Where I want to be right now...

A weekly column in Condé Nast Traveller

Anywhere but here

Posted June 20th, 2017

A passport, a plane ticket and a destination

Anywhere but here

A year after I started this column, it comes to an end. I have loved musing on a Monday morning where I want to be. So how to end my year of postings? At the risk of sounding permanently dissatisfied with wherever I am, where I want to be right now is anywhere but here.
Fernweh is German for - literally - farsickness, or a longing for far-off places (as contrasted with Heimweh: homesickness, a longing for home). Hardly a serious disease, of course, but nevertheless something real and palpable. Symptoms include a wistful staring into the distance, a secret smile on seeing images of remote destinations, doodling palm trees in the margins of a notebook, checking the weather forecast in various parts of the world.
Nothing quickens the pulse more for me than digging out my passport while in possession of a plane ticket. Arriving at an airport, check in, even security (I kid you not). From the terminal, an expansive view - of aeroplanes on approach, on landing, on take-off. Wondering where they are all going, what adventures await.
Then a journey above the clouds, following my route on a map. Need I say more?
On arrival, it's the refreshing unfamiliarity of being somewhere else. Heightened senses. Like a new lens on the world. Believing that anything can happen, and it often does.
This is why I travel. And why I want to travel forever. It makes me feel more alive, slows down the perception of the passage of time, stretches out a diminishing life. I might even say that travel, more than anything else, comes closest to finding immortality.

Isla Holbox

Posted June 13th, 2017

Swimming with whale sharks

Isla Holbox

Where the warm currents of the Gulf of Mexico meet the Caribbean Sea there is a tropical island I love off the Yucatán Peninsula. It's only a couple hours from Cancún and Cozumel but encapsulates everything those towns are not: low-key, low-rise and low in tourist numbers. Soft sandy lanes. No cars. Palm trees. Colourful fishing boats. A slow pace of life. But none of that is why I come here.
At this time of year, the sea becomes murky with plankton, and huge numbers of whale sharks - the world's largest fish - migrate here to feed on these teeny-tiny organisms. When whale sharks feed, they move slowly which means it is easy to swim alongside.
I'd head out from the jetty of Isla Holbox with one of the fishermen-turned-guides, motoring out into the ocean, scanning the water. I'd like to spot one first, but he probably does. A sudden triangle of fin breaks the surface, a tip of tail. I'd sling on a mask and snorkel and slowly lower myself in, so as not to frighten these extraordinarily large creatures.
Once in the sea, oddly perhaps, whale sharks can be hard to locate because the water is so thick with plankton. The guide - a metre or two above my eyeline - frantically points me in seemingly every direction except the one I am going in. Yet I eventually begin to make out beneath me, rising up from the depths, those distinctive white freckles on that dark curved back. It swims back and forth, almost as if to flaunt its size, up to 14 metres long and weighing perhaps 12 tonnes. Mouth agape as it feeds, we catch each other's eye. With ancestors that have been on this planet for 60 million years, there is wisdom and memory in those eyes.
This is where I want to be right now: in locked gaze with the biggest fish in the sea, like staring into the depths of the ocean.

Sleepless in Stockholm

Posted June 5th, 2017

For the sunlight, for the moonlight


It's a mystery what happened to that Viking temperament. Stockholm today has an unruffled Swedish serenity, which I put down to the water. The city spreads out from Lake Mälaren, spilling into the Baltic Sea, with bridges and locks inter-connecting the fourteen rocky islands of the capital.
However, I like to start in the dark at the Vasa Museum. When the Vasa set sail in 1628, it may have been the world's most powerful warship. With 64 cannons and 300 men, it was to be the star of Sweden's navy. But with so many cannons it was top heavy and moments into its maiden voyage, it capsized and sank. The ship was only salvaged about 50 years ago, raised up out of the mud and found to be almost entirely intact. The maritime museum maintains artificial conditions - including near-darkness - in an effort to preserve the vessel. The Vasa is enormous and glorious, rising out of the gloom.
Another museum I love is on Galma Stan, the island of the Old Town. The Nobel Museum, on the north side of Stortorget square, recounts the history of this international prize, as well as the life of dynamite-inventor Alfred Nobel. It was Nobel's explosive factories that made him his fortune and allowed him to start an endowment fund. Some say he changed from business entrepreneur to philanthropist after his brother died and a sloppy journalist mistakenly wrote Alfred's obituary, calling him a war profiteer. In Nobel's will, he set up a fund for laureates - in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, (more recently) economics and ironically, peace.
But at this time of year, what I really want to do right now is stay up all night - wandering the Swedish capital's cobbled streets, the deserted courtyards and squares. In summer, the sun slips away only fleetingly and there's little inclination to turn in. I'd rent a stand-up paddle board or a boat, or go for a swim at the island of Långholmens. Then I'd find the crayfish parties on the city's beaches, head to the parks for open-air theatre, or order buckets of smoked shrimps on the floating pontoon restaurants. I want to be on the foreshore as the moon becomes full over the next few days. Here I'd come for the mångata, for which there is no word in the English language but should be; it means the chopped-up reflection of the moon on water. This is where I want to be right now. Stockholm: for the dazzle of the day, and the mångata of the night.


Posted May 30th, 2017

For the America's Cup


Ben Ainslie, the world's most successful Olympic sailor, is chasing a new dream: to bring home the America's Cup. Britain has never won sailing's most prestigious title, which also happens to be one of the world's oldest international sporting trophies. The first America's Cup race in 1851 was around the Isle of Wight and won by the US - a victory which named the event - and since then they've repeatedly won with only very occasional interruptions by Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland.
Britain is yet to hold up the Auld Mug but Ainslie's Land Rover BAR (Ben Ainslie Racing) team might represent its strongest ever hope… although they're in trouble. Their 50-foot foiling catamaran crashed into Softbank Team Japan on Saturday, puncturing a hole in the British boat's carbon-fibre hull. They worked through the night to patch it up. That was one setback. Underdogs Groupama Team France are proving inspiring contenders. There's the intimidating Emirates Team NZ, of course. And Artemis Racing, the Swedish challengers, have upped their game, beating Oracle Team USA who, as defending champions, have a guaranteed a spot against the top finisher. I've always thought the odds are rather unfairly stacked in favour of the last victors. As well as a place in the final head-to-head, they get to set some of the rules of engagement and to choose the venue. Not that anyone's complaining about Bermuda.
Bermuda's Great Sound. This is where I want to be. Now, this week, next week, through June. There are 10 days of qualifying races followed by challenger playoffs and then the finals. I want to watch the drama play out here - with this tight racecourse and the Atlantic's unpredictable winds yet also the calm waters of the lagoon, the perfect surface for foiling high-performance multi-hulls. These boats are flying, literally.
I might start at the Royal Naval Dockyard, the base for all six racing teams, with views of the finish line. Or I'd head up to the gardens around Fort Scaur in Sandy's Parish, with the views expected from a bastion built in the late 1860s. Or I'd climb the 185 steps at the top of Gibbs Hill Lighthouse in Southampton Parish, one of the oldest cast-iron lighthouses in the world. But of course where I really want to be is on a boat, as close as possible to the course. Ben's boat preferably. Being ballast would be fine, grinding would be better.


Posted May 23rd, 2017

For the noise


The motto of Monaco, 'Deo Juvante', means 'With God's Help'. Not that this tiny principality needs support of any kind. Shamelessly privileged, this narrow ribbon of coastline in the south-east corner of France and a few kilometres from the Italian border could be the most cosseted place on the planet. I love it more than I feel I should.
This is where I want to be - for this weekend's Grand Prix. The championship is looking good. Ferrari leads the drivers. Mercedes leads the constructors. But, of course, a good driver in a bad car can do well in Monaco so who knows who'll be leading. And he better be up front from the get-go. Who wants to overtake on those roads, with 19 turns per lap and the tightest corner on the F1 calendar? (Actually, I kind of do.)
Where I want to be is on the hillside just below the palace, the secteur rocher, to watch the blur of speed, to hear the echoing high-pitched scream of some serious engineering, to smell the petrol fumes, to feel the heat off the tarmac.
But what makes Monaco so special is how there can be all this, and then there are also the gardens and terraces, the fountains, cacti and exotic palms. I'd take public elevators, escalators and funiculars up and down, down and up, through this rocky warren of steep twisting lanes. I'd head to the middle of the harbour and the outdoor swimming-pool, the Stade Nautique Rainier III. It sounds posh but it's public, open all summer and the most perfect place in the world to do laps. I'd do backstroke so I could look up and see the towering apartment blocks, and the rose, cream and pale ochre-coloured houses, their backs to the Alps, fronting the Mediterranean. Or perhaps I'd just head straight to the beach at Larvotto for a dip in the cooling sea.
And when I was done, I'd leave Monaco slowly, along the Sentier des Douaniers. This is where I want to be right now. High on the cliffs on this winding coastal path heading by foot towards Menton with the diminishing sound of racing cars behind me.


Posted May 15th, 2017

For the music


This is the Spain I love. Andalucía - from the Arabic al-Andalus. This land might resemble Koranic descriptions of heaven: gardens dark green...springs pouring forth...fruits and dates and pomegranates...."
Granada. This is where I want to be. Against a backdrop of the Sierra Nevada, this city was the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian peninsula.
Cordoba fell in 1236, then Seville. The sultans of the Nasrid dynasty were reduced to a 200-mile-long bastion along the coast, ruling from Granada - and here they raised their masterpiece, the palace-fortress of the Alhambra, from al-hamra, the red one. This is where I want to be: inside this stucco, ceramic and marble work of art amid fountains, reflecting pools, gardens and courtyards. It is open after dark, when you can hear your own footsteps, and see the shapes and shadows by creamy moonlight. Look deeper and inscribed into the friezes and arches are patterns of nature and supple sublime Arabic calligraphy. Some say it was the poetry of the Alhambra that inspired the ballads of the troubadours, the deep song of gitano flamenco.
I'd head to the old Arabic quarter of Albaicín, then up the hill to the district of Sacromonte where the gitano community used to live in caves carved out of the hillside. I'd go from bar to bar, to find myself a misa de doce, literally a midnight mass but slang for an all-night party. This music frequently makes me cry, or sends me into a trance, dancing on a bar, or makes me consider leaving everything I know for the arms of a musician. This is where I want to be right now: to hear the plucking of guitar strings, staccato heels, snapping fingers, the anguish of a spontaneous song.


Posted May 8th, 2017

Vive la France!


The French writer Victor Hugo predicted 'an extraordinary nation' that 'would have its capital Paris but no longer be called France: it will be called Europe… and in the centuries that follow, still further transformed, it will be called Humanity.'
I'd like to live in that extraordinary nation.
This is the first time I've written about the same place twice for this column. But I couldn't not today. In France, Emmanuel Macron, a centrist who has never held elected office, slammed the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the presidential runoff. I wish I was in Paris right now. Over 90 per cent of the city voted for Macron. It's a relief for France, but even more it's a relief for Europe. Suddenly it feels like there is hope again.
Where do I want to be exactly? I think I would brave the traffic to find myself at the Arc de Triomphe, France's symbolic gateway, with its 12 radial avenues leading in every direction. I'd head to the top of the arch to look down the Axe historique - north-west towards the modern La Grande Arche de la Défense, and in the opposite direction to I.M. Pei's glass pyramid reflecting in front of the Louvre.
Then, whistling La Marseillaise, I'd stroll, light of step, southeast past the outdoor modern art expos in between the trees; past the Grand and Petit Palais, down to the Place de la Concorde and the spearing obelisk from Luxor. Then I'd enter the Jardin des Tuileries with sculptures by Henry Moore and Roy Lichtenstein. On my right is the Jeu de Paume with its photography exhibitions, and opposite the Musée de l'Orangerie dedicated to Monet's life's work. Although my favourite of his paintings is at the Musée Marmottan in the west of the city: the sublime Impression, soleil levant, with its tangerine-coloured sun reflected in the watery haze. An impression of sunrise. A new day.
And all the while, during my joyous ramble through Paris, I could see the tip of the Eiffel Tower. Only Paris could pull off this off: a symbol of eternal love - made of cast iron girders. After dark, the tower sparkles for five minutes every hour on the hour, a beacon for Paris and for us all.

