Exploring the Greatest of Italy’s 6,000 Ghost Towns: Take a Tour of Craco, Italy

When Americans think of ghost towns, we think tumbleweeds and crumbling Old West saloons. These abandoned settlements are mere babies compared to Italy’s ancient necropolises. We know, of course, the famous dead cities and towns of antiquity – Pompeii, the ruins of Rome, etcetera. Such famous sites are only the most obvious haunted ruins on any itinerary through the venerable boot-shaped country. Can they be considered ghost towns? The first fell prey to a natural disaster that encased its residents in ash before they had the time to leave; the second thrives as the eighth-most populous city in Europe. It may be full of ghosts, but it’s hard to catch them in the throngs, traffic, and noise.

That said, there are no shortage of towns that fit the bill. Italy contains “more than 6,000 abandoned villages,” the video above explains, and “according to conservative estimates, another 15,000 have lost more than 95 percent of their residents.” That’s an awful lot of abandonment. In the video tour above, we get to explore the “Capital of all Ghost Towns,” Craco, a towering village on the high cliffs of a region known as Basilicata in Southern Italy, nestled in the instep of the boot. Founded in the 8th century AD by Greek settlers, the village survived Black Plague, “bands of marauding thieves,” writes Atlas Obscura, and the usual political instability and internecine conflict of Italian towns, duchies, city states, etc. before the country’s 19th century unification. In the end, “a landslide finally forced residents from Craco in 1991.”

The very location that kept the town safe for centuries from those who would sack it also exposed it to the elements. “Once a monastic center, a feudal town and center of education with a university, castle, church, and plazas,” Ancient Origins writes, Craco has now become a destination for adventurers and a set for several films, “including Saving Grace, James Bond’s Quantum of Solace and the hanging of Judas scene in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.” Charming, no? While such towns are hardly found in the usual history text or guidebook, ancient Italian ghost towns and abandoned castles have inspired actual ghost stories for hundreds of years and are the very origin of the gothic as a literary genre, via Horace Walpole’s haunted castle novel, The Castle of Otranto.

Walpole might just as well have written about the castle of Craco, which you can explore above with Marco, Till, Tobi, and Sam, hosts and producers of Abandoned Italy, a web series devoted to exactly that. In several seasons online, they travel to other ghostly towns, villages, and islands, asking questions like, “what if humans go extinct?” Answering that one is a bit like pondering the tree-falling-in-the-forest question. If no one’s there to see it…. ?

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Great Art Cities: Visit the Fascinating, Lesser-Known Museums of London & Paris

Gallerists James Payne and Joanne Shurvell understand that institutional big gorillas like the Louvrethe Musee d’OrsayTate Britain, and London’s National Gallery require no introduction. Their new art and travel series, Great Art Cities Explained, concentrates instead on the wonderful, smaller museums the biggies often overshadow.

First time visitors to London and Paris may be left scrambling to rearrange their itineraries.

The first two episodes have us persuaded that Sir John Soane’s MuseumKenwood Housethe Wallace Collection, Le Musée National Eugène DelacroixLe Musée de Montmartre à Paris, and Atelier Brancusi are the true “don’t miss” attractions if time is tight.

Credit Payne, whose flair for dishy, far ranging, highly accessible narration made his other web series, Great Art Explained in Fifteen Minutes, an instant hit.

The three British institutions featured above were once grand private homes, whose owners decided to donate them and the magnificent art collections they contained to the public good.

Whatever motivated these wealthy men’s generosity — vanity, the quest for immortality, or, in one case, the desire to cut off a churlish and morally lax son whom Payne compares to the central figure in William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, a Sir John Soane’s Museum favorite — Payne holds them in higher regard than today’s investment-obsessed art collectors:

The world needs more men like (William) Murray(Sir John) Soane, and (Sir Richard) Wallace, men who saw that art can transcend social class. They understood that art should enrich the soul, not the bank balance.

His peeks into their circumstances are every bit as fascinating as the tidbits he drops about the artists whose work he includes.

