Up Ankara, for a tour of great crapital cities

'For French Canadians, it was Montreal or nothing. So, Queen Victoria chose nothing ... or Ottawa[

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I’m thinking of writing a book about crap capitals. The idea was inspired by a drive through Ankara towards the end of our Turkish family road trip. I’ve always been aware that it is not the jewel in Turkey’s crown but I wasn’t prepared for just how hideous it is. Last week, I wrote about the “Hat Law” Kemal Ataturk brought in to ban the wearing of the fez so as to make his new republic more “Western”. In 1923, he swapped Istanbul for Ankara as his capital for almost the opposite reason; most of Istanbul is in the smaller, European part of the country whereas Ankara is in the middle of Anatolia and so it became … a crap capital.

Ankara is far from alone, however.The world is full of capital compromises. The idea that Rio de Janeiro is not the capital of Brazil is loco. Capital status was removed from it in 1960 and given to the architectural test-tube lab that is the current Brazilian capital, Brasilia. Again this was for no other reason than that the capital of this vast country could be more “central”. It’s a shame that more importance wasn’t given to “beautiful” or “interesting.”

Australia has no shortage of great cities, but the two largest, Sydney and Melbourne, could not agree on which one should be the capital. The solution? Canberra, the world’s dullest city, got the honour in 1908. Has anyone ever visited it? I have and I want those two days back … (memo to self, must send bill to Australian Embassy).

Canada has a natural capital, Toronto, he polite New York. But it also has French Canadians and they are an angry bunch. For them, it was Montreal or nothing. So Queen Victoria chose nothing … or Ottawa, then a small village that was as surprised as anyone by the decision. This town is so dull that I dozed off while typing the name. It’s a perfect compromise – on the border of Quebec and Ontario, equidistant between Toronto and Montreal but … no one wants to go there.

Washington DC is an anomaly because, despite being a crap capital, and there being obviously better contenders, New York, Chicago, LA etc, I rather love the place. Sure, it’s built on a swamp and is a fetid dung-hole in the summer, but there is something great about it that makes it the exception on my list. I’ve spent many happy weeks there in that rarest of rare things, a walkable US city.

Back in Ankara, however, I began to wonder if I might be being a little unfair? This was, after all, the second largest city in Turkey, it must have some redeeming factors. I did my best to find something, anything, to love about it, and I failed. It is as if someone picked up Swindon, multiplied the population and soulless architecture by 10, then dumped it in the middle of the Anatolian plains. On Ataturk’s death in 1938 (in Istanbul) he was buried in Ankara. His vast mausoleum, the Anitkabir, overlooks the city from a hilltop. He has had nearly 70 years to reflect on his decision. I can’t help feeling that even he might be wondering if he did the right thing.