Author: Petra Hurtado
Do you look at cities horizontally or vertically? I am an urban planner by education, and one of my professors at the Vienna University of Technology once said that the main difference between urban planners and architects is that architects work vertically from a worm’s-eye view, and urban planners work horizontally from a bird’s-eye view. I guess I can blame it on my profession that usually the first thing I do, when exploring a city, is to go on top of the highest building, mountain, or whatever else sticks out of the ground, to look at the city horizontally from a bird’s-eye view. Almost obsessed, I start every city trip with research on where I can go to see the city from above.
This need for a bird’s-eye view of every city I’ve been to made me climb thousands of stairs in dark and narrow church towers all over Europe; walk up to amphitheaters, citadels, and hills in the Middle East; ride cable cars or horse backs up to the hills and mountains of Latin America; and take ear-popping elevators in the steel and glass canyons of the U.S.
Looking at a city from a bird’s-eye view doesn’t just tell you the color of the rooftops; it is like looking at a living city map or a storybook that tells the entire history of the city, including stories that you would otherwise not see.
When I travelled to Seville, Spain, naturally, the first thing I did was to go on top of the bell tower of the Catedral de Santa María de la Sede de Sevilla (the Seville Cathedral), the largest Gothic cathedral and the third-largest church in the world. Its 100-meter-high bell tower, la Giralda, used to be the minaret of the mosque that once was there during the Moorish period of Al-Andalus; the perfect place to start my tour. There was no elevator (or at least, I couldn’t find one), but what I saw from up there was definitely worth the physical effort.
The view was almost surreal, magical, it was indescribably beautiful. The horizontal view presented a paradise of colors like a paintbox of a little child that just learned how to use watercolors. Palm trees and lemon trees; white, orange, and red rooftop terraces, some with patches of blue swimming pools; purple spots of bougainvillea on every corner; tree lined streets and parks meandering through the colorful aquarelle; a blue line on the horizon, the Guadalquivir River. A spectacle of colors almost like the tiny brush strokes of an impressionist painting. One of the many pictures I had taken I printed on canvas later, and it is still hanging on the wall of my living room. It is better than any Monet.
In the distance, I could see the Plaza de Toros, Seville‘s bullfight arena. Immediately, the melody of “Si tu m’aimes, Carmen” was stuck in my head, and I had to think of Carmen and her bullfighter Escamillo, and how she got stabbed by Jose in the last act of the opera.
Suddenly a tour guide who passed by with a group of tourists woke me from my daydream, explaining to his group that Christopher Columbus was buried in the Seville Cathedral, making me think of a city across the Atlantic that is as beautiful as Seville, and even more magical and romantic…
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Walking through Cartagena is probably the most romantic thing to do on Earth. Exploring the narrow streets of the historic city center or the Getsemani neighborhood; passing by buildings that are decorated with the most colorful flowers and exotic plants; smelling freshly made arepas from the street vendors; and hearing the fisherman running through the streets advertising his latest catch “Pescado fresco!”.
But only if you go up la Popa (a 150-meter-high hill southeast of the historic city center), you discover that almost every neighborhood of Cartagena is surrounded by water, with only a few bridges connecting the little insulae and peninsulae with each other. From above, it looks like the Amsterdam of South America, or maybe a mixture of Seville and Venice, La Serenissima. Yes, it’s romantic.
Not as romantic as Cartagena, but definitely a highlight in my search for horizontal views of cities was to look at Chicago’s street grid from the 96th floor of the Hancock Center while sipping a mojito. It was one of the first days I had been in Chicago. My Lonely Planet guide book recommended not to pay the entrance fee for the observatory, but to go straight to the Signature Lounge, a bar on the 96th floor, and to get a drink while enjoying the view of the city. After a full day of exploring the city from a worm’s-eye view, I finally made it to the Hancock Center for happy hour.
