Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Hot springs in Tunisia: Hammam Bourguiba and Korbous

Hammam Bourguiba, in lushly green mountains just 4 km from the Algerian border, is where elderly posh Tunisians come to soak themselves in mineral water back to health. It is rather pricey, although occasionally they offer very yummy discounts. It gets very busy at weekends: make sure to book a room facing the resort's verdant surroundings rather than a steep precipice right behind it. 

Wifi internet (in public areas) may be free in Hammam Bourguiba, but, like most other posh establishments, they charge for everything else. Every visit to the hot spring water pools or the hammam will cost you a few euro although we did manage to sneak in. Tunisians wear rather, or sometimes very, conservative swimmwear, but no one bats an eyelid at foreigners wearing skimpy speedos (like yours truly).

Hammam Bourguiba is 

The intensely picturesque Korbous is at the other end of Northern Tunisia. It used to be hip with the with-it crowd of the yesteryear: whereto the evidence are its lovely architecture and an expertly put together station thermale, a spa treatment outlet.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Driving in Tunisia

This is based on our 10-day drive across Northern Tunisia from the Cap Bon to Tabarka.

  1. Tunisians overall come across as easy-going and friendly, greatly tolerant of foreign visitors. Short pants and liquor are nothing novel and strange in Tunisia.
  2. The common Tunisian driving manner is neither aggressive nor dangerous, as the Foreign Office would have you believe. It is rather reckless, if considerate.

  3. Cars in Tunis, the capital, are usually parked bumper to bumper. How they manage to get in or out is beyond me.
  4. The two above must be the reason behind the staggering amount of dents and scratches on Tunisian cars.
  5. That is probably why renting a car from one of the major international rental companies is rather pricey in Tunisia. We got ours from a local one at the airport for about half the price. It worked out just fine. Beware of one named SGF though: they gave us a smaller car when we paid for but when we pointed that out,  their representative just drove away leaving us at the airport at 10PM.

  6. The roads are mostly in good condition, however, they are quite busy so count on the average speed outside the péage (tollway) to be about 40 kmph.
  7. Police road checks are frequent, thanks to the recent US import of the War on Terrorism and the Culture of Fear. Speaking only English normally gets you waved by.
  8. The country is beautiful and the people are friendly as long as you stay away from the tourist beach resorts in the Sahel area, roughly from Hammamet to Djerba, where the unsightly scenes of modern misdevelopment are galore.
  9. Exercise caution and common sense when offered love and companionship by feral beach gigolos. They are not after your pretty stuff, they are after your money.
  10. Tunisian wine has apparently improved recently. Fingers crossed, this trend will continue. It can be purchased in the alcohol sections of bigger supermarkets.
  11. Wine tasting in the European sense is yet unheard of, although apparently some companies organise bus tours.
  12. The best supermarket chain is, hands down, Géant. It is almost comparable to the Middle East's very splendid Lulu.
  13. No going hungry in Tunisia: you will find some kind of eatery on any given corner, city or the countryside.
  14. Many hotels, especially outside tourist areas, have no websites are are substantially cheaper than those that do. However, they tend to get full quickly, especially on weekends.
  15. French will get you much farther than English. Learn some beforehand.

Road trip in South Africa

This is based on our 3-week road trip across South Africa on Easter 2013 from Swaziland to Cape Town to Lambert's Bay.

  1. Horror stores of daily carnage on highways are mere scare-mongering. The roads are good and traffic rules are commonly obeyed.
  2. Contrary to the popular perception there are no criminals running with gory hatchets after you to be seen. The countryside is relaxed and peaceful. In the cities, exercise normal caution as you would in any big city.
  3. The traffic lights are known as robot.
  4. Wine tasting in Paarl and Franschehoek are extremely well organised and are a great cultural and culinary experience. Go for the full monty (60 rand) in Fairview, an experience to remember.
  5. Book bungalows in Kruger as soon as possible. They are an amazing value and get full very quickly.
  6. The life standard divide is still mostly along the race lines, now more a testament to how, once entrenched, things in any society will keep perpetuating themselves because "this  is how it's done".
  7. Many guest houses and small hotels have braai (barbeque) facilities. Stock up on local meat specialties and have yourself a nice slow-food dinner.
  8. The best supermarket chain is Spar. It is the only place where we found, for example, pressed fruit juice. Their bakeries are also rather reliable.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Hot springs in South Africa: Caledon and Citrusdal Baths

