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 :
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).
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.
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.
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 invisibleparis.com)
So what cities have grabbed your heart?