I was excited. This was the second U.S. city I had been to after New York, and my trip to the Empire State Building was rather disappointing. I had gone there on a rainy, cloudy day, and of course, all I could see from up there was clouds. It was a hot, sunny day in August when I ordered a mojito at the Signature Lounge, and the view of the city was just amazing.
From above, you can see all the hustle and bustle, people going to and coming from work or shopping on Michigan Avenue, looking like colorful little ants. You see cab drivers fighting with CTA busses for their lanes; airplanes flying in and out of O’Hare airport; people playing volleyball in one of the many rooftop swimming pools; L trains coming in and leaving the Loop. The perfectly shaped Chicago street grid (apparently eight blocks per mile) with some diagonal streets that used to be Native American trails. And when you turn just a little bit to the east, you can see Lake Michigan, stretching out east of the city and mixing its blue color with the summer sky, leaving almost no line on the horizon. Thanks to Daniel Burnham and his 1909 Plan of Chicago, Chicago’s lakefront with its almost 30-km long Lakefront Trail is a public recreation area; just like Burnham wanted it: “The Lakefront by right belongs to the people.” Looking down from the Hancock center, I also realized that the mint of my mojito was not the only green thing I could see. Chicago’s tree-lined streets, parks, and greenery along the river make it look like a city in a garden and not the other way round.
I don’t know how many times I have been to the Signature Lounge since. Even though it is very touristy, this is still one of my favorite places in Chicago. Sometimes I wonder, if the people, who were riding the Chicago Ferris Wheel (the first Ferris wheel in the world) during the Columbus World Exhibition in 1893, were feeling as excited, standing at the window and enjoying the horizontal view of their city.
The original Ferris Wheel, or Chicago Wheel, was dismantled and rebuilt in different places a couple of times before it was finally destroyed with dynamite in 1906. The Riesenrad, Vienna’s Ferris wheel, was built in 1897, and it still exists today, inviting thousands of people every year to get a bird’s-eye view of the Austrian capital from its highest point at about 65 meters, and presenting a completely different picture than what I saw in Chicago.
Looking at Vienna from above, you can see how dense this city is; no street grid like in Chicago, but narrow streets weaving their way through a sea of rooftops, every now and then interrupted by green patches and imperial monumental buildings, whispering stories of the city’s past. When you take a closer look, you can see two rings that seem to divide the city into three separate areas; almost telling its history of urban development the way one would analyze a tree and its growth rings. Like every growth ring marks an important event in a tree’s life, those two rings mark important events in the history of Vienna.
The first “growth ring” represents what used to be the old city wall, marking the original borders of the city of Vienna until 1850. It was demolished during the first expansion of the city limits, when the surrounding suburbs where incorporated. Today, it serves as Vienna’s Ringstraße, also called the Ring, a beautiful boulevard and one of the main arteries of the city that embraces the historic city center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001. The second “growth ring”, the Gürtel (or beltway), is the busiest road in the city and used to be Vienna’s former Linienwall fortification. It represents the second major extension of the city, when the suburbs beyond the Linienwall became a part of Vienna. Today, the city wall and the former Linienwall fortification are gone; but almost like the outer bark protects a tree from harm, the Vienna Woods and the Lobau seem to create a natural, green protection shield around the city, guarding it from unwanted intruders.
Unlike Vienna, the city of Fez has kept its city walls. The old medina inside the city walls is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it has been the spiritual, intellectual, and cultural soul of Morocco for over 1,000 years, with the University of Al-Qarawiyyin being the oldest continuously functioning university in the world. For the bird’s-eye view of the city, however, one has to go outside the city walls and walk up the hill to the Marinid Tombs.
Right after breakfast, I left the riad, put on a headscarf, plugged in my headphones, turned on the latest U2 album ”No Line on the Horizon”, that had been recorded in Morocco, and started walking. Bono was singing: “It’s not a hill, it’s a mountain as you start out to climb…”. On my way up, I could see men of all ages walking down the hills towards the city; probably people that live in the man-made caves on top of the hill on their way to work in the medina. It was a mysterious adventure, walking along the city walls, not knowing for sure where this path would take me.
