Doing the travel challenge makes me appreciate, once again, my luck to be able to travel and see many wonderful places. My views don’t remain consistent and some changes to my favourites are inevitable. Back in April 2015, I did the A to Z blogging challenge, taking a different country or town for each letter of the alphabet… until I reached X. Then I was stumped, until I decided on this post. I think it’s as good a summary of some of my favourite places around the world, in no particular order until the last.
Xanadu: an idyllic, exotic, or luxurious place. X was always going to be difficult so I thought I’d give you my top ten places that I’ve enjoyed more than most and which haven’t already appeared in the list to date (and won’t squeeze into the remainder).
We ended up here after touring Oz for 8 weeks back in 1998. Since then I’ve visited three times on business. It is beautiful. The Harbour bridge, the Opera House, the green and cream ferries ploughing the trade.
The hills aren’t ridiculous but give it the sort of topography that a city needs to have character. If a city is flat then it needs walls or canals to compensate. The Rocks is (are) cool.
The cricket ground a true place of homage. Even its business district has a neat compact charm. I don’t go a bundle on the beaches, mind – Bondi feels like it is its own pastiche. The zoo is quaint and Darling Harbour is all you would expect from a tourist rap but well done none the less. And if I do have a gripe, Sydney goes on for bloody ever: its suburbs frankly take the piss in spreading so far – not so much a sub-urban as post-urban. But the people have always been friendly, the food superb and there are few better ways to sped a few days than strolling around Sydney enjoying another sight or another easy going bit of banter. Go. But have energy; it’s vibrant.
This is beautiful. No, it is BEAUTIFUL. But that’s not the best thing. It has the best climate in the world. Stuck between the Bay and the Pacific is self regulates to 72 degrees every day (give or take). Cross the Bay Bridge, head through the mountains and watch the thermometer climb a degree a mile until your vital organs have melted. Ok, it gets chilly in the morning with the fog and it does rain a bit in January but for the rest I defy you not to enjoy it as a visitor.
True, I prefer variety but, at a pinch, I’d take this. And the BEAUTY? Did I mention the beauty? Well, ok it is sitting on a time bomb and one day it will disappear in a pudding of liquefaction so don’t be there then. But the fact it sits between various tectonic plates means the city is made up of small vertiginous rippling hills, best seen in the car chase in Bullitt.
They alone are worth the visit but drive down Lombard, cruise the Presidio, enjoy the museums. Sniff out a bargain in Chinatown or something retro in Haight Ashbury (it’s now so post post post modern it’s come back on itself); taste the chocolate splendours of Ghiradelli’s or the sourdough along the quay.
And do find time for the murals in the Coit Tower – America as a socialist paradise, discuss. And Alcatraz is worth a visit but book.
We ended one summer holiday here as a result of yet another example of dickhead tours in action. We planned to visit some Scandanavian capitals – Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki (we’d already seen Oslo some years ago) before ending in St Petersberg. Unfortunately I forgot to get visas to enter Russia and only realised in Stockholm. By then it was too late. However as readers will know, dickhead tours’ USP is that while the original plans may crater there will always be an alternative. Tallinn.
We caught a ferry across the Baltic – millpond calm it was – and spent three days in the walled city. It is medieval with Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches, beautiful streets full of quaint and quirky buildings seemingly built one on top of the other with bars and restaurants at reasonable prices to suit any palate and pocket. Indeed a few too many booze tours and stag parties end up here so late nights are probably dreadful. But the daytime is a delight. One church, bombed out by the Luftwaffe in the 1940s was rebuilt by the atheist Russian backed government and is now a community centre and art space of much beauty.
Outside Tallinn the Winter Palace tells of a time of a different Russian domination, under the Tsars. This is a fiercely independent country which has enjoyed a renaissance inside the EU and NATO. Try it before Putin tries to take it back.
As I said above Stockholm was on the same itinerary as Tallinn. By contrast it vaunts its many years of independence and liberalism openly and in Gamla Stan, the island housing the original settlement and the Royal Palace (with easily the most ridiculous household troop of any nation I’ve been to) it has a tiny jewel that warrants two days on its own. It had a Tintin shop, for goodness sake – the ultimate exemplar of civilisation at work.
Highlights include the modernist tapestry in the town hall, the exceptional Vasa, a ship that sank on its maiden voyage in the sixteenth century and lay buried in silt in 30 metres of water in the harbour until being discovered in the post war years and then, amazingly, brought to the surface and preserved. Stunning, gobsmacking. Oh, and do visit the Nobel museum. For a man who invented one of the most deadly of explosives, dynamite, Alfred Nobel has done a lot of good with his cash. The history of the peace prize made the visit for me.
