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?

Casablanca

The name Casablanca is so evocative - one of the most captivating films of all time. I suppose it was inevitable that our first stop in Morocco would be disappointing. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just a little bland, quite modern and huge – it’s Morocco’s biggest city. The only compelling sight is the imposing Hassan II Mosque, built alongside the sea. It’s the largest in the country, the world’s seventh biggest mosque and it took five years to complete; it was finished in 1993. The mosque’s minaret, at 210 metres high, is currently the world’s tallest, but that won’t last long. The Arabs are very competitive over their mosques and tall towers.

Also, alongside the port, the remains of Casablanca’s eighteenth-century fortifications - the sqala, And there's a vaguely atmospheric harbour area the French built Quartier Habous, with shops and eateries.

There's a medina, of course, leading from the bastion, with whitewashed crooked alleys, but it's nineteenth century, mainly residential and otherwise features glass fronted shops selling cheap clothes. It's not even very touristy. but I can still be a tourist and indulge in a little henna hand painting, before we move on. The painters are located in the famous main square of Casablanca, based originally on French colonial barracks and known officially as Mohammed V Square. It's more popularly known as 'Pigeons' Square', for obvious reasons. Well, we'll always have Paris.

Rabat, Capital of Morocco

I'm on a group 'adventure tour'. And our bus next travels up the coast, to the capital, Rabat. This was, for a time, the base of the notorious Sallee Rovers, who were corsairs. Rabat became the political capital by default, in 1913, during French occupation, as there wasn’t a capital at all at that time.

Although it's not really viewed as important as Casablanca, Rabat’s an old established city and there’s a much more appealing historic heart to explore on foot, the picturesque Kasbah des Oudaias fortress overlooking the water, the twelfth century Hassan Tower, the Mausoleum of Mohammed V (huge and white with a green tiled roof – the colour of Islam), and the Dar al-Makhzen, the king’s official residence, (they won’t even let you close enough to take a picture, unless it's one of the mounted guard.). The utterly charming blue and white painted houses are said to reflect an Andalusian influence.

Morocco - A Very Short History

  • Morocco has been inhabited since Paleolithic Era times and was incorporated into the Phoenician Empire, later followed by the Romans. The Vandals followed (being true to their name and destroying things) Vandals, before the Byzantine Empire interceded in the 6th century.
  • Then the region was conquered by the Muslims in the early eighth century, but broke away from the Umayyad Caliphate and the first Moroccan state was established by Idris I in 788. It has since been ruled by a series of independent dynasties, expanding at times (11th and 12th centuries) to include most of the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghreb.
  • Colonialism was a constant threat, as Morocco occupies a strategic position, at the mouth of the Mediterranean. Morocco was the only North African nation to escape Ottoman dominion. However, in 1912, France and Spain divided the country into respective protectorates, reserving an international zone in Tangier.
  • Morocco eventually regained independence in 1956, as a constitutional monarchy. Morocco’s current royal family, the Alaouites, dates from the 17th century. Mohamed VI has been King of Morocco since July 30, 1999.
  • Morocco also lays claim to the territory of Western Sahara. Spain decolonised the territory in 1975 and ceded its control to Morocco and Mauritania. This led to guerrilla war and in 1979, Mauritania relinquished its claim to the are. However, the war continues with local inhabitants determined to push for independence to rage. Today, Morocco occupies two-thirds of the territory, and both side remain in deadlock.
  • Morocco's long history and varied terrain result in a diverse identity with a vibrant mix of Berber, Arab, and European culture.

Volubilis, Roman Ruins in Morocco

History on board, we're heading east, to Volubilis, a partly excavated Berber/Carthaginian/Roman city, thought to be the ancient capital of Mauretania. The city was invaded by local tribes around 285 AD and never recaptured by the Romans, though it remained intact. It was finally destroyed by an earthquake in the mid eighteenth century. We don't linger. It's raining hard; the storks are melancholy, peering down from their nests atop the remaining pillars, and the mosaics have become small ponds.

