, so we may be here sometime and will almost certainly miss the connection to Cartagena. In the end, we arrive just in time to make the original connection, but they insist we wait for the next flight. Another two hours at the airport. I hate Colombia today!!!!

Cartagena, The Jewel of Colombia

We eventually arrive in Cartagena and this mellow colonial city is beautiful. Cartagena is often referred to as the jewel of Colombia. Colourful houses with bougainvillea spattered balconies, countless battered churches in the old walled town, oodles of atmosphere. (Though it’s swarming with tourists and beastly hot.) San Felipe fortress, on San Lázaro Hill, was built in honour of Don Luis Carlos López, the poet from Cartagena, who wrote about the city. But its main purpose was to defend the city from pirate attacks. There are plenty of tunnels, passageways and guns.

The Ciudad Vieja (Old City) is the famous and picturesque part of Cartagena, with its Convent and Church of the San Pedro Claver compound. The Bovedas is the handicraft zone, a collection of archways built into the city wall, originally used to house armaments and then later as a prison. Nowadays, it’s beloved by the cruise ships.

My hotel has a terrace with views out over the old walls and huge plaza. Me encanta Cartagena! It’s a good way to finish an adventure. Before I take the plane to the Bahamas.

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