Possibly Perfect.

I arrived after sundown, and headed into the bitterly cold Scandinavian night to find my hostel. I walked through beautiful, wide streets – clean and lively, past great statues and grand buildings laced with quirky boutiques and neon corner stores. Teenagers were drinking and huddling from the cold on what looked to be the Town Hall’s steps. Danish men and women smiled back from their speedy bicycles. I was in Copenhagen.

My hostel for the night was an immaculate, grand place. I was tired but curiosity kept me awake. I joined a Liverpuddlian Chef, an Hawaiin writer/surfer with strong celebrity connections, a Venezuelan pianist and a London-dwelling Brazillian to go see the night. We found our way to a gritty bar called The Moose. Dingily lit and walls of every small winding room covered in graffiti, an eclectic mix of locals and travellers smoked inside. While I rather enjoyed feeling a part of the underground post-punk scene of 1990s Seattle, my lungs begged me to leave. I was more curious to check out this mythical sounding Christiana.

What I’d heard about Christiana (or Christianshaven) was this: In the 1970s it was formed as a sort of commune by some hippies, and gradually became its own state, and while it lies within Copenhagen it is completely separate from the EU. Until a recent crack down, marijuana has been legal, and is still bought and sold here. Christianans don’t pay taxes, but this also means they don’t receive electricity, water, or the right to attend Copenhagen schools, so this is all done independently. I was intrigued.

We decided to do a quick trip over there that night, and fought the cold as we navigated our way. Wiser souls may not have ventured there at night, and didn’t curiosity kill the cat? The main street, Pusher Street, strictly forbids photography, and we watched people dealing all kinds of hash as we warmed ourselves by one of the barrels of fire. ‘Can you move along please?’ said someone also by the fire, who until now I thought was simply there to warm themselves like us. ‘Pardon?’ ‘Move along, now…’ It was a shifty scene. We laughed as we ‘moved along’ wondering if the man was really an official of this underground business or just a cold and greedy guy.

We stopped in a Christianian bar around the corner before the hike home, and what awaited me was the most bizarre set of social circumstances I’ve ever found myself in; an anthropologist’s dream. Almost every single type of person in the world you could imagine was represented here, dancing and drinking harmoniously together. Rastafarians sat beside burly Lumberjack types, weathered, crinkly faced Asian women (perhaps the Greenland indigenous people, who have a strong population in Christiana) danced with young white hipsters and toothless old bums circled a scantily clad, otherwise well-to-do American diva while Swedish hippies and African musicians looked on. It was simultaneously heart-warming and unnerving. Although the scene was wonderfully diverse and peaceful, in the haze I sensed a collective escape in a repetitious cycle of delusion.

I’d had a colourful introduction to the city which was about to get a lot better; in the morning I met my gracious host and ol’ college friend Adrika, with her sister Shalini. I owe such a huge thank you to the Gautam family for not only having me, but being so generous with their insights, their outings and their delicious Danishes.

My first full day in Copenhagen had me thinking that maybe my hosts had some extraordinairy ties somewhere; After some delicious Denmark bagels, we waited with throngs of others along the sunlit streets for none other than the Queen of the country to parade by! In the nearby Lego store, a young clerk showed us with boyish excitement a model he’d constructed of the parade, with Her Highness in her carriage. This country loves their Queen. She passed us all smiles, and through vigorously waved red and white flags, I waved back thanks for her royal welcome. Later we caught an impressive demonstration of the guards at the Royal Palace, and of course what typical day in this city would be complete without a visit to the Little Mermaid? I’m always skeptical of such icons; ‘Do I genuinely like this or am I just being told to?’ But the Little Mermaid sits on a lone rock with such beautiful melancholia, I really did like her.

It was lovely to be back in the presence of a family as the next few days consisted of walking through lightly snow peppered parks climbing ‘upside down trees’, visiting castles and drinking hot chocolate to keep warm in between. We did a much safer, prettier trip to Christiana during the day, and a night out with some local Danish girls confirmed their open and friendly nature for me. One day Adrika and I rose late, had lunch at home (in Denmark) and casually rode the train to Helsinger (where lies the castle Shakespeare based Hamlet around!) and proceeded to catch a ferry over to Sweden for dinner! The town we visited there was as beautiful as its predecessor, its people as friendly too.
The city I witnessed is conservative when it comes to resources and liberal when it matters, home to royalty and rebellion, with a population benefiting nicely from heavy taxes and a community that seems to flourish from not doing so. Copenhagen itself is a bustling, clean and pretty example of metropolitan joys, while miles of fresh aired fields and pines are never far away – and no matter where you go you will find friendly, open and helpful people it seems. I was grateful for the chance to explore and discover a place so possibly perfect.

