Golden oldies

Golden oldies

Cities develop over time – sometimes around their strategic location, other times by need. Some grow haphazardly, some in a structured, planned way, while others manage to maintain their original identity, defying the sprawling development that is inevitable as cities develop. Here are a few golden oldies worthy of everyone’s bucket list.

DUBAI – UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

Dubai was once inhabited by Bedouins who made a living fishing, harvesting pearls and herding sheep and goats. Ancient dhows transported livestock and merchandise across the creek, camels were used as transport, and open markets were the shopping malls of the day. This ancient Dubai is still to be found amid the steel-and-glass skyscrapers of this most modern of Middle Eastern cities.

A great place to start is the historic Al Fahidi District in Bur Dubai, with its wind towers, stone-coloured buildings and minarets. Walk through twisting streets and past coral-clad mansions – many of them now restored and home to quirky coffee shops, art galleries and museums. From there, venture into the wonderfully colourful, a tad noisy and extremely fascinating souks for a spot of shopping. The Textile Souk sells everything from beautiful fabrics to clothes, handcrafted shoes and souvenirs – there are fabulous pashminas in every colour, texture and fabric you can
imagine.

Across the Creek in Deira, accessed by nifty water taxis (abra), is the world-famous Gold Souk, where the narrow streets and lanes are lined with shops whose glass-fronted windows are crammed with gold – from delicate necklaces to large ceremonial pieces, and absolutely everything in between. The nearby Spice Souk offers a more traditional experience, where you can imagine the colourful selection of spices with their wonderfully heady aroma having arrived in hessian sacks on a heavily laden dhow – or a camel. Enjoy a fresh coconut drink, watermelon smoothie or
chicken shawarma along the quayside … or even a puff or two of the shisha pipe. www.visitdubai.com

 

Golden oldies

MANILA – PHILIPPINES

This Asian city defies the obvious with its predominantly Christian population, with 86% being Roman Catholic – which is no surprise considering it was colonised by the Spanish from 1521 to 1898. Intramuros, Latin for ‘within the walls’, is the historic core of Manila. Its defensive walls were constructed in the late 16th century by the Spanish colonial government to protect the city from foreign invasions – and in later years to keep the ‘not so Spanish’ residents (their Filipino servants) out. A nightly curfew ensured the local workers left before the city gates closed.

The old city was guarded by Fort Santiago, a Spanish military fortress that imprisoned many Filipinos and Americans during the Spanish colonial period and World War II, but today it’s a great place to relax, visit the memorial museum and consider the Philippines’ colonial past. Another place of interest is the Church of San Agustin with its hand-carved wooden pews, an 18thcentury pipe organ and a beautiful trompe l’oeil ceiling. With some luck you may catch the local choir practising, or perhaps even a traditional wedding.

A stroll through the streets of Intramuros takes you past fast-food outlets, local eateries and food stalls with ube (purple yum, or rather yam) ice cream, ube cakes on a hot griddle, fried bananas on sticks and mounds of peanuts on trays. Ramshackle buildings adorned with political posters and peeling paint heave under the weight of power cables and crimson bougainvillea. Get a close-up look at the thick stone walls and surrounding moats, and climb the steps for a commanding view of the streets within Intramuros and Metro Manila – the sprawling area beyond the wall. www.experiencephilippines.org

 

STONE TOWN – ZANZIBAR

From narrow alleys, markets and mosques to freshly roasted coffee, spiced tea and fragrant curries, Stone Town is a delight to the senses. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the historic part of what is now the island’s capital, Zanzibar City. A melting pot of Arab, Indian, European and African cultures and traditions, it dates back centuries to a time when trade was in Chinese silks, spices, ivory and gold, to when Vasco de Gama brought European influences to the area, and when the Sultanate of Oman took control. During this time the slave trade flourished, until its (theoretical) abolition in 1873. Unfortunately, though, the trade went ‘underground’ for many more decades.

