Cities and Towns in Europe
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.
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.
Little brother syndrome can strike any town playing second fiddle to the bigger and cooler capital city. Bulgaria's second largest city, Plovdiv, is a bit like this. While the town may not be as exciting as the capital, it's not without its attractions. The pedestrianized town centre is a pleasure to stroll around. And with an abundance of street-side cafes, bars and restaurants, you never have to go too far for nourishment. The flowery pastels of the new town are in stark contract to the nearby old town. With an ancient history, remains of Roman amphitheatre and a seemingly endless supply of odeons and stadiums are scattered about the slightly more modern medieval old town. It's a easy and convenient mix of old and newish to suit all temporal tastes.
The compact capital of Bulgaria is strangely captivating with its dilapidated worn beauty. Golden domed churches stand side by side with grey Eastern Bloc buildings and monuments. Though Sofia isn’t big on tourist sights, the city is a rewarding acquaintance with its flavours of both the East and the West. To really capture the spirit of Sofia, do as the locals, hang around in one of the many green parks. With towering Mt. Vitosha (2290m) right at the doorstep, you can also go hiking or skiing during the day and be back at Sofia in the evening relaxing in a bistro with a bottle of Bulgarian wine or a cold local beer.
Veliko Tarnovo was a place fit for kings... literally. The one time capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185 and 1396) the "modern" town of Tarnovo abound with remnants of a mightier past. While the crown in the jewel, the ruined fortress of Tsarevets, is now little more than a collection of rocks on a hill piled around a rebuilt church, the setting is still lovely. But the town is not a one-hit wonder. A variety of churches, forts, cascading Santorini-esque buildings and museums provide more then enough to fill a couple days. Plus being on the main train line between Europe and Turkey can't hurt much. It is here that a traveller can get the best glimpse right into Bulgaria's royal past.
Zagreb is low on major sights, but this just mean you can enjoy the charm of the city without the hordes of tourists. The city is split into two parts, the handsome upper part and the ordinary lower part. The upper part is for sightseeing and pleasure, while the lower end is where life is lived. The few must-see places include Zagreb Cathedral, St. Mark's church (picture) and the vegetable market, but else Zagreb is best enjoyed by strolling aimlessly around. As with any capital in Eastern Europe the nightlife is good. Bar-lined Tkalciceva street turns into a public catwalk at nighttime with outdoor couches and affordable drinks - what more do you wish for.
While Kyrenia has the pretty setting and cute harbour, Famagusta has the grand historical buildings. The city flourished in the early 14th century, when it suddenly became one of the most important city in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then it got sacked numerous times throughout history. Luckily, there are still some fine sights left, which include the ancient Venetian city wall and the cathedral-turned-mosque of Lala Mustafa Pasha. The cathedral was original built during Famagusta's heyday, but got damaged during the Ottoman invasion in 1571 and then right afterwards converted to a mosque by having a minaret added - all of which can be seen today.
Picturesque Kyrenia (in Turkish Girne) is Northern Cyprus' little gem. It's an ancient town with a cute harbour on a backdrop of rugged mountains. Right next to the harbour rises the equal pretty 16th century castle of Kyrenia, which was built by the Venetians. Though the waterfront is Kyrenia's focal point, the maze of streets and back alleys in the Old Town is begging for a wander. As Kyrenia is the tourist capital of Northern Cyprus, there are plenty of hotels and restaurants.
Limassol is not only the second biggest city on Cyprus, but also a big resort town. Where Ayia Napa to the east is all about party, and Paphos to the west is more tranquil with great historical sights, Limassol is more cosmopolitan and classy. The long pretty waterfront is palm lined with bicycle tracks, playgrounds, and trendy cafes. The same classy renovation has Limassol's Old Town been through. For beaches, you need to head to the almost endless (at least if looking towards south) Lady's Mile Beach a few kilometres south of town, or Governor's Beach about 30 km to the east.