And then suddenly I was standing in front of the Bab Guissa Cemetery, a hill covered with white tombs. Not sure if I should be scared or impressed in that moment, I decided for the latter when I turned around looking south, overseeing the entire city of Fez. The medina presented itself as a complex patchwork of sand-colored rooftops, minarets (each neighborhood has its own mosque), satellite antennas, a labyrinth of narrow streets that are only accessible for pedestrians, and the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque, the heart of the city, with its green tiled roofs looking like an oasis in the city desert.
From the bird’s-eye view, the city seemed even more mysterious than from a worm’s-eye view. Morocco’s second largest city looked so dense, compact, and introverted; almost as if it wanted to keep a secret from intruding strangers. Privacy and a focus on the inside are very important aspects of Arab architecture and urban design; not just for religious reasons, but mainly for climatic reasons. The sand-colored building materials, narrow streets, small windows, and water fountains throughout the city serve as the natural cooling system of the medina.
Up on that hill, the heat of the midday sun had almost become unbearable. I was tired and hungry from my morning hike, and I decided to walk down to the medina for a refreshing mint tea and a delicious Moroccan tajine. I continued my journey to the main entrance gate, the Bab Bou Jeloud, one of the newest gates to the city, beautifully designed; outside in blue, the color of Fez; inside in green, the color of Islam.
Not every horizontal city view has to be earned by walking up stairs or hiking up hills; especially when cities are as innovative as Medellín. The Colombian city is located in the Aburrá Valley within the Andes mountains at an elevation of about 1,500 meters, surrounded by even higher mountains. Medellín used to be the “murder capital of the world”, during times when Pablo Escobar ran the Medellín cartel and with it the city’s comunas. In 2014, however, Medellín was rated as the “Most Innovative City of the World”. One of many prestigious projects that earned the city this new title was the Metrocable, a cable car, built to serve as a means of public transportation to some of the poorest neighborhoods of the city that are located in the surrounding hills and mountains. And the Metrocable was the place from where I wanted to get my bird’s-eye view of Medellín.
So far, I had used cable cars only when I went skiing in the Alps or the Rocky Mountains. However, using a cable car for public transportation in a mountainous city like Medellín makes absolute sense. Other than the fact that this is really the only feasible solution for this mountainous area from a technical standpoint, it is also much cheaper than building a subway line. For people who lived in the Santo Domingo Savio neighborhood, it used to take about two hours to walk down to the city. Imagine a daily four hour hike up and down a mountain to get to work and back home! With the Metrocable it only takes about five minutes.
I took the K line from the Acevedo metro station up the mountain. Looking up, I saw a colorful mix of little houses built into the mountain; from afar it looked so beautiful, I didn’t want to believe that those were the poorest neighborhoods of the city. At the end of the K line, the Biblioteca España was sitting on top of a little plateau like a huge colossus, overlooking the city. This iconic building together with the Metrocable is just one of many symbols for Medellín‘s fight against violence and crime thanks to its former mayor Sergio Fajardo, whose strategy was to provide public infrastructure, public spaces, and iconic architecture as a means of socioeconomic inclusion. With this strategy, he wanted to rebuild civic pride as a weapon against crime and combat inequality as one of the main sources for violence. Numerous public spaces, parks, schools, and library parks were built in the comunas. Medellín created places where a segregated society would be able to reconnect; places that signalized to the people of Medellín that they had a future; visible investments in neighborhoods that built hope and trust.
I had almost reached the final stop of the Metrocable when I realized that I hadn’t even turned around yet to look down to the city and enjoy the bird’s-eye view. I was so focused on looking up, watching the mix of tourists and people who lived in the comunas, a picture that would not have been possible ten years ago. No one would have dared to go up the mountain to the Santo Domingo Savio neighborhood; today, it is a highlight in every travel guide book.