Versailles

On Mondays, we were told, Versailles is closed. ‘How can they close an entire suburb?’ asked my good travelling companion Steph. Quite right, I thought. After discovering our dear French receptionist simply meant the palace isn’t open Mondays, but we were free to roam the gardens, which we’d heard were the highlight, we decided to forge ahead anyway.

The grandeur and beauty of Versailles and it’s Western excuberance is snap-frozen. A few centuries have vanished or hang hazily somewhere; Marie Antoinette and her impotent King have given way to 2011’s throngs of tourists sporting sweat-factory threads and Nikons made in China. But the sun still shines on the same statues it has risen and set in front of for centuries, and the hedges dotting the place today may be the very same ones the young Austrian bride brushed against in the 1700s.

It’s the ancient royalty’s overflowing indulgence within these lavish gardens and its palace that sparked the French Revolution, keeping France’s population poor and hungry until they could take no more, I know. But the beauty of this place is simply undeniable.

Marie Antoinette's Quarters

As the sun began to disappear, it revealed a sky of brilliant fuschia and volcano orange. Returning to the courtyard, I was struck with an inside shiver that wouldn’t leave.

There were the statues, the garden’s keepers, ancient souls trapped in stone. Their open mouths gasped silent gasps as they admired the blazing heavens above them. Their faces held such fresh and humble awe, it was if they and I together were watching for the first time. Yet it was then I remembered, these hushed witnesses were bound to the grounds, and they were witnessing the sky’s displays the same way they have done every night of their eternity.

My soul stirred. So this is beauty, I thought.

Montmartre

‘You may come here and walk by the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, these gardens, but the Paris you’ve dreamed of lies over there,’ our passionate tour guide says as he throws his arm towards the vaguely visible Sacre Sacré-Cœur.
‘That is the Paris you’ve come here for. The Paris of bustling cobble-stone streets, filled with artists in black and white stripes painting madly, cigars in their mouths. The same artists that have been flocking to the Sacré-Cœur since Paris got its name. The Paris of fruit markets and bustling cafes, buskers and bicycles… it’s over there.’

Over there, is Montmartre. Needless to say, Amelie is based here, and I came to seek out that magical, whimsical Parisian world she lives in.

Ironically, it lies probably everywhere but the actual cafe the film was set in. The chalk-ink drawing of Amelie on its outside windows wearing a Santa hat should have been a warning. Overt commercialism is to be expected I suppose, but not only were the crème brûlées overpriced (albeit delightful), the staff were rude and the service terrible. Maybe I was just heartbroken Audrey Tatou wasn’t there.

Indeed, Montmartre was all our tour guide promised it would be. We spent Christmas day on the highest peak of the cathedral’s steps, over-looking Paris in all its glory. We meandered the small streets behind the Sacré-Cœur, littered with authentic cafes and rows of painters and portrait sketchers furiously capturing their subjects. To top it off, we caught the Moulin Rouge in all its red neon glory at night; its size was a little underwhelming but another glimpse of the seedier, older, ‘real’ Paris that you’ve dreamed of, perhaps.

Visions of Paris

After a life-time of exposure to the Eiffel Tower before even reaching Europe, I feared I might already be de-sensitized to her splendour. ‘It will either be underwhelming or overwhelming,’ said a wise friend. I contemplated this as we clambered up the station’s stairs and made our way towards the world’s most famous landmark. The sky was black already, as we turned a corner and entered a clearing. There we were hit so suddenly with the view of her golden, looming A-frame, I think I hit the person I was standing beside. The involuntary fling of my arm and my wide, gaping mouth told me doubtlessly: overwhelming.

Make sure that the first sight you catch of her is after sundown – La Tour Eiffel is a lady of the night. It’s an age-old cliche, but her beauty really does challenge you not to fall in love with her. And she’s just so photogenic.

Car crashes are less photogenic, so I tried not to take too many photos at the Arc de Triomph. There are something like twelves roads that merge into the roundabout surrounding the grand arch, and statistically its estimated there is a car collision of some sort every fifteen minutes. We pitied the tourists, who unlike us, were not told of the underground tunnel to the centre, to bypass the motor madness.

