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The magic of old cities

“All sensitive people carry in themselves old cities enclosed by ancient walls.  

Robert Walser


Most of us would admit that there is a certain sameness about modern-day glass and steel cities - no matter how soaring and impressive are their structures.

Perhaps it's about time to rediscover some 'old' cities. 

You might be surprised. These 'oldies' have style, charm, an off-beat air - and great stories to tell


La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina


At the Buenos Aires waterfront, a small area, the vibrant La Boca (the mouth), pulsates with life. Think, Montmartre on acid. There is an electric charge in the air, and you could almost slice those bold colours that don't just brighten the amazing cartoon-like statues that hang from first floor windows or lounge on street corners, but spread over walls, balconies, roofs and windows. These few streets really rock, and a whole laneway is filled with irresistible art works and sculpture.

This was the first port of the city and the place where immigrants - mainly Genovese- arrived between 1880 and 1930. Some of the highlights found while walking through this area include Calle Museo Caminito (Caminito street), the Teatro de la Rivera (with different color-painted seats following artist Quinquela Martíns suggestions), the Museo de Bellas Artes de la Boca (La Bocas Museum of Art) and Vuelta de Rocha, overlooking Bridge Nicolás Avellaneda and offering a magnificent view. During the weekends, thousands of tourists stroll this neighborhood which stages street shows, craft exhibitions, and many other attractions worth experiencing.

This Spanish-speaking country embodies the essence of old Spain. Lovers kiss in the parks, new acquaintances clasp your hands and ooze Latin charm. For it is, after all, the people that make any country – or city– memorable.



Delhi, India


India is a country of more than a billion people - give or take a few million. Packed in a traffic jam in the old capital of Delhi, you could believe that they all drive cars, or squish into the hundreds of auto-rickshaws, buses or trucks around you.


'Horn Please' demand the signs on the back of all the large vehicles, and the other drivers oblige, filling the sultry air with a rich tapestry of barps and beeps.


Yet the air is surprisingly unpolluted, and your driver may explain: "The buses and trucks use gas, cars use diesel, and auto rickshaws are on gas too, now. There are no factories in Delhi itself, and see there." he waves at some roadside signs amongst the avenues of trees. "Green Delhi. We are very proud of that."

Fruit and vegetables are good and plentiful depending on the season - and easily available from street vendors.


Curries are the mainstay of the Indian diet and no Indian home cook would consider using anything but the freshest spices. Weighed or mixed to order, they are instantly available on a street corner near you.


India is a country of music and mystics. Round another corner and you will find something like this!



Dejima, Nagasaki, Japan

For centuries, Japan kept itself isolated from the rest of the world. Eras came and went in other countries; kings ruled, wars were waged and traders  and explorers opened up vast areas of the world. Japan, with its ancient feudal system, progressed at a different pace.

The only place with any contact with the outside world was this unassuming island at the mouth of the Urakami river. Traders were allowed to come ashore here - and here only  to sell and buy. Of course this was destroyed too.

Finally, working from memory and some plans, this model of the ancient area was built, and still remains inside the recreation which is now open to the public.

Now, with a population of around 450,000, Nagasaki is relaxed and busy again. Nothing can obliterate the past, but Japanese people have courage and are looking to the future. This friendly attendant assists visitors in understanding Dejima.

You can find it next to the Dejima Streetcar stop. Open 8am to 6pm, admission is Y500.

Many exhibits from Dejima are now stored in this building, the former Dejima Protestant Seminary.



Gion, Kyoto, Japan

Everyone has heard of geishas, but not everyone understands who they are, and more importantly what are their duties in that role. Much misinformation has spread after the book Memoirs of a Geisha was published in 1997. Our guide was at pains to put us straight as we walked through the Gion district of Kyoto, heart of the area where geishas (or geiki) are trained, and the ancient teahouses where they work.

It is traditional for men to come and drink and be entertained by geishas at the many teahouses in this district. This practice has led to confusion. The women, all unmarried (they must resign if they marry) can be any age. Our guide told us the oldest one she has met was 93. Once a man has been accepted into a 'teahouse' he cannot move on to another one. The code of practice is discretion and what happens in the teahouse stays in the teahouse.

However, while the women entertain the men, it is NOT sexual, she underlined to us. Geishas (geiku) may attend three or four parties a night. These women have undertaken years of training, as a maiko (a student geisha), and even once qualified, they still attend school daily, refining the arts of singing, dancing, food service, flower arranging and other hospitable skills.

