Cities of the heart

At the moment I’m writing a novel set in Paris. Although I’m dealing with the Paris of the past, my research has given me a fresh look at the European city that I perhaps know best.  I passed through it on summer holidays as a child, visited  trade fairs for work as an adult, and often stayed with friends who had moved there.

Paris wasn’t a city I loved at first sight – it took a while for me to fall for its charms. And that makes me think of other cities that I have visited whose obvious attractions are not always the reason I am fond of them today. Often it’s a glimpse of something unusual that gives it a place in your heart.

So here are some of my favourite cities and what grabbed me :


Big holiday 2011 237

Hot and scruffy, sprawled out below Sicily’s great volcano Etna, and with a fearsome reputation for petty theft and violence, this city would appear to have little to recommend it. But I found it a thoroughly energising place (all that molten earth energy perhaps) and it grabbed my heart when I discovered a whole street that sold only door furniture. Every type of door handle, keyhole and bolt was on show. That did it for me.



In the southern Indian state of Karnataka, this city is a hive of activity. With grand tree-lined boulevards and scruffy laneways, the Maharajah’s Palace lit up like a Christmas tree while the rest of the city suffers erratic blackouts, and shops selling everything from sandalwood to silk I found myself thinking of the words to William Walton’s fantastic Belshazzar’s Feast: ‘Babylon was a great city. Her merchandise was of gold and silver, of precious stones, of pearls, of fine linen, of purple, silk and scarlet, all manner of vessels of ivory, all manner vessels of most precious wood, of brass, iron and marble, cinnamon, odours and ointments, of frankincense, wine and oil, fine flour, wheat and beasts, sheep, horses, chariots, slaves. And the souls of men.” An exhilarating city.


A city of stupendous architecture and I can’t believe it took me so long to get there. But the thing that really grabbed me was the friendliness of the people. When passers-by on a city street smile and say hello, my cynical self thinks: uh-o, they want to sell me something. In Chicago, they seemed only to want to say hello. No wonder they call it the family-friendly version of New York.



A beautiful city of arcades and towers and incredible food, this was another city where nothing was too much bother. My sense of the place might be slightly skewed, however. In my twenties, and having smiled at a handsome man in a passing car one morning, I walked around a huge summer Festa in progress that evening and felt a hand on my shoulder. Cue handsome man from car: there you are! I’ve been looking for you all day!  So maybe it’s actually the city of stalkers (but he was really very nice).


Valletta street sign

Malta is a small island with a rich history of Crusaders and Inquisitors. Its tiny capital is an architectural gem, filled with stunning stone palaces and Baroque churches, and bordered by deep harbours. Most tourists stay in anonymous resorts like Sliema which means the city becomes almost empty at night. A relic of its colonial past is the shop signs everywhere from the early twentieth century, a source of constant amusement and pleasure.


Brussels is slightly bonkers. You expect Euro-grey offices and get a feast of Art Nouveau. The beers taste of cherries and blackcurrants, the sky is filled with shrieking parakeets, and the Belgians do frites so well that it’s a culinary highlight. Mad as Magritte. I dare you not to be charmed.


A fabled city, sadly tainted by the likes of me – tourists. But I will never forget visiting my university pals who were lucky enough to spend a couple of months there to study. Visiting them in 1980 happened to coincide with the recent revival of its now infamous Carnevale. The bridges and passageways were filled with people dressed like Mozart or Marie Antoinette and everyone in masks of all kinds. It ended with a huge party in the Piazza San Marco with trippy music playing as the whole square was slowly covered by a gigantic cobweb pulled over our heads. A final loud bang and white doves were released from the top of the Campanile. So amazing that I sometimes wonder if I dreamed it all up.


temple Singapore 2

Often described as a vanilla version of the true South East Asia and famous for its strict rules (I was reprimanded for dropping the seed from a loquat I was eating), I can’t help liking this city. The tropical plantings of trees help mask the density of the buildings. But the thing that grabbed me was stepping into the numerous old Chinese temples and feeling swept away into centuries of tradition. Such tranquility in the middle of the busy city.


Piscine Deligny (

Piscine Deligny

In the hot summer of 1987, I spent a few days in Paris with a friend who was studying at the university. He introduced me to the swimming pool on the Seine, the Piscine Deligny – a grand floating lido moored not far from the Ile de la Cité. It felt like an old paddle steamer, with its wooden decks packed with a mixed crowd of gay and straight young people. It was like walking into a huge party. The entire structure sank in 1993 but there are schemes to revive it. (For more, see

Planet Earth

So what cities have grabbed your heart?

Categories: TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Gosh, your University pals were lucky to have a term in Venice… I bet you were jealous. And you’re right, the Carnevale is spectacular.

    Yes, Venice would definitely be on my list. Probably at the top. There is nowhere like it in the world. I once went to St Petersburg, as it was advertised as ‘the Venice of the North’, but it proved to be nothing like it.