Potosí, Bolivia

Posted May 1st, 2017

Deep inside a silver mine

Potosí, Bolivia

The city of Potosí was once the largest and wealthiest in the Americas. It's built beside Cerro Rico, a mountain that has been successfully mined for silver for more than half a millennium. Nowadays Cerro Rico has far less to give but that doesn't stop the miners digging, or hoping. One former miner told me the mountain was a mythical place for all Bolivians: 'In days past, if you looked up at Cerro Rico at night, the mountain glittered as much as the stars.'
This is where I want to be: deep in the mines of Cerro Rico.
First, I'd head up towards the mountain summit, which reaches almost 5,000m above sea level. Up here the air is thin and chilled. I'd enter the first passage standing upright but I'd soon have to bend double, on my hands and knees. I'd feel my way in the darkness: crawling through puddles of water and cracking my plastic helmet against overhanging rocks. I'd be looking for the vertical shaft to take me down to the second level, wriggling through a space not much bigger than myself, loosening rubble as I lowered myself down.
On this day, International Workers' Day, this is where I want to be. To salute the miners of Cerro Rico.
The young men say they don't expect to make it to 35 years of age. Cave-ins are one common cause of death in the mines, along with mismanaged explosions and gas poisoning. If they are not killed in an accident, they die of silicosis.
I'd burrow deeper into the mountain, nearly 40 metres vertically down, and would start wheezing in the thick atmosphere, sipping water regularly to swallow away the fine dust. There'd be miners sitting on their haunches in hollowed-out alcoves, drunk or high, the whites of their eyes blood-red and glazed. They'd stop their work to accept gifts I had bought in the market: a bag of coca leaves to dull hunger pangs and counter altitude sickness; two-litre bottles of fizzy drinks; sticks of dynamite and fuses. Then they'd turn back to their work: chiselling away at the rock, inserting sticks of dynamite into slender holes, hoping the explosion might reveal a seam of silver.


Posted April 24th, 2017

To look up at the sky


Contemporary Rome has a tough act to follow - a city lauded and loved from the time of the Republic to the glory of the Renaissance and beyond. Perhaps it continues to succeed even today because it's so cavalier about its history; unlike other cities, it doesn't put its past behind glass cases.
Straddling the bends of the Tiber, there are monuments from before Christ's birth to the height of the Papacy and the churches are better than world-class museums. At Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, there's a Michelangelo and frescoes by Filippino Lippi. San Luigi dei Francesi has three Caravaggios in the last chapel on the left, and there's another perfect Caravaggio at the Basilica di Sant' Agostino depicting grimy pilgrims at the feet of a glowing Mary. But my favourite church is Santa Maria della Vittoria; inside is the controversial Ecstasy of St Theresa: she seems in the throes of sexual pleasure as an angel pierces her heart. Note that Gian Lorenzo Bernini scandalously sculpted this as far back as the mid-1600s. The 18th-century French writer Charles De Brosses penned: If this is divine love, I know it well.
This is where I want to be right now. On a Vespa in Rome, scootering down to Piazza del Popolo. Behind the Renaissance façade of the church Santa Maria del Popolo (made of stone lifted from the Colosseum) lies a treasure trove of art. Inside the second chapel on the left, the Chigi, the arched roof is by Raphael and the statues by Bernini. The Cerasi Chapel, immediately left of the altar, has two Caravaggios showing the martyrdom of St Peter and the conversion of St Paul. And a secret small doorway behind the altar leads into the apse: designed by Donato Bramante - the architect who began St Peter's - with paintings by Pinturicchio and two large tombs by Jacopo Sansovino. This is the peak of Roman art before Michelangelo hit town.
But more than anywhere I want to be inside the Pantheon, my favourite building in the world. Around the corner, I'd pick up a coffee at Sant' Eustachio and then head to this extraordinary construction, originally a pagan temple. The geometry is astounding: if the domed roof were extended into a sphere it would sweep around, brushing the floor, fitting perfectly inside the building. But above all, what is most powerful is the unsolid part of the building. At the apex of the dome is an oculus allowing a column of light to enter the gloom… and I look up at a circle of sky. There's no better way to contemplate the heavens.
Between Easter and the throng of summer, this is where I want to be right now. Rome.
'I only wish to be allowed to stay here, for ever and ever, never to see a soul…'
- Virginia Woolf

Easter Island

Posted April 17th, 2017

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean

Easter Island

The only connection Easter Island has with Easter is the date it was first logged by 18th-century European explorers who all but stumbled across this craggy outcrop in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The English navigator James Cook wrote in his journal in March, 1774: "This is the farthest we have come."
In fact, the first settlers, the Rapa Nui, are believed to have arrived here from other Polynesian islands more than a thousand years earlier. Known for their sophisticated architecture and complex hierarchical society, it was their descendants who sculpted the moai, the local name for the hundreds of giant stone statues carved from basalt and tuff that stand upright or lie fallen across the island. There is the giant solitary chiselled figure of Ahu Tahai with a regal stone top-knot balancing on his head. Or Tongariki, a line of 15 broad-shouldered statues standing sentinel on the coast, their backs to the sea. Some moai remain half-carved into the rock, others are barely noticeable, highlighted by only the curve of a brow, a half-started torso, a bold jaw or a turned-up nose.
There are also gigantic ahus, or ceremonial altars, as well as cave paintings, and squat stone structures thought to be ancient observatories. Designs of birds, fish and fertility symbols are etched into the volcanic rock. Explanations can only be guessed at. The mysteries persist.
This is where I want to be right now: on this barren island made up of rocky terrain, lava deposits and rough scrub. By night, I'd head to Ana Kakenga, a secret cave that nobody visits after dark. I'd enter with a flashlight through a narrow hole in the ground, crawling on all fours through the cramped space until it opens up into a cavern - with two divergent corridors leading to huge natural windows in the cliff face. I'd dangle my legs over the edge, 30 metres high above the crashing waves, looking out into the inky darkness to see where the stars meet the waves. And by day I'd hike up Maunga Terevaka, one of the island's three volcanic peaks. This is where I want to be right now: to see the curvature of the earth from the highest point of this tiny speck cast out in our biggest ocean, and to realise how small the planet really is.


Posted April 10th, 2017

Because they know about Europe


Nowadays peace between the nations of Western Europe can be taken for granted. It shouldn't be. It just takes a few inflammatory remarks by a foreign minister, or a ruling party member, for relations to deteriorate. The UK isn't helping with its plan to opt out of the EU, a unit whose code and vision have kept the peace for a long time. It's a damn shame.
Berlin. They know something about Europe. This is where I want to be right now. A city trying to pull Europe together and forward, perhaps because they know how disastrous it is when the continent fragments and falls apart. There are reminders of that all over this town.
First I'd visit the Topography of Terror museum. Between 1933 and 1945, this site was the planning centre for the persecution and murder of opponents of the Nazi regime; they say if you pick up a handful of soil here, the blood flows out between your fingers. Or perhaps I'd head to Bebelplatz. It was on a rainy night on May 10th 1933 when the Nazis began burning books here. There's now a subterranean art installation in the square: through a sunken glass plate, you can view empty bookshelves below. There's also a bronze plaque quoting political poet Heinrich Heine who wrote in 1820:
That was only a prelude, there
where they burn books,
they burn in the end people.
In spite of this history, or because of it, Berlin is now at the very centre of shaping Europe's future. We turn to Berlin for leadership, for truth, for hope.
It was itself a city once divided, of course. After the Second World War, Berlin was split into East and West. The border was open and millions headed West. But on the night of August 12th, 1961 everything changed. Public transport stopped at midnight and anyone on the street was ordered home. West Berlin was ringed in - first with soldiers, then barbed wire, then the Wall. If you happened to be on the opposite side to your family at midnight, tough.
It was nearly 30 years before the Berlin Wall fell. And since then, two torn cities have been merging to become one. The German capital is now the meeting point of East and West, rather than a barrier between the two sides.
I'd head to the department store KaDeWe, once seen as a bastion of capitalism used to show the East what they did not have. Even today, the food hall is extravagant. I'd buy picnic food - dark bread, cold cuts, gherkins - and head to Tiergarten Park, once royal hunting grounds but now the only animals here are in the zoo. During the Second World War, a sixth of all bombs dropped on Germany landed on Berlin and few zoo animals survived: a giraffe, an elephant and one hippo that wandered loose. It might be crass to talk about zoo animals but that's the point. In 1945, after a generation of men was wiped out and the city was starving - the Russians said they'd feed the animals and save the zoo. The Russians, too, were hurting. When they fought for the city at the end of the war, 300,000 of their countrymen were killed in 11 days.
I'd leave the park through the Brandenburg Gate, which until 1989 was in the Death Strip. Now this area feels like a brave new world. I'd walk up to the German Parliament, the Reichstag. Dem Deutschen Volke it says above the columns: For the German People. It's free to enter, open late and anyone can walk around the glass cupola. The idea is to move freely above Parliament. No more will German decisions be made in darkness, they say.
This is where I want to be right now. Ich bin ein Berliner, as John F. Kennedy said. Ich bin Berliner.


Posted April 3rd, 2017

On the coast of Cambodia


It is difficult today to find the sleepy south-east Asian vibe that was mythologised in battered 1970s guidebooks but a trace remains in Kep, known as Kep-sur-Mer when Indochina was a French colony. Think South Beach in its heyday but even more glorious: an extraordinary stretch of striking seafront villas built in a style called New Khmer architecture - with Modernist lines, Art Deco curves and unadorned Bauhaus silhouettes that was the vogue among Cambodian aristocrats and French expats. These decadent weekend homes became a prime target for the Khmer Rouge; the buildings today remain pockmarked, crumbling, abandoned and beautifully haunting.
I'd bicycle along the coastal road imagining another era when the parties were wild and the corruption rife, before freewheeling to the strip of former fishermen's shacks facing the Gulf of Thailand. I'd ensconce myself here feeling the sea breeze, surf splashing my feet, drinking Pastis and eating sweet fresh crab pulled straight out of the water and cooked with the country's most revered seasoning, poivre de Kampot, a pepper with Geographical Indicator status (the same recognition that makes champagne only from Champagne) and which used to grace the table of every self-respecting restaurant in Paris.
My chosen company would be Jean-Michel Filippi, a Corsican linguist who speaks more than a dozen languages and spends his life in tiny-tot villages, microphone in hand, recording vanishing dialects including S'aoch, which is now spoken by fewer than a dozen people. He'd regale me with weighty history and fresh anecdotes from the pre-Angkor era to the present day, stories about an overlooked architect, the razing of Phnom Penh's heritage, the rise and fall of the cinema industry, a frustrated king, and Filippi's own languorous life in the tropics.
After a long lunch, we'd head off to the hills, exploring what appeared to be nondescript fields, that is until he moved a few rocks to reveal an entrance, yet more like a burrow, and we'd scramble down to be engulfed in the loamy gloom of vast limestone caves. He'd switch on his flashlight to reveal underground 7th-century temples like Phnom Khyang, and I'd kid myself that we might be the first to rediscover these underground monuments. This is where I want to be right now - in a dark humid earthen pit yet that fills me with wonder and serves to remind me why I will forever be happiest on the road.

The Makgadikgadi

Posted March 27th, 2017

Down in Botswana's Kalahari

The Makgadikgadi

It's hard to choose between the wet and dry season: new lush grassland with its migration of thousands of zebra and wildebeest, or a parched bone-white desolation with flickering distant mirages. Perhaps that is why I sometimes choose to come between the seasons playing the lottery of what the landscape might be.
From the sprawling, low-rise, cutthroat town of Maun, home to scores of safari operators, single-engine pilots, diamond miners and hustlers, I'd drive south. The bush is stubby camelthorn acacia and Kalahari apple-leaf. Odd trucks overtake with a rumble, kicking up the dust. Goats and cattle mosey on to the road. A lonely puff of cloud appears as if by magic.
I'd head to the Makgadikgadi salt pans: a vast caustic depression in the Kalahari. When it is wet, massive herds of animals come here to graze. But when it is dry, it is all about the surface of the earth's crust. From one lobe of a pan to the next, it can be grey and rough like rhino skin or shimmer with salt crystals or crackle and peel, curling up like tobacco leaves.
I'd pull over to set up camp. Anywhere, nowhere. I'd kick off my shoes; the soles of my bare feet burning from the salt. After sundown I'd unfurl my bedroll and light a fire. Stars would pierce through, pulsing as low as the horizon and all over the blue-black bowl of the sky. There'd be a smear of Milky Way. This is what I want: a night without canvas.
Morning is a splinter of sunrise winking over the baked salt horizon. The heat rises almost instantly. Pied babblers beat their wings above. Perhaps a meerkat appears with its high tail and highwayman face markings, scurrying into its burrow before cautiously peering out with perfect posture. Yet there also may be nothing: no birds, no creatures, no sound. The solitude is immense, and to be treasured. This is where I want to be right now. For it is harder today than ever in history to find a place such as this -- with no sign of the pressure of life.

