Postcards in my head


In time, you forget cancelled flights, mixed up hotel bookings and lost luggage and remember only the good bits. Here are ten of my favourite travel memories.

1 Chicago: Watching the skyscrapers roll by

 There are so many skyscrapers in Chicago it’s as if some child of the gods had set them down on a carpet to play with. These landmark showpieces make Chicago one of the world’s most architecturally sophisticated cities. The story began in 1871 after a two-day fire, famously started in Mrs O’Leary’s cowshed, left 90,000 homeless and reduced the city to a smouldering bog. In the flurry of rebuilding, one Major William Le Baron Jenney devised a load-carrying structural frame, the so-called ‘Chicago skeleton’.

The technique made skyscrapers possible and Chicago never looked back. I glimpsed 83 of them from the sky deck of the 110-storey Sears Tower, but better still was the 90minute Chicago Architecture Foundation’s River cruise; 53 magnificent structures rolled past as I relaxed on the open deck.

2. Rome: Finding St Peter

 Under the crypt of St Peter’s basilica there’s a Roman cemetery. A guide takes you down, through labyrinths of stairs and corridors. Discovered under the high altar in 1939, it was found to contain, along with magnificent sepulchers, a simple grave with the bones of an old man lying near it. While absolute certainty is impossible, Pope Pius XI announced in 1950 that as the grave had clearly been venerated for centuries, it seemed the tomb of the Prince of Apostles had been found. Of all the wonders of the Vatican, this fragment of a tomb, spied through a wrought-iron gate, is what I remember best.

 3. Zanzibar: Indian Ocean dhow sailing

 The Arabs who settled Zanzibar grew rich transporting slaves and spices. They sailed in dhows, driven along on the trade winds.Dhows are still used for fishing and ferrying around these islands and one morning I got a ride in one, a small belem, made of smoothly curved teak planks about 10 metres long. The fishermen lashed the canvas sail to the rough mast and the wind pulled us out into the Indian Ocean. The dhow bucked and bobbed in the cross current, but it was carried steadily forward.No creaking, no flapping, no water lapping: just the sensation of speed

4. Texas: Giving in to the inner cowgirl

 So I said to myself, ‘G’wan, you know you want to.’ And that’s why I was in Bandera, Texas, “the cowboy capital of the world”.After checking into the Running R Ranch, I saddled up and rode out behind the wrangler. He led his little posse of dudes at a walking pace, all of us on the alert for feral hogs, wild turkey and antelope. We spotted an armadillo scampering into the undergrowth. And the landscape was great.Then we mossied into Bandera, a onestreet town where Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar Bar is the main attraction. Cowboys and cowgirls in their best boots, buckles and big hats stomped the night away to Arkey Blue’s greatest hits, like: ‘My Son Calls Another Man Daddy’ and ‘The Worst of You Just Got the Best of Me’. Yeehaw!

5. Corsica: Riding the narrow-gauge railway

 It takes the narrow-gauge, single-track railway four hours to cover the 155km between Corsica’s two main cities. Ajaccio and Bastia. It’s called ‘the Trembler’ because it wheezes like an asthmatic as it travels through a spine of granite mountain ranges. The tracks are so narrow they disappear under the train when you cross a bridge, as if the train were airborne. One side of the train hugs the mountainside so closely you could pick wild flowers through the windows. From the other there is nothing at all between you and views like romantic engravings, jagged black peaks, dark green valleys, glacial lakes and foaming streams. The mountain slopes are a tangle of trees and blossoming undergrowth. The fragrance drifts through the open train windows.

6. Maasai Mara: Caught in the lion’s eye

 Kenya’s Maasai Mara, like an ocean or a mountain range, is an awesome presence. At first you see only the vast grassy plain, widely scattered bushes, a copse of trees. As you focus, the vista comes to life like a developing film.One morning a sheaf of grass, an arm’s length away from our open safari vehicle, developed into the tawny mane of a lion.Lifting his great head he gazed at me steadily. I gazed back into his amber eyes. I suspected that, as with hijackers, it was wise to avoid eye contact, but fright and wonder balanced and I couldn’t look away.The driver reversed inch by inch and in seconds there was nothing to see but grass.

7. Lapland: Earning my antlers

 In the Arctic summer, the sun shines bright in Rovaniemi, Santa’s Lapland home. My friend and I said a quick hello to the man himself (no queues in the summer) then took an excursion on the Kemijoki River in a canoe with an outboard motor. Evergreens lined the shore in some places; the river turned into bog in others. We crossed the Arctic Circle and reached a landing platform where a Lapp reindeer farmer welcomed us. Up close, reindeers look like furry coffee tables with moose heads attached. The farmer led us into his kota, a dark smoky teepee of reindeer skins. Sitting on benches padded with reindeer pelts, we sipped hot berry juice. Then came the ‘crossing the arctic circle’ ritual: he pretended to make a knife slash at the base of our skulls. We pretended to believe he had. Our temples were stamped with soot to show where antlers will grow in the next life. Watch this space.

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8. Kyoto: Living a Japanese print

 Japanese prints look the way they do because that’s how Japan really looks. I learned one April in Kyoto that the cherry blossoms, the lanterns and banners, the pagoda roofs, and the kimono-clad women, look just as impossibly artistic in real life. The ancient city was in party mode for cherry blossom season. Schools and businesses were on holiday; throngs strolled in the parks, groups set up picnics under the trees. Some offices had sent staff out early to secure viewing places. The blossoms were admired in the afternoon light, against the setting sun and in the moonlight. Kyoto’s most revered cherry tree was spotlit and its thick branches and gnarled trunk were painted white like a geisha’s face. Supporting its heavy mantle of white blossoms against the dark night sky, it was unforgettable. No painting could do it justice.

9. Santiago de Compostela:Feeling the vibes

 The world’s first guidebook was written in 1130 to describe the Camino de Santiago, the Way of Saint James. It starts in Paris and ends on the western coast of Spain in Santiago de Compostela at the cathedral housing the relics of St James. For over a thousand years pilgrims have walked the route, or part of it; Irish pilgrims began their journey by ship from St James’s Gate. I flew to Santiago to see the Old Quarter. Unesco declared it a World Heritage Site in 1983, calling it “one of the world’s most beautiful urban areas”. The 12th century cathedral, the square in front of it and the medieval arcades of the town are indeed beautiful. But what is unforgettable is the pervading atmosphere of peace, as if millions of pilgrims, trudging silently towards the cathedral, have left traces of their reverence in the stones.

10. Auvers-sur-Oise: In Van Gogh’s footsteps

 Van Gogh arrived in Auvers-sur-Oise by train from Paris on 21 May, 1890. He immediately wrote to his brother Theo: “Auvers is strikingly beautiful”. Auvers is still beautiful and the scenes of Auvers that Van Gogh immortalized in the last few months of his life are almost unchanged.Vincent is buried in the hilltop cemetery across from the field he painted 15 days before he died. He saw crows descending on ripe corn under a doom-laden sky. Along the picturesque pathways of Auvers, reproductions of 19 impressionist canvasses are displayed. Twelve are by Van Gogh. I stood where he once stood, saw what he saw and how he made a painting of it. I could imagine Van Gogh urging: “Look at that field, see that church.”

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