Despite the raw charm of every hiking trail or any wavy sea road, there is something intoxicating about exploring a city. It could be the diversity of the individual creations quilted into colorful patchworks that cover, protect, and enhance the history of mankind; the synchronized drumming of countless steps thudding on the pavements, bonding with the pace of a beating heart; or just the anonymity, the numerous choices on entertainment, the effortless connectivity with the rest of the world – even a city’s noise and ruthlessness.
It is easy to list the major metropolises of the world that are already part of every traveler’s bucket list. However, here are seven, more alternative towns and cities one should visit in a lifetime – and, perhaps, even live there for a while, hoping to connect with the psyche of the community and the unique tapestry of the past, present, and future.
- Cuzco, Peru
Cuzco was for almost four centuries the capital of the Inca empire (12thc. – 16th c. CE). Nowadays, it has been officially declared the Historical Capital of Peru and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nestled in the mountains, at an altitude of 3400m., it leaves every visitor literally breathless upon arrival.
The Inca footprints are not very visible in the city. Coricancha, the most important temple of the Incas – the naval point of their empire, dedicated to the Sun, covered, once upon a time, in sheets of solid gold, and hosting for centuries the mummies of the deceased emperors – lies today in ruins, most of them covered by the Christian church the conquistadores built on the same site using the rocks of the pagan shrine. One can better admire the eminent civilization by visiting the site of Sakaywaman, just a few kilometers outside the town, reading in parallel the detailed descriptions regarding the Inca lives and achievements in the pages of “The Royal Commentaries of the Inca” by Garcilaso Inca de la Vega, a veritable royal descendent.
The historical center of the town bears a strong Spanish influence, evident in the central Plaza des Armas (a regular square name in every Peruvian city), the cathedral, and the other buildings crammed on either side of the narrow streets. Moon around, absorbing the vibrant colors of the city; observe the numerous ladies who pose for photos in their local outfits next to their llamas in exchange for a few coins; fumble through piles of traditional artefacts in search for something that feels, even faintly, as part of the lost Inca treasure; or leaf through relevant books in the few bookstores. Visiting the various cafes and restaurants is a treat on its own, given the artistic creativity and ingenuity each place exhibits – not to mention the flavorful, mouth-watering dishes of the Peruvian cuisine.
In the evening, many cafes or small clubs host live bands with traditional music, dancing, and singing, while one can indulge in a few pisco sours. And, if the visitor walks past the mains square on a clear night, she can observe the illuminated statue of Christ on the nearby hill: a white figure floating in the darkness with hands reaching out towards the town, offering a permanent divine blessing to a sacred city and humanity.
- Thimphu, Bhutan
Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, is a small city of fewer than 100,000 people. It lies peacefully within the pleats of the valley of the Wang Chuu River, at an elevation of 2250 – 2650m, which makes it the third highest capital in the world by altitude. Despite being the political and administrative center of the country, Thimphu relies on Paro, the second-in-size town in Bhutan, some 50 km away, for an international airport.
The city is not ancient, and, hence, does not offer renowned palaces or temples one cannot enjoy in other Buddhist countries. Still, it is a precious jewel, a place with an ambiance so unique and peaceful, the visitor has trouble parting with. Just walk in its streets which are barely big enough to handle two lanes of cars and the increasing traffic; muse upon the colorful buildings and the animals or phalluses painted on the walls for protection; exchange smiles and friendly handshakes with the locals; follow the orange wakes of the passing priests; and enjoy the mountainous air and the feeling that Providence gave you an opportunity to step back at a time when everything was pure, simple, and noble.
- Isfahan, Iran
“Esfahān nesf-e- jahān ast”: Isfahan is half of the world.
It only takes a few steps in the city for the visitor to understand that this is not just a flattering Persian proverb. Isfahan’s beauty, energy, and ambiance are sublime, and it really feels as if a large part of the world has been embroidered in the flying carpet the city represents.