The coast of French Guiana

Posted March 20th, 2017

Watching nesting leatherback turtles

French Guiana

On the soft golden beaches on the northeast shoulder of South America is some of the world's highest concentration of leatherback nesting. Now is the start of the season. Some prefer to come later in the year to watch the babies hatch and hotfoot it down to shore but I like to come now - to watch the mothers.
In the gloom of dusk along the foreshore, it seems these hulking shapes can only be large boulders scattered above the waterline. But closer up, they become the half-tonne turtles they are, hauled up the sand. Perhaps it's their sound that gives them away first: the soft grunting and heavy panting. Then there is the movement: a mother's back flippers digging into the sand, moving like rotor blades, excavating a deep narrow hole. And every few minutes, raising her head up to the dark sky and gasping for air. It might be an hour before she finally pauses, halting her movements to lay her soft-shelled eggs, dropping them upon each other into the depths of the nest where they harden in time, to protect her progeny.
She takes a deep breath before frantically filling the hole, covering her nest with sand, this time using all four flippers. She even dusts the surface - flicking granules gently across the area - to camouflage her work. Such fine handiwork from something so enormous and so utterly exhausted.
I am close enough to see her wet eyes shimmer in the moonlight. "We say they cry because they never get to see their babies," someone once told me. Leatherback turtles are even shaped like teardrops.
This is where I want to be right now: to watch this creature do what its species has been doing for millennia, singularly driven by instinct.
Along the coast from here there is a glimpse of the future perhaps, or is it the past? In the town of Kourou is the French Guiana Space Centre, the launch site of more than half the world's commercial satellites but there is also romance here. I was once in French Guiana when the Ariane V rocket was preparing to blast into space carrying the Herschel telescope and Planck cosmic background mapper. A few years later this dual launch had brought back the most precise image of the universe at the dawn of time.
Yet watching a leatherback turtle nest and lumber back down to the sea, perhaps on the same beach she herself had been born on, I wonder if we might do just as well to look deep into those wet eyes of hers. To understand our origins, our survival, our future. This is where I want to be right now: in the cool evening light, soft sand underfoot, humbled.


Posted March 13th, 2017

Alone in the desert


From the capital Khartoum, which lies at the confluence of the swift silty Blue Nile and the clear waters of the broad languorous White Nile, I would drive north - into the scrubland of acacia trees and sparse tufts of yellowed grass. Soon, the rippling dunes would rise up sharply, almost chiselled. The wind whips the sand, moving it like spirits, the stark landscape broken only by a river and the ribbon of green along its banks: date palms, and mango trees heavy with ripening fruit.
This is the Nile south of Egypt - with ancient kingdoms, sandstone pyramids and archaeological mysteries. Such as Kerma, the capital of the Kush, one of the earliest African civilisations dating back to around the 16th-century BC. Here are some of the oldest mud-brick constructions on the continent, known locally as defuffas, and as big as Norman churches. One is thought to be a royal tomb, another a palace. At the nearby museum are seven monumental black granite statues of pharaohs.
I also love Jebel Barkal, the holy mountain of both Nubian and Egyptian pharaohs. At its base are the ruins of colonnaded temples with walls etched in hieroglyphs. I'd climb the mountain as the setting sun lights up the red sandstone rock. On the opposite bank are the crumbling pyramids of Nuri, tomb of the great Nubian king, Taharqa, whose empire stretched from Palestine to Khartoum.
But where I want to be right now is at the pyramids of Begrawiya - with their distinctive steep-sided shapes, like mathematical symbols. This was the royal cemetery of the Meroitic pharaohs, who ruled for about 800 years, after Taharqa. Set among the dunes they seem lost in time - with sand filling chambers covered with wall engravings. This is where I want to be: alone except for a herd of black goats, and listening to the desert wind.

The Galápagos

Posted March 6th, 2017

Swimming with marine iguanas

The Galápagos

Finches, pah. Even ones that have been found to manipulate tools - Woodpecker finches - are no match for the marine life of the Galápagos. Charles Darwin never got to snorkel, let alone dive, the waters around this Pacific archipelago. How he missed out.
Over a thousand kilometres off the coast of Ecuador, bang on the equator, here are more than a dozen volcanic islands and many more rocky outcrops. But it's all about the wildlife, of course: tropical penguins, a Waved albatross on an awkward running start before taking off from a cliff, baby Giant tortoises hatching at the start of their very, very long lives. Plus, this is the time of year for crazy courtship rituals. The Magnificent frigate bird puffs up its throat sac into an inflated red balloon and the Blue-footed booby is similarly outlandish wobbling from one foot to the other.
Yet it is neither the quirkiness nor the diversity of the creatures here that I adore, but their fearlessness. I remember watching a Nazca booby sitting on an egg, as it looked back at me equally intently. When I almost stepped upon a basking sea lion, which I mistook for a rock, it warned me of its presence with a courteous bark. A Giant tortoise always seem to lock eyes with a confident assuredness.
But more than anything, it is the underwater life that captivates me, such as the Marine iguana which seems wholly unfazed by my artless presence, snorkel and goggles suckered to my face. It continues to munch on algae before torpedoing to the surface - to warm itself in the sunshine and raise its body temperature between dives.
Which is what I want to be doing, too. Flopped between dives on white sand beaches, before jumping back into the sea to bodysurf with sea lions, watch circling hammerhead sharks, and to swim alongside manta ray and green turtles - both entirely unskittish.
The Galápagos. This is where I want to be right now: on the eastern route for the best snorkelling, but then perhaps I'd double loop and head west for the penguins, dolphins and whales. Just to remind myself what it is like to be an animal living on planet earth unafraid.


Posted February 27th, 2017

Among the temples


I had spent months trying to get into the country. It was early 2011 soon after the general election and the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi. The Myanmar authorities were jittery. My application for a visa was denied in London and two other European capitals. So I flew to Thailand but the same happened at the embassy in Bangkok. So I flew to Phnom Penh after hearing that a new airline was starting direct flights from there to Yangon - and immigration officials were waiving the need for a visa as a gesture of good will.
I thought I had beaten the system.
But as we rolled down the runway about to fly out of Cambodia, there was the distinct sound of engine trouble -- and the pilot abandoned take-off, turned off the runway and taxi-ed back to the terminal. We sat on the ground for half a day waiting for a spare part -- and then finally took off, but mid-flight we were mysteriously diverted to Bangkok where we overnighted.
The following morning we flew on to Yangon but of course now I was now coming from the wrong departure point and I needed a visa. It took bribes and some mettle to get past immigration.
That was a time of serious political transition for Myanmar. Yangon felt squeezed by sanctions. More than anywhere the city reminded me of Havana for its crumbling colonial buildings, potholed roads, creaking taxis, poorly-stocked supermarkets, outdated advertising and abundance of generators. At night the city was immersed in darkness with only a few lit streetlamps.
I remember standing outside National Bank No. 3 watching a man wheel inside a trolley loaded with what looked like mattresses. On closer inspection I realised they were sewn-up sacks stuffed with kyat, the local currency. Written in black marker pen on the outside was USD250,000. I estimated a sack's dimensions and compared it to the wad of kyat I had just exchanged for $100. It was about right: a 'mattress' of kyat would equate to about a quarter of a million dollars. It was more cash than I had ever seen -- on the floor of a bank in Myanmar.
I boarded a train to Bagan. We pulled out punctually. I threw open my compartment window as we left behind the gritty city sprawl. There were pagodas prominent atop hills; some spires were covered in gold-leaf, some in white plaster, some decorated in fragments of broken mirror. White Brahman cows lazed under mango trees. At station platforms women on the tracks were selling fried samosas and apples; kids called out for dollars and sweets.
Overnight the train swung, shook and shuddered as it moved north. By dawn the air was dry with a whiff of burning plastic, and outside the landscape had transformed. Lush paddy fields had made way for dusty scrubland studded with palms. Piles of rubbish lay rotting by the tracks. Through the frame of my train window Myanmar rolled past like a film about Old Asia and broken dreams.
So much has changed since then. But Bagan is one place that has stayed much the same. Here are a concentrated 4,000 temples, pagodas and stupas on the banks of the Ayeyarwady, or Irrawaddy. It was in the 11th century when rulers here commenced two hundred years of frenzied construction and created this ethereal spiritual landscape reflecting Buddhist, Hindu and animist history.


Posted February 20th, 2017

In the rainforest of Guyana


This is where Sir Walter Raleigh searched for a city of gold called El Dorado and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set his fantastical Lost World. High tepuis and crashing waterfalls - and pristine rainforest as far as I can see. Trees grow here like they're rushing to save the world. The rise and fall of cicadas sound like Martians landing, then taking off again. Howler monkeys screech like the Sirens who once tantalised sailors. Then there are the birds, the birds. The tinamou's haunting whistle and the crass squawk of macaws. A cackle of caracara. Golden-winged parakeets like tiny jangling bells. A loopy screaming piha. The heavy thud of rednecked woodpecker, more axe than pecker.
And yet it's hard to see the source of all this sound. But that's the jungle for you. There might be giants living here - anaconda, jaguar, black caiman, capybara, river otter, anteater and harpy eagle - but no matter how hard one looks, they're tough to spot. These animals might be huge but they're also elusive.
Yet I love to listen in. What I would give to be in a hammock, shrouded in mosquito netting, hearing the frantic pulse of jungle life… before it's silenced for a spell by hard heavy rain. And then to wait a while and hear the sounds rising up again.
And then there's Kaieteur, the world's biggest single-drop waterfall by volume, and five times the height of Niagara. In the 1930s, Evelyn Waugh called it 'one of the finest, most inaccessible, and least advertised natural wonders of the world'. Little has changed since then. There are still no safety rails, no security guards, none of the trappings of mass tourism; one feels like the first person to stumble upon the place.
I'd lie down on my tummy, crawl towards the edge of the vertiginous cliff and peer over. To see the Potaro river suddenly flip over at right angles and plunge down, before finding its way forward again through a break in the forest; snatching sight of starlings diving in and out of the spray; to wonder at the play of light and water, watching rainbows that arch so far around they meet at the other end and become raincircles. This is where I really want to be right now: Kaieteur, like magic.


Posted February 13th, 2017

Because we must travel. Because we can.


Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. After Trump ordered a temporary ban on travellers from those countries entering the US, a federal judge barred his ruling. The US federal appeals court upheld that. Let's see what happens next.
I've been thinking a lot about those seven countries. And how, in contrast, I can be almost anywhere I want to be.
Such as Yemen: dusty, bleached, biblical. Some say the capital San'a is the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world, founded by Shem, son of Noah, and the origin of all truly Arabic people.
Travellers of the past would have arrived here by camel: thirsty, gritty and probably afraid, standing in front of the fortified city gates of Bab Al-Yaman. That's where I first arrived, too, a throat-like archway leading into the Old Town, where towering homes built a millennium ago rise up in glorious mud. Six or seven-storey houses, precariously leaning over narrow alleys in gingerbread tones with icing motifs in gypsum: Koranic calligraphy embossed above arched windows; alabaster friezes; abstract patterns of white triangles, arrowheads and chevrons.
The meandering lanes are flanked by market stalls cluttered with antiques. Merchants tout silverware bejewelled with lapiz and malachite and cora, dowry boxes inlaid with camel bone and sticky dates sold by the brick. I dart between men manoeuvring wheelbarrows laden with bales of wire and bolts of cloth, children playing with spinning tops and women whispering arm-in-arm, shrouded in black.
Sabah al-khair, they say. Good morning.
The response is Sabah al-noor. Morning of light.
There are fruit-sellers behind pyramids of pomegranates, pink mangoes and persimmons, besides traders offering up frankincense and myrrh. A woman walks past with a Singer sewing machine balanced on her head. A water-seller chinks together two glasses, touting pure mountain water as a health cure. In the odd open basement, I spy mangy camels padding around stone mills, grinding sesame seeds into oil.
I come to buy honey and coffee, arguably the world's best. Honey sellers peddle Dan'ani honey, created by bumble bees who feast on Christ's Thorn Jujube. Flies buzz about the thick glass jars. Honey here can be the colour of molasses, or Champagne.
The coffee vendors grind beans by hand. I breathe in the specks floating in the air: a smell of late-night deadlines and chocolate. One reaches into his sack and trickles a handful of beans into my palm. "Chew it like qat," he says.
Ah, qat. The food of the saints. A mild natural amphetamine, qat has been chewed in Yemen since the 14th century. It is said to have first been used by Islamic scholars to concentrate their mind on the Koran. One San'anite artist once told me: "You can't understand our city if you haven't chewed qat."
Late afternoon, the city falls quiet. I kick back, clutching a small plastic bag full of dark green leaves, stuffing it inside my cheek. There are three qat-induced phases: light-headed and light-of-step; then, desiring serious debate, and finally slightly dazed.
The Yemenis call this hour - when dusk turns to twilight - the Hour of Solomon. This is where I want to be right now. San'a - up in a mafraj, a belvedere-like room with unhindered views of the mountain peaks. I want to be here right now because I can be.

