Each year, cities around the world are chosen as capitals of culture to be highlighted and celebrated throughout the year. The European Union began the tradition in 1985 and elects two cities in member states annually. The American Capital of Culture Organization was created to follow suit, and UNESCO chooses an Arab Capital of Culture. The International Organization of Turkic Culture also makes an annual appointment, while the UK picks a City of Culture to serve for four years. This week, we spotlight cities recognized for 2019.
Matera is serving alongside Plovdiv, Bulgaria, this year as a European capital of Culture. In Southern Italy’s Basilicata region, Matera has been steadily gaining popularity in recent years as travelers branch out from the usual Italian haunts. It’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with traces of civilization dating back thousands of years. Matera’s old town, the Sassi, was carved from cliffside caves on the edge of a ravine. Over the years, more and more buildings have been stacked on top of each other, creating a striking scene that has caught the eye of filmmakers using it as a substitute for the ancient Holy Land and travelers seeking new adventures in Italy.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
This colonial hill town 150 miles from Mexico City is this year’s capital of culture for the Americas. A colorful city full of colorful people, San Miguel has attracted expatriates from the world over for its lively arts and gastronomic scenes. Artisans’ markets and galleries seem to pack every street, and the scenery itself is straight out of a painting. The weather is just about perfect at all times, with average temperatures in the 60s and an elevation of around 6,000 feet. Outside the city is a pyramid complex at La Canada de la Virgen, and the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi get all the publicity, but there are five other emirates rounding out the UAE. Sharjah is widely considered the cultural capital of the Emirates, home to a museum of Islamic art and architecture, Al Noor Mosque and a large aquarium. The Emirates Fine Arts Society is located in Sharjah, as is a museum of calligraphy. While Abu Dhabi and Dubai have embraced the ultramodern, Sharjah seeks to preserve Emirati heritage. That isn’t to say that’s it all stodgy all the time, as there are picturesque beaches on both the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, plus deserts and mountains to satisfy any outdoor thrill-seeker.
Osh made a name for itself producing fine silks for traders traversing the Silk Road, and in 2019 it’s Turkic capital of culture. The city remains a crossroads of cultures, with 80 or so ethnicities represented in the population. Sulayman Mountain, the only World Heritage site located entirely within Kyrgyzstan, supplies magnificent views of the city and its surroundings. There are traces of history commemorating pre-Islamic times, the Silk Road and Russian occupation. The mountaintop is considered sacred, and there are ancient petroglyphs at its base. Peruse the traditional bazaar and you’ll see more spices than you can count, another mark of the many cultures that have passed through.
Better known simply as Hull, this city on the east coast of northern England has been the UK city of culture since 2017 and will be replaced by Coventry in 2021. Hull’s Museum Quarter contains the Wilberforce House, home of William Wilberforce, who led the movement to stop the British involvement in the slave trade. The Deep is an aquarium at the confluence of two rivers with more than 5,000 sea creatures and a whopping 660,000 gallons of water inside. The city has a renowned theater culture, and the Hull City Tigers soccer team has enjoyed several seasons in the English Premier League in the last decade, reaching the FA Cup final in 2014.
Though the final isn’t until Sunday, we do know one thing for sure about the team that will host the World Cup: The winning country will hail from Europe. With the last remaining South American teams, Uruguay and Brazil, ousted in the quarterfinals we’re left with an all-Europe final four. While each team has a unique story of making it this far and its own collection of stars who led the way, we’re making our picks based on what the semifinalist countries have to offer for travelers.
France vs. Belgium
It’s matchup of haute cuisine vs. comfort foods. Cassoulet and escargot vs. waffles and chocolate. Those French fries we’re all so fond of? The origin is highly in dispute. Ask a Belgian, and he’ll say that Belgium invented the delicious potato everyone knows and loves and that the term “French fries” comes from a French gastronomic hegemony that subsumed neighboring cuisine under the French umbrella. One thing’s for certain, the Belgians do fries best. Dip in some garlic mayo and enjoy. Both countries know their way around chocolate very well, with pain au chocolat being one of France’s many contributions to breakfast delights and Brussels being home to an excellent chocolate museum. Actually, Belgium is basically one big chocolate museum.
When it comes to washing down all that food, France and Belgium are locked in the eternal struggle of fine wine pitted against craft beer. Is a Trappist Dubbel or a witbier any match for a nice Bordeaux or Champagne? It’s all a matter of taste. Each nation’s drink of choice pairs well with its food.
When it comes to cities, France, of course, has Paris, the City of Light. A mecca of culture, architecture, and history, Paris is one of the grand cities of the world. Lyon is a gastronomic capital. Provence and the Cote d’Azur are renowned the world over for their beauty. As for Belgium, Brussels has the Grand Place, perhaps the most alluring square in Europe. Bruges is locked in time, a fairy tale town that’s all canals and gabled roofs. Belgium is a blend of French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemings, with a few German speakers sprinkled in.
