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?

Ometepe, Nicaragua

Crossing the border from Costa Rica into Nicaragua this morning. Our tour vehicle now, is an old yellow, American school bus. Ashort drive brings my tour group to San Jorge, on the shore of Lake Nicaragua (or Cocibolca). This is the departure point for ferries to Ometepe Island. The name Ometepe means 'two hills” and as the ferry (complete with beer, dispensed by the captain while his mate steers, and hammocks) draws near, we get an increasingly clear view of the two volcanoes connected by an isthmus. Two perfect cones, Little and Large (or Concepción and Maderas).

Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in Central America and highly polluted, with sewage, but still home to numerous fish species. Even sharks live here. It was first thought this was a freshwater species, but zoologists later discovered that the sharks travel to and from the lake, to the sea, using the river system and jumping the rapids, like salmon.

We have free time to explore on our own. This involves searching out pre-Colombian petroglyphs, carved by the indigenous people, visiting the Charco Verde Nature Reserve and scouring the canopy for howler and capuchin monkeys, parrots, sloths and hawks or lounging on the black sand beaches, drinking in the stunning views across the lake.

Artistry in Action

It’s come to our attention that passenger Artist has been concerned that sometimes her room is inferior to those allocated to others. My rooms have been bit hit or miss, but it seems to come out evens overall. Artist is less sure and it appears that she has been hijacking Leon and demanding he show her the rooms before the keys are issued, so she can have first pick. Naturally, there is a furore at this news and Leon is beginning to look a little pale.

Facts and Factoids

  • Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America.
  • Nicaragua has 19 volcanos - seven of them are still currently active.
  • Around 18% of the country’s total land mass has been dedicated to 78 national parks and protected areas. Nicaragua has the second largest rainforest in the Americas (the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve), after the Amazon rainforest.
  • So it's not surprising that Nicaragua is growing increasingly important, as a tourist destination.
  • The national dish of Nicaragua is Gallo Pinto - the traditional dish of rice and beans. (Gallo Pinto translates to spotted rooster, representing the dark beans against the white rice.)
  • Nicaragua is one of five countries in the world where abortion is illegal, with no exceptions.

Granada, Nicaragua

We return by boat to San Jorge, this morning and from there drive to Granada. This is an atmospheric and colourful gem, situated at the foot of Mombacho Volcano, on the northwest shore of Lake Nicaragua. It was the first Spanish colonial city in Nicaragua, founded in 1524 by the conquistador Hernandez de Cordoba and named after the Spanish city.

We are indulged with a walking tour of the baroque and renaissance buildings (mainly churches of course). The red and yellow cathedral towers above the city and the bell tower of the Iglesia Nuestra Señora de Las Mercedes, has to be climbed, for its views across town, where we can see the cathedral..

We also fit in visits to the Parque Central, the monument to the war of independence, the plaza and the convent of San Francisco. Perhaps surprisingly, the convent is home to a large collection of native American stone sculptures. And then, we are taken to a tobacco factory, to see the giant local cigars being produced.

There are myriad narrow lanes and alleyways, cobbled streets, horse carts galore. This is Leon’s home town and he disappears for a well-earned day off. It is a marathon tour and just getting us all through the border posts and check points (official and unofficial)is a major endeavour. So, today, we are led languidly by a Frenchman, Pierre, who is so laid back he is horizontal.

Our hotel is a delightful colonial palace on the corner of the main square. You can see the whole world clatter by in horse-drawn carriages, from the terrace bar. Much better than Starbucks.

Las Isletas

Then, I take to Lake Nicaragua again. Las Isletas are a cluster of 365 (that number again) tiny islands in the shadow of Mombacho. The boat nips us past holiday homes. more howler and capuchin monkeys, parrots and local fishermen, casting their nets.

The lake has also been at the centre of politics. According to some sources, a trans American canal would actually have been cheaper and easier via Lake Nicaragua, - less actual land to dig out. It was seriously considered (see Panama). But the Americans were hand in glove with Panama and not at all keen on the plans. One of the reasons they supported Ortega and other opposition against the Sandinistas.

Masaya Volcano, Nicaragua National Park

We set off for the old colonial capital of Leon, via the market town of Masaya (and its attendant volcano). Masaya is Nicaragua's first National Park. It includes two volcanoes (one the most active in the country) and five craters and glowing lava is promised, though it does not materialise. We have to be content with lava tubes and a steepish climb, up steps. Up top, the caldera belches smoke and gas. The absence of trees on the slopes of the mountain provides 360 degree views of the area. The car park, where we have left the bus has signs that read: ‘Park your vehicle facing the exit’

A Brief History of Nicaragua

  • Nicaragua remained in the Spanish Empire, as part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, until attaining independence, initially as part of the First Mexican Empire, along with the other Central American countries: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica. (That only lasted two years.) This was followed by membership in the Federal Republic of Central America (the same five Central American countries and parts of southern Mexico) Nicaragua definitively became an independent republic in 1838.
  • Since Nicaraguan independence, politics has been fiery and government contested for much of the time, with several coups and military dictatorships. The USA has been heavily involved and actually occupied the country from 1909-1933. They were particularly concerned to oppose the building of a Nicaraguan Canal to oppose the Panama Canal. The overlapping Somoza regime (dictatorship) lasted until 1979. This overlapped, in its turn, with the Nicaraguan Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, which led into the Contra War of the 1980s. The USA continued to be heavily involved, at one point illegally supporting the Contra rebels, fighting against the left wing Sandinistas regime. Both sides were accused of human rights violations, murder, torture, rape and mass executions. 30,000 were killed. The Sandinistas, despite further accusations of sham democracy, are still in power, with Ortega, the president, in his third term.

Managua and Leon

Next, the current Nicaraguan capital of Managua. We’re told there will be a short tour to see Managua's ‘curious, if somewhat unorthodox, charm’. This rings alarm bells and fortunately, the trip doesn’t last long. Managua was badly damaged in the 1972 earthquake, and is still, gradually, being rebuilt. There isn't much to see. except for the shell of the cathedral.

Leon, however, lies in the shadow of the Cordillera de los Maribios Mountains. It is today considered the intellectual centre of Nicaragua. It was the capital for 200 years. It’s also the namesake of our guide, who is today complaining of nausea and stomach pains.

Yet another walking tour, yet another Plaza del las Armas, yet another cathedral (arguably the largest in Central America and a UNESCO heritage site). There's also the Sandinista Murals. The city of Leon was home to the revolution that shaped Nicaragua's future. Since then it has played a crucial part in the social and political history of the country. It’s an interesting account of the country's turbulent history and a thoughtful counterpoint to the friendly welcome of the people.

Next day, we're off north, over the border. Or we try to. Eventually, we realise that our late departure is due to the absence of our guide. The driver makes umpteen phone calls and finally announces that Leon has been taken into hospital with stress. Pierre has been summoned to act as replacement, but he will be some time.

When we reconvene, three hours later, it is apparent that Pierre is still suffering from the after effects of indulging in some kind of recreational experimentation with plants or chemicals. Horizontal mode is more or less permanent for the rest of the day.

Next stop, Honduras.

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