    My other suggestion would be Florence. It is so bursting with the Renaissance, not just the art, but how life was lived. And how can you leave out La Roma – a city of such magnificence, such architecture and vistas? It is a city that can celebrate being at the centre of two world-changing cultures – the Ancient Roman and the Renaissance – not many cities can boast that.

    I would love to visit Chicago though, for the architecture.

  2. I agree, Florence has a special place in my heart, too. But Rome, while it has so much, isn’t a place that really does it for me. The grand scale of the buildings makes me feel overwhelmed and I’ve never had a particularly extraordinary experience there (apart from bumping into the Pope in the St Peters…). I suppose that’s what I’m saying – it’s the odd little happenings that seal a place’s importance in your heart.

    • Yes, I think my children would agree with you about Rome. I suppose, having lived there for a short time in my late teens, when I was oh, so young, free and single I found it an incredibly exciting place, full of possibilites. You are right, it’s the happenings that make the difference.

  3. Quite a few on your list I’ve not been to and want to visit incl. Valletta and Bologna. Top of my list for heart-capturing experiences is San Sebastian, Spain which I discovered by accident in 1983 and have been back to a few times. Magic. The other ones are Lucca, a beautiful Renaissance walled city, Vicenza (and surrounds) for its Palladian architecture and strangely Ravenna for its mosaics – and the best jazz festival I’ve ever been to (and I don’t particularly like jazz).

    • Oh yes, I’m eager to go back to San Sebastian, having been there when I was eleven (Franco’s summer residence was still there) – the food sounds amazing. And I want to see Lucca – sounds a very liveable place. So many gorgeous towns and cities in Italy. The last time I was there we passed through a place called Este, close to Venice, and it was a small marvel. Treviso, too, was so welcome after the crowds of Venice. Ah Italia – however much I love France, I keep coming back to Italy…A country that grabs the heart.

    • Yes, I would agree with you about Lucca. It has a magical wholeness to it that allows you to feel how life has been lived there for centuries. Fabulous!

  4. Glad u enjoyed Singapore, where I’m from. Personally the 2 countries which stole my heart away were Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania. They were brilliany

    • Thanks for your comments! I remember thinking how funny it was in Singapore to see all the condensation on the outside the buildings – not what I was used to. I’ve taken a look at your website and I can see exactly why you fell in love with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania – great pictures. I always wanted to go to Kotor. So many places to see…

  5. Venice, oh Venice. I have an unhealthy obsession with that place! Yay for Brussels – this little/big city with its international flare, but stubborness to never change doesn’t nearly get the credit it deserves.

  6. Berlin is my favourite, especially when one considers its travails. So much recent history. Destruction during the war was bad enough and then to be under the “communist yoke” untill as recently as 1990, it is amazing how it has picked itself up and dusted itself off and is not yet overcome with tourists like Prague.

    As one fights one’s way along our crowded narrow Sydney streets, I long for the expansiveness of Unter den Linden and Kurfürstendamm with its novel shop displays in small cases in the footpath. They can be an interesting diversion to the unhurried without hampering the passage of pedestrians. Then there is the nearby air raid shelter built at the insistence of the Americans as recently as the 1970s.

    The museums cater well for English speakers, public transport is a joy to use and the Stadtbahn shows how a viaduct can work well when most of us would rebel at the idea of having one

    As to Brussels, if only some in authority would see to the maintenance of the cobbles and the inner city roads generally. Are cobbles still necessary or even desirable in C21? Think of the disabled in their wheelchairs, and the fit who can so easily trip over the constantly uneven surfaces and become wheelchair bound. I could swear I saw a bus vanish into a pothole some are so big. The place must be heaven for litigation lawyers.

    • I hang my head in shame as I confess that I haven’t been to Berlin. A friend of mine lived there and I remember him calling to say, “Get over here quick, they’re tearing down the wall, it’s your last chance to see it!” And I didn’t go…Shameful. It’s on my to-visit list. I’ve never heard a bad word about the place from anyone.
      And yes, now you mention that about Brussels, I do remember having a few jaw-clenching moments on those cobbles as I raced around on one of their city bikes. Must be hell for anyone in a wheelchair, as you say, but I have an impractical and romantic image of cobbled streets – Paris, of course, and Edinburgh. It’s a childhood thing, I think, when riding over cobbles in the car made it go all juddery and that was fun!

      • Berlin is a constant work in progress so that means new things to see. The BBC produced three one hour documentaries on Berlin hosted by Matt Frei and shown on SBS several years ago. I can’t recommend them highly enough. There are several versions on Youtube, sometimes broken into short sub episodes, or if you are lucky, you can find complete episodes

        There are periodic tours in English of Templehof airport and of the Reichstag but we learnt to plan and book ahead for our second Berlin visit.

      • Thanks for the link, Richard, I’ll check it out. And yes, I’ve also learned the hard way that it pays to book ahead – architecture is so popular these days!

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