Start with a visit to the Old Fort, Palace Museum and House of Wonders for a sense of history, the Anglican Cathedral of Christ Church and the nearby memorial sculpture to get a grip on the atrocity of the slave trade, and then lighten up by filling your belly with traditional Zanzibar cuisine at the Forodhani Gardens Food Market. Wander through the maze of narrow alleyways and peek through the open doorways of old Arab mansions, immerse
yourself in the sights, sounds and smells at the Darajani Markets – fresh fish, neatly stacked fruit and veggies, fabulous spices and freshly baked bread – and finish the day with sundowners on a rooftop terrace. www.zanzibartourism.go.tz

NAPLES – ITALY

Naples is one of the oldest continuously inhabited areas in the world, dating back to the first Greek settlements in the 2nd millennium BCE, so it’s quite fitting that its historic city centre is the largest in Europe. From narrow alleyways and cobblestone streets, Baroque palazzi and historic churches to piazzas, palaces and subterranean structures, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a must for the history buff’s bucket list. Neapolitan cuisine is synonymous with pizza, with other favourites being Neapolitan rajù (pasta with meat sauce), fogliatelle (a flaky pastry) and, of course, gelato. If you want more than pizza, there are five Michelin-starred restaurants. www.visitnaples.eu/en

 

QUITO – ECUADOR

The historic centre of Quito is one of the largest, least-altered and best preserved historic centres in the Americas, and was one of the first world heritage sites declared by UNESCO, in 1978. The old town, known as Quiteños en el Centro Histórico, can be covered fairly comfortably on foot, but don’t be tempted to take in the 40-odd churches and assorted museums in one day as you’ll be exhausted. Rather select a few highlights. Don’t miss the lookout terrace of the Basilica del Voto Nacional for splendid views over the Old Town’s spires, bell towers and ornate buildings; the Teatro Sucre, Quito’s most ornate theatre, on the Plaza del Teatro; and, finally, La Compañía de Jesús with its magnificent volcanic stone facade, Baroque columns and gilded ceilings. The latter rivals San Francisco (the
Church and Monastery of St Francis) for the title of ‘loveliest church in Equador’. www.quitotravel.ec/en

 

Golden oldies

MEXICO CITY – MEXICO

Mexico City’s Centro Histórico is centred around the Plaza de la Constitución (also known as the Zócalo). One of the largest squares in the world, its colonial and European architecture and narrow cobblestone streets set it apart from the rest of Mexico City. This ‘old town’ was built by the Spanish in the 16th century on the ruins of an even older one – Tenochtitlan, the old Aztec capital. With Aztec temple ruins, the largest cathedral on the continent (the Catedral Metropolitana), and boasting some fabulous 19th- and 20th-century architecture, such as the Palacio de las Bellas Artes, it was included in UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites in 1987. www.visitmexico.com/en

 

ST PETERSBURG – RUSSIA

St Petersburg, a relatively young city by European standards, is the result of a vast urban project begun in 1703 by Peter the Great. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Venice of the North’, with its numerous canals and more than 400 bridges, it’s a city that has shrugged off the thick layers of dust from its Leningrad era, and is once again parading its colourful Romanov finery. Its architectural heritage is a blend of Baroque and neoclassical style as seen in the St Nicholas Cathedral, with its intricately gilded interior, and the splendour of the Hermitage Museum with its three million works of art. The multicoloured medieval style Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood was built in memory of Tsar Alexander II, who was assassinated in 1881. Its magnificent mosaic collection, covering a total area of 2,150 square metres, is one of the largest in Europe. The exterior of St Isaac’s Cathedral, Russia’s largest cathedral, is decorated with massive granite columns and elaborate sculptures, topped off with a spectacular gilded dome.

Then there’s the Peterhof Palace, a series of palaces and gardens sometimes referred to as the ‘Russian Versailles’ – the Summer Palace of Peter the Great, built between 1710 and 1714; the Winter Palace, which from 1732 to 1917 was the official residence of the Russian monarchs; and Palace Square, St Petersburg’s central square where the Alexander Column marks Russia’s victory over Napoleon’s armies. Gazing upon the opulence of this bygone era, it is easy to forget the dull, grey years of the socialist USSR – but also not hard to see why it was here that starving peasants and workers rebelled against such outrageous conspicuous consumption and blatant inequality.
www.visit-petersburg.ru/en


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