Scratching surfaces

A passing comment to someone on Twitter a little while ago about how much I enjoyed Berlin despite being there only very briefly, got me thinking.  Sometimes it’s all too easy to pass through places, to float in and out of them, and in doing so fail to scratch the surface, let alone dig deeply into their character and what they might have to offer visitors.

Such is the nature of travel, that there are several places that we could all, I am sure, think of like that.  I know I can, and Berlin is one place I didn’t get a chance to see properly.  The idea led me to think of what other places I enjoyed despite only fleeting visits. Those thoughts in turn led to this blog post.

I should clarify: this post refers to places that I didn’t have the chance to spend much time in but would gladly do so again.  It doesn’t include places I’d want to return to after merely passing through for transit reasons, perhaps changing flight or doing a brief stopover, or merely driving through (in which category I would include Singapore, Chicago, Munich, Christchurch and Dunedin, among doubtless many others).  Neither does it include places where I did have plenty time to do more than scratch the surface, but for whatever reason don’t in retrospect feel I dug as deeply as I could and should have (London, New York and, I think, Jerusalem would count here).  And obviously it’s not a “bucket list” of places I’ve not been to at all: that’s a list as long as a very, very long arm.

Specifically, then: places that I have spent only fleeting time in and with the best will in the world couldn’t have managed to do more, but to which I would gladly return.

And there are four of them that spring to mind.  No doubt there are more, but these are enough to be going on with.  The first, of course, is:

1. Berlin

(blog post | photos)


For some time I had had an interest in going to see an obscure country play football (cue predictable jokes about how Hampden isn’t that far away).  I was always quite taken by the plucky exploits of the likes of Iceland and the Faroe Islands, small European nations that have at times caused considerable shocks on the football field and, I’d guess, would rate among the top footballing nations in the world if results were weighted by population.

Plans materialised delightfully in two ways.  In June 2007 I spent a fantastic week in the Faroe Islands with Justin and Niall during which we saw the islanders take on both Scotland and Italy in 2008 World Cup qualifiers and perform very respectably in both games (blog posts 1|2 and photos). A few months prior to that, though, Justin and I headed to Riga for a long weekend, the primary purpose of which was to see Iceland in action against Latvia.  Not exactly up against giants of the game, Iceland still nevertheless disgraced themselves with a 4-0 humping.

Super GaysDue to the timing of flights, the trip necessitated twenty-four hours in Berlin en route.  And wow.  What a city.  We enjoyed our time in pretty little Riga, with its gorgeous old town and fascinating array of Art Deco architecture, but we both on reflection felt that Berlin had grabbed us much more in that short time.

I’d heard plenty about Berlin, a city regenerated and reformed after German reunification and the shift of the federal seat of government back to the nation’s historic capital, but a city which retained something of its bohemian cool.


I’m sure it’s rare for a city to be both a country’s “alternative” hub as well as its established capital (Edinburgh is one of the few other examples that springs instantly to mind), but Berlin seemed to manage it well.  From the little we saw in our overnight stay, the city blended the grandly historic, the engagingly gritty and the sharply modern, and blended them so well.

On top of that, of course, must be added two of the things that make Berlin, and Germany as  whole, so great: beer and sausages.  Any city that does beer and sausages so well really needn’t bother with anything else, because frankly I’m already won over.  But Berlin seemed to have so much more to offer.  And what little of it I saw, though, and the plenty that I’ve heard and read, suggests it’s well worth returning to.

2. Stromness

StromnessI’m a huge fan of both Orkney and Shetland, Scotland’s two most northerly island groups and last bastions of Liberal Democrat Holyrood constituency success.   I particularly love their capitals, Kirkwall and Lerwick respectively, two bustling towns whose tightly-packed old towns brim with proud history and fine architecture.

Aside from a long weekend in Shetland, however, I’ve seen little of either county outside work trips.  I have also tended to fly, meaning that in the case of Orkney I have had only fleeting glimpses of its second town, Stromness, the ferry port that takes you to Scrabster on the Scottish mainland.

But from what I remember of a rare ferry journey, I did have time before boarding for a brief walk up and down the main street of Stromness.  Like Kirkwall, it’s exudes a cute warmth, with a lovely main street, a peaceful aura and a well-kempt persona. Coming from the Western Isles, I at first glance found Orkney and Shetland quite a surprise because I didn’t know how prosperous and confident island towns could feel.  Stromness could, at a stretch, be quite comfortably transported to a southern English county and not look terribly out of place.

Of course, my first impressions of Stromness may be completely off the mark.  But you can only go on first impressions, even if a ten minute walk up and down the main street is all you have to go on; which is why Stromness is firmly on this list.

3. Toronto

Trawno skyline

As you’ll read in my forthcoming second mullet book (and I promise there’ll be an update on this in the coming weeks), I didn’t spend much time in Toronto during the Canadian leg of my mission.  Time simply did not allow.  I had only an afternoon of sightseeing that was spent mostly taking in the CN Tower, and then a quick jump from train to bus a few days later on my way back from Montreal to Barrie, the Ontario town which formed my main base while over there.

To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t hugely grabbed in those fleeting visits.  Toronto makes this list, however, purely on the back of what other people have told me.  It’s a lively, beautiful, engaging, cultured city with plenty happening and heaps to do and see.  It’s a hugely diverse place, ethnically and culturally.  Its people are very friendly.  That’s the sort of thing I hear, and there are hardly any negative messages to balance this out.  I clearly should go back to see more.

4. Granada


Towered over by the hill on which world-famous attraction Al Hambra stands, it’s easy to miss the city of Granada.  Nicole and I almost did on our trip to Spain in 2010 (about which I will be blogging in more depth in the near future), as we were due to spend that night elsewhere.

But before we departed we forced ourselves to head down the steep road into the city to see something of it, and we were glad we did.  Al Hambra was certainly a spectacle, but a crowded one; whereas Granada offered a little more space to breathe.

On top of that, it offered beautiful, ornate architecture; gorgeous churches; a friendly bustle; a mix of bold, wide main roads and mazy backstreets; and a real atmosphere of cultured and laid back self-contentment.

We had barely an hour or two in Granada, but like much of the places we saw in Spain it would be well worth a revisit to do more than scratch the surface.


4 thoughts on “Scratching surfaces

  1. I really would recommend going back to Toronto. At first glimpse it seemed too big and too shiny to me, but the more I explored the more I saw what it had to offer.

  2. Thanks for the tip Siobhan. I’ve yet to hear a bad thing about Toronto so I will add your weight to the recommendations.

    Simon – discounted due to being transit only. How are you getting on with your secret mission?

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