Thursday, 1 June 2017

In praise of the "second city"

Travellers often focus on tick lists of the most important destinations. Tuscany means Florence; Spain means Madrid and Barcelona; Portugal equals Lisbon; India is the 'golden triangle' (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur).

But somehow I always seem to enjoy the second city rather more - the city that's overshadowed by its more famous neighbour. Second cities are generally a bit less touristed, but that's not the real difference. They seem, often, a bit richer in general interest, in streetscape and odd corners, as if not having to live up to top billing left them able to develop a richness and diversity that the more celebrated city doesn't have.

  • Siena, for instance, is a city I could wander all day. It has its sights - the amazing, incomplete Gothic cathedral with a Renaissance scholarly (and papal) library built into it, and the Piazza del Campo with its palaces, fountain, tower, and horse race - but my favourite places are odd corners like the Fontebranda, where Gothic arches reflect the dazzle of moving waters, or the squares where the contrade have set up statues of their emblems, or the canyon-like square at the back of the cathedral where I've watched young lads practising their flag-waving a month before the Palio. By contrast, Florence strikes me as a city with plenty of interesting sights but not much character. (And Siena has better ice cream, too.)
  • Mechelen was the capital of the Netherlands once, a long time ago, and its soaring cathedral spire and elegant Renaissance palaces reflect its status. But that was a long time ago, and now it's just a rather nice large town, and all the better for it. Its Rubenses may not be as prolific or as good as those in Antwerp, but you can see them in completely deserted churches. Antwerp had wonderful bars, but in Mechelen I actually stayed in a brewery. And everyone in Mechelen has time for a chat, too.
  • In Morocco, tourists head for Marrakesh or Fez. But Meknes has a discreet charm that the larger cities lack. Like Mechelen, it has an imperial past - Moulay Ismail started huge building works here that would have more than rivalled Versailles - but its present is more laid back and low key. The mix of huge projects and unassuming neighbourhoods is rather wonderful.
  • Rajasthan attracts tourists to Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Udaipur. But while all these cities have wonderful sights, my favourite place is probably Bundi. The palace rises above the town; the fort rises above the palace; all this is reflected in a tranquil tank below; there are stepwells, and old havelis, and there's a samosa stand in the main street of the old town that starts frying at about seven in the morning, just as the keeper of the Jain temple opens up to start cleaning the idols... And there are some of the most delicate and lovely paintings in the whole of Rajasthan, showing scenes of the life of Krishna. And an excellent kulfi bar in the market down the hill.
  • Barcelona is a superb city. I love it. But Girona, a short train ride away, has so much to offer; hilly landscape. a marvellous cathedral, small Romanesque churches... maybe no Gaudi, but no hassle, either. And yet no one ever seems to go to Girona even if they spend a week in Barca. Why?
And finally... I'm a proud citizen of the fine city of Norwich. For some reason the guide books seem to suggest that it ranks somewhere between ninth and eighteenth of the UK's cities in terms of interest. This is a lie. Its cathedral is one of the best in the country, and the pairing of Norman castle and cathedral is unique - both built in the finest stone imported from Normandy; there are a couple of dozen medieval churches, there are cobbled lanes, there are a number of truly excellent pubs (including a two-time CAMRA national Pub of the Year) and two seriously good beer festivals (three now that the national Winter Ales festival has taken up residence); there's a great live music scene, and some marvellous shopping. But you don't want to go there, do you? Because it's not London, Oxford, or Cambridge... 

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