As soft as silk
In the 14th century, Suzhou was China’s main silk producer. The Suzhou Silk Museum tells the story of this fabric and its relationship with the city, which lasted for over 4,000 years. You can also visit the Silk Factory in Nanmen Road, on the outskirts of the wall. Entry is free.
The largest of the green spaces is the Humble Administrator’s Garden, built at the beginning of the 16th
century by a senior official. He spent his retirement years there, tending the garden and selling vegetables, living ‘the ideal life of a humble man’. To indulge this idyllic lifestyle, he built this oasis that covers an area of more than five hectares, and filled it with pavilions, bamboo forests and lagoons with huge lotus flowers ‘with a distant fragrance’. Round gates connect the different areas in an impossible labyrinth made of stone and vegetation, within which thousands of tourists get lost every day. Little details, like the small bonsai museum or the carp swimming in the pond don’t go unnoticed by smartphones, which take photos of them non-stop, usually with the help of a selfie stick.
Smaller, but just as charming, the rest of the classical gardens of Suzhou are the perfect complement to the romantic ‘Venetian’ streets of the historic quarter. Master-of-Nets Garden is the best conserved; Blue Wave Pavilion one of the oldest; the Couple’s Retreat Garden the least visited and, therefore, the quietest. Liuyuan Garden (Lingering Garden) is close to Shantang Old Street, the street that most resembles ‘Bella Italia’, with Chinese lanterns and stone bridges dressed up in neon lights. Western-style cafés and restaurants have set up terraces from where you can watch the hustle and bustle of this 1,200-year-old street. The houses’ white-washed façades have been renovated but if you carry on walking and go past the bridge on Guangji Street, you will discover the authentic Suzhou, untouched by tourists. The local market, maze-like streets and an air of everyday life, with street vendors selling clothes and improvised cookers in people’s doorways is what awaits the traveller who gets off the beaten path and adventures into the unknown side of the city.