My alma mater, where I met the Textiliste, as I sold memberships of the law club during our freshers week in 1976. I remember the utterly beguiling blue eyes, full lip-bordered grin and a scarf that was twice as long as mine. We took our time falling in love but we didn’t stop once we started. You might say the same with Bristol. It is hilly and tiring and in places still shows off its scruffy history but it has corners of beauty and joy.
The university buildings, built with tobacco and slave money display the sort of grandiose splendour you would expect. The suspension bridge is completely stunning. The docks and the SS Great Britain tourist traps worth the time.
But wander Clifton, drink coffee, take in the Downs and the camera obscura, sniff out food and fashion in St Paul’s, find a Bansky stencilled on a wall and you will soon smoulder into a love affair that lasts a lifetime.
Ireland 1978. My degree done the Textiliste and I headed for Southern Ireland and a hitch hiking holiday from the ferry port at Rosslare to the Ring of Beara and Bantry Bay. We camped; we shared cars with fussy Germans and wacky Norwegians; we stood at a bus stops and discoursed on the existence of God with a George Clooney lookalike, pissed to the point of grandiose articulacy.
We encountered generosity and suspicion, good nature and outright hostility. We ate simply, slept when the sun went down until it came up and saw the greenest, most beautiful countryside imaginable. I was too young to enjoy it fully, too old to feel entirely at ease and I knew that I needed to go back and do it justice. One day soon.
Amstedam is canals and cannabis cafes, or so the theory has it. But it is also bicycles and book shops. It has an architecture that repeats but is never quite the same. It is slow and at ease with itself and tells you, as does Venice how to work a city without cars. The Dutch are a fabulous people, ireverant and generous. They don’t do shame in the way we do across the channel. Take the nipple: in England the nipple today has the status that a homosexual man had in the 1950s – anxious to stay hidden, unsure and if displayed in public liable to generate sniggers or trigger anger; in Amsterdam the nipple is out and proud – it knows it is both repected and loved and, best of all, broadly ignored. What is not to like about a city, a nation that can embrace the nipple and make it feel welcome?
Ah Belgium. Name ten famous Belgians? Old joke. In Bruges it has answers to any questions asking ‘what is the point of Belgium?’ Like Amsterdam it has canals, like Tallinn it has a vibrant core that has a historic integrity. It is home to the most fabulous of chocolate shops and cafes.
It serves 400 varieties of beer, many flavoured (‘your usual arrowroot and cardamom Pilsner sir?’).
Go at Christmas for the market – Europe does many a Christmas market but Bruges is excellent – and enjoy the crisp air and the ice show that is stunning; even Bill Murrray in Groundhog Day would struggle to learn these techniques.
And now, with Eurostar so efficient (mostly) it is a hop, skip and jump away.
We’ve been to several Carribean Islands over the years but Tobago takes a lot of beating. It has rainforest as well as beaches. I wasn’t expected to ride a bloody horse which, believe me, is a definite plus. And it stimulated a lot of poetry. Frankly apart from the Turks and Caicos which was a complete disappointment, each island we have been to – Barbados, Antigua, St Lucia and Trindad – has offered something for the visitor if you want relaxation, some sights and a lot of cocktails and time to read – which, coupled with kid’s club is all the incentive I needed for a holiday when the sprogs were d’un certain age. And here’s a poem – I feel like a Vogon, forcing this on you but, hey, who’s writing this?
Sonnet of Sand
The Disco Junk thrums past, a rainbow
On the puckered sea. Rock-like skulls,
Guano iced, are parliament to trilling gulls
Eyeing the coral fish, flashing their tarty show.
Cinnamon frosted babies, paint the beach
With plastic spades; eyeless parents, basted
For spit roasting; happy to have wasted
Their nurtured cash on dark staining their peach
White flesh. Seven days of frantic relaxation,
Spent anxiously checking for zebra stripes,
Are reward for a year’s dead-eyed toil. Gripes
Are banned; they have their compensation
In the form of a booze-induced coma
And the first stirrings of a melanoma.
Home. Heart. Peace. Safety. A bed that knows me. An oven that does my bidding. A space to write and a garden to grow. Streets that fit like worn slippers. Parks that envelope you in parental-like hugs. Nodding acquaintances. Easy access to the best, most culturally diverse place on the planet bar none (on yer bike, New York, you ain’t close).
Weather rather than a climate. Tolerance in human form. If I could live anywhere at any time it would be here, now – unless the Textiliste wanted to move then I’d go.
Well, unless she wanted to move to North London. That would be intolerable.