Rather than giving a sweeping overview of each collection, he focuses on a few key works, sharing his curatorial perspective on their history, acquisition, subject matter, creation, and reception:

Rembrandt’s Self Portrait with Two Circles (1669)

Vermeer’s The Guitar Player (1672)

Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1732)

Canaletto‘s Venice: the Bacino di San Marco from San Giorgio Maggiore and Venice: the Bacino di San Marco from the Canale della Giudecca (c. 1735 – 1744)

Fragonard’s The Swing (1767)

Frans Hal’s Laughing Cavalier (1624)

Payne’s rollicking approach means each episode is crammed with plenty of artwork residing outside of the featured museums, too, as he compares, contrasts, and contextualizes.

One of his most interesting tales in the London episode concerns an 18th-century portrait of William Murray’s great-nieces, Dido Belle and Elizabeth Murray, raised by their abolitionist great-uncle at Kenwood House:

Dido Belle was the illegitimate daughter of a Black slave and William Murray’s nephew and was raised by Murray as part of the aristocracy. By all accounts, Dido and her cousin were raised as equals and this portrait of the two was seen as an image of sisterhood, reflecting their equal status. But looking at it with modern eyes, we can see it more in the vein of traditional servant and master portraits of the time. Belle’s exotic clothing is designed to differentiate her from her cousin and the painting reflects the conservative views of the time.

Artist David Martin places the cousins on a bench outside the Hampstead Heath mansion, with St. Paul’s Cathedral in the background. For years, it was the only known portrait of Belle.

It hangs, not in Kenwood House, but in Scone Palace‘s Ambassador’s Room.

Meanwhile, one of Kenwood House’s latest acquisitions is a 2021 portrait of Belle by young Jamaican artist Mikéla Henry-Lowe, on display in the library.

Next up on Great Art Cities Explained: New York. Look for it on this playlist on Great Art Explained’s YouTube channel.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How to Be a Samurai: A 17th Century Code for Life & War

Many today draw inspiration from Bushidō, the Way of the Warrior, a comprehensive code of conduct for premodern Japan’s samurai (or bushi).

The above installment of History Brothers David and Pete Kelly’s primary source web series Voices of the Past suggests that some aspects of the samurai code are more applicable to 21st century life than others.

For instance, when was the last time you slaughtered someone for rendering offense to your Lord?

Not that the best practices surrounding such an assignment aren’t fascinating. Still, you’ll probably benefit more from incorporating the samurai approach to dealing with gossips or clueless colleagues.

If you want to adapt Master Ninja Natori Masazumi‘s Edo period instructions for cleaning blood from long swords, without damaging the blade, to polishing your stainless steel fridge, have at it:

Place horse droppings inside some paper and wipe it over a blade that has been used to cut someone. This will leave traces of the wiping and the blood will no longer be seen. If there are no horse droppings available to wipe the blade with, use the back of your straw sandals or soil inside paper.

The video draws on historian Antony Cummins and translator Yoshie Minami’s The Book of Samurai: The Fundamental Teachings, a reproduction of two scrolls containing Natori Masazumi’s directives for samurai conduct in times of war and peace.

The second scroll, “Ippei Yoko,” contains some explicit marching orders for the former.

If you’re squeamish — or eating — you may want to duck out of the video before Natori Masazumi’s granular instructions on the severing of enemy heads. (15:30 onward.)

Alternatively, you could make like an inexperienced young samurai and harden yourself to the graphic realities of bloodshed by attending executions and violent punishments in your downtime.

Again, the more everyday wisdom of “Heika Jodan,” the first scroll, will likely prove more pertinent. A few chestnuts to get you started:

Don’t say something about someone behind their back that you are not prepared to repeat to their face.

Keep your distance from “stupid” associates, but also resist the urge to make fun of them.

Never shy away from an act of virtue.

In an emergency, exit in a swift, but orderly manner.

Compliment the food when you’re a guest in someone’s home, even if you don’t like it.

If you’re the host, and two guests begin fighting, try to help settle the matter discreetly, to avoid lasting injuries or grudges.

Don’t pass the buck to excuse your own misdeeds.

Don’t panic in an unexpected situation — the first thing you should do is take a breath and settle your mind.

Whether traveling or just out and about, be prepared with necessary items, including, pencil, paper, money, medications…

When tempted to regale others with any supernatural encounters you may have had, remember that less is more.

