The Cities - From First to Worst

Trip Start Jan 31, 1996
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Canada  , Ontario,
Sunday, November 20, 2005

On our way home, somewhere over the Atlantic I took a drink napkin and began to scribble a few notes about the cities Ellen and I visited over the past six weeks. In no time I was in a frenzy; napkins started flying all over the cabin. Here's my first to worst:

1) Venice, Italy - For four days I walked and walked wondering how or why any anyone would want to build a city on such a flat island a couple of kilometres out to sea. And how the city has been able to age so gracefully under such strange conditions. There are most likely logical answers to both questions, but I prefer to let my imagination conjure answers that are just for me. Venice belongs to no one and everyone. Standing on a foot-bridge over a narrow foggy canal just before dawn when everyone sleeps Venice is mine and mine alone. This morning, or perhaps tonight, someone else will stand on the same bridge or another one just like it and Venice will be theirs. English is widely spoken in Venice.

2) Ljubljana, Slovenia - The tree-lined Ljubljanica River, onion domed churches and swank outdoor cafes make up a vibrant Old Town...and there's a castle on a hill that's only a short walk away too. You can easily get by here with English.

3) Trieste, Italy - This historic ancient seaport dates back to the Romans. Over the centuries many nations have craved Trieste because of its strategic location. It belongs to Italy now and they're proud of their quaint city built on the side of a mountain, over-looking the sea. Trieste' dapper, multi-colour attired inhabitants exude a sense of class and culture. It made me want to buy orange trousers and a new pair of shoes. English is widely spoken in Trieste. 

4) Banska Bystrica, Slovakia - A sentimental favourite, just 20 kilometres from the birthplace of Ellen's father. The cobblestone Old Town square of Bystrica with its many restaurants and outdoor patios has a distinctive eastern Eurpoean flair. Sit under an awninged table; order a plate of halusky, (potato dumplings with bacon bits and two types of cheese) then wash it down with a glass or two of one of the many locally brewed beers. Try the apple struddel and a cappucino, or just people watch. Four onion domed church steeples sit at one end of the square...and it's only a 30 minute train ride from Brusno. No English spoken here.

5) Sofia, Bulgaria - Sofia has no identifiable Old Town city centre, but its Russian style churches and Romanesque architecture make it a nifty place to explore. The sophisticated inhabitants want nothing to do with the outside world. Hmm...sophisticated Sofian's. Ersatz perhaps - I don't know. What I do know is I liked the Sofian's a lot better than they liked me. Great restaurants, but nary a word of English.

6) Krakow, Poland - A city filled with genuinely friendly people. All streets in the city centre point to the Old Town Square. When we were there the streets were filled with young and old Catholics walking the streets with lighted candles celebrating Pope Day. Good food and great churches. But far too much English.

7) Belgrade, Serbia - The only thing more hauntingly cold than the streets of Belgrade is its people. Belgrade gave me the opportunity to feel how an African American might feel in an all white neighbourhood. It was 36 hours of enlightenment. I left wanting no more. In Belgrade you can get by with English, but you might get by better trying not to speak to anyone.

8) Istanbul, Turkey - Coming into Istanbul by boat on the misty Bosporus you begin to see in the distance Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. The closer you get the larger they become, until these almost perfectly preserved magnificent buildings surround you. Sitting in front of the lighted Blue Mosque at night religion doesn't play a role. You simply stare in awe. Walking through - just having your feet touch the floor of Hagia Sofia, the most significant Christian church in the world until it was usurped by St. Peter's Basilica is the biggest jaw dropper of all. It made the hair stand on the back of my neck. When the Muslims conquered what is now Turkey, Hagia Sofia was converted into a mosque and all of its paintings and frescoes were covered in plaster. It is now being restored to its original state and has been converted to a museum. Hagia Sofia was built almost 1,000 years before St. Peter's in Rome. Walk 5 minutes from these storied buildings though, through old Istanbul and you might think you were in seedy Atlantic City. There's barely a shred of evidence that would lead you to believe you're so close to so much history. And then there are the people that inhabit Istanbul...just thinking of them makes me weary and angry. You can get by in English here, more easily than in Toronto. 

Footnote: Brusno might very well have been my number one or at least second choice in the above ratings, but with only 2,500 inhabitants it didn't qualify.

Another footnote: I found a great pair of orange trousers at Winners in Toronto. They were made in Italy.
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