Of course, anything can lead to tourism and these people are off for a carriage tour of the district, with an intentionally attractive male  'driver'.

Nearby we spotted these two immaculately dressed maiko, out for a stroll, complete with the traditional heavy makeup they must wear.

Kimono are generally worn with traditional footwear (especially zōri or geta) and split-toe socks called tabi.



Hutongs, Beijing, China


On one trip to Beijing, on our last day we took a trishaw ride though the narrow laneways and riversides of a hutong, one of the few remaining villages of Beijing.

Once there were thousands of these but Beijing's redevelopment has seen many residents move on to multi-storey apartments, and much of the land morph into highways and factory sites.

These quaint stone houses wrapped around serene courtyards are locked off from the street by heavy doors, but some allow a peep into another world.

Here, we sip green tea with Mr Jing overlooking the pomegranate tree. His family have lived here for a century but now operate a home-stay programme, and he invites us, proudly, to inspect the spotless guest bathroom and bedroom. 

Beijing is an ancient city which has seen it all. Wars, revolution, emperors and dissidents. There are temples imploring heaven for rain in the right season, and humble homes in hutongs opening their doors to strangers.



Clan Jetties, Penang, Malaysia

Many visitors are not aware of this little-known aspect of George Town's rich heritage. The six remaining Clan Jetties were established over a century ago by the main Chinese clans, so each is named after one of them, and this is where they brought their families to live in houses built on stilts over the water and connected by rickety wooden walkways.

Since UNESCO's recognition of George Town's heritage, there has been refurbishment of the area and they have become a drawcard for visitors. Some are busy with souvenir stalls and drink and ice cream stalls.....

... others remain as quiet as a village, home to the locals who are proud to live there.



Edinburgh Old Town, Scotland, UK

Edinburgh is a great city for walking. Good cardio exercise, especially when some of the 'walking' involves flights of ancient stairs (even better cardio workout). Accessing the main streets from Queen Street Gardens and Princes Street involves climbing steep hills and passing through a maze of narrow medieval lanes.

While much of Edinburgh's building facades remain a sensible grey, Victoria Street has splashed some colour around and there is a continental feel to this end, near Grassmarket. 

If I thought that traditional Scotland had caved in to 21st-century trends, it certainly has not. The soundtrack of the city is the forlorn wail of bagpipes, played by people of all ages. A strangely difficult and improbable instrument, it is at its best played outdoors. This gentleman playing near Waverley Bridge not only looked the part but was versatile too. Catching our accents he immediately swung into Advance Australia Fair!

August is THE month to visit Edinburgh. There is the Edinburgh International Festival, the Festival Fringe (which has become a template for other such festivities around the world) and at night, the famous Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, held Monday to Saturday in the forecourt of the Edinburgh Castle.


These festivities certainly brighten up Edinburgh, a city which might otherwise appear as prim and grim and grey. Not in August!



Jerusalem, Israel

The capital of Israel (although not all accept this) Jerusalem has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times, yet it still survives.

On a trip, long ago, to Israel, we came across a small boy on his donkey who was in such a hurry to beat the others to pose in our picture that he did the obvious - what any small show-off boy in any country would do. He fell off. It was just outside Bethlehem but he obviously felt that he could improve any picture of  shepherds tending their sheep in the fields.


Panorama of Jerusalem (pic: Wikimedia Commons)

Everywhere you go in Israel you can't escape the exuberance of the people. They jostle. They push and shove and yell and erupt into laughter or tears at a moment's notice. They are alive - joyously, against all odds - and, against the dusty backdrop of the centuries, they stand out vividly.

Yet the country is fascinating in its own way too. From Jerusalem, the walled city brooding over past troubles, to the eye-achingly brilliant Druze villages of Galilee and Mt Carmel, and Tel Aviv glittering with new buildings, there is something vital and rich about it all. In Israel there are no half-measures. This is a nation that has drunk deeply at the well of sorrows, yet it can still rejoice noisily.

In the past seventy or so years Jews from almost every country have returned to Israel. Their luggage bulged with more than mere belongings: the crafts, recipes, music and customs of their exile. And so Israel's menu has broadened now, the tapestry is brighter, and the songs have new chords because of this migration.