Watch more Voices of the Past on their YouTube channel.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primaologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Scenes of New York City in 1945 Colorized & Revived with Artificial Intelligence

Are you irked when a movie or video you’re attempting to enjoy is constantly interrupted by the commentary of a chatty fellow audience member?

If so, don’t watch archivist Rick Prelinger’s 2017 assemblage, Lost Landscapes of New York, in the company of a New Yorker.

Unlike Open Culture favorite NASS’s five minute sample of Lost Landscapes of New York, above, which adds color and ambient audio to the unvarnished found footage,  Prelinger — described by the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis as a “collector extraordinaire…one of the great, undersung historians of 20th century cinema” — relishes such mouthiness from the audience. His black and white compilations are mostly silent.

If you are a New Yorker, view that as an invitation here.

For everyone else, on behalf of New Yorkers everywhere, we concede that our confident utterances may indeed drive you out of your gourd…

Tourists with just one visit to their name can be forgiven for flaunting their personal brushes with such hall of famers as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Washington Square Arch, but there’s no competing with long time residents’ intimate knowledge of the city’s geography.

It’s snobbery of a type, but have pity on us long time residents, who know we will be viewed as subordinates by those who were born within the five Boroughs.

(We submit that there are layers to this…a native of, say, the Hoosier State, who can remember the original Penn Station should be considered to have at least as much street cred as a millennial whose  birth in Brooklyn, Harlem or the West Village confers native New Yorker status.)

However you slice it, consider this fair warning that some of us, viewing Lost Landscapes of New York in your company, will not be able to stop ourselves from triumphantly crowing, “That’s 8th between 43rd and 44th!”

Again, it’s something Prelinger courts in local live screenings of his Lost Landscapes series

The phenomenon is not limited to New York.

Be the setting San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Detroit, he views audience outbursts as the soundtracks to his mostly silent, non-narrative pastiches drawn from his vast archive of vintage home movies, government-produced films, and background footage shot with an eye toward compositing into a feature film.

In a conversation with The Essay Review’s Lucy Schiller, he remarked:

I’ve discovered that home movies become something else when blown up to theater-screen size. The change of scale provokes a role change in the audience, who without necessarily expecting it become more than simple commentators. They turn into ethnographers, noticing and often remarking on every visible detail of kinship, word and gesture and every interpersonal exchange. They also respond as cultural geographers, calling out streets and neighborhoods and buildings, reading signs aloud, repeating tradenames and brands and marking extinct details in the cityscape. If I could capture them (and I generally cannot, because it is hard to intelligibly record the voices of hundreds of people in one room), it would play back like an urban research project distributed through a crowd of investigators. Each successful identification, each naming achieved, is an endorphin trigger.

Prelinger is happy to play fast and loose with chronological order, scrambling period fashions, and color and black-and-white stock. This crazy quilt approach is in step with his resistance to constructing narratives (“the curse of contemporary documentary”) and admiration for the way enthusiastic amateurs’ footage renders “caste distinctions between animals and humans, between places and their inhabitants” moot:

I am much less interested in the minutiae of local history than I am in the process of daylighting it, in the relationship of history and contemporary life.

His approach allows those of us who live or have lived here to revel in New York City’s long standing capacity for reinvention.

Like the anonymous tide of humanity bustling along our sidewalks (and darting into traffic, mid-block), the marquees, restaurant names and words on the delivery trucks aren’t fixed. We claim to hate it, but philosophers might suggest it’s what keeps us engaged.

You won’t find many street vendors hawking frumpy cotton undies these days, but there are plenty of corners where you can buy fruit and veg… and iPhone cases, earbuds, and COVID-19 era face masks.

As exciting as it is to successfully peg the quintessentially New York things that remain, there’s an equal thrill to recognizing and shouting out the things that don’t, especially if there’s a significant personal connection.

It makes us feel like we’re notable, contributing in some way.

You contribute, too, by watching Lost Landscapes of New York (2017) here, while simultanously keeping your eyes peeled for gratifyingly well attended, highly participated live screenings.

If vintage amateur footage you’re in possession of is gathering dust, consider donating it to expand Prelinger’s archive, already some 60,000 films strong.

Watch Prelinger’s Lost Landscapes compilations of other cities here and here (see episode 7 of his San Francisco series above).

Explore his massive archive on the Internet Archive.