Meknes

We take refuge in nearby Meknes, one of the four Imperial cities of Morocco (Rabat, Meknes, Marrakesh and Fez have all been capitals.) Meknes was Founded in the eleventh century by the Almoravids as a military settlement, and became the capital of Morocco under the reign of Sultan Moulay Ismaïl (1672–1727), son of the founder of the Alaouite dynasty. In those days Meknes had a massive palace complex together with extensive fortifications and monumental gates. His mausoleum remains there. Today, it's an adequate shelter against the rain.

Fez, Morocco

Fez el-bali (Old Fez) is the world’s largest active medieval city. It is refreshingly authentic and totally absorbing. As is common in these parts, the old city exists in close proximity to the new. This is one of the largest souks in the world, a fascinating labyrinth of mosques, cafes (lots of men drinking coffee and playing board games) and artisan districts. There are alleys crammed with weavers, carpets (of course), brass workshops, coppersmiths and tanners. The faithful duck through archways into minuscule mosques. There's also another King's Palace. You're allowed to take pictures of the doors on this one.

The tannery area is world renowned and ridiculously photogenic, from our lofty viewpoint. It’s like a huge white mancala board, though the depressions are filled with soaking leather rather than balls. The workers stand in the vats up to their waists as they wrestle with the steeping hides. Dyed skins of varying hues are draped up the edging walls. Although it’s aesthetically enthralling we can’t stay long. The stench is almost unbearable.

And the souk calls. We’re told this is the finest craft work in Morocco and thus encouraged, I acquire a beautifully painted orange and blue coffee table. It’s wrapped in brown paper and sits at the back of our bus. Several of us have also bought djellabas, the one-piece unisex, hooded, coverall garments that are Moroccan national costume. We’ve had a very touristy trying on ceremony in one of the shops, complete with sugary mint tea. (Other outfits were involved too.)

Dubbed Moroccan or ‘Berber whiskey’ tea has become the national drink of Morocco. It was introduced to Morocco in 1854 by blockaded British merchants. Seksou (couscous) is the national dish and we’ve already sampled plenty of this, served up in traditional pot tajines, with a rich meat and vegetable stew. Olives and dried fruit (apricots, prunes, dates) are usually also involved. There’s a huge variety of dates on offer on the street stalls here and the best are extraordinarily plump and delicious.

Merzouga, Morocco

Turning south, we climb steadily into the dramatic Berber country landscapes and fortresses of the Middle Atlas and on to the desert settlements of Erfoud and Merzouga. En route we take in a lively livestock market with sheep tethered head to head (who knew they would tessellate?) and sehirras (witches) dispensing curses and potions. Next, a carpet warehouse (more mint tea). There’s now a beautiful, brightly coloured rug rolled up, next to my table. Haggling involves parting with my watch.

Merzouga lies on the edge of Erg Chebbi, an area of truly spectacular high golden dunes. There are various 4WD trips on offer, but the huge crescent shaped ridges are begging to be climbed. It’s an inelegant scramble - but they are truly stunning. There’s an optional camel trek on offer, with camping in a traditional Berber-style tent. To my horror, everyone else in the group chooses to camp and it seems churlish to opt out.

I’m glad I’ve chosen to go. The camel ride into the dunes is amazingly serene. The camel saddle isn’t too uncomfortable, or the camel too badly behaved. And it helps to truly appreciate the vastness and splendour of the desert. Though I can’t get the theme from Lawrence of Arabia out of my head. I haven’t quite got Lawrence’s white flowing garb on, but my djellaba makes a brilliant riding outfit. Unfortunately, the long pointed hood turns out to be more Star Wars than French Lieutenant’s Woman, but I’m sure it will make a great dressing gown when I get home. The camping is all that I feared. It seems that the tent is optional too. After singing round the camp fire everyone sleeps under the stars. It’s far too cold to be romantic.