(pic: Wikimedia Commons)

Jerusalem, with its 4000-year history has much to offer. Visit the Western (Wailing) Wall, especially at Friday sunset to see people at prayer. The Dome of the Rock allows insight into yet another belief-system. There are also many Christian sites - the Via Doloroso (said to be the route taken by Christ carrying his cross), Calvary, the Garden Tomb and Mount of Olives. There are mazes of market areas in the old town too with good bargains if you can haggle well enough. Bethlehem, 10km south of Jerusalem, has the purported spot where Jesus was born, but it hardly resembles a stable any more.

Israel has all grades of hotel from luxury five-star to hostels. Some Catholic orders of nuns operate excellent hospices which offer clean reasonable accommodation.


Typical Israeli breakfast (pic: Wikimedia Commons)

You may enjoy western-style food at some of the major hotels or snack on street-food pastries, breads and fruit. There is every cuisine available although most adhere to kosher dietary rules which exclude pork and shellfish.



Ancient Rome, Italy

You notice the difference as soon as you cross the Tiber. Rome is ancient. Trastevere - literally 'across the Tiber' - is elderly, certainly, but with a nonchalance that contrasts sharply with the swagger you will often find in Rome proper.

For this is the real Rome, the locals say. Here the original language is spoken. Here, if you are lucky, you might catch sight of an old woman leaning out of a fourth floor window, carefully lowering a bucket to the pavement so it can be filled with fruit and vegetables. Or flowers. Or sausages. Anything to save her the long climb up those cramped stairs.

I pinched myself in Trastevere. For a moment it seemed we had slipped countries. I sensed Paris. Perhaps it is because finally here there are streetside trees, a notable lack in the rest of this great stone city. Romans love gardens - Italians are some of the world's great gardeners - but local city planning forgets them. There are spacious piazzas and squares, but few trees or even grass are seen in public in central Rome. Of course you catch glimpses inside villa courtyards, off the street. I even saw a palm tree flourishing in one. But here, in Trastevere, they have found a way to create lush gardens that become safe and private outdoor living and respite from the heat. Once you know to look up there, you see leaves and branches sprouting everywhere from the rooftops, a green clue to their hidden charms.

There is a relaxed air to this village-within-a-city. A gypsy girl cadged around us as we walked through one square; amateur artists tried to capture the essence of the first Christian church in Rome, the third-century Santa Maria in Trastevere, on canvas; and a mound of oranges glowed outside a restaurant where the waiters were setting out chairs and tables in the sunshine. At another cafe, newspapers half hid the tiny tables, and the smell  of irresistibly good coffee drew us in.

Trastevere was originally peopled by sailors from Ravenna. These strong men were needed to work the giant awning on the Colosseum. Tradesmen followed - tanners and potters, millers and furniture makers. Then artists and whores. Today the place is full of piazette., open areas too small to qualify as piazzas, churches, gardens, restaurants (some serving authentic Roman food), bars and cafes, and a 'Left Bank' ambience hangs in the air.

Raphael was a fan of this neighbourhood. He courted the baker's daughter here, and at the Villa Farnesina you will see some of his frescos. From the Piazza Garibaldi, where there have been gardens from Caesar's times, you will get one of the best views of Rome. The original wild Italian grape grows only here, no doubt part of the stock from Imperial times, when this whole area was the centre of a large wine industry. The local tongue persists too, with some older people still refusing to speak Italian, preferring pure Roman as their language.

Ask a dozen people who have visited Rome 'Have you been to Trastevere?' Chances are most will say no, yet it is a comfortable twenty-minute walk down the riverside from the Vatican and hardly more from the Colosseum. The streets are jumbled, but green havens around various massive villas give it space.

Make sure you pass across Isola Tiberina on your way to or from Trastevere. This doll-sized island in the Tiber is linked by the Ponte Fabricio and Ponte Cestio to either bank. It was here that a miracle-dispensing snake, meant to save Rome from plague, jumped ship in the third century BC, so it was appropriate that almost two thousand years later Portuguese monks established the Ospedale Fatebenefratelli there. The buildings almost fill the island, but steps lead down  to the embankment on the Trastevere side, making an ideal romantic spot to stroll or relax.

Trastevere doesn't have any ancient Roman ruins. Perhaps it doesn't need broken reminders of Rome's past. This place, preserved in time, simply gives visitors another perspective, offers a fresh green view. And great coffee!