St Barth's

Posted February 6th, 2017

Elle n'est pas belle, la vie

St Barth's

For years I wanted not to love St Barth's. I imagined it as the antithesis of what I adore about the unhurried Caribbean. Instead of steel-band beats, clapboard Wendy houses painted in sugar-almond pastels, chickens scratching about in the sand, and hummingbirds among hibiscus blooms, St Barth's was - in my imagination - a misplaced overprivileged party scene that belonged in a Mediterranean high season.
How wrong I was. From the first moment I stepped upon its sandy shores, the island started working its magic. It was like finding myself marooned in the tropics with a salty French mariner, he a little bit scuffed, frayed and faded… and unavoidable, in every way.
I love coming here. Either by wind-in-my-hair ferry, or by Twin Otter: peering through the open doorway of the cockpit to see the approach from the perspective of the pilot. The plane flies low in the V between two peaks. Through the pass, the pilot pushes the joystick forward in what feels like a dive. At the last moment he or she pulls up and flares, squeaking down the wheels and pressing hard on the brakes. The runway ends abruptly at a beach. The door is unlatched and in pours the humidity, a hint of kerosene, salt and coconut.
And that's only the first few electrifying minutes. Beyond the airport, St Barth's is nine astoundingly beautiful square miles: a rugged landscape of dry, rocky soil, iguanas on the foreshore, silhouettes of pelicans soaring above, and a beach for every day of the week. Gouverneur is my favourite place in the world to bodysurf; Flamands is dotted with perfectly positioned islands in its sweeping bay; there are the quiet little rock pools at Lorient; I do laps at St Jean; kitesurf at the reef-protected lagoon of Grand Cul-de-Sac, and there's the wild landscape of La Côte Sauvage in the southeast, which feels like proper pirate country. I also adore the curve of Colombier, which is a little trek from the road along high ridges, through forest and often in the company of giant tortoises; I always pack a picnic (a roast chicken, a baguette or two and bottle of Badoit) and my snorkel to explore the hypnotically clear water.
It almost hurts to write about St Barth's. This is absolutely where I want to be right now. Take me from London in February to St Barth's. Now, anytime.

Humayun's Tomb

Posted January 30th, 2017

Under blue skies in Delhi


Back in the day, not so long ago in fact, I used to pack a picnic - of fried samosas and chutneys, and masala chai in a flask - and head to this grand mausoleum of red sandstone and white marble. Humayun's Tomb is one of the earliest examples of Mughal architecture in India, said to have inspired the Taj Mahal. But the reason I come is not to see glazed ceramic tiles and inlaid marble borders, but to be among the irrigated geometric gardens of neem and sacred fig, with Eurasian hoopoes and Indian rollers up in the branches.
I came here last week and, as I entered the grounds, I could barely see the edge of the walled garden or the gold finial atop the marble dome. The air in India's capital is hanging heavy with smog, a flaccid jaundiced yellow, abrasive on the throat.
I want to be here when the air is crisp, sharp, even fresh, which it often can be at this time of year. I'd arrive early morning when there might be dew on the grass and I'd sit on a wall until the sun had risen high enough to warm up the earth. Then I'd unfurl a throw and fall upon the ground - to write or read, or both. A dozen women in saris and soft veils would be swinging at the long grass with scythes, moving forward in a rhythmic line. Gurgling water would run in channels along the edges of the lawn - representing the four rivers of Quranic paradise - spilling into ponds or slipping underground into terracotta pipes laid beneath the tomb nearly half a millennium ago, only to reemerge on the other side. Handsome date palms and ashoka trees spear up into the sky. Perhaps a hibiscus is in flower and a citrus tree.
I might take a break from the heat of the day and enter the gloom of the large octagonal chamber with its vaulted roof. Inside I'd wander between arched alcoves, feeling the breeze through the carved stone lattice screens. Above a flap of pigeons would make me start.
Then I'd climb up the steep steps to the expansive terrace to see India's capital sprawl. In the immediate vicinity are adjoining tombs, part of a sacred necropolis built over seven centuries; it is the densest ensemble of medieval Islamic buildings in the country. Beyond, the city hums with idling traffic and the blast of horns, punctured by the reverberating clanking of metal on metal, rumbling generators. And then there is an ethereal uplifting call to prayer. In the clear skies above, broad black kites glide almost on the notes of the muezzin.


Posted January 23rd, 2017

At the top of Tortin


Friday was horrifying, worse than I could have imagined.
Saturday was uplifting, exhilarating - and an overwhelming relief.
This past weekend reminds me of skiing from the top to the bottom of Tortin. This is where I want to be right now: in the clean uncluttered air of the mountains, a chill on my cheeks, shutting out the noise for a few minutes, to take my chances down one of the toughest runs in the Alps.
At least there's snow in Verbier now, which makes this north-facing run a little less intimidating. But I'm always scared of Tortin, no matter how deep the powder is. The first time I tackled it, I was with a group of serious skiers. They were at the bottom before I'd even clicked in. I remember looking down at them looking up at me. My goggles began to steam up because I was actually crying with fear behind them.
Everyone gets down Tortin, of course. But not always intact.
Access to the run is via a traverse. Under my breath, I whisper repeatedly: turn left quickly on to the slope. It's (marginally) better than turning later. The mountain is wide but insanely steep. The oversized moguls kill the knees - and crush the spirit. Crazily, the descent gets progressively worse - and the legs increasingly wobbly. One slip and it's a big old dangerous tumble. The blood wagons and helicopters are often seen buzzing about here.
Yet this is where I want to be right now. To be filled with terror. And then to prove to myself I can overcome. In practice for the next four years.


Posted January 16th, 2017

Downtown Johannesburg


I know where I don't want to be this week: the USA. Unless I was marching.
But there's a city that, for me, represents everything Trump doesn't. It's the New York City of the African continent; a city of dreams, pinned hopes and a place where you believe you can make it. It's modern, it's ambitious, it works; this is next-generation Africa. Everyone wants to come here, whether they're from Dakar or Dar es Salaam, Lagos or Lilongwe, Khartoum or Kinshasa.
There's so much about this city I love. There's the museum at Liliesleaf Farm, the former headquarters for the liberation movement and a safe house for leading anti-apartheid figures. The property is best known for the dramatic 1963 raid which security branch policemen called a 'jackpot' as they hauled in the resistance movement's top brass. There's also the harrowing Apartheid Museum in Soweto documenting South Africa's past from the dawn of segregation to the armed struggle to the release of Nelson Mandela.
Another heroic statesman, Mahatma Gandhi spent 20 years of his life in South Africa - and it was in Johannesburg that he brainwaved the satyagraha movement and nonviolent resistance. I could spend the whole day at his restored home The Satyagraha House, an homage to those years.
I'd hang out around Wits University - on Juta Street in Braamfontein, where artists, designers and creatives while away hours in coffee shops, pubs and the Neighbourgoods Market. There's Wits Art Museum with the finest collection of African art on the continent - housed in a dazzling converted petrol station. I also love the contemporary galleries such as Everard Read that has supported some of southern Africa's most important artists over the last 100 years; the Goodman where, under the apartheid regime, founder Linda Goodman used to dress her artists as waiters so they could attend their own shows, and Grayscale for exhibitions by graffiti artists (next door, Rashy does some of the best tattoos around). Plus, Artist Proof studio in a former bus factory of Newtown, which is a hub for street kids being put through printmaking courses.
But where I want to be right now is the Maboneng district - exploring William Kentridge's art studio, the David Krut Bookstore, Museum of African Design and Bailey's African History Archive which sells 1950s and 1960s covers of DRUM magazine which reported on township life under apartheid. There's the Bioscope cinema focusing on local talent, first-run films, art house and docs, and from the shops around Arts on Main I'd pick up coat hooks twisted into the city skyline and purses printed with handsigns used to flag cabs in Joburg: a single finger raised - to town; fingers spread - to Wanderers taxi rank; finger pointing right - Alex to Sandton.
This is where I want to be right now: downtown Johannesburg. A capsule of so much of what I love about South Africa - and the world at large. I'd stop by 'I was shot in Joburg :)' where at-risk kids are given a disposable camera to take photos of the city they know and love. I have one of their prints hanging on my wall at home: a shot of a graffitied wall sprayed with WRITE THE FUTURE. Let's keep writing - and resisting.


Posted January 9th, 2017

The coldest, driest and windiest place on earth


Tucked away on the underside of the globe is this white wilderness: great swathes of snowfields scoured by a blur of wind, pitted glaciers stealthily heading seaward and colossal tabular icebergs among a sea of glassy ice shards. But what I really love about this place at this time of year is how it teems with life: schools of whales, colonies of seals and penguins, and skies aloud with almighty seabirds.
I would begin in Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina, forging east into the Beagle Channel and the dreaded Drake Passage for a thousand rough kilometres. My last crossing - with six-metre rolling waves and lashing winds - was considered an average kind of voyage.
On to the Antarctic Peninsula, a tail of land which looks on a map like the last flick of the Andes mountain range. The high peaks and deep channels make for sheltered navigation between extinct ashen volcanic cones, snow-free pebble beaches and rusting old whaling stations. At this time of year, there are populations of penguins squabbling over stones for their nests, chicks chasing parents for a feed and all of them squirting out bright pink stinky guano. Rocks are splattered in yellow and green lichens; this anaemic continent suddenly becomes a profusion of colour. Hauled out of the sea on land are snoozing Weddell seals, snorting southern elephant seals and fur seals lolloping across the land. Worried young Gentoo penguins take to the water for the first time, easy pickings for leopard seals patrolling the icebergs. The floating ice crowds the sea like mythological creatures, groaning and creaking as they break apart, collapsing under their own weight. Out in the bays humpback whales fluke their tails or bubble-feed, the technique of blowing bubbles to corral prey; they gulp down krill - their staple crustacean - emerging headfirst out of the water.

On the high seas

Posted January 2nd, 2017

With the barometer reading fair


A favourite trip was crossing the Great Australian Bight, considered to be a mighty seafaring test. And even more so on a tall ship like the HMB Endeavour, one of the world's most accurate maritime reproductions. Captain James Cook commanded the original vessel, following orders to search for the Great South Land. In 1769, he charted the east coast of Australia and took possession in the name of Britain's King George III.
Oh, to be under sail, especially square sail. With the sweeping lines, polished wood, the lattice of rigging, and finesse of ropes, knots and pulleys. But as much as I loved those 1,300 nautical miles taking me down to the Roaring Forties - the strong westerly winds usually found between 40 and 50 degrees south latitude - where I want to be right now is sailing in warmer waters. Perhaps navigating the Great Barrier Reef, up to the tropical islands of the Torres Strait.
I love muggy nights at sea - on watch, gazing into the darkness, often unsure where the sky and sea meet, scrutinising the course ahead for any piercing light. Sometimes with the sudden unexpected joy of seeing light below, rather than ahead, in the dark swirling waters: sea creatures seemingly glowing as they churn up bioluminescence. Giant squid, jellyfish and ethereal clouds of speckled fluorescent light.
But my favourite time on deck is early hours: watching the night ebb away and a new day cross the sky. There is a silence, away from the psycho-babble of usual life, and it's a perfect moment to consider last year: to wonder about what went right, what went wrong. And to muse the upcoming year, and beyond. Plans, hopes, dreams. That is where I want to be right now: up the mast, 39 metres above deck, alone, accompanied by only the sea and wind. And a brimming anticipation for 2017.

Prague in winter

Posted December 26th, 2016

The only time of year to be here


Unlike other European centres crowned with monuments to conquest and colonisation, Prague is a city that revels in its creativity. It flaunts successes with spires and domes, Mucha murals, Dvorák concerts and Baroque cherubs clinging to the corners of edifices. The city admires artists and writers and composers, rather than politicians. That is, unless their politicians happen to be poets - as in the case of former President Václav Havel. Remember, Prague is also the capital of Bohemia - and Bohemians.
But in the last 20 years Prague has become unbearably congested with tourists. The most lovely areas of the city are concentrated in a tiny area latticed with narrow cobbled lanes. In high summer, the winding lanes can become insufferable. But in winter, it's just like the old days. This is where I want to be right now. Prague in December with a dusting of snow. Before dawn, Karluv Most - one of the oldest bridges in the world, and one of the most beautiful - can be deserted. The only sound: the mighty Vltava River below.
Most don't but I rather love Wenceslas Square too with it's eclectic mix of ornate sgraffito etched on neo-Renaissance structures beside inter-war buildings and functionalist concrete Communist blocks. It shows how Prague has changed. And then there is the ground beneath your feet. In 1968 thousands came to to demonstrate against Moscow rule. Their efforts failed and Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the movement now poignantly remembered as the Prague Spring. A haunting memorial to Jan Palach and Jan Zajic, two students who set fire to themselves as acts of resistance, rises out from the pavement at the southern end of the square where they died. It is as subtle as it is powerful; the shape of a fallen human form gently curves upwards from the cobbles and a plaque commemorates the pair's fate.
Then I might buy a ticket to a concert at the National Theatre. Opposite is Café Slavia, famous for its dissident clientele during the Communist era when it was one of the few literary cafes allowed to keep its doors open. This is where I want to be right now: reading Kafka or Kundera while stirring gritty black coffee, and imagining conversation here 30 years ago just before the Velvet Revolution and the wider radical about-face for world politics.