Todra Gorge and Skoura, the Palm Grove Capital of Morocco

Skirting the southern slopes of the Atlas, through rose growing country, and following the Road of a Thousand Kasbahs, a criss-cross of oasis towns and Berber villages surrounded by lush palmerie and olive groves . Along a narrow pass through the towering yellow ochre cliff walls of the Todra Gorges in the High atlas. These 40 kilometres of deep canyons were scoured out by the Todgha (Todra) and Dades Rivers.

Ait Benhaddou

Then west, to UNESCO classified Ait Benhaddou. It’s yet another breathtakingly photogenic site. The mud-brick built town nestling into the hillside, is studded with arches and crenelated towers. This fact has not gone unnoticed by the movie industry. Scenes from Gladiator, Jesus of Nazareth and Lawrence of Arabia were all filmed here. One of the small village houses – earth floors and chickens running round -- has a room dedicated solely to a signed portrait of Russell Crowe in his Roman costume.

Facts and Factoids

  • Morocco’s flag is red and green (traditional colours in Arab flags), with a pentacle which represents the five pillars of Islam.
  • One of the words for “money” in Morocco is wusakh d-dunya, or “dirt of the world.” Moroccan money is formally called the dirham (abbreviated DH), but it is commonly referred to as flous.
  • Morocco is one of the world’s largest producers of illicit cannabis. The word “reefer” derives from the word Rif, a northern area of the country.
  • Traditionally, the liver, not the heart, is considered to be the symbol of love in Morocco.

Essaouira, Morocco

Our westernmost stop, coastal Essaouira, features more charming blue and white houses. Perhaps because of the filming in the area Essaouira has been something of a celebrity hangout for some time. Orson Welles stayed here in the 1950s, Cat Stevens and Jimi Hendrix in the next decade and the inventor of the first pedestrian crossing light, Leslie Hore-Belisha, is buried in the Jewish cemetery. Maybe this is why the shops here in the old walled Medina are even more enticing. The local craftsmen have a deft and unique touch and it’s impossible to resist the delicate boxes and exquisite jewellery. The beach is pretty and the sunsets gorgeous.

Marrakesh

To be honest, Marrakesh (the Red City) is something of an anti-climax, after Fez and all the other stunning sights. It’s interesting, of course, but ultra-busy, with too many tourists and too much hassle. Would be guides trail you all the time.

There’s plenty to do. The medina (old town) is huge - it’s easy to get lost - and the riyadhs are elegant and shady. When I’m not in and out of the souk I manage to cram in the Koutoubia Mosque and its tower, the Saadian tombs, the Ben Youssef medersa, the Dar Si Said Palace (now the Museum of Moroccan Art), the The Bahia Palace ( mid to late 19th-century), the Menara Gardens, the Majorelle Gardens (designed by Yves San Laurent) and a visit to a traditional Hammam. (They are quite vicious with the exfoliation - it’s like being attacked with a Brillo pad.)

I mustn't forget to mention the Mamounia Hotel. This Five Star establishment is an institution boasting a host of celebrity guests: Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, Ronald Reagan, and Helmut Kohl to mention just a few. They like to quote Churchill, who apparently said “This is a wonderful place, and the hotel one of the best I have ever used.” He had good taste. It's a relaxing place to sit by the pool (striped awnings) or sip a cocktail in the ultra smart bar, if you don't mind the hole in your wallet.

The best option, in Marrakesh, I discover, is to find a roof top café and look down on the Djemma-el-Fna (huge main square), watching all the street food vendors, storytellers, musicians, jugglers, acrobats, snake charmers and clowns. It’s far more relaxing up top, and in any case, no-one will let you near their act in the square, particularly if you have a camera, unless you’re paying up front - especially the snake charmers.

There’s just time for a final shopping flurry. A last purchase is a huge copper lamp. It’s been an expensive trip. And it’s a good job that Royal Air Maroc are so relaxed about carry-on luggage and baggage allowance. My newspaper covered lamp sits in the overhead bin and the rug sails happily into the hold, stuffed inside my table.

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