by Nick Trend, The Telegraph, April 15, 2019
I found an old guide book