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?

Train to Prague

The scenery changes immediately as my train from Cologne via Berlin goes over the border from Germany. Dramatic limestone gorges, red roofed farmhouses with decorated bohemian roofs crumbling plaster and plenty of small turrets, chugging alongside the Elbe River, upstream to the Vltava at Prague. I'm hearing Smetana in my head - his Moldau Symphony is based on this river. There are smoking glass factories - well this is Bohemia. And it's raining. The train has changed too, but that happened at Berlin. It looks quite like an old suburban English train no frills and abundant amounts of plastic.

The Covid rules have also changed at the border. No masks required, unless I go to the doctor or ride the metro. It’s a relief, but it’s also bonkers. These countries are all in the Schengen Zone, so people move freely between them.

Prague

Prague, previously the capital of Czechoslovakia, now the capital of Czechia, is known as the 'City of a Hundred Spires'. But it's been an important city in central Europe for a long time. In the Middle Ages it was the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia and residence of several Holy Roman Emperors, most notably Charles IV. Last time I was in Prague, I was on my ‘When the Wall Came Down’ trip, with friend Jenny. We stayed with some relations of Jenny - they were poor, the economy was stressed, Lech Walesa was newly in power, living in a very small flat to set a good example and everyone was still very Stasi conscious.

I remember Prague, as a gorgeous city, with a lot of tea shops. It is now glorious, beautifully renovated; the embryonic café culture has evolved considerably. The tea shops on the arcades around its Old Town Square, the heart of its historic core, have expanded, with canopies, umbrellas and outdoor seating. It's very smart.

And in 1992 the old town part of Prague was included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. There are also plenty of museums and numerous theatres, galleries, cinemas, and other historical exhibits. Charles University, here, is the oldest university in Central Europe.

Exploring Prague

The tourist board are trying to incentivise visitors again, post Covid. I'm not sure why, as it seems pretty busy to me. They have handed out free entrance vouchers to various attractions. There are already numerous tourists admiring the famous medieval Astronomical Clock, just off the Old Town Square, which gives an animated hourly show. They move on to stroll across the  pedestrian Charles Bridge,  crossing the Vltava, lined with statues of Catholic saints, and ogle the turrets beyond. 

Prague Castle

I have four points to spend, so I'm heading for Prague Castle, the largest ancient castle in the world. It covers an area bigger than seven football fields combined. It's on the other side of the bridge from the Old Town, above what's known as Lesser Town. It's also at the top of a huge number of steps. Prague Castle is also UNESCO recognised. Parts of this onion domed complex date back to the ninth century and it was home to the kings of Bohemia, some Holy Roman Emperors and the presidents of Czechoslovakia. Today, it's the official seat of the President of Czechia. The area round the castle is known as Hradčany.

Needless to say, there is much to admire and several different types of ticket available, depending on the number of attractions: palaces, halls, museums, churches, chapels, towers and gardens you want to visit. My free ticket, is of course the basic one. but that's still a lot of ground to cover. There's even Golden Lane. a street of reconstructed shops and houses, which is free of course. The shelves are crammed with tourist souvenirs for sale.

Architecture in Prague

Prague’s textbook architecture, has been renovated and supplemented. It’s an incredible and eclectic mix:

Romanesque

St George’s Basilica, one of the earliest buildings, inside the castle complex is ornate on the outside, simple inside. The best, but by no means the only example of Romanesque architecture. The round arches, thick walls, groin vaults and rotunda are to be found in several churches. Saint Martin at Vysehrad, has the oldest rotunda in Prague.

Gothic

Well where do I begin with Gothic architecture? The myriad turrets, and spires on the churches and St Vitus Cathedral are sublime. The cathedral is just down the hill from the castle. It is the biggest church in Prague, home to the tombs of the Bohemian kings and their crown jewels. There's also a statue of Saint Wenceslas (amongst many other sculptures and paintings).

The AltNeuschul (Old-New Synagogue) with its stepped gable, is Europe's oldest active synagogue. Completed in 1270 , it was one of Prague's first gothic buildings. The Charles Bridge with its statues and tower gates is justly famous. And the church of Our Lady Before Tyn in the Old Market Square, with its twin towers, is simply stunning, to my mind the most impressive of them all. There are captivating churches and towers dotted all over the city. Straight out of Grimm’s fairy tales. My free tickets cover scrambles up the bridge towers, for the views.

Renaissance

Renaissance flourishes, (arches , columns and statues) are found on buildings and part buildings, linking the Gothic to the Baroque, especially in the Castle area, and in Lesser town, where there are many Renaissance burghers' houses, mixed in with the baroque palaces, narrow lanes and spacious squares. A gorgeous example in the Old Town is the House at the Minute, part of the Old Town Hall Complex. The facade isdecorated with sgraffito and depicts scenes from biblical and mythological sources, as well as contemporary Renaissance legends. Franz Kafka lived here with his parents lived from 1889 to 1896. And there's even some Neo Renaissance in the form of the Navrodni Palace, built to house the National Museum.

