Cities and Towns in Europe
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Capital of Albania
Tirana is a lot nicer than its reputation. Lots of open spaces, green parks, a few low-key sights to tick off, and, most surprisingly, a normal functional city. Sure, some buildings are still decorated with socialist mosaics, nouveau-riche are whizzing by in black Hummers, and most roads are potholed - just like in the rest of Albania, but Tirana is a fascinating place to explore - and it doesn't hurt that the nightlife is as vivacious as in the rest of Eastern Europe.
Andorra la Vella
Capital of Andorra
Andorra is tiny and so is its capital Andorra la Vella. The name literally means "Andorra the old", which unfortunately only refers to a small fraction of the otherwise modern mountain town. Its setting is pretty along a raging river at the bottom of a valley with gorgeous views of mountain peaks. Andorra la Vella isn't known for much other than being the highest capital in Europe (altitude 1023 m) and for its tax-free shopping. The main streets are lined with shops selling any combination of electronic goods, booze, cigarettes and sports gear, and get easily clogged up with power shoppers from Spain. However, the town is more than cheap sneakers and traffic jams. Even though there aren't many sights within the town itself, it makes a perfect base for exploring the rest of Andorra, where any place can be reached within a hour - on traffic-jam free days.
Short drive from Andorra la Vella
Ordino is one of the most charming towns in Andorra. There are old traditional stone houses, a 12th century church and even a few cute winding streets where no concrete buildings are in sight. Trekking trails of varying degrees of difficulty lead into the mountains and for those less active, there are pretty views of the valley from the tourist office. Like any town in Andorra, it's a short bus ride from Andorra la Vella and even closer to the skiing area at La Massana, making Ordino a good option as a base while in Andorra.
Pas de la Casa
On the border to France
A few hundred metres from the French border lies the ugly town of Pas de la Casa. It's a wonderfully strange blend of tax-free shopping and ski resort. Big parking lots filled with cars and tourist buses take up the first part of town. The middle part is the shopping zone lined with shops selling anything from grocery, cigarettes, chocolate and booze to sports gear, motorcycle equipment and souvenirs, along with a few trashy fashion stores and sexy lingerie boutiques. The last part of town lies at the foot of the mountains and is devoted to skiing. There are breathtaking 180 degrees panoramic views of the mountains and the ski slopes run right into town, within mere metres to all the hotels, restaurants and après-ski bars.
Goris town is different from many other Armenian towns. The majority of the houses are made in stone with red roofs making all the streets look the same. Shady trees line the hilly streets and there are hardly any ugly Soviet buildings in sight. The town is nested in a bowl of green hills and on the outskirts of the town, you find the cemetery and what can be best described as a "mini Cappadocia" - natural limestone pillars with cave dwellings which, these days, are mostly used as stables for cattle and napping for the herdsmen in the fierce summer heat. Goris is the travel hub for Nagorno-Karabakh and Iran and makes a great base while exploring the area.
Capital of Armenia
Yerevan is a strange mix of drab Soviet-era apartment blocks, imposing Stalinist masterpieces and new-but-not-finished real estate projects. Even though it is one of the longest inhabited cities in the world, not many buildings pre-20th-century remain, due to the extensive city reconstruction that happened during the Soviet years and which was not fully implemented until recently with the finishing of the Northern Avenue. But this being Armenia, and not Eastern Europe, the street scene is extremely lively with a never-ending range of cafes, some very flamboyant with outdoor couches. Central Yerevan is small and walkable, so you can see the major sights within a day or two. The main sights are Cascade (Soviet monument turned not-completed contemporary art museum), Republic Square (former Lenin Square), Opera House and the surrounding cafe area and Vernissage Market during the weekends... oh, and the majestic views of Mt. Ararat on clear days from the top of Cascade.
Capital of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic
© John Smith
The capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, has a strong post-war feeling. The streets are potholed and ramshackle apartment blocks look like brick patchwork, but the handful of shiny new or soon-to-be-finished buildings witness the coming change to Stepanakert. As in Armenia, street life is vibrant and the fine renovated central park gets packed with young and old in the evenings when the heat is loosing its suffocating grip (in summertime). There are several fairgrounds for kids and the locals never seem to be tired of walking up and down the main street. Stepanakert is one of those towns that don't seem appealing at first, but it will grow on you.
Brest is a lively town on the border with Poland with more hustle and bustle than other towns in Belarus. The northern part of the town is more grim than the rest, and is home to the characterful central market covered by a massive dome, which must hold some kind of record regarding size. The streets are buzzing with people where street vendors sell the usual Eastern Bloc selection of underwear and tablecloth. The main attraction in Brest is of course the Brest Fortress, a Soviet monument for WWII which is within walking distance from downtown. Other points of interest are the mandatory Lenin statue, a couple of beautiful Orthodox churches with shiny cupolas, and the newer Resurrection Church, the biggest church in Belarus.
Hrodna is in Belarusian terms a pretty town. Due to the fact that it wasn't hit hard during WWII, the architecture goes further back than the 1950s. There are several beautiful Orthodox churches with sparkling onion-shaped domes and even a dilapidated synagogue that is under reconstruction - apparently the oldest in Belarus. There is less of the usual Soviet architecture here, although a statue of Lenin and tanks on columns are still part of the urban landscape, and there are lovely green pockets, particularly along the river.
Capital of Belarus
Minsk is everything you expect of a capital in country that seems to be stuck in a Soviet time capsule and controlled by an iron fist. Since the city was totally demolished during WWII, it was rebuilt as a model Soviet city. That means lots of Soviet-era monumental architecture, expansive squares, broad boulevards and never-ending rows of grey apartment blocks. There are uniformed officials everywhere and to this day, visitors still have to be watchful when snapping photos. But all this blandness doesn't mean Minsk is boring, quite the contrary. Maybe to forget the tense political situation, the people like to drink and party. And for people watching, nowhere in the Eastern Bloc is the parade of long-legged ladies on stilettos greater than here in Minsk, even in winter when sidewalks are covered in ice.