Hot springs in South Africa: Caledon and Citrusdal Baths.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Driving in Sri Lanka: a first-hand account

Well, now time to share our hands-on experience of driving in Sri-Lanka.

1) Defo for VERY experienced drivers only.

2) Forget all what they taught you in the driving school.

3) Swerve, dodge, swerve, dodge. Repeat all over again.


5) It takes A LOT of time to get around, super lucky if you make 40 km per hour on the average.

6) Roads designated as National Highways on the map may very well be dirt tracks, impassable after rain. 

7) Go for a no-stick car, will spare you a repetitive motion injury when in traffic jams, which are common even in rural areas: roads are replete with bottlenecks.

8) Go for at least a compact car with minimum a 1.6-litre engine. You will need a very good pick-up for the mountain roads and especially for taking over.

Sri Lankans make good for all the hassles of travelling in the country, superbly courteous and unfailingly friendly. It is impossible to believe how the same people could wage a bloody civil war for decades on. Go figure, human nature.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Singapore - the Equatorial Utopia

I always thought Singapore was a short ride from Kuala Lumpur. An hour flight, it turns out. My first one with AirAsia, a South-East Asian budget airline. In Europe, the airborne cattle-movers easyJet and RyanAir would charge me an arm and a leg for my two hefty bags but here AirAsia ground staff did not blink an eye seeing me schlepping all my luggage into the cabin. It is nice not to worry about extra weight for once - just to sit back and inhail the tantalising smells of nasi lemak and phad thai wafting from the .

Singapore's shiny Changi stops us in our tracks right away. By far and large I share Prince Charles's views on modern architecture (vile and ugly) but this paragon of modern airports: efficient, beautiful and full of hedonistic surprises. For two hours we wonder through its airy spaces past the never-ending rows of hip eateries, whimsically shaped walls, ... It is so huge, the crowds get dispersed here to the point of near imperceptibility. Like primeval Mumbo-Jumbo we gape at newspaper-, can- and battery-shaped recyclable garbage disposal machines. A mere designer gimmick? Perhaps, but they sure don't cost more than the ubiquitous rows of putrid wheelie bins that clutter the vast expanses of London's cityscape.

- Would you like some change? a uniformed lady sneaks up on us as we frisk our pockets for dosh to buy tickets at Changi metro station. She gives us coins in exchange for our banknotes and punches the right buttons on the vending machine. Singapore's Big Brother is already taking a very good care of his visitors.

The metro train is roomy, noiseless and air-conditioned just to the notch where you feel neither heat nor cold. I can't help but to compare it to the rickety rides in the Tube's rat tunnels. I would love Bob Crow and Boris Johnson take a ride here and comment on Britain's former colony beating it with a stick to a clean, cheap and efficient public transportation.

My fellow metro riders' clothes are crying that we are in the First World, real, unashamed about its love for quality, just like in Switzerland and Japan - simple flattering cuts, clean colours and quality fabrics - nothing like the inexplicable Northern European penchant for deliberate grunge and grime in fashion.

I am so glad I'm in Asia again: I don't need to walk more than a couple of minutes for delicious and inexpensive food. My stomach is grunting for a refuel. Right across the road from our hotel in Little India a 24-hour food court is sending aromas of freshly cooked food wafting through the hot humid air. A sudden torrential downpour brings a bit of cool as we tuck in our lunch: orange laksa (seafood and tofu noodles in thick and spicy coconut broth), big pink prawns in a bowl of mee noodles and a classic plate of steamed rice and sides: stir-fried greens, chicken in black bean sauce and what I would describe as a tastier and healthier Chinese version of Yorkshire pudding made from a soft fried tofu shell and flavoured mashed potatoes. The shakes I picked at the juice stall do not get any more exotic: soursop and kedondong. Both are refreshingly sourish sweet and the tall glasses contain enough liquid to quench our flight dehydration.