Apparently it would take three months straight (no sleeping) to view every item in the Louvre for something like two minutes each. I sorely regret not spending more time there, but fatigue can hit you at the most inconvenient of times. We did manage to trek to see the Mona Lisa herself, though, just for novelty’s sake.

The Louvre

‘What is it about the Mona Lisa? I personally don’t see it,’ said a friend to me once after his visit to Paris. ‘Well, you know, it’s the Mona Lisa…’ I replied weakly. And it was at that moment that I realised I agreed. Sure it’s a beautiful painting by a highly skilled artist, but if noone had told me any better, I wouldn’t pick it as the only thing to be put behind glass in The Louvre. As we hustled through the crowds of people staring and taking photos of her, I overheard a girl talking to her boyfriend. Dramatically, without breaking her gaze with Mona Lisa, she said to him, ‘Please, just wait, one more minute with her…’ I wondered if she actually knew what she was talking about or meant it.

Napoleon’s Tomb is a testament to the fact he died as well as he lived. Curiously, French soliders seemed to be having a field day there – taking photos on their iPhones like it was their first time there. I don’t have an explanation, but this image of the modern solider intrigued me.

Sometimes it can be true, Parisians can be gruff and disinterested towards tourists. Once it seemed the man behind the counter was pretending he couldn’t understand my sorry attempts at his language, and people as a whole didn’t seem anywhere near as relaxed as they are in the South. So it was comforting and reassuring to visit this bridge, flanked with so many padlocks declaring couple’s affection. Forget what you see on the streets, in Paris and beyond, love is all around. And in a city like this one, why ever not?

City of Love, City of Light

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.
– Ernest Hemingway

Going to Paris was like meeting an old, golden celebrity. Overwhelmed by its reputation, its sights and its history, upon arrival we were at a slight loss of what to see first. Père Lachaise Cemetery happened to be close to our hostel, and what better way to get acquainted with such an old city than to first visit its dead – for nothing else is so abundant in history. So it was here that we strolled, and what a lovely place to stroll it is. We paid our respects to Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison among others, which was oddly surreal, beautiful and sad all at once.

Although we aren’t so morbid as to have continued on straight to The Catacombes, we did make the journey sometime afterwards. There’s nothing like trekking through deep underground passages lined with the bones and skulls of six million people to make one bring to mind history.

With so little time there was so much to do. The moveable feast that is Paris has now been served.


Les Catacombes

Very Nice

A dozy, scenic train ride took us from Marseille to Nice, its arguably more commercial (but equally gorgeous) cousin. Nice is a beautiful sea-side town, with December warmth and sunshine to astonish.

The stunning seaside you’ll see in these photos were taken on the Promenade des Anglais, which hugs the coastline of Nice’s most touristic hub. We rode bikes for almost every minute of the half a day’s worth of hours we hired them for; only stopping to buy, prepare and finally eat bread stick sandwiches on the ocean front. We chased cliches in Nice, eating baguettes and brie, nutella-smeared crepes and fresh croissants for every meal of the day.

The old part of town, aptly called Old Nice, is not to be missed. Here, tourist numbers seem to thin out, and we dined beside a lovely French couple in a traditional restaurant. The area is full of art galleries (presumably artists too), and as I walked through one alley way snapping my camera admirably at canvasses of colour, people inside called out in such friendly sounding French inviting me to come in, that my heart ached as I apologised and walked by to keep up with the others. At night we meandered through labyrinths of narrow alleys there, all with sheets and clothes hanging out of windows, flanked by colourful shutters.

The sun shone until it sank, boats floated on calm blue harbours, and locals defied their given stereotypes by being patient and kind. Indeed, the hardest thing about Nice was getting on the train to leave for Paris.

European Dreamin’

When moments you’ve dreamed of for so long actually realise, it’s funny to remember the times in which they existed only in your imagination. I can recall, for years, listening to the music of Beirut and yearning for times like those I heard in their songs; old cities of France in the sun, cobbled alleys and wine at night, tucked away restaurants, ancient churches over-looking accordions and foreign tongues in the clusters of villages below.

Marseille, in the South of France, has brought me as close to these dreams as I have yet come, and for this reason it has my heart. Indulge me a little if you will, and play the song on the clip below as you glimpse through my eyes at the city I didn’t spend enough time in.

Notre Dame de la Garde

La Vieille Charité

Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure

Notre Dame de la Garde at Sunset