And if you want to practice sounding like a “real New Yorker,” head back up to the top of the page, skip to the end, and inform everyone within earshot that that building is the old James A. Farley Post Office at 32nd and 8th:

“Now it’s Moynihan Train Hall! It opened on January 1! It’s part of Penn Station! Don’t forget to look up inside the 33rd street entrance, or you’ll miss Kehinde Wiley’s incredible stained-glass ceiling! And if you want a snack for the ride, you should hit H-Mart on 32nd just east of Greeley Square!”

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

William Shatner in Tears After Becoming the Oldest Person in Space: ‘I’m So Filled with Emotion … I Hope I Never Recover from This”

Yesterday Star Trek‘s William Shatner, now 90 years old, finally became a Rocket Man, taking a trip to space. And upon his return he said: “I hope I never recover from this.” “I’m so filled with emotion about what just happened. It’s extraordinary, extraordinary. It’s so much larger than me and life. It hasn’t got anything to do with the little green men and the blue orb. It has to do with the enormity and the quickness and the suddenness of life and death.” “To see the blue color whip by you, and now you’re staring into blackness … everybody in the world needs to do this. Everybody in the world needs to see this.” What. A. Trip.

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Behold the Photographs of John Thomson, the First Western Photographer to Travel Widely Through China (1870s)

In the early 1860s, a few Westerners had seen China — but nearly all of them had seen it for themselves. The still-new medium of photography had yet to make images of everywhere available to viewers everywhere else, which meant an opportunity for traveling practitioners like John Thomson. “The son of a tobacco spinner and shopkeeper,” says BBC.com, ” he was apprenticed to an Edinburgh optical and scientific instrument manufacturer where he learned the basics of photography.”

In 1862 Thomson sailed from Leith “with a camera and a portable dark room. He set up in Singapore before exploring the ancient civilizations of China, Thailand — then known as Siam — and Cambodia.” It is for his extensive photography of China in the late 1860s and early 1870s that he’s best known today.

First lavishly published in a series of books titled Illustrations of China and Its People (now available to read free online at the Yale University Library: volume one, volume two, volume three, volume four), they now constitute some of the earliest and richest direct visual records of Chinese landscapes, cityscapes, and society as they were in the late 19th century.

“The first Western photographer to travel widely through the length and breadth of China,” Thomson brought his camera on journeys “far more extensive than those undertaken by most Westerners of his generation,” extending “beyond the relative comfort and safety of the coastal treaty ports.” Those words come from scholar of the 19th-century Allen Hockley, whose five-part visual essay “John Thomson’s China” at MIT Visualizing Cultures provides a detailed overview and historical contextualization of Thomson’s work in Asia.

Thomson’s photographs, writes Hockley, “fall into two broad categories: scenic views and types. Views encompassed both natural landscapes and built environments. They could be panoramic, taking in large swaths of scenery, or they might highlight specific natural phenomena or individual structures.”

Types “focused on the manners and customs of Chinese people and tended to highlight the defining features of gender, age, class, ethnicity, and occupation.” A century and a half later, both Thomson’s views and types have given scholars in a variety of disciplines much to discuss.

“It is clear from his commentary to Illustrations of China that, however sympathetic he was towards Chinese people, he could often be superior and high-handed,” writes Andrew Hiller at Visualizing China. “If Thomson never sought to question the validity of Britain’s presence, his attitude towards China was ambivalent. Whilst critical of what he saw as the corruption and obfuscation of Qing officials, he nevertheless could see the country’s potential.”

Thomson also helped others to see that potential — or at least those who could afford to buy his books, whose prices matched the quality of their production. But today, thanks to online archives like Historical Photographs of China and Wellcome Collection, they’re free for everyone to behold. China itself has become much more accessible since Thomson’s day, of course, but it’s famously a much different place than it was 25 years ago, let alone 150 years ago. The land through which he traveled — and of which he took so many of the very earliest photographs — is now infinitely less accessible to us than it ever was to his fellow Westerners of the 19th century.