There is a lot of slagging off Singaporean authorities for being insensitive to architectural heritage. I really do not understand where that comes from. This is perhaps the only city in the region that takes its vernacular architecture seriously: not as a nuisance to modern development but something to cherish as well as make profit from. The brightly painted façades of the ubiquitous Chinese Straits style
overlook cleanly swept pavements while restaurants, shops and small company offices are bustling with life and tons of entrepreneurial spirit. Although the standard high-rise apartments blocks are everywhere, the city has its own distinct low-rise face, that is almost invariably neglected in the rest of South-East Asian cities in favour of modern structures.

Blend of old and new is such an overused expression but it works in Singapore. Take Komala's, a South Indian fast food chain: the much emulated McDonald's concept of set menus and getting food at the counter here is combined with eating spicy curries off a banana leaf by hand. A bhattura (puff pastry), a poppadam, a mound of cashew fried rice, a veg curry, a dahl (curried lentils) and raitha (yoghurt-based salad) to be followed by a small cup of clove-flavoured sweet concoction for dessert. No soda, mango juice please - and, voilà, an exotic vegetarian meal for about EUR 3.50!

I spot a lovely sight of two besaried Indian ladies fixing themselves a glass of teh tarek, Malaysia's national drink. They really take their time pouring hot milk tea from one glass into another to make froth. It's a cultural ritual. In this land that, in all likelihood, had never known famines, it is not merely about feeding your face, it's about having oyur food and drink just the way it tastes best.

Happily bupring we walk out into Little India that, true to its name, is a piece of the subcontinent brimming with brash colours, pungent aromas, arrays of flower garlands,and tiers of colourful gods and godesses.

Food, food, food, people are eating everywhere. Streets are plastered with colourful menus luring you with the sights of colourful dishes. They say Chinaman's life revolves around three things: family, money and food and the rest are just props for those three pillars. I kind of understand this philosophy of the folks who have survived close on five millennia of hardship: at the end of the day what matters is your close ones and their well-being. If you can't provide for them and make sure your life continued, you're a failure.

- Liu lian yi ge! - I try my macaronic Chinese on this ice-cream vendor when English communication fails. I want a durian popsicle but it takes me 20 minutes to get it as a whole Chinese family surrounds the stall and outshouts my . Singapore projects a self-image of an English-speaking nation but most people I meet here use Singlish - a local Pidgin variety heavy on dialectal Chinese and Malay borrowings. Singapore's claim for four national langauges - English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil - holds even less water: your average Singaporean Joe Blow from the street will speak a Chinese dialect as a mother tongue, a degree of Singlish and most likely hardly any Malay and definitely no Tamil. But I do like this melange of cultures living their own merry lives quite separately, yet influencing each other in a variety of subtle ways.

I expected Singapore to be a squeaky clean police state where spots of dirt are banished for eternity and chewing gum lovers are caned into pulp right on the pavement. In reality, it has nothing to do with the scarecrow image of a sterile dictatorship that Western media is fond of using. There is just enough of a touch of delightful tropical funk but none of that nasty man-made kind like plastic bags, discarded packaging and

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Thailand's top baker's dozen

"Oh Thailand, it's so boring: the Emerald Buddha, floating markets and massage parlours! How many more times"?" My London-based Russian friend Sergey won't hear about going to the Land of Smiles again. He has obviously fallen victim of mass package tourism and laklustre travel articles in The Telegraph. What a shame.