Twice a capital in the long history of Persia, Isfahan witnessed the rise and fall of several empires and eras, and felt the influence of the Achaemenid Empire with Cyrus the Great, the Parthians, the Sassanids, and the Seljuqs, to name just a few. The city reached its peak in the 16th and 17th c. CE with Shah Abbas the Great, and, besides its economic importance, it is known for its significant role in Iran’s culture, as expressed through its music, fine arts, architecture and engineering. Over the centuries, Isfahan has been a testament to Persia’s embracing of diversity, welcoming in its neighborhoods large communities of Armenians and Jews (according to the 10th c. Persian historian Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamedani, the latter found that Isfahan’s soil and water were of a quality similar to that of the Holy City of Jerusalem).
Stroll around the Naqsh-e Jahan Square where the sophisticated elegance of Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque outweighs by far in my eyes the imposing presence of Imam Mosque; bargain with the small shop owners in the bazaar over a minakari pot; ready yourself for protracted negotiations and several cups of tea if you are interested in purchasing an Iranian carpet; and embrace the fragments from Heaven that have fallen around in various shapes and designs of bright blue: the famous blue of Isfahan. In the evening, do not neglect to cross the Khaju Bridge, where the lights toy with the shadows of the playful Iranian youth, and songs caress the old walls in reminiscence of love and passion. And, if you are invited by the friendly locals who picnic in the parks to share a cup of tea and a piece of barbari bread with tomatoes, cucumbers, and maast-o khiar, thank your good stars for offering you a taste of how beautiful life can be.
- Fez, Morocco
Few cities have aged so elegantly and managed to preserve their authentic colors in the wrinkles of their alleys, like the old medina of Fez. The city, whose importance has been effervescing for centuries in the cauldron of history stewing with so many spices that it is impossible to summarize the turns and twists in just a few lines, now stands as a rich heritage site, sustaining its traditions through the several guilds that operate almost untouched by time.
The medieval capital of Morocco, the so-called “Mecca of the West” and “Athens of Africa,” is the largest car-free urban zone in the world. Once the visitor crosses through one of the large portals and, leaving behind the more sophisticated Jewish neighborhood, finds herself within the protective encircling of the old walls, a world from the past unfolds as if the centuries have stalled in the crossroads. The ancient city includes numerous quarters that are characterized by a prominent trade or guild: the vegetable market with coffins full of aromatic and colorful produce; the meat market with camels’ heads and hoofs dangling from hooks at face level with the passersby; the traditional leather tanning factory run by the same families generation after generation, still using pigeon poop for the softening of the leather, red poppies, indigo, saffron, and green mint for the coloring; the knife-sharpeners with their manually operated wheels; old apothecaries selling more herbs than modern medicine, argan oil, soaps, scrubbing creams, and essential oils presented in those old glass bottles that were used decades ago in the pharmacies of the West; and textile shops where, on traditional looms, strings from the cactus leaves are woven into what is known as the “Moroccan silk.” Beware: entering any store is a time-demanding experience since you will unavoidably go through an educational tour regarding the goods offered and their origin, before having to face the lengthy selling process from which it is extremely tough to get out intact.
Within the town’s labyrinth of alleys, occasionally so narrow that one person can barely go through or, other times, wide enough to allow a couple of mules and a handcart to squeeze through, one can indulge in traditional Moroccan restaurants (I have eaten the best pastilla there, and the tastiest Moroccan-style lamb stew with plums). Finally, the University of Al-Qarawiyyin, declared by UNESCO and the World Guinness Records as the oldest existing, continually operating university in the world, being also the first educational institution to award a degree, stands as a proud testament and reminder of the rich religious and scholarly heritage of the city.
My last memory of Fez is on the terrace of a renovated riad in the evening: the smell of jasmine oil emanating from my still warm skin after a Moroccan hammam, a thin rain tiptoeing on the glass roofing of the courtyard, and the canvas of the old medina unfolding with dots of light interspersed in the dusk. I almost cried with the beauty of the moment, and just when I thought my heart could not take any more, the call for prayer rose and echoed in the dome of the sky, as if coming from the most profound depths of the soul of the earth.
- Ubud, Bali (Indonesia)
I do not belong to the tribe that has fallen in love with Bali. Ubud, however, is a bijou of serenity, and a visitor can only be blessed there with the fortunate strokes of serendipity. The healing power of the town starts with its name, which is based on the Balinese word “ubad” meaning “medicine.” The various medicinal herbs of the region are not only available to the few initiates but, today, are included in the different recipes of fresh juices and salads, served in picturesque cafes and restaurants next to statues of happy Buddhas, ponds of peace, and lotus buds.