Hear a lecture on Thomson’s photography in China from the University of London here.

via Flashbak

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Japanese Guided Tours of the Louvre, Versailles, the Marais & Other Famous French Places (English Subtitles Included)

“As tourist season here in Paris winds to a close and the air once again becomes crisp, fresh, and new,” writes The Atlantic‘s Chelsea Fagan, “we must unfortunately acknowledge that it does not end without a few casualties.” That piece was published at this time of year, albeit a decade ago, when “tourist season” anywhere had a bit more bustle. But the worldwide downturn in travel hasn’t done away with the object of her concern: Paris Syndrome, “a collection of physical and psychological symptoms experienced by first-time visitors realizing that Paris isn’t, in fact, what they thought it would be.” This disorder, one often hears, is especially prevalent among the Japanese.

Japan, writes Fagan, is rich with portrayals of the French capital as a city “filled with thin, gorgeous, unbelievably rich citizens. The three stops of a Parisian’s day, according to the Japanese media, are a cafe, the Eiffel Tower, and Louis Vuitton.” To someone who knows it only through such images, a confrontation with the real Paris — with its service-industry workers who treat tourists “like something they recently scraped from the bottom of their shoes” to its subway cars “filled with groping couples, screaming children, and unimaginably loud accordion music” — can trigger “acute delusions, hallucinations, dizziness, sweating, and feelings of persecution.”

Not all Japanese visitors to Paris, of course, come down with Paris Syndrome. Some plunge into an even more overwhelming condition of love for the City of Light, as might well have been the case with the Youtuber France Guide Nakamura. “I studied art history at a university in France and was amazed at how interesting it was,” he writes on his about page. “When you study art, there is a moment of revelation! Something that was not visible until now suddenly appears. It is the ‘pleasure’ of ‘knowing’ and ‘understanding.’ I think this is the ‘core’ of tourism.” It is on that basis that he creates videos like the hour-long Louvre tour above, a smooth first-person walk through the world’s most famous museum that he narrates with a high degree of articulacy, knowledge, and enthusiasm.

Experienced in leading tours for his countrymen, he describes all his videos in his native Japanese. But in the case of his Louvre tour, you can turn on English subtitles by clicking the CC button in the toolbar at the bottom of the video. His other popular English-subtitled videos include walks through Montmartre, Marais, and the Latin Quarter, as well as certain excursions outside of Paris, such as this visit to Versailles. If you do speak Japanese, you’ll also be able to enjoy Nakamura’s many previous videos digging into the nature, history, and cultural context of other things French, from neighborhoods to works of art to convenience stores, but not, as yet, the Eiffel Tower — or for that matter, Louis Vuitton.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch Anthony Bourdain’s First Food-and-Travel Series A Cook’s Tour Free Online (2002-03)

At the time of his death in 2018, Anthony Bourdain was quite possibly the most famous cook in the world. Without question he held the title of the most famous cook-traveler, a status resting primarily on No Reservations and Parts Unknown, the television shows he hosted on the Travel Chanel and CNN, respectively. But it all began with A Cook’s Tour, which the Food Network originally broadcast in 2002 and 2003. That series, Bourdain’s very first, took him from Japan to Morocco to Mexico to Australia to Thailand — and through many points in between — in search of the world’s most stimulating eating experiences.

Now A Cook’s Tour has come available free to watch on Youtube, thanks to the streaming channel GoTraveler (who also offer the show through their own service). A Portuguese slaughtering-and-roasting party; vodka-fueled ice fishing in St. Petersburg; an exploration of the American “Barbecue Triangle” constituted by Kansas City, Houston, and North Carolina; and a best-faith effort to lose himself in Chiang Mai: if you caught these or other of Bourdain’s early international culinary adventures those nearly twenty years ago, you can relive them, and if you missed out, you can enjoy them for the first time.

During the launch phase of his rise to fame (after decades of restaurant work and years of writing, an effort that first produced a couple of food-themed murder-mystery novels), Bourdain managed to tap into a new wave of gastronomic interest then rising in America. He did so with a street-smart sense of humor that appealed even to viewers with no particular investment in the world of cooking and dining, as long as they had an interest in the world itself. With A Cook’s Tour, he took food television out of the kitchen — way out of the kitchen — and over the eighteen years since its conclusion, the series’ influence has become so pervasive as almost to be invisible. Anthony Bourdain may be gone, but parts of his personality live on in every high-profile traveler out there cooking, eating, and getting lost today.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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