Lonely Planet’s Cities of the World

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Lonely Planet’s second Cities Book is about to hit the shelves. In the first edition, I came up with Ten Cities that Didn’t Make the Cut. Cities that for an assortment of reasons I found really important, interesting or inspiring, but didn’t feature in the book. Some of them are there in this second take, but you’ll have to get the Cities Book 2 to find out. My didn’t-make-it list was, in alphabetical order, Detroit, Jakarta, Karachi, Mandalay, Oslo, Papeete, Stanley, Tehran, Tunis and Warsaw

This time I’m around I’ve come up with 10 more cities, some of which do indeed feature in the new edition, but all of which I have a real interest in or I’ve made interesting visits. Although one of them I’ve never been to and I’m pretty certain I never will: Mecca. You can see those 10 cities on a posting on the Lonely Planet website, and here they are:

I never got to Berlin in the Iron Curtain era, when there were two Berlins, east and west. It’s one of my great travel regrets, along with not going to Bamiyan when I was in Afghanistan in 1972. When I did visit Bamiyan in 2006 it was five years too late, the Taliban had destroyed the great Buddhas in 2001. In 1991, two years after the wall came down, Berlin friends dragged me back to Berlin from Frankfurt. ‘You can still feel the difference east to west,’ they insisted. ‘Wait any longer and they’ll merge, right now it’s still different worlds zwischen ost und west.’ They were right, even the number of Trabants in the streets told the tale. I didn’t miss a more recent opportunity to be in the right place when a potentially major world change swept through. On US election day in November 2016 I was there on the frontline, in San Francisco.

The glitz and bling mega-city of the United Arab Emirates seems to have a unique ability to divide people. Most visitors – and in Dubai nearly everybody is a visitor, real Gulf Arabs are a small minority – love the place whether they’re short term visitors or long term workers. The short termers are having a great vacation and ignoring comparisons to Blackpool or Las Vegas. The long-term developing-world workers may be treated like dogs and worked like slaves, but they are sending home bags of money. Then there’s the small minority who hate the place and everything it stands for with a passion. I try to be ambivalent, it’s now nearly 20 years since my first visit so although I don’t go back far enough to have seen Dubai when it was a mud-and-coral fort and palace surrounded by a bunch of tents beside the Dubai Creek, which was pretty much the story before WW II, I’ve certainly seen some changes.

Last visit I rode the state-of-the-art Dubai Metro, had a look at one Dubai absurdity (the Palms land reclamation), tried another absurdity (the Mall of the Emirates ski runs) and was relieved to find I could still shuttle across Dubai Creek in a traditional abra. At least those time-worn wooden ferries have survived.

George Town
It’s often referred to as Penang, but that’s the island, just a quick ferry ride (much more romantic than the bland bridge) from mainland Malaysia. I first turned up there in 1974, having trekked north through Sumatra, researching the very first edition of Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. Over all return trips the feel, the essence, the spirit of George Town has survived. It’s a delightfully Chinese regional town, far better preserved than the much larger and statistically far more Chinese Singapore to the south. Wandering the central streets with their evocative ‘five foot ways’ is always a delight and recently street art has become a major attraction. Although the city is still a great centre for backpacker retreats, just like on my very first visit, today it’s also crowded with classy boutique hotels.

It’s Australia’s smallest state capital, but also Australia’s second oldest city, only Sydney pre-dates it. Hobart has Australian history in a handily compact package. The harbourside looks exactly the way a busy port should look, especially Christmas to New Year when it’s the finishing line for the Sydney-Hobart Yacht Race, one of the great ocean classics and yes, I did it once. Despite all the city attractions Hobart is also important as a jumping off point whether it’s pulling on your boots before tackling some of Australia’s very best bushwalks or putting on your cold weather gear to head down to Antarctica. The Australian and the French Antarctic operations both call Hobart home. There is, however, one Hobart attraction no visitor should miss, David Walsh’s amazing personal art collection in the Museum of Old & New Art. The controversial and much talked about MONA has quickly become the city’s number one temptation.

Hong Kong
I’m often asked what has been the biggest change in my travelling life and it’s easy to suggest the internet, the ability to do so many travel things so easily and so instantly. Or the arrival of jumbo jets and then the proliferation of low cost carriers making it possible to go further, go cheaper. But to my mind the really big change, and it’s taken place since my first visit to Hong Kong, is the opening up of China. Before the doors opened almost 20% of the world’s population was a mystery zone. Not only is Hong Kong one of the prime gateways to and from China it was also the original Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole into the forbidden kingdom. In the 1980s it was Chungking Mansions in Kowloon, that tatty rabbit warren of local enterprises and dirt cheap guest houses, where pioneering independent travellers secured their highly unofficial China visas.