Overall, Belgium punches well above its weight and deserves to be included in your next trip built around Paris or Amsterdam, but our pick is France.
England vs. Croatia
While France and Belgium are next-door neighbors, England and Croatia have vastly different landscapes. Both have been part of unique political-geographical unions, with England joined with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to form the United Kingdom and Croatia being part of Yugoslavia with what are now Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Macedonia. But England and Croatia have vastly different histories. While England was the head of the mighty British Empire, Croatia became independent only in the 1990s after centuries of outside rule.
England has London, one of the world’s best — but most expensive — cities. It’s a wealth of culture, literature, and history, with the West End, the Tower of London and countless other sites that attract millions of visitors each year. The countryside is strewn with castles, while world-famous universities dominate the towns of Oxford and Cambridge. Ancient civilizations have left the landmarks of Bath and Stonehenge, while Liverpool gave us the Beatles. The charm of the Cotswolds and the Lake District provide a tranquil respite that’s great to combine with bustling London, while the coastal areas offer a surprising number of good beaches.
Beaches, meanwhile, are a particular strong suit of Croatia, which has more than 1,000 islands to choose from. Hvar is famous for its lavender and red wine in addition to simply being a sun-soaked paradise. Korcula is covered in virgin pine forest. The Pakleni Islands offer secluded harbors where visitors can get away from it all.
On the mainland, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything more beautiful than the stunning Plitvice Lakes National Park, where waterfalls cascade into the emerald water for miles around. Dubrovnik is a spectacular seaside city famed for its red-tiled roofs and medieval walls. It doubles as King’s Landing on “Game of Thrones.” As they did in Bath, the Romans left their mark in Split, where you can find the ruins of the Emperor Diocletian’s palace.
England is a great place to visit, of course, but while we’re sure plenty of Croatians visit there, the English flock in droves to the sunny isles of Croatia. If even the English pick Croatia, we will too.
Final: France over Croatia. It’s a tight contest, but with cuisine, culture, and diversity of cities and countryside, France takes the crown
You’ve undoubtedly heard talk of building a wall along the southern border of the U.S. While the effectiveness of a wall is debatable in the context of the 21st century, the topic calls to mind some famous walls built throughout human history. One of the best things about travel is it gives us the chance to reflect on where we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Though the walls listed below are no longer used for their original purposes, they still hold great significance as symbols of heritage and a past that should not be forgotten. They remind us that boundaries divide, while travel unites.
While it’s not really true that you can see the Great Wall from space (at least with the naked eye), it is an impressive feat of engineering and the extant portions of it span more than 13,000 miles. Erected over the course of several centuries, most of the current wall dates from the Ming Dynasty of the 14th-17th centuries. It served as a border defense and a way to control immigration and emigration but also to regulate trade along the Silk Road. As with anything that has stood for so long, it has been many things to many people, and it’s definitely worth visiting.Hadrian’s Wall
The Roman emperor Hadrian spent his reign traveling around the empire, and the construction of a wall on the island of Great Britain was a result of Hadrian’s policy of consolidation. It marked a physical limit to the Roman empire as well as a reminder to those north of the wall how formidable Rome’s power was. Today, Hadrian’s Wall is a great place to take a walking tour to get a glimpse of what life was like for soldiers stationed far from home in the unfamiliar territory of what is now Northern England. Among the more interesting archaeological finds have been a pair of boxing gloves and letters requesting more beer to pacify bored and rowdy troops.
Serving as a physical and philosophical boundary from 1961-1989, the Berlin Wall encircled West Berlin, isolating it as an enclave of Western ideals in the midst of East Germany and cut off from East Berlin. The wall is one of the most enduring symbols of the Cold War and the ideological divide that marked the second half of the 20th century. It is almost impossible to describe the psychological effect the wall had on Berliners. The East Side Gallery remains as a 4,300-foot mural capturing the feelings of euphoria and hope that came with the fall of the wall.
Begun by the pre-Incan Killke culture but expanded and perfected by the Incas, Sacsayhuaman is a massive feat of masonry using huge stones carved to fit together without mortar. The construction required hundreds of workers and was so precisely done that the walls have survived devastating earthquakes in Cusco, Peru, which served as the Inca capital. Invading Spaniards tore down most of the citadel for use in constructing homes, so now almost all that remains are the stones too heavy to lift, an indelible symbol of a once-mighty empire.
Part of the expansion of the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, the wall is what remains after the destruction of the temple complex by the Romans in 70 C.E. The wall is the holiest place Jews are allowed to pray, as they are prohibited from the Holy of Holies, which is thought to be under the Muslim holy place the Dome of the Rock. The wall is also sacred to Christians and to those Muslims who consider the spot to be where Muhammad tied the horse Buraq before ascending to heaven. In short, the wall and Temple Mount are a physical manifestation of the religious conflict that has pervaded throughout the history of the Middle East and Jerusalem in particular.