If you’re anything like me (and may God forgive you if you are), you’ll spend at least part of your holiday reading current affairs magazines. Not so much from a need to keep up to date with the goings on of the world, as a certain amount of nosiness that demands you get up in everyone else’s business. And also to keep an eye out for potential ‘death spots’ you might unwittingly stroll into. Like Christchurch apparently.
The most recent issue of Foreign Policy was largely concerned with the rise of the ‘the city’, suggesting in places that new supercities would overtake countries as the world’s economic and political powers. As a lover of cities I welcomed this news with open arms. The countryside? Nice to look at, even to spend a day in. But what are you supposed to do after that? Rear sheep? It lacks the constant stimulation big cities provide. And don’t even get me started on coastal towns. The beach is not a substitute for culture people! It’s just a geographical feature. Read a fucking book.
Seoul, image from Flickr
Having said that, I live in Brisbane, and as Barry Humphries once said “Australia is the Brisbane of the world”. As with most of Barry’s barbs this is undeniably hilarious, somewhat truthful, and to all Australians, pretty bloody stinging. For those of us who live in Brisbane, doubly so. But it is still a city, and I cling to that.
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All this got me thinking about the cities we’ve travelled to that I have loved. I have had the pleasure of visiting three cities from what I like to call ‘The Big 4’. Paris, London and Tokyo have all been explored, with only New York remaining a mystery. None of these make my list of favourites though. London is cool, big and exciting, but I’ve never really understood it’s status as Mecca for Aussies. Not to mention the fact I’ve never really gotten over learning that Elephant and Castle is actually a ghetto, and not a medieval themed zoo.
Paris is the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen without a doubt. 45 million tourists a year would begin to grate though I would imagine. And it doesn’t seem open and welcoming to people who don’t necessarily fit the city, which is kind of a prerequisite for greatness in my book. Not to mention the fact that of the 8 or 9 public transport trips I took, 8 or 9 of them were awful.
Tokyo is mind boggling, so huge you can’t actually picture it in your head. You could spend the rest of your life exploring it, but of course by the time you got to the end everything would have changed again. Spacious it ain’t however, and there is something odd about being somewhere so racially homogenous.
So who makes the cut then? Well for starters, Berlin. Not a city I would have picked at the beginning of our trip. Big but not huge. Not beautiful in the conventional sense, and if I’m being honest downright ugly in some places, but that just adds to the charm of a place that has survived despite being at the forefront of nearly every major conflict of the past 200 years. Invaded, bombed, carved up and its citizens separated for over 30 years, its modern existence is nothing short of a miracle. The people are friendly, the politics are liberal and the food is good.
Seoul also makes the list, despite many people considering it to be the most ironically named city in the world. I personally found it charming, having all the technological zaniness (toilet restaurants anyone?) of Japan but being far more laid back. The city is enormous, and ultra-modern like many Asian metropolises, but still manages to have huge green parks and temples throughout that would make you believe you were in the middle of an ancient forest. And unlike London, at no point was I concerned that the flocks of Korean school children were going to stab me.
Cork is a bit of a strange one, as it should probably be classified more as a town than a city, but considering everything in Ireland is relatively smaller I’m going to include it. Mainly because there is a Cork chocolate shop there that does a steamed cream and praline hot chocolate that tastes like a melted toblerone and would put you in a diabetic coma if you drank all of it. And at the old Cork jail the doorman will inform you in a deadpan voice that if you try to escape during your visit you’ll be locked in solitary for 3 months before handing you an ‘audioguide’ which is actually an old Sony walkman with a rubber band holding it together. I’ll admit that these are very different reasons for liking a city, but I never claimed to be consistent.
As for the city I hated, I’m afraid it has to be Amsterdam. Which is sad, because I had anticipated quite enjoying it. The food’s bad, the lines to get into any of the museums were 2 hours long at opening time and it just feels a bit… meh. Not to mention that while I support their policies regarding vice, I’m not a particularly big fan of tourists who visit somewhere to get high and pay for sex. They just aren’t my people. Particularly young men who stumble out of a brothel and hi-five each other as if somehow having sex with someone you’ve paid for sex is an achievement rather then a simple financial transaction.
There are many other cities I could include here. Edinburgh was stunning, Belfast was exciting, Munich was a blast and Brugges was, to quote the movie, just like a fairy tale. I’m not going to declare a winner yet until I finally conquer the last Big 4 contender. I have high hopes for New York. As long as they don’t start trying to corner the stoner/horny young man tourist market.
Kevin O’Faircheallaigh is 28 and in 2009 decided to abandon all domestic commitments and to have one last big adventure before the impending doom of 30. With that in mind, he and his partner packed an ambitiously small backpack each and headed out to spend a year exploring Asia and Europe, with a brief sojourn into North Africa. He has just returned home.