José Ignacio and beyond

Posted December 19th, 2016

Surfing along the coast of Uruguay


At this time of year, Uruguay is where I want to be.
i drive past Punta del Este without a glance. Too conspicuous. Across the double-humped bridge is La Barra with the best boho shopping, and ice-cream gelateria outposts from Buenos Aires.
But I drive on -- to the beacon of understated loveliness José Ignacio, a petite peninsula town flanked by two 10-kilometre beaches and crashing Atlantic waves. You get both sunrise and sunset here. Mansa for dawn. Brava for dusk. It's all playful on the sand. Loved-up couples. Families of sandy sprogs. Teens you kinda wish you you were, but then don't. Everyone's playing beach tennis or heading into the surf. Body-beautiful, unconsciously.
But I also love the lattice of sandy streets between the beaches -- lined with the most gorgeous clean geometric architecture and wild guinea pigs nibbling on the lawns. I used to come to José Ignacio to write and mosey. An occcasional lunch of grilled corvina or fried calamari. Or a quick chivitos sandwich -- of churrasco beef, mozzarella, tomatoes, mayonnaise and olives -- dripping and delicious. As the light fades, I'd take long walks barefoot in the foamy shore. Climbing up the dunes with a bottle of local IPA or glass of clericó. Or if the evening chills, clutching a calabash gourd filled with yerba mate, sucking intermittently at the hot silver metal straw as the moon rises.
By night, the best restaurants are further afield, hard to find, tucked away down unmarked lanes, dangling with fairy lights and serving proper portions of sensational food. But when you have to start making reservations to snag a table, rather than turning up fancy-free, I'd take off again. Back in the car driving east. To La Paloma, La Pedrera and then Cabo Polonio, increasingly remote and windswept beaches where Argentina's top polo players come to ride bareback on the sand and where I love to come to ride the rollers. I sometimes make it as far as Punta del Diablo, a last outpost before the bulk of Brazil.
This is where I want to be right now. Running down the dunes. Feeling fresh full-face Atlantic winds. Throwing myself into the wild ocean.


Posted December 12th, 2016

In the big blue off southern Africa


It is so different without tanks and tubes and gauges - and bubbles. There's a silence, like flying a glider. Or skydiving after you pull the ripcord.
But what I love most about freediving is being able to swim in the most natural way possible alongside the world's great marine creatures. This is where I want to be right now: in the warm waters off the southern coast of Mozambique.
Travelling north from Durban, South Africa, there's a border checkpoint and then the road peters out into a sandy track leading to Ponta Malongane. It is a sensational stretch of endless golden sand without a footprint in sight.
From here, I'd head out by boat. Even if the surface of the sea is choppy, it is supremely still underwater. And I'd leave the roar of the air for subaqua silence, on the lookout for dolphins. Sometimes they are sleeping, noticeable because one eye is closed; other times they are travelling so quickly I cannot keep up. But they can also be in a playful mood, making eye contact, sharing a sprig of seaweed, dangling it over their noses, spinning around me in circles.
That said, I also love Cape Town's cold waters. Off Miller's Point, there is a fairyland of kelp beds that are home to the massive seven-gilled sharks, one of the oldest shark species on the planet. They seem slow and lethargic, and are nice to see this way.
But of course the best encounters are unplanned. And perhaps I'll see an ocean sunfish, the world's heaviest bony fish and one of my favourites. They can be seen flapping about the surface of the sea, a dorsal fin raised, as much out of the water as they are submerged. That is because they eat jellyfish which attempt to survive by stinging and paralysing the sunfish. The antidote to the sting poison is sunshine and so the sunfish loiters at the surface until it feels well again. It is weirdly beautiful: half-floating, half-doped at the surface with a huge frame and tiny mouth - and I would swim side-by-side, underneath and around, then pop my head out to see the striking silhouette backdrop of Hout Bay. This is definitely where I want to be right now.

The Mekong

Posted December 5th, 2016

Lazy days in Laos


The French used to say of their old colony of Indochina: in Vietnam they plant the rice, in Cambodia they watch it grow and in Laos they listen to it grow.
Coursing through this region is the 4,350 kilometre-long waterway that is the Mekong, one of southeast Asia's great tributaries. I love how the Mekong passes through Laos.
In the north, monumental karstic peaks force the river to swing left, then right and even back on itself, and the current whips up a froth. Now is the best time to visit when high water levels make passage possible.
But there is also something remarkable about the river's passing along the banks of the ancient royal capital, Luang Prabang, where dozens of gilded temples back waterside bars serving Mekong whisky to long-lost GIs who allegedly went MIA after the Vietnam War.
And there is the sleepy capital of Vientiane. Here, I once bought a dugout canoe from a fisherman for $100, painted the name KURTZ in silver on its side, and began a journey southbound. By day I did little more than steer the nose of the boat as it was swiftly carried downstream, occasionally tying up to buy sticky rice and fresh coconuts. By night I camped in the shelters farmers construct to escape the midday sun.
But perhaps where I love the Mekong most is in the very south of Laos at the pre-Angkor ruins of Wat Phou, There has been a Khmer temple complex here since the 5th century, built at the foot of a mountain sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists. Here is a graceful avenue of stonework with intricate carvings of elephants and nagas, the cobra-headed creatures said to inhabit the Mekong.
This is where I want to be right now: on the banks of this mystical pearl-grey river, pinning up my hammock and mosquito net under a stilted palm-leaf shelter as the light begins to fade. It is so beautiful, so ephemeral, that even the farmers stop their work, laying down their tools to watch the setting sun, the changing sky, and its reflections in their flooded rice fields.
It is so different without tanks and tubes and gauges - and bubbles. There's a silence, like flying a glider. Or skydiving after you pull the ripcord.
But what I love most about freediving is being able to swim in the most natural way possible alongside the world's great marine creatures. This is where I want to be right now: in the warm waters off the southern coast of Mozambique.
Travelling north from Durban, South Africa, there's a border checkpoint and then the road peters out into a sandy track leading to Ponta Malongane. It is a sensational stretch of endless golden sand without a footprint in sight.


Posted November 28th, 2016

To wish upon a star


High-altitude plateaus, clear skies and low humidity. Chile is the perfect place to gaze up at the stars. It even has laws against excessive light pollution. It also has most of the world's most powerful ground-based observatories.
South of the city of Antofagasta, Paranal is home to the Very Large Telescope Project. They might not be the greatest wordsmiths when it comes to naming their research centres but these scientists are some of the world's brainiest, who live and work like hedgehogs - alert all night, dopey all day. They think so deeply, so differently, I strain to make sense of it all. But this might just be my favourite night out: to fathom dark energy causing our Universe's expansion to accelerate, and learning about earthshine and how it might offer evidence of the existence of life on exoplanets orbiting distant stars.
But where I really want to be is Alma, which sits at more than 5,000m above sea level on the Chajnantor plateau in the heart of the Atacama Desert. Alma stands for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, but it also means soul in Spanish. And this telescope searches the darkest recesses of the universe, not pointing at the stars but at the clouds of dust and gas in between. Here are dozens of high-precision antennas which allow scientists to search the very edges of our known universe shortly after the Big Bang. Mind-blowing.
This is where I want to be right now: lying on my back on the red sand in the Atacama Desert blowing my mind looking up at the night skies. Now is the time to go - just before the new moon emerges. When the Milky Way is so bright, it can even cast a shadow in the dead of night. There I would wonder: at the concepts of time and space, watching for shooting stars, making countless wishes.

Sydney's beaches

Posted November 21st, 2016

Swimming between the breaks


The lucky city. Built around one of the world's most spectacular natural harbours with rugged wild beaches facing the open ocean, as well as secluded scalloped coves.
I want to be on Bondi right now. For a morning swim at the north end between booming breaks. The surfing here is legendary. Weekday mornings are my favourite time when commuters come for a session before the office. Do they know how lucky they are?
If I had some work to do I'd head to Icebergs Club, which is open to day-paying visitors. I'd take a table overlooking the ocean-fed Olympic-sized lap pool. Everyone here swims like a fish.
Then I'd stroll along the Bondi to Bronte Ocean Walk sweeping around the sandstone cliffs. En route is Tamarama, a small beach with deep water that can be treacherous, with more rescues per thousand bathers than any other of Sydney's beaches. I like to bodysurf here - between the flags.
Hugged by headlands, Bronte is a quiet beach with a 30 metre-long ocean pool built into the rock for protected swimming. Backing the beach is a natural sandstone cave providing shade during the hottest part of the day.
Across the harbour I also love Manly, one of Sydney's longest beaches. I'd take the ferry from Circular Quay chugging between the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House, past the North and South Heads, to Manly Wharf. I'd walk down the pedestrianised Corso lined with surf stores, pie shops and gelaterias - to put a towel down in front of the Manly Life Saving Club. At the end of the day I'd skip down Cabbage Tree Bay Coastal Walk to Shelly Beach, a sheltered cove protected from swell by a reef. Westerly-facing it's the place to catch the last of the day's rays. At the back of the beach there's a meandering path leading up to a lookout with boundless views north.
Any of these beaches would do but my favourite of all is the one furthest from downtown: Palm Beach, or Palmie. This is where I want to be right now. On this long wild stretch of golden sand along a peninsula with water on all sides: the Pittwater to the west, Tasman Sea to the east and Broken Bay to the north. The beach backs on to dunes and classic Australian bush, and at the far tip stands the Barrenjoey Lighthouse. I'd bring a picnic and stake out the beach's southerly end - and dream of endless summer days here.


Posted November 14th, 2016

As far away as possible


It's less than a week since the US election and I'm not ready for the headlines. I'd like to go as far away as possible.
About ten years ago I was looking at a desk crammed with writing assignments but no work commitments in a fixed location. So I spun a globe, closed my eyes and stopped it rotating with my finger. When I opened my eyes, I was pointing at the middle of the southern Indian Ocean. The nearest land was a speck called Rodrigues. I booked a flight.
This was properly isolated, just the place to get on with reams of writing. But I also explored the island, of course: the little coves of coral sand backed by coconut palms and casuarina trees, and the rough blue waters beyond. There were no tourists. On the best beach -- Trou d'Argent -- there was a mother hen and her brood of chicks, and some of the most exquisite conical shells on the shoreline.
When I wanted to rent a motorbike, I was given the name of a local man who owned two. There was no paperwork. Just a set of keys and a plastic hard-hat. A month later when I called him to find out where to return the bike, he said 'just leave it somewhere on the waterfront in Port Mathurin with the keys in the ignition'.
I found a diver - French, chain-smoking, with a slightly crazy look in his eyes, and no sense of danger - who had solely charted the marked dive sites around the coast. Although we seemed often to be exploring reefs for the first time. We swam into ocean canyons, letting our air run right down so we could extend our dive times, no safety stops, buddy-sharing regulators, sucking hard as if our life depended on it.
I found a fishing boat, too. The captain has just arrived from Reunion and I headed out with him and his crew on a few overnights. We caught frantic marlin; over a hundred bluefin and dogtooth tuna - real fighters; elegant wahoo and sailfish, and I broke the record for the heaviest dourade caught in the Indian Ocean. One day, as I was sitting on the back of the boat, waiting for that familiar high-pitched whir of the reel whizzing out, one of the crew pointed at the sky. I looked up and squinted. "C'est quoi?" I asked.
"Là, là," he replied excitedly.
I couldn't see anything unusual and shrugged.
"C'est un avion," he said, still looking at the sky.
This is where I want to be right now: a place where they still point at aeroplanes. Locals told me back then that Rodrigues wasn't on most atlases 20 years ago. I'm glad it was on my globe.
This is where I want to be right now. To avoid the news of Bannon, Palin, Conway, Guiliani, Gingrich and I could, but can't bear to go on.
Then I'd fly back to learn about the next four years of fight.

Washington D.C.