I understand the rationale of mass tour operators
': they need to market something the hoi polloi would  want but what's with travel writers? Many Travel & Food hacks remind me of monkeys in the zoo who were taught how to masturbate. They completely forget about normal mating and jack themselves off into exhaustion. At times, it seems like there is nothing else to travel writing but perpetuating stereotypes. Amsterdam = drugs and whores. Moscow = vodka and matryoshka. Inscrutable Orient. Sexy Brazil. Romantic Paris.

If I were an editor or a PR agency exec, you would need to hold me at gunpoint to commission articles from that kind of crap-spinners. If I ruled the universe, I would have their foreheads tattoed for offputting advertisers
and sabotaging tourist arrival numbers.

On the other hand, what can you find out about a place on an all-paid press trip with a tight schedule? You are hauled around in an aircon coach on a pre-programmed tour and expected to come up with something punchy by the time your airplane's landing gear hits home soil.

Perhaps, after all there is some social value to writing tips about the tired sightseeing circle for the first-time visitor. They are in every glossy magazine as well asplastered all over the internet. My mission is entirely different: to share some insider knowledge of the country where I spent six happy years entirely submerged in the local culture. So there we go, Thailand.

1. Open up your mind and try some durian. I know I am biased, addicted even. But Thais do not call this superbly delicious custard-like fruit King of Fruit for nothing. The reason is because no other fruit tastes better, like creamy fruity custard. Thanks to modern farming techniques, durian is available throughout the year. However, the best season for durians is from May to June, closer to the end of the hot season that has let the fruit ripe fully and before the rainy season kicks in, watering down the flavour. Durian is a yang fruit, it gives what in Chinese medicine they call "heat". To counteract that, Thai people always eat mangosteen (mankhud in Thai) after durian. Also known the Queen of Fruit, mangosteen has delicately scented white succulent flesh encapsulated in thick dark purple rind. Tastewise, it is a cross of strawberries, kiwi and melon. As a yin fruit it "cools down" the human body.

Tip: Never wash down durian with alcohol: it will make you really sick, in worst cases it can prove even lethal.
2. Try street hawkers' food. It is safe and superbly tasty. In six years in Thailand, I never got sick a single time. Quite often roadside delicacies taste better than restaurant fare. There are hundreds types of Thai dishes. Try each at least once, it will only set you back half a euro a dish. The chances are you will fall in love with each of them, but if you don't like it you don't have to finish it.

Tip: For the uninitiated, air-conditioned food courts in shopping malls may be a safer bet. The heat and din outside need some time to get used to.

Another tip: First few days lean off really spicy food. You can get a run not from the bacteria but from too much chillies that will irritate the lining of your stomach and bowels. A glass of soya milk, also commonly sold in the street, before the meal can help prevent that.

Yet another tip: If the food burns your mouth, don't drink water, have more rice! Water will remove the protective layer of saliva on your tongue, rice will absorb the spice.