Stockholm, Sweden



Stockholm, Venice of the North, is carefully poised on fourteen islands linked by 57 bridges. These islands though are just part of an archipelago that stretches 50 kilometres or more into the chilly Baltic Sea. Although established 700 years ago, ancient rune-stones and Viking traces testify that Stockholm is much older still.




A ten minute ferry ride from the city's centre, on the island of Skansen, around 140 buildings allow visitors to skim through the history and geography of Sweden in a few hours. Dozens of buildings have been transported from all over the country, ranging from ancient to relatively modern and there are craft activities, sheepherders and peasants, eager to share their lore.




The Rocks rocks

Soon after the arrival of white people, Western Sydney Cove was  dubbed The Rocks, and soon became regarded as the rough end (aka the convicts' side) of town.

The hilly stony land wouldn’t allow straight roads so there were only steep crooked paths between houses. Shanties, grog-shops and brothels sprang up and it became the haunt of seamen and knockabouts. In time the word was spread that those alleys were not safe.

By 1805 St Philip's was built in what is now Lang Park. There were  windmills, and in the current George Street stood the walled jail and the town's first hospital. On the water's edge warehouses were built to hold cargo from incoming ships.

After the end of transportation in 1840 and with the discovery of gold in 1851, many immigrants moved into the area, overcrowding it and conditions became more unsanitary and often unsafe


Lower George Street, at the foot of The Rocks, became Sydney's first Chinatown. And the culture of drinking, pubs, gambling and sport and ensuing crime continues.

Today The Rocks has evolved into an atmospheric area, redolent with history, (including popular ghost tours) and filled with museums, hotels such as The Orient (established 1844), boutiques, restaurants and galleries.

Fun fact: Mary Reiby, a convict who arrived in 1791 made a fortune in trade and shipping, and built fine houses. Watch for her name around the city.


Australia’s premier open building event, SYDNEY OPEN, returns on 4 and 5 November 2017.

Sydney’s biggest open building event, Sydney Open, returns for its 13th year, unlocking the doors to more than 70 of the city’s most historic and architecturally inspiring buildings and spaces usually not accessible to the general public.

Presented by Sydney Living Museums, Sydney Open 2017 offers visitors a behind-the-scenes look at some of the city’s most loved and hidden architectural gems across the CBD as well as this year’s focus, the historical and industrial areas extending from Central and Redfern to Eveleigh.

With a broad program of buildings from places of historic and cultural architectural importance to award-winning contemporary buildings, sacred, commercial and industrial spaces, Sydney Open is a celebration of great architecture.

The main program on Sunday 5 November will feature a broad and diverse selection of buildings and spaces. New to 2017 are the recently finished Grimshaw-designed, 333 George Street and PTW Architects’ new offices in the Renzo Piano-designed Aurora Place. They will be joined by long-standing favourites including the late-20th-century brutalist Sydney Masonic Centre (1974, tower 2004), the Harry Seidler-designed Grosvenor Place (1988), the earliest surviving synagogue in Sydney, The Great Synagogue (1878), the award-winning Beaux-Arts revivalist-style building at 50 Martin Place and the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Hyde Park Barracks (1817-19).


NEW IN 2017:

• Carriageworks

• Australian Technology Park

• Grimshaw, 333 George Street

• PTW Architects Office, Aurora Place

• DKO Architecture Studio, old Redfern Post Office


Across Redfern and Eveleigh visitors will be able to explore heritage sites throughout the Australian Technology Park (including Bays 1&2 of the Locomotive Workshop building) and Carriageworks, where an inspired adaptive reuse of this site by architects Tonkin Zulaikha Greer in 2006 saw the rail yards become home to the contemporary multi-arts space.

The Focus Tour program on Saturday 4 November will give visitors access to some of Sydney’s most in-demand spaces including the St James Tunnels, Central Station Clock Tower and St James’ Church Bell Tower, inside the dome of the Queen Victoria Building and behind-the-scenes tours of the Sydney Opera House. Plus this year’s Golden Ticket competition is a not-to-be-missed opportunity to explore the ever popular and fascinating Tank Stream.

Sydney Open tickets will go on sale on 21 September, with a Member pre-sale from 18 September.

For further information.....


Text: ©Sally Hammond

Images: ©Sally & Gordon Hammond


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