There are 30 odd cities in The Cities Book which I haven’t yet visited, some of them definitely on my wish list, Asmara probably at the top. Some of them I’m astonished I’ve never managed to visit: Charleston, Quebec City, Kampala and Leipzig for starters. And one I’m pretty sure I’ll never visit: Mecca. Like any keen traveller I’m hugely in awe of Sir Richard Burton, the translate-the-Karma-Sutra Burton, not the Elizabeth-Taylor-serial-husband Burton. Sir Richard’s preparations for his visit in the 1850s included an in-depth study of Islam, learning Arabic and being circumcised. That’s serious planning. I have, however, visited the other Saudi forbidden city, Medina, if flying in to the Medina Airport counts. The airport is outside the infidel free zone so that was OK. At the airport I rented a car and asked directions for the drive north to Maidan Saleh, the Saudi Arabian version of Jordan’s wonderful Petra. ‘Left out of the airport and take the freeway to Medina,’ the rent-a-car desk instructed. ‘Then take the turn-off to Petra.’ ‘But what if I miss the turn,’ I queried, ‘I don’t want to die.’ ‘You won’t the miss the turn,’ I was told. They were right, a few km down the road a sign right across the freeway announced in large letters: ‘All Non-Believers Take Next Exit.’

New York City
On my first visit I would have been somewhere short of my 10th birthday, it was a blur of taxis, the Empire State Building and this amazing thing in our hotel room: a television. Yes it was a long time ago. Today I’m past my 30th visit to the Big Apple and it never ceases to delight. Of course I’ve been to galleries and museums and plenty of on and off-Broadway plays and musicals. On a recent visit I walked the length of Broadway, the only street that runs from one end of Manhattan all the way to the other. I started by looking across to the Statue of Liberty and 13 miles (22km) later crossed the bridge into the Bronx. Next trip perhaps I’ll cycle the periphery? I’ve also been a speaker at the New York Yacht Club (about archaeology not yachting), eaten at many restaurants, drunk in far too many bars, gone to comedy clubs, caught a New York Yankees game. I’ve travelled around New York City by bus, on the subway, by ferry, by bicycle and of course on foot. I’ve flown in and out of the three main airports – La Guardia, Newark and Kennedy, my first visit was to Idlewild, long before it became JFK and just once I arrived there on Concorde. I’ve even sailed out of New York past the Statue of Liberty and on to Europe on a Cunard liner. But in all those visits I’ve never stayed longer than two weeks so a long visit, say three months, is still on the wish list.

Panama City
I was in the region, I had a few days to spare, the new Panama Canal locks were almost ready to open and I had always wanted to travel through the canal. Plus the city had been getting a lot of interesting publicity with city bling comparisons to Dubai. This, the stories said, was the equivalent go-ahead city for Central America. The canal trip, old city, bars, restaurants, all more than met expectations and I’d not realised this was such an important bird watching centre. ‘The canal is where the North American Rockies meet the South American Andes, so you get birds from both continents,’ my bird-watching guide insisted. But the big surprise came on Day One when Panama City was suddenly front page news on papers all around the world due to something called the Panama Papers.

I raced around to the Mossack Fonseca office, ground zero for the scandal, to take a selfie.

It’s not the most beautiful, the most exciting, the most enjoyable or the most entertaining city I’ve visited, but hands down Pyongyang is the whackiest. I’ve only visited the North Korean capital once and I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t be welcome back for a return visit, but why go to Hollywood or Las Vegas, two cities of make believe, when you can go to a real life fake city? ‘What’s that?’ you ask when you see the towering 105-storey skyscraper-pyramid Ryugyong Hotel which after 30 years still hasn’t welcomed its first guest. A 3000-room hotel is exactly what a city which virtually nobody visits needs, isn’t it? In Pyongyang even when it isn’t fake you’re inclined to believe it must be. Until 2010 tourists were only allowed to use the metro between two stations so a conspiracy theory developed that these were the only stations which really existed and that any local you met on the metro trains (all recycled from Berlin) were actors, soon after you disembarked the train would grind to a halt and they would all leave as well. It wasn’t true, but in the Kim dynasty’s commie utopia it seemed eminently possible.

The capital of the Mediterranean island republic of Malta took my breath away. It’s very solid and very substantial, clearly the Knights of Malta did extremely well out of their Crusading and pirating activities. They certainly spent it on some very fancy buildings. Cathedral, palaces, forts, imposing streets, towering city walls, Valletta has them all. It’s no wonder it was once nicknamed Superbissima, ‘Most Proud,’ a sly dig at its official title as Humilissima Civitas Valletta – ‘The Most Humble City of Valletta.’ And when you tire of all that baroque beauty there’s the rest of the island to explore, particularly, for me, the ancient Megalithic temple sites, reminders of a far earlier Malta.