Night markets can be fun to shop at but only if you are good at haggling. Otherwise, head out straight to shopping malls and department stores for amazing bargain hunting. Thailand, tagging along the US of A as a sale paradise. Even the poshest outlets offer amazing discounts throughout the year. Thai people are fussy dressers and are very apt at fashion design. For clothes and shoes I would recommend MBK Center, Isetan, Zen, Emporium. The clothes section at Big C department stores often stock good and inexpensive basic casual clothes. Siam Square is chockablock with hundreds of boutiques.
4. Good seafood is for you to enjoy anywhere in Bangkok, but there is a hidden gem for true connoisseurs of marine life cooked in spices and herbs. If you can drive and know a few words of Thai, try Hat Mae Ramphueng, a long stretch of white-sand beach in Rayong Province strewn with fishing villages, a 2-hour drive from Bangkok. Freshly caught seafood is cooked right there on the beach and costs half what you'd pay in Bangkok. Pick your prey from the big tanks with live fish, crustaceans and shellfish, pay by the kilo, cooking fee is included. Certain ways of cooking suit certain types of seafood better: for example, lock lobsters (kang) are the best stir-fired with toasted garlic, cockles ought to be grilled with butter and oyster sauce, fresh-water prawn just need to be put on charcoals, then gorged upon with a lime and chili dip. If you are unsure of how you want yours done, leave to the cook, Thais know best!
5. Thai people adore all things nice, pleasurable and convenient. That is why they invented cut fruit sold in the streets. Ten baht gets you a nice portion of skinned/peeled/stoned fruit, chilled on ice and chopped into bite sizes for your enjoyment. Why buy a whole watermelon and try to finish it all, when you can pick a bit of every favourite fruit and relish it without any fuss?
6. For a real (yet safe and cushy) jungle adventure try elephant trekking. It is very much like regular trekking, only you do it atop an elephant with a mahout (elephant driver), who will also put up your tent and cook your dinner. Elephant trekking is a huge business in Chiang Mai but for the pressed for time Kanchanaburi, west of Bangkok, is a more convenient choice.
7. Ancient City is a true hidden gem. A humongous safari park just outside Bangkok Proper, it is shaped like Thailand and has a meticulously made life-size copy of every historical building or monument in the country. On top of that, it is a beautifully maintained park with peacocks and deer roaming around sandalwood gazebos, lotus ponds and Chinese rockeries. It can be explored on foot, by bike or by car. I recommend cycling around as it is too big for walking and too fine to wizz around by car.

Tip: The replica of a Thai village on stilts standing in the midst of a large pond is host to several restaurants serving quite decent grub at reasonable, not tourist prices.
8. The Thai food that most of us are familiar with is Central Thai food. However, Thailand knows three more very distinctive cuisines: Northern, North-Eastern and Southern. Burmese-influenced Northern food hails from what used to be the ancient kingdom of Lanna, it is milder and uses different herbs. Laotian-influenced North-Eastern food originates in the arid plains of Isarn, it is spicier and uses sticky rice instead of jasmine one. Southern cuisine lean towards Malay style of cooking and uses different combinations of herbs and spices. You can try them all in Bangkok but for the authentic experience it is very well worth your while travelling to those regions.

Most representative foods by the region.
  • Northern: khao soy, khanom jiin nam ngiao, nam prik ong, naem, kaeb muu, muu yor, nam phrik num, kaeng hang lae, kaeng khanun.
  • Isarn: tam bak hung, larb, nam tok, tom saeb.
  • Southern: massaman curry, roti, tamarind prawns.

9. You probably won't believe me: real Thai massage has nothing to do with hanky-panky. In fact, unlike in the West, the massaged even stays dressed in a sort of pyjamas. When I lived in Bangkok, my every (other) weekend I would go to Marble House, a well-established massage parlour for my two hours of mildly masochistic pleasure. It is called differently now but it is still situated in the Silom area, off Surawong Road, next door to Arima Onsen, a rival massage parlour frequented mostly by Japanese expats.
10. Multi-million Bangkok has less than a handful of public parks, so it is a rare treat to have a picnic in the nicely maintained Lumphini Park. The skyscrapers is Silom looming over lush tropical vegetation are a fine backdrop for a sushi bento set I love to buy at Isetan. The swish department store is three bus stops up the road but the made to perfection sushi are well worth the trip. The sushi stall is in the food court right after the checkout counters on the 5th floor, while fantastically fresh sashimi can be found in the very back of the supermarket's fish section.

Thailand is not all about carnal pleasures and retail therapy. If you want to discover the real self, learn the art of living, get a glimpse into the nature of things or, perhaps, all of the three, make the time for a 10-day meditation course at one of Vipassana retreats. Non-congregational, they are strictly halal and kosher and won't offend any religious sensitivities. You only learn the technique by which the Buddha attained his Enlightenment. They are run on a voluntary basis, no pre-payment, no donations are extorted, it is up to you whether and how much to give. While by no means a pleasure cruise, Vipassana courses provide a perfect environment for self-discovery.

