Venice? Florence? Rome?
Paris? The Cinque Terre? Yosemite? Alaska?
I just spent four days in New Orleans, my first visit back there since 2004.
It instantly reminded me of all the things I most enjoy about the places I most love. These include Corsica, Thailand and Ireland (I actually wept leaving all three. I never cry in public!), Paris, the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Venice, Vermont, Savannah, Ronda, Bath, London, Mdina.
The prettiest places, for me, include a mix of these, with the best having all of them:
I love to wander streets worn smooth for milennia. Even Manhattan, a very young place in global terms, has entire blocks that feel as though you’ve disappeared into an earlier century.
It makes all the difference, whether the brilliant, scouring light of Mexico or the low, soft, slanting shafts of winter sunshine I saw in Stockholm in November. The odd reflected watery light of Venice.
This is my favorite element of all, from the rich, glossy reds and blues of European doors to the coppery-green patina of church steeples and weathervanes to the intense emerald green of backlit leaves and fields. When I tried to replicate the gentle weathered greens of Swedish walls in New York light, it looked awful. In New Orleans, I saw enormous houses painted the icy yellow and rich orange of lemon and mango sorbet, colors that would also look foolish and odd elsewhere.
Hugely important. How tall are the buildings? How embraced (or rejected) do you feel by the proximity of the houses and commercial spaces? Can you see the sky? How much of it? For how many hours each day? Do the buildings relate well to one another — or are there (as in New Orleans) huge hideous highways slicing right through downtown neighborhoods, utterly out of scale to, and dwarfing, their previous surroundings?
Might be the delicate perfume of orange blossoms in Seville in springtime or the salty air of the sea. The acrid smell of dusty ancient stone or woodsmoke from a distant fire or diesel fumes from Bangkok traffic or frying meat in a street market. The minute I stepped into Caracas airport, I caught a whiff of mold and rot, the specific smell of a developing nation.
Temple bells. Sirens. The clatter of clogs on pavement. That distinctive sound the Paris metro makes before the doors close. The whirr of bicycles flashing by in Amsterdam.
Some places are ridiculously blessed in this respect — Rio, Hong Kong, Vancouver — ringed by mountains and/or ocean. Venice’s canals. Ronda’s astonishing cliffs.
This is the biggest one for me, that when you sit still at dawn with no one around, or under the stars, it might be 1634 or 1421 or 800 B.C. You expect a Mayan or Roman or Cathar to step out and say hello. No signs, no ads, no telephones or noise or electric lights in your eyes.
I’ve (thankfully) experienced this most strongly (so far!) in The Grand Canyon, Corsica, the Arctic, Machu Picchu and Kenya/Tanzania.
I love to see how different places use materials — glass, brick, wood, stone, straw, mud, mirror, mosaic, ceramic, gilt, silver, cobblestones, cement, tile, terra cotta, adobe. Montreal has gorgeous three-story apartment houses in white limestone — which in New York, Boston and Washington are rendered in red sandstone. I loved New Orleans’ wooden homes (although I overheard a distraught woman on the bus who had to move out of her rental apartment while the entire building was fumigated for termites.)
I’m crazy for tall, mullioned sash windows, preferably with original bubbly glass — 8 panes over 8 or even 12 over 12. Tall shutters. Deep balconies and verandahs. I see this most powerfully in Paris, and other French cities. The relationships between buildings also makes a difference — think of the streetscapes of Paris and Amsterdam where a (relative) uniformity of style makes for a harmonious whole, not a nasty jumble.
Stained glass, wrought-iron fencing, balloon shades, contrasting brickwork, gingerbread, clerestory windows. Enclosed balconies in Portugal, Malta, Istanbul. The lace ironwork of New Orleans. The hand-shaped doorknockers of Malta. The curved, smoothed edges of an adobe house. One of the most astonishing sights anywhere was the chased silver altar in Arequipa, Peru that I saw in 1980 but never forgot.
My second favorite, the weathering and wearing of wood and stone by generations, centuries or millennia of use. The stone stairs in Grand Central Station. The smooth shine of an ancient brass doorhandle.
What are your picks?