Baroque

Most of the Old Town is built in baroque style, with scrolls, flowers, frescoes and every embellishment you could imagine. There are several synagogues too, mostly in the Jewish Quarter, and heavily renovated; these straddle Gothic to modern times. There are also, very moving holocaust memorials and other mementos of those times.

Art Nouveau

There are sprinklings of Art Nouveau in the Old Town, as it wanders into the new Town, with the amazing Municipal Hall the most celebrated example. Cubist, Functionalist and Communist Era architecture are all also to be found.

Modern

And then the New town. and to cap it all off Frank Gehry’s Dancing House, referencing Fred (the rokc tower) and Ginger (the glass one). Astonishing. It was designed by the Croatian-Czech architect Vlado Milunić in cooperation with Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry on a riverfront plot that had been left vacant after World War II bombing. It was completed in 1996, with the encouragement of the then Czech president, Václav Havel, who had lived next door to the site for decades, in his family home. He had hoped that the building would become a centre for cultural activity. The nickname is now discouraged, as 'American Hollywood kitsch'. That doesn't prevent the stream of tourists stopping on the riverbank to take a picture

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Food and Relaxation

After all that walking and navigating I need a rest. Another 14 kilometres and all the signs in Czech. There are little pictures of the sights underneath but these black line drawings all look the same to me. A synagogue looks just like a castle. I retire to a courtyard inn to sample the local food. It’s good to see that this is promoted in all the restaurants rather than international fare. Most of the food items have a y on the end: salaty, steaky; so that's where our penchant for naming sportsmen (Giggsy) came from. The food is very tasty. Caraway features heavily in the cabbage. There are bread and potato dumplings, some smoked goodies. And a lot of pork of course.

The local ice cream comes in coiled pastry ‘chimneys’ rather than cones. They bake the chimneys on rotating spits - there are stalls on most streets with an assortment of fillings - and whipped cream. To drink there are various flavoured lemonades, all home made. The raspberry one is delicious. And plenty of beer naturally. They drink more beer here per capita than any country in the world. The only drawback is that the diet is heavy on the stomach. After I’ve eaten all I want to do is sleep.

Czechia has it's own currency, the koruna. Though they take euros everywhere. If you don’t mind accepting the extortionate exchange rates, as each establishment sets their own rate. It's a euro to use the toilet.

My Hotel in Prague

The MeetMe23 upmarket hostel is very funky and very good value. It’s just across the road from the station, in a converted neo-renaissance mansion that’s stepped in history. Its been brought bang up to date with plastic blue man sculptures (you can even print out a miniature 3D one for a keepsake), a Skoda on the wall and individually designed rooms. Mine has about 20 light bulbs hanging from the ceiling and a great view over the city. The cellar restaurant serves up decent Czech food and gin and tonic too.

Warsaw next. Read more about the Czech Republic here.

What is the History of The Czech Republic?

  • Historically, the Czech Republic (or Czechia) was composed of the Kingdom of Bohemia and the March of Moravia, both part of the Holy Roman Empire (800-1806), then also a constituent of the Habsburg Empire (1526-1918)
  • The defeat of the Austria-Hungary Empire in World War I cleared the way for the foundation of an independent state of Czechoslovakia on October 28, 1918. However, Czechoslovakia’s independence was relatively short lived. At the Munich Conference in 1939 Great Britain, France and Italy (without the presence of Czechoslovakia) agreed to allow Adolf Hitler’s Germany to annex certain parts of the country.
  • After World War II, the restored republic became part of the Soviet sphere of power.
  • President Alexander Dubček’s attempts at liberalisation (The Prague Spring) were brutally suppressed in August 1968.
  • In 1989 the Communist regime finally collapsed, thanks to the Velvet Revolution. On January 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia was peacefully divided into two independent states: Czech and Slovak Republics The Velvet Divorce). Václav Havel was elected the first president of the Czech Republic. In the following years, the Czech Republic joined the OECD (1994), the NATO (1999)

Facts and Factoids

  • The Czech Republic's official formal and short names at the United Nations are Česká republika and Česko in Czech, and the Czech Republic and Czechia in English. All these names derive from the name of the Czechs, the West Slavic ethnic group native to the Czech lands.
  • It's frequently referred to as Bohemia, though as you can see from above, that's like calling The Netherlands, Holland. You'll also have heard of a bohemian lifestyle.
  • The Czech people are the world's heaviest consumers of beer.
  • The currency used in Czech Republic is the Czech Crown (Koruna).

Is the Czech Republic in the EU?

  • The Czech Republic joined the EU in 2004. It is part of the Schengen Zone.

Is the Czech Republic a Poor Country?

  • Poverty rates in the Czech Republic are the second lowest in the European Union, with 3.4 percent of working people in the country threatened by poverty compared to the EU average where the rate is around one in ten.

What is There to See and Do in Czechia?

The landscape of the country is dominated by hills and medium-high mountains: the Ore Mountains in the northwest, the Giant Mountains and the Eagle Mountains in the North, to Beskids in the East, the Carpathians in the Southeast, the Umava Mountains in the South and Southwest and the Bohemian Forest in the West.

Prague, the capital, is a great city for a weekend break - or longer.

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