Posted November 7th, 2016

For the world's most important election


I lived in the American South during Bill Clinton's first term as President of the United States. In the run-up to the election back then in 1993, I remember speaking with a friend - a woman and an African-American - who said she believed there'd be a black president before there'd be a woman president in her country.
She was right about that.
Not that this election is about the gender or race of the candidates. But it is hugely about gender and race relations.
Where I want to be is in the thick of it - in the world's most powerful nation. Arguably it's the swing states where this contest will be hardest fought and it could go down to the wire. But short of criss-crossing the country, I want to be in DC. The District of Columbia has only three electoral college votes (and is expected to go Democrat) but it is the city where some of the most critical decisions are made that affect all of us.
Where would I spend my time wondering, worrying, waiting, wringing my hands? At the newly-opened Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, designed by David Adjaye, which stands on the National Mall. And then I'd walk down past the monuments to war veterans, and to Martin Luther King Jr -- and the place where he gave his I Have a Dream speech at the Lincoln Memorial. I'd climb the steps for that defining view of the US Capitol, yet another institutution being bitterly divisively contested.
Then I'd go and breathe before the Rothkos at the National Gallery of Art, which has just expanded its East Building. And head to Union Market for lunch to find out what the stallholders are talking about - whether they're making Asian-inspired tacos, Southern-style biscuits, dosas, Burmese noodle salads or gluten-free Venezuelan grilled corn patties. This is the America I know and love.
And as dusk falls and it's still too early to call, I'd pace up and down the banks of the Potomac. This is where I want to be right now: among the towering political figures of marble, watching the play of lamplight and shadows and silhouettes. Hoping, hoping.

The Empty Quarter

Posted October 31st, 2016

Among the dunes of southern Arabia

Southern Arabia

Coming from Muscat, the desert rises up sharply. A dirt track peters out, the scrubland suddenly morphs into 50 metre-high burnished-orange dunes.
This is the Arabia of Lawrence. Where the sand moves like spirits. And where I learnt to whisper the word for water with reverence.
The Bedouins of the Wahiba still live out the nomadic desert life here, albeit with a four-wheel-drive alongside their camels. Their transient homes are a tangle of makeshift wooden structures, a collection of cages of chickens and rabbits, and pens of bleating sheep and long-haired goats.
Every evening I'd carry sacks of grain to feed the animals, especially the camels - each named and each loved, ranging loose around the camp with those enigmatic smiles. Some I'd help milk, and then drink the warm creamy taste from a stained yellow bucket; for the pregnant females, I'd squash together handfuls of dates, a special diet reserved for them. And some evenings I'd ride Salman. My Bedouin friend would call over the camel who'd come cantering towards us and then kneel down. He'd curve his arm around Salman's head, tug at his ear affectionately, pull him towards him, kiss his cheek, muttering soft Arabic while throwing a rope bridle around his neck and blankets on his back. I'd clamber upon Salman's back and pad off into the sunset.
Late into the night, we'd eat legs of roast chicken and stacks of unleavened bread around a fire. I'd try, in broken Arabic, to discuss polygamy and local politics. And wouldn't get far. So out would come the drums. Trading songs. Their beautiful high-pitched chanting. My warbling of a Kenny Rogers' track with inappropriate lyrics about gambling, whiskey and women - but it'd be only polite to return a song. And then I'd turn in. Lying on a woven carpet on the sand, covered by a thick blanket, falling asleep as the chill enveloped me under a clear night sky big enough to reconsider the notion of heaven.
Day after day. Night after night. Living among shifting horizons without any indication of where or when.
fYet in truth where I really want to be is not here in the desert, but leaving the desert. Bound for the coast and an unmarked and unserviced beach called Fins. White sand, not orange. And lapped by the bluest sea, although any colour of sea would do. To hurl myself into the surf. Rinsing away the sand, feeling the wetness on my dry skin. Like a rebirth. This is where I want to be right now: after days in the dunes, diving into the Arabian Sea.

Chapel Hill

Posted October 24th, 2016

The swing state of North Carolina

Chapel Hill

Chapel Hill in the fall. There's no better place, I swear. Especially if you're 18 or 19. Those endless, free-spirited university days -- of writing, reading, even more reading, bantering, loving, arguing, hoping, of making plans to change the world.
I used to cycle across campus along the red-brick pathways between the chemistry labs and my theatre group; Franklin Street and the library; open mic at the Colombia Coffee Shop and the tennis courts; the Arboretum and the university's social hub called The Pit. I'd lie in the sunshine in Polk Place with my books strewn around staring at the Carolina blue sky and dreaming up another line for my creative writing class. Or I'd meet friends for coffee at the Daily Grind to read the latest op-eds in The New York Times, and to sketch out tomorrow's columns for the university newspaper The Daily Tar Heel. Before turning up to class to listen to brilliant professors, charging us up with ideas, reasons, propositions, theses.
There was so much time to think, to furrow the brow and go further, to find solutions, to draw conclusions. Remember that feeling? Of turning over thoughts again and again, and then being sure.
I want to be in Chapel Hill right now. For the flip-back feeling of being young, stocked with self-belief, fearless and undaunted. But also to take a breather here among the old oak trees, where the warm autumn air smells of enduring sunshine and turning leaves and library books.
But there is another reason to be here right now. North Carolina is a battlefield for Clinton versus Trump. Clinton was in Raleigh yesterday. Tomorrow Senator Elizabeth Warren will be in Chapel Hill campaigning for her. Donald Trump and Mike Pence are expected in the state the following day. One day later, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama will be in Salem, NC. I want to be there for all of this. To hear what the candidates have to say, but more to hear what North Carolina has to say. The state has been in the nation's headlines for months - for the wrong reason -- ever since the legislature passed the HB2 law preventing transgender people using government-run bathrooms of the gender with which they identify. This isn't minor stuff. It's a huge issue about discrimination of all stripes -- in a state where nearly a quarter of the population is African-American and ten percent is Hispanic or Latino.
North Carolina is a critical swing state in this upcoming election -- when more people are expected to vote than in any other in US history. That is why I want to be in Chapel Hill right now. To watch the bronzing autumn leaves, yes, but also to watch the Democrats gain ground. The stakes are huge. For the US. For the rest of the world. For the freedom of movement.


Posted October 24th, 2016

In the rain


When I first saw Angkor 20 years ago there was only a trickle of tourists. Signs at the temples instructed visitors to stick to the path. It was a serious warning: they hadn't yet cleared the area of landmines.
There had been decades of fighting -- internally with the Khmer Rouge, then with Vietnam -- as well as political plots and coups. Millions had died. Pol Pot was still hiding out in the jungle and some members of the Khmer Rouge were still active. The UN was trying to mediate elections and keep the peace.
Perhaps it should have been a surprise there were any tourists at all. But Cambodia was once at the heart of one of the most prominent, prosperous civilisations in Asia; it is home to hundreds of exquisite Khmer temples constructed between the 9th and 15th centuries.
Two decades on, two million tourists come here every year. But I have my secret temples.
Angkor Wat is the architectural pinnacle, one of the largest religious monuments in the world. But I like Banteay Samre, built on a more human scale, and which reminds me of a smaller version of its grander cousin.
Ta Phrom is probably the most photographed temple, deliberately left mostly unrestored and tangled in undergrowth. But I love the diminutive Ta Nei, deep in the forest and only accessible by walking along a track through the trees.
My favourite of the popular temples is the Bayon at Angkor Thom whose towers are etched with enlightened bodhisattva faces. But I adore even more the smaller, remote Ta Som with similar four-faced towers staring out in the cardinal directions.
This is where I want to be right now. Before the high season begins when it's still raining and the crowds are staying away. I love the changing light: of greys and slanted sunlight. The glinting wet stone covered in verdant moss. The afternoon showers and steaming forest. And the spectacular monsoon sunsets.
Most people come to Angkor for the culture and they put up with the crowds. But this is where I want to be right now for the silence, the solitude and serenity.


Posted October 12th, 2016

China's heartland


Just over a thousand years ago Xi'an was the largest, most cosmopolitan and cultured capital in the world. Inside the crenellated city walls that still stand today, there were merchants, missionaries and foreign diplomats passing through the lanes, at the start or end of a journey along the transcontinental Silk Road.
But when I lived there in the mid-1990s Xi'an was a modest unassuming place - with cobblers in the street resoling shoes, tailors lined up on the curb with Singer sewing machines mending clothes, and bicycle repairmen patching tyres or fixing brakes. In the bitter winters street market vendors baked sweet potatoes in rusty fuel drums filled with coal; in the scorching heat of summer, watermelon-sellers carved up cooling wedges (sleeping atop their 15 foot-high mountains of fruit overnight).
I remember how Xi'an didn't sound like a big city - with the usual noise of construction and roadworks and heavy traffic. Most people travelled by bicycle. I used to pedal everywhere back then, from the room I rented on the south side of the city walls - to share bowls of spicy noodles with my friend, named after the famine in the year he was born, who lived in the courtyards of the Great Mosque; to drink tea with another friend who worked at a backpacker hostel selling train tickets to travellers; to visit a monk in training at the Taoist Temple of the Eight Immortals; to while away whole evenings kneading dumplings and sharing stories with a university professor who longed to hear about the rest of the world, but who had never had the opportunity to travel outside her homeland.
I had more than one job back then. Primarily I was working under-the-radar for Newsweek sending regular reports to the bureau chief in Beijing. But I was also dancing in two nightclubs; teaching English, and my very average French to a young woman in love with the Paris of storybooks - in exchange for Chinese lessons. I only danced when I wasn't on assignment; I'd arrive home at dawn and head straight out to the courtyard in front of my block where I'd take a tai qi class. At the end of my lesson I'd buy raw milk yogurt from an old woman who trundled past with a trolley stacked with terracotta pots; I'd give her yesterday's cleaned pot, and she'd hand me a new one for half a yuan.
When I had to write up a story I'd head to the park at the Small Wild Goose Pagoda, a brick monument built in the 8th century, with stone benches where I could sit under the shade of the Chinese Scholar Tree. In inclement weather I'd ensconce in the teahouse at Lianhu Park which overlooked a pond dense with pink and white lotus flowers; I'd order a pot of Longjing and might spend the whole day there with my books.
But my favourite place in Xi'an were the walkways atop the 14th-century city walls. Built during the Ming dynasty these fortifications have survived the wear of time and war. I used to carry my bicycle up the staircase and pedal around the 14-kilometre perimeter - sometimes entirely alone, without seeing another person. That was a different time for China, in so many ways.
This is where I want to be right now. In go-slow China - hearing only the dring-dring of bicycle bells.


Posted October 3rd, 2016

To stretch out the summer


I know a little place to stay in Naples. It's a small single bedroom with a brightly-coloured bed cover, and when you lie down you can peep through a hole in the wall into the interior of an abandoned church, looking down with the same perspective as the pigeons who coo on the rafters, and flap up and down the nave.
There are in fact three bedrooms in this members-only palazzo-appartamento, allegedly owned by Robert Kaplan, but who is a figment of the imagination. When you overnight you must leave him a book - a novel, or non-fiction, in any language - with a message written from you on the front page. There is a communal living space and if there are other guests staying, you must all hang out and share stories about your life and times with Robert Kaplan, a committed nomad who's rarely at home, and who generously gives out cut keys to people he meets on the road. 'You must stay at my place if you're ever in Naples,' he once told me. I always will.
If I had a day in this city I would spend half of it at the extraordinary National Archaeological Museum with its mosaics from Pompeii, as well as the Farnese collection's colossal Greek and Roman sculptures.
For lunch, well, I'd eat pizza. Almost every pizzeria is good in Naples but I like Lombardi's. I'd ask them to saw up my slices - topped with smoked provola cheese - and eat it with my hands sitting on the front steps of the church Gesù Nuovo. This is the church I dreamt of being married in - in the days when I had such dreams.
I'd spend a few hours of the afternoon at the Museo di Capodimonte - with its Caravaggios, Lippis, Botticelli's Madonna and Titian's Danaë. I can see why people who have millions spend them on these masters. Yet I also cannot imagine looking at such beauty every day.
Before dark I'd find myself in Piazza Bellini to take an Aperol Spritz - among the literary cafés and bars, with musicians busking on the terraces. I'd stay out late, and then skip back to Robert Kaplan's place. To fall asleep to the sound of pious pigeons.
Naples. This is where I want to be right now. Where the heat of summer still lingers.