Happiness rolls joyfully through the surrounding rice fields and finds its way into the Tek Tok dance performances, the canvases of the displayed paintings, the mischievous games of the monkeys in the sacred Monkey Forest, the Balinese food, the hands of the masseuses, and the smiles of the people who, despite the increased tourist waves, still do not speak enough good English. The few roads are protected under the curves of the penjors, and one should pay attention not to step on the countless canang saris that dot the streets, the entrances of shops, and the doorsteps of all houses. There is a lot of love spread out with abundance, like butter and honey on a toasted slice of home-baked bread, and it is shielded from the evil spirits by long lists of customs and traditions, incantations and prejudices, songs, gods, statues, and shrines that decorate the prime spot of every house, garden, or store.
Do visit the temples, the museums, the art galleries, the cafes, and the gardens. Stand next to elaborately carved, dancing statues; pose among the lotuses; explore each day using all five senses to the maximum. Laugh at the dogs that invariably start barking in the middle of the night as if sounding the alarm for an upcoming Demon attack. Look straight into the moon, and wait for the moon to smile back. Above all, do not forget to fall in love with life.
- Chania, Greece
Chania is the second-in-size city of the Greek island of Crete and, to me, the most scenic and charming town in the area. Inhabited since the Neolithic period, it was already a major hub of the Minoan civilization (3650 – 1400 BCE), and remained prominent throughout the tides and ebbs of time: over the Classical era of the Greek Civilization, the Byzantine epoch, the period of the Venetian dominance, the Ottoman Empire, and the most challenges pages of the history of modern Greece.
Every passerby – be he a conqueror or just a visitor – did not just leave a footprint. On the contrary, they all got incorporated into the essence of the city: the long frothy lace of the seashore; the Venetian-style harbor; the lush slopes and fields; the narrow alleys of the old town; the Omalos plateau; the ghosts, legends, and tales. They wore with pride the black sariki on the head, held tightly a musket, ready to fire in celebration or defense, and were finally reborn through the womb of the city – a womb that has been fertile for millennia, giving birth to prosperity, knowledge, education, and some of the most prominent men and women in history.
I have visited Chania several times, but my most important memories come from my childhood when I spent a full year there. It was the time the color of the sea left a permanent stamp in my gaze, and the taste of the land still ferments inside, allowing me to carry something of magnificence with me forever.
- Sapa, Vietnam
When I arrived at Sapa town in Northern Vietnam, after a fun – though a bit uncomfortable – night on the train from Hanoi, I found rain, clouds, and the Black Hmong women wrapped in their colorful outfits, stalking us to sell some of their artefacts. When I left, the town was dipped into a fog so thick that we almost had to grope our way through the streets (missing our hotel a couple of times due to lack of visibility). Hence, I did not see the beautiful lake next to which the town seems to rest, and was not able to take any photos of my own. Despite the circumstances, Sapa was one of those places that managed to get under my skin and cast spells that caught me unawares.
The town is perched among the mountains of what is known as the “Tonkinese Alps,” next to the Chinese borders, and spreads out an arras of rugged, authentic beauty. The valley was originally inhabited by people we know nothing about who disappeared leaving numerous petroglyphs that form some kind of 15c. CE cadaster. Today’s inhabitants (mainly the Hmong and Dao), came later from the Chinese highlands.
The few streets are crowded with minibusses struggling to squeeze through the limited space, and representatives of the Black Hmong, Dao, Giay, and Tay ethnic groups, all with their district dress code, their joyful colors, and their tireless efforts to sell – admittedly charming – artefacts to the tourists. Shops with hiking gear, silversmiths, a vegetable market, and welcoming cafes and restaurants offering Vietnamese culinary delights, warm wine, a fireplace, and, unexpectedly frequently, Italian pizza and pasta, pretty much complete the picture. It might not seem much to an outsider. Yet, it is a small diamond, a bit rough around the edges, shining through the slippery mud of the surrounding rice fields and mountains.
All photos (except the port of Chania, the ones of Sapa, and the map): © Konstantina Sakellariou
(Photo credits for the photo of Chania port, Sapa, map: unknown)