12. In the evening, dress up and go to the rooftop Vertigo Bar & Restaurant in the Westin Banyan Tree Hotel on South Sathorn. Enjoy a classy vibe to the soft sounds of classic jazz overlooking the lights of Bangkok sprawling at your feet from horizon to horizon.

Thai vegetable seeds are available in the fruit and veg sections of most supermarkets. If you are into gardening like yours truly or his parents, you will appreciate fresh exotic produce straight from your kitchen garden. Water spinach (phak bung) and Thai basil (burapha) are easy to grow even in moderate climates.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Canada & USA: Nouvelle France & New England Road Trip (Toronto to Quebec & Maine And Back Via the Niagara Falls)

There is nothing like the kick of poignant nostalgia when travelling in what once used to be mighty empires and awe-inspiring sovereigns nowadays cut to a more modest size. The grandeur of Egyptian pyramids now stranded amidst the desert or Mayan temples overgrown by the jungle makes you wonder of the drive and authority behind their construction. Recognising traces of yesteryear in today’s trivialities can unravel a dramatic historical yarn of rivalry, ambition and bloodshed.

New France stretched in its heyday from the arctic Hudson Bay to sultry New Orleans. But Ancien Régime in metropolitan France scoffed at its own “few acres of snow” in the New World and never gave it much time of the day. Unloved and neglected, a colossal colonial dominion started disintegrating under English and Spanish attacks. Like of a southward drifting iceberg, piece after piece kept breaking off until all left was just St. Pierre and Miquelon, a token speck of the Euro-zone off Newfoundland coast little known even in France.

The rest vanished without a trace steamrolled by a young and energetic American culture. The chance to make coq au vin and crocque monsieur world’s lunch staples was lost to the burger and two veggies gastronomy. Rustic etouffé and delightfully Gallic wrought-iron balconies still survive in central New Orleans but hardly anyone considers France the Old Country there and the language is all but extinct.

Against all odds, the descendants of ‘tall and blond Gauls’ are however alive and well in the St. Lawrence River’s estuary. Besieged on all sides by a continuous Anglo-cultural assault, Canada’s French-speaking province of Quebec sustains a vibrant economy and an active cultural life. There has even been a constant talk of independence last few decades: in the 1995 referendum Quebecois secessionists lost only by a razor-thin margin.

Unlike its northern neighbour, New England broke up up with the Mother Ship and went her own merry way to expand as far as to the South Pacific islands and the Russian Arctic Border. Like an old mother gaping in amazement at her giant son, wondering how ever it came out of her womb, Britain is keen on maintaining a special relationship with its former colonial offspring. France, on the other hand, always seems uneasy to give a hug to her long lost bastard child.

As the global warming is slowly but surely clearing up the Arctic ice, we may be not that far away from the time when gaily lit-up cruise liners will be taking throngs of aloha shirt wearing margarita-swillers on tours around Canadian islands. Until that day or until the Russians build a bridge to Alaska or the Germans resume flying their zeppelins, airplane is the only way to go to Canada. No-frills Air Transat flies straight from major European and American cities to many destinations in Canada. straight to Quebec’s largest city, Montreal. It is a kind of sub-polar Paris with great cuisine, grand French-style buildings, cobbled streets in the historic quarter and 32 kilometres of underground shopping malls to enjoy retail therapy throughout the year.

Tip: If you feel bad about renting cars on your vacations, cycle everywhere when home like yours truly does. It will be your contribution to offsetting China building a power station a day.


Toronto - Hip And Laid-Back

Toronto is a sort of laid-back cross of London and New York: skyscrapers mixed with Victorian Gothic, the subway, the urban retail bonanza, the multiethnic mélange in the streets. I am not a big fan of modern architecture but Toronto's skyline is just beautiful. Even the bromide concrete-and-glass boxes of office buildings look friendly. North American generosity with space is married here to British attention to social matters: the streets are wide, clean and free of crime, you can eat well and cheap, you can drive everywhere but you don't have to. Other cities may have more Rolls Royces, casinos and overpriced restaurants, but Toronto has the real quality of life: clean air, good water, safe streets (homicide rate alone 24 times as low as in Washington, D.C), good education, excellent healthcare, cultural diversity and racial tolerance. Just a short ferry ride and you are on the Toronto Islands, a huge recreation area with an official nudist beach - not bad for the city formerly known as the Methodist Rome.