Cosmiques Hut

Posted September 26th, 2016

On the way up to Mont Blanc

Mont Blanc

After crossing La Vallée Blanche I reached the Cosmiques Hut as the kitchen began serving dinner but I spent most of my time outside filming the full moon rising. A September harvest moon. I couldn't believe I'd accidentally chosen this night to attempt an ascent of Mont Blanc. A full fat moon.
I barely slept. But nobody seems to sleep before they try to climb this mountain - the highest in western Europe. That's partly because of nerves, partly because climbers must leave at around midnight to summit at sunrise. It was always going to be a quick sleep.
Down in the boot room I tied on my crampons, hauled on my pack and roped up to my team. It was so bright outside I didn't turn on my head torch. I remember looking at the snow glint in the dark, and smiling. Mont Blanc ahead.
This is where I want to be right now. Beneath a summit. Crossing glaciers, and climbing ridges and ice faces to reach the top: a brow of hill with nothing above or beyond it. It feels like the world falls away in every direction.
Of course the ascent is the easier half of the journey. On the way down there is no longer the pull of the peak. The shot of adrenaline from the summit quickly wears off. Wearing rented boots my ankles were rubbed raw. When an ice bridge collapsed from under me and I fell into a crevasse -- dangling in fresh air by my rope - I felt only relief, happy to have the weight off my feet.
Winched out and back on solid ground I remember focusing again on the banal task of planting one foot in front of the other. I stared at my boots and studied my stride, too exhausted to ask for help.
Or maybe, just maybe, it was because I was not ready to give up. My body did not want to take another step. Fortunately my mind had taken over long ago.
When we finally arrived back at Cosmiques I drank a cup of tea and threw up. I pulled off my ice boots but couldn't peel off my bloodied socks (I lost nine toenails on that trip and lost half a stone in 48 hours). I sipped a cup of tea and let my fork play with some hot food. Without question I had asked too much of myself.
Or is that the point? We ask too much of ourselves to feel more alive.
On the way up. Or on the way down. This is where I want to be right now. Truly.

Northern Namibia

Posted September 19th, 2016

Towards the Angolan border


I remember suspecting a flat tyre just before the town of Palmwag. After pulling over I walked around the vehicle. The slow puncture hissed at me like a snake. As I pulled out the jack and the wheel brace from the boot it began to rain - and this, in one of the world's driest countries. It swiftly became a full-on thunderstorm. Yet I smiled to myself. On the road in northern Namibia -- with a herd of springbok staring at me as I changed a wheel under the rain.
This is where I want to be right know. Travelling through northern Namibia in a 4WD - with a second spare tyre in the boot, a Jerry can of extra fuel and gallons of water. I could drive forever. Through this hot unmoving landscape, more like a still life. Where the animals are motionless to conserve energy. The landscape barely changes save the shadow of a cloud. Only the fuel gauge indicates progress.
At the gas station in Sesfontein I'd fill up and release some air from the tyres. Ahead is deep soft sand. There are rarely vehicles out there. When the tracks diverge or disappear I'd just point the car north - through forests of stocky mopane trees and past wind-whipped sculpted mountains.
Now and then I'd stop to stretch my legs. To smell the hot earth and dry grass. Among lonesome trees and skittish gemsbok. Through the Marienfluss Valley, framed by the Otjihipa and Hartmann mountains. This is the land of the semi-nomadic Himba. Red sand and scrubland, smattered with curious fairy circles devoid of vegetation.
At the border the terrain is rocky. On the other side of the charging Kunene River are the barren mountains of Angola. Dusty and hot, I want to be there right now. Clambering down the river bank to slide into the cool water. Not the still pools but the fast-flowing water. I remember someone telling me crocodiles don't like rapids, luckily, luckily.


Posted September 19th, 2016

Dancing with strangers


Here was a place where real things were going on. Here was a scene of vital action. Here was a place where anything might happen. Winston Churchill on visiting Cuba in 1895.
This is the kind of city you end up selling everything to move to, with one suitcase, in a hurry.
One hot sticky afternoon I remember stopping by the Casa de La Cultura. Nobody was around except Luis and a couple of dance students he was teaching. We got talking in his break. And he invited me out dancing that night.
A part of me didn't want to show up. A date to go dancing in Havana with a salsa teacher. In a city that moves to some of the world's best music. Terrifying.
But I had to go, of course. To an address in the old town: an open courtyard of a crumbling colonial ruin. I could hear the music streets away. A live band with impromptu musicians playing drums or the sax or maracas. And Luis was already there on the dancefloor. With a woman old enough to be my grandmother wearing purple Lycra cycling shorts and a bra top. Her midriff spoke of a dozen pregnancies. She was a fleshy, beautiful, fertility symbol. And moved like a diva. He moved like mercury. As the beat shifted, she was grabbed by an elderly man, bare-chested, wearing denim cutoffs. Luis turned for his next partner and saw a little boy in the shadows, not much steadier on his feet than a toddler, dressed to the nines in a boxy three-piece suit. Luis grabbed the boy's small hand and the kid jumped on to the floor like he was landing in a puddle. He had rhythm and a smile. Ah, this was the Cuba I had dreamed of.
As the two danced I watched Luis glancing up at the entrance. I waved and he smiled at me. I saw him shake hands with the little boy, so tenderly, so formally. Then he came to me, kissed me, and fetched me a mojito in a plastic cup: white Havana Club rum with two halves of a cut lime and a woody twig of mint sticking out like a swizzle stick. I drank it in one, and we danced. Salsa. Son. Rumba. I drank another and danced even better. We sweated until we nearly slipped out of each other's arms.
Early hours - as the morning light began to arch across the sky -- we walked to the Malecon, the seafront boardwalk. We sat on the wall - facing the Caribbean sea breeze -- and talked about politics, about music, about hope, about packing a suitcase. I want to be in Havana right now -- a city where they know how not to sleep. Sharing the rhythm. Sharing dreams.

With the gorillas

Posted September 5th, 2016

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda


Leaving Kampala traffic is often heavy. It's a road shared with long-distance buses, UN trucks, open lorries crammed with morose cows, motorbikes carrying four men, and bicycles balancing silver milk churns behind the saddle and bunches of bananas from the handlebars.
Heading west the road rises and falls with the soft contours of the landscape, passing by swamps of fine papyrus and longhorn cattle on hillsides covered with stubby acacia. Around the banks of Lake Victoria fishermen hold up their catches -- tilapia, Nile perch and catfish -- hoping to make a sale to passing motorists. Marabou stork stride around picking up scraps in their clacking beaks. Women pile up tomatoes and sweet potatoes in pyramids taking shade under flame trees.
A full day on the road and Kabale is the last town before the border lined with money transfer offices and banks, seminaries and ministries. A dirt turnoff north is the way to Bwindi. The land crumples. Terraces are chopped into steep slopes growing beans, cassava and sorghum. Mist swirls like apparitions. West are Congo's green valleys and south towards Rwanda is a row of pert volcanoes including Nyiragongo that smokes by day and glows by night.
But I come here for the gorillas. All this way for one hour - and the hope of a brief encounter.
Think how we can spend an hour. A commute. Cooking a mediocre meal. Laundry.
Then think of Bwindi.
The air is thin, and the terrain steep and muddy. It can take a whole day to find the gorillas, and then again you may not find them at all.
I still remember my first glimpse: the broad shoulder of a blackback called Bahati. His fingers were darker than mine but similarly wrinkled on the knuckles with scuffed cuticles. There was the sound of shoots breaking and a deep chesty sigh.
Safari, the formidable chief silverback, was close by stripping branches. Posho, another blackback, pouted at me. And then among the thick vegetation we found Kwitonda, the mother of twins, tenderly cupping her newborns to her chest. Unbearably tender. She looked tired.
The hour passes unfairly quickly. To minimise stress on the animals visitors are allowed only sixty minutes with the gorillas. But it is the most intimate of encounters. This is where I want to be right now. To hear Bahati sigh. The same way I hear myself sigh.


Posted August 29th, 2016

Square du Vert Galant


Everyone should fall in love in Paris at least once. Say, on a bus to Montmartre. Or on a bridge. Fall in love from afar. And follow through. There's no better city.
The love here is as different as the light.
Like Monet's Impression soleil levant at the Musee Marmottan.
Or among the kicked-up dust of Tuileries, dappled wtih golden motes.
The broken reflections of the Seine.
It's a city punished. But one that deserves our love.
There's a luminescence to Paris, even in the rain (when it gleams). It's like the city has been dreamt up, rather than built.
And there's a different way of looking at the world here. Read the paper. Right the world. Sign up to those French values we all covet. Liberte. Egalite. Fraternite.
We must always go to Paris.
Few cities have such a river carved through it. And fewer yet have islands in the heart of downtown. Ile de la Cite is the best known, the site of Gothic cathedral Notre Dame and the 13th-century Sainte-Chapelle.
Yet there is a refuge here a short distance from the crowds. This is where I want to be right now: lying on the flagstones of Square du Vert Galant, which juts from beneath the Pont Neuf at the western tip of the island. In the glare of sunshine without the cover of shade. Where light and love are cast.
No matter what we'll always have Paris.

The dusty road

Posted August 22nd, 2016

From Beirut to Damascus


I love summer in Beirut. Temperatures rise. Debates hot up. In the day everyone grumbles about the war, any war: the intifadas, Syria, Daesh, the next war, all wars.
By night they party like there's no tomorrow. No surprise perhaps.
In the city it is hot and dry and the sun sears; everyone is on the lookout for a sliver of shade. Except by the sea where there's always a breeze. I used to sneak into the ATCL club in Kaslik even though I wasn't a member. I'd drink local wine, eat bowls of olives and then swim 50 lengths half-tipsy. Big lengths. It's an Olympic-sized pool. Then I'd jump off the rocks into the salty eastern Mediterranean to cool off.
But in truth what I'd most like to be doing right now is clambering into a beaten-up old car and heading east through the fertile-green Bekaa Valley, stopping at Baalbek to wonder at the monumental columns, ornate capitals and the largest stone blocks from antiquity. Who built this sanctuary to Jupiter, Venus and Mercury? Was it Cain? Nimrod? Solomon? The Queen of Sheba? Or giants?
And then I'd get back in the dusty car and drive on to the Syrian border. On the road to Damascus.
At the border, it is all trucks and traders. Immigration isn't too bad. A few fascinating hours. I love watching the deals and bribes and rubberstamping. When I am cleared, the guards step aside and I cross the great swathe of no-man's land between the two countries. The buffer zone is so big and empty you can worry you're on the right road. But then, over the crest of a hill, you see Syria spread below. Damascus awaits. Except, of course, this was another time.
Where I want to be right now is Damascus as it was before. Arriving in the old city with its quiet ways and good grace. Driving through narrow streets. Trying to find a room. Passing Ottoman houses and hidden courtyards, souks and ateliers. Stopping at a kiosk to buy a cup of mulberry or pomegranate or blood-orange juice.
Umayyad Mosque is one of the largest and oldest sites of continuous prayer since the beginnings of Islam. It is also the happiest place to be on a summer evening. Among cool marble and mosaics. Tourists and worshippers, pilgrims and picnickers. It has the atmosphere of a public park - where families and friends come to catch up, to let the children run around, to bring food to share and eat. A feel-good place where you would never think to worry about tomorrow. That is where I want to be right now.
One tomorrow I'll come back here.

Rio de Janeiro

Posted August 15th, 2016

In the Olympic Stadium

Rio de Janeiro

I was sitting in the stadium when Usain Bolt won the 100m Final in Beijing. He looked so different to the other athletes even when they were lining up. The long limbs. The prowling around at the start. The signature Lightning Bolt move. The seemingly total ease. And when the gun cracked he began to fly, pulling away from the pack as if he was travelling a foot above the ground. Long before the finish line I watched him slow down, thump his chest, even savour the moment. I looked at the clock: 9.69 seconds. I sensed he could have been at least a tenth of a second quicker.
That was the first of his trebles. London came next. I didn't manage to get a ticket when Bolt won his second but I was in the city. Watching the 100m Final on a TV screen I remember my heart hammering in my chest as I willed him to cross the line first.
To Rio. Where I want to be right now is down on the track. All week. Watching these women and men run, jump, fly.
And I'd like to be in the lane next to Bolt. Glancing sideways to watch the man psyching himself up: the flick of his eyes around the track, then the focus, preparing to make history again and again and again. I'd crouch down next to him, shuffling my feet into position, planting my fingertips, waiting for the gun.
I'd run as if my life depended on it, like I was being chased by a lioness. Legs burning. Lungs bursting. Just to see how slow I am. And how quick he is. To have a sense of the speed of the fastest man on earth.
And when I finally made it to the finish line - if he wasn't already half-way around the stadium with a Jamaican flag raised high above his head - I'd give him a humble high-five.
Here's to another treble. One down, two to go. I wish I was in Rio right now. And not just because it's one of the most beautiful cities in the world.