Chinese, Portuguese, Korean, Jamaican, Greek, Filipino, Maltese, Indian, Polish and Vietnamese neighbour- hoods sit cheek by jowl in this cosmopolitan city: 49% percent of the population here were born abroad, in fact, the same percentage as in Amsterdam. And just like there one shall never want for exotic foodstaffs in Toronto as every cuisine of the world is represented, truly my idea of paradise! As an expert in the field, I guarantee that sushi here are none worse than what you get in Japan.

Once your stomach is stuffed with ethnic delicacies, your attention may turn to culture. If you speak enough English, you won't feel deprived. After New York and London, Toronto is the third largest centre for English language theatre in the world. I did not make it to a performance by the Toronto Ballet, Opera or Symphony Orchestra that all were on vacation in June but at least the Ballet must be good even if because it was here that Baryshnikov defected to in 1974 and even before him Nureyev danced here in 1965.

The (formerly) cheaper Canadian dollar, affectionately called the loonie, contributed to Toronto's rise as the fourth largest media centre in North America after LA, NYC and Chicago. A lot of TV and movie productions that we think as quintessentially American were made here. Even in Sex And The City Samantha's hunky boyfriend goes to film on a location in Canada. Toronto routinely 'plays' New York, while parts of Montreal are used for European sets.

Hollywood alone outsourced no fewer than 1,500 movies to Canada lured by the so-
called Film Production Services Tax Credit. Essentially it is a 16-percent rebate to any foreigner who would care to shoot a film on the Canadian soil. Smart, isn't it? Even more than you think as it comes with a catch: either the director or the screenwriter and one of the two highest paid actors must be Canadian. Those Canucks are not laid-back and simple as it turns out!

Unlike many other global cities, Toronto is a place where you don't have to be rich to have a good life. It may be Canada's most expensive city to live but here you will not see US-style urban decay and poverty, the deal here is more Western European Canada may have been wise enough to stay under the British Crown after all.


Ottawa - A Marriage Of Convenience

A lot of critics lambasting Ottawa's architecture as staid and boring. That is a bit unfair. It may be a somewhat studied attempt to blend Canada’s Anglo and Gallic identities but it belies the city's origins as a compromise for the rivalry between Toronto and Montreal, there is no way of escaping that. A common Canadian identity at least tried to cool down the centuries-old rivalry imported from the Old World. The result, a certain Châteauesque Neo-Gothic does have an attractive gravitas but in terms of establishing a national unity through architecture it proved still-born.

It never went beyond symbolic nor took root outside Ottawa’s central square mile overlooking the sulking Gatineau filled with post-modern monstrosities right across the river in Québec. Hotels de ville in the Québec countryside look straight from the Loire Valley while in the rest of Canada they draw inspiration from the British Isles. Two Canadas are still enjoying quite parallel existences culturally, never learning each other's languages beyond the required school minimum. A lucky exception, Montreal may be happily bilingual but you will only annoy Torontonians if you accost them in French (tried that!) and Québec City is happy to pretend to be thousands miles away from the USA (in fact, a 2-hour drive).

Heritage politics always naturally come up when talking about Canada but such cultural divides aside Ottawa is a very pleasant city. Clean, green and agreeably laid out, its historical neighbourhoods have never been bulldozed. Mercer claims it to be North America's least expensive city to live while Moody gives it a whopping AAA in recognition of the city's long history of smart financial policies. I wish more Americans brought up scared of "the Big Government" would go to see how people live in their neighbour's "bureaucracy-ridden" capital.