Posted August 8th, 2016

Washington Square Park


I once had an apartment in New York. On the corner of Washington Square North and 5th Avenue. Sounds fancy. Actually it was a sublet off a NYU professor who was teaching abroad and the rent was dirt cheap. It was a big old space for the city and I threw parties all the time. Even in the summer when it was oven-hot, I refused to turn on the AC. Instead I used to fling open the six big sash windows facing the square and let the heat and the noise pour in. Friends would sweat and complain. But the parties were too good to leave.
My favourite time in that apartment was alone on a Friday night. Back in those days I was working at Newsweek magazine and we'd go to print very late at the end of the week. If it was this side of midnight I took the subway home and picked up enchiladas and ice-cold Coronas from Tortilla Flats. If it was later, the company would send us home in a car and I'd get the driver to stop at Corner Bistro to grab a burger. I'd take my dinner home in a brown paper bag, put the key in the lock and hear the sound of silence on the other side of the door. My own place. A place of my own. Then I'd slide up those six big creaking windows. In came the heat. In came the city. I'd fall on to the sofa, shoes still on, eating fast food with tired-from-typing fingers. It was so hot even the beer bottles would sweat. I'd listen to the buskers: the guy who played a tarnished sax; the homeless tenor who sang like Mario Lanza; the drummers who thrashed upturned plastic washing-up bowls. There was the sound of laughter, of shouting, of sirens.
That is where I want to be right now. Younger days. Working hard. Dead beat. With big dreams. Alone in the darkness. That's where I want to be, in every way.


Posted August 1st, 2016

Still awake in Ibiza


Is it really, really closing? Well, it's changing. The 80-year-old founder Pepe Rosello is stepping away, and DJ Carl Cox says he cannot play there without Rosello. So come the end of the season there will no longer be the Space we know and love. A daytime club that is surely the world's most beloved place to dance.
Ah, what I would give for one more set. I'd head there straight from the plane. Burst through the doors with a wink to the bouncers. Make my way towards the middle of the floor. To dance endlessly, timelessly, cocooned and carefree - in the bright white Ibiza light. Hearing the music rise and ebb like a tide. Until that big wave crashes over you. And it feels like a brave new perfect world. Staring at the sky. Patting my thighs to the rhythm. Hearing the planes roar overhead.
The instant I arrived in the glare of Ibiza twenty years ago I fell in love. With all the Ibizas: a little place on Cala Mastella which serves grilled fish and bullit de peix, a traditional fish stew - until the pot is empty; the hippy market at Las Dalias with its ripped hotpants, crocheted bikinis and impromptu dance parties; the secret beach Cala d'Aubarca (turn at the pine grove, drive down the rough road, walk 4km down to the deserted pebble beach); the galleries of Santa Eulalia; the DIY mud treatments at the far end of Aguas Blancas beach (the Phoenicians believed the island's red soil was magic), and sunset at Cala d'Hort looking across to Es Vedra where sirens lured Odysseus from his ship in Homer's epic.
In the 15th century, Nostradamus predicted Ibiza would become the planet's final refuge. During the Franco era the island became a safe haven for left-wingers fleeing persecution on the mainland. Ibiza stood for freedom, light and love, and still does. I used to say when the world's gone mad, there's always Space. Dance away your troubles. We need to dance more than ever.

The Bosphorus

Posted July 25th, 2016

Swimming from Asia to Europe


I remember standing on the eastern bank of the Bosphorus looking downstream. In the distance - six-and-a-half kilometres away - were the enormous white buoys marking the finish line. I took a deep breath.
I didn't love the start. Hundreds of us leapt off the pontoon like lemmings, each row of swimmers landing on top of the previous. Kicking feet. Churning bubbles. Flailing limbs. My breathing was instantly off. I took a knock to the head and then forged my way out of the pack.
When the current caught me midstream I began to find my rhythm. And it is there, half-way along the course, where I want to be right now. Pausing to tread water and gaze at Istanbul's domes, minarets and grand Ottoman palaces. I remember the Bosphorus so blue, and the sun warm on my face.
The course is so long and the strait so wide I couldn't see another swimmer and I nervously wondered if I was trailing in last place. (I confess there was a little part of my delusional self that hoped I was setting the pace). I scissor-kicked and spotted a few bobbing heads wearing the distinctive yellow-and-blue swim hats we had been given. "If you need to be picked up by a volunteer boat," the organisers had said, "take off your hat and wave it in the air."
This is the annual Cross-Continental Swim. Every summer the Bosphorus is shut to shipping traffic for a few hours and hundreds make the leap, leaving the Black Sea behind them, front crawling towards the Sea of Marmara. It is a journey in the wake of adventurers and romantics, flanked by one of the world's most dynamic cities where East and West churn together.
This year's race happened yesterday in spite of recent political events in Turkey. Some cancelled their participation in the wake of the failed coup when the government shut down the international airport and closed the two major bridges connecting the Asian side of Istanbul with the European side. The swim happens between these two bridges. It is good to know that even in a crisis - when governments sever transportation links and silence journalists -- that there's still a way of getting to the other side.

Masai Mara

Posted July 18th, 2016

Among the wildebeest

Masai Mara

They have arrived. The frontrunners of the massive muddled herd of wildebeest, zebra and antelope, which make up the Great Migration. They've just been sighted crossing into Kenya's Mara Triangle, the wedge between the sharp Oloololo Escarpment and the mazy meandering Mara which boasts the only decent permanent water in the region. Kenya's most celebrated sight is watching the animals' perilous crossing of this river. The wildebeest dither, angst-ridden, until one slips down the steep muddy bank and then they all follow in a thunderous panic. Crocodiles lurk in the shallows. Lions crouch in wait. I wonder what it must be like to be under constant threat of being eaten alive. Tough.
But what I love is less about the drama. I prefer the Masai Mara's open plains where you get the best sense of the scale of the single greatest mass movement of land mammals on the planet. Over a million ungulates march in each other's tracks from one side of the horizon to the other. This is where I want to be: smelling the dry earth, watching these animals mosey on, heads bowed, hearing the constant braying, dust kicking up, witnessing this extraordinary intuitive motion. The collective noun is an implausibility of wildebeest. Hard to believe.
Of course the Great Migration is a perpetual nomadic cycle, not a tidy clockwise route. It follows the unpredictable rains. The animals change their mind depending on weather, or maybe whim. But generally it is now that they are in the Mara, and afterwards they make the long journey south to the southern Serengeti. They head there to calve en masse, perhaps as many as half a million wildebeest are born within a few weeks. At the start of Tanzania's long rains the Migration sweeps up towards the Western Corridor, close to Lake Victoria, and another famed crossing of the Grumeti River. Then it is up to the Mara again.
So in truth you can see the migration at any time of year. It's just that I love the Mara (so much that I named my daughter Mara). I love it for the rolling open grassland and smudges of acacia. For the distant bronze of a pride of lion; the loping giraffe; topi standing sentinel; hefty snuffling buffalo (and my second favourite collective noun: an obstinacy of buffalo); a dazzle of zebra (my third favourite). Wisdoms of elephants (my invention). Gazelles pronking (there's a verb). And above raptors riding the thermals with the best views of all.
Last year I was in the Mara a little early and the wildebeest hadn't arrived yet. So I jumped into a light plane with Jan, a maker of tents, and Mark, a builder of camps (the kind of people you run into in this part of the world), and we flew south to find the Migration as excited as if it was buried treasure. We found the herds just across the border into Tanzania. We also saw rhino from the air, a flopped male lion, a rainbow and a storm.
This is where I always want to be. Having adventures on the rim of Africa's Great Rift Valley. To sleep in tents hearing lion or hippo or hyena. To awaken to a chink of sunrise. Colours emerging out of the neutrals. The chill dissipating. The heat bubbling up. And then a safari with all its glorious unpredictability and glorious possibility. This is where I want to be forever.

Star Ferry

Posted July 11th, 2016

Crossing Victoria harbour, Hong Kong

Star Ferry

My first ever memory was feeling the heat and humidity on the forecourt of Kai Tak Airport. I was three. What was most disorienting to me was the temperature at night time. I clearly remember this strange new mix of hot and dark.
But then there was a lot of new in those early days of life. It would have been a defiant landing - as it was back then before the new airport was built. We'd have approached between the tower blocks of Kowloon, wing tips at a level with laundry lines and kitchen sinks, before a sharp right on to finals, finding the centre line, touching down, and braking before the end of the runway fell into the sea. But that was all lost on my three-year-old self. What made the impact was the heat: the inside of my arms sticking to the sides of my body, a totally new sensation on my skin, and all around me in the darkness the piercing vertical neon (of signage in Chinese characters but, of course, I couldn't interpret that either). It was my first ever memory - and the beginning of a beautiful relationship with Hong Kong, one of my favourite cities in the world.
I have a theory that if I stand long enough at the ferry terminal at Central I will run into almost everyone I know. Anyone who comes to Hong Kong takes a Star Ferry, or should. The ferry hop from Central to Tsim Sha Tsui is the most staggering - and emotionally stirring. The distinctive green-and-white vessels have looked the same for decades but the journey is shorter. When I was three it felt like forever. Is it the swathes of reclaimed land, or is it me? It now takes but a few minutes.
And even though the terminal has moved from beside City Hall to inconveniently outside the International Finance Centre, I still make sure I catch a Star Ferry every time I am in Hong Kong, sometimes to and fro, rather than to get to the other side. I pay the extra 50 cents to sit on the upper deck. The cleverly-designed bench seats have a moveable backrest so that you can always face the direction of travel. Heading towards Tsim Sha Tsui I sit on the right. I like to travel just after dusk when the city's lights are being switched on and the water looks molten. It is not only the sensational urban smash-up with the silhouette of The Peak behind but also feeling part of this frenetic fantastic city, one of the world's great mercantile ports.
Before I can immerse in my memories we have reached the other side. Quick and wondrous. Like a childhood.


Posted July 4th, 2016

On the Isle of Lewis, in Scotland's Outer Hebrides


Here are golden shifting sand dunes, machair grassland, myriad islets and rugged cliffs. I'd like to camp here on the springy moss, awaken to the trill of the curlew, and then kite-surf at high tide in the shallow waters; consistent Atlantic winds also keep away the midges at this time of year. Beyond Uig, Lewis is an island steeped in Druid and Norse mythology with its standing stones, chambered cairns and the ancient circle at Callanish, less well known than Stonehenge but built around the same time and much more dramatic up here on the banks of Loch Roag. Uig itself is the place where a local crofter discovered a buried hoard of chess pieces nearly 200 years ago, brought to the surface during a storm. The Lewis Chessmen are 93 pieces of gloriously worked walrus ivory and whale tooth in the form of seated kings and queens, bishops, knights and pawns, thought to have been carved in Scandinavia in the 12th century. Most of the chessmen are on display at the British Museum in London (the rest are at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh) and I often go to the Medieval Gallery on the upper floors to wonder at the craftsmanship. But of course I'd rather be on Lewis itself, lying in the lee of a dune, running my fingers through the sand hoping I might come across the chiselled shape of a 94th piece.


Posted June 26th, 2016

Feeling the Brexit blues


My first folio of this new column was originally set to be about a little slip of a beach called Les Graniers, a short hop by boat from St Tropez yet with very few bathers and a tiny in-the-know restaurant. The ground is stony rather than sandy but that helps make the water pellucid and there are pretty Provençal villas in pale pink and ochre on the hill behind, and dinghies bobbing in the bay. The restaurant serves bowls of mussels, grilled sardines and beef tartare - as the sun beats down. And during this wet cool summer in London it is this petite patch, little wonder, that has flitted into my mind time to time. However, after Friday, my private travel daydream shifted direction. Where I really want to be now is Brussels. I want to walk the streets, exploring the boutiques of Antwerp Fashion Department graduates on rue Antoine Dansaert, and the fleamarket at Place du Jeu de Balle, all the while remembering what it was like to be part of something called the European Union. There, in this cultured continental capital, I want to hope that there is a chance we will (be allowed to) return to the city where Europe has the strength in numbers to shape international policy and influence the world order. I would stand before Magritte, Delvaux and Ensor at the Museums of Fine Arts - and see the new super-tech Breugel exhibition; I'd eat Neuhaus chocolates, and speculaus biscuits from Maison Dandoy; rummage the junk shops on Rue Blaes with its treasures from former colonies, and stand on the steps of the Palais de Justice with its sweeping views of the city. And then I'd head to L'Archiduc, the most classic of jazz joints, in some ways hardly changed since it opened as a brothel by Madame Alice in 1937, and I'd stay all night hoping to hear snatches and snippets of conversations between European politicians and journalists, also feeling the blues, and allow myself to be carried away by the rhythms and inflections of the music. Closing my eyes, I'd dare to imagine a life bound up with Europe again, a future starkly different to the one we are facing now, where we can move around freely unconcerned by borders and know we belong - whether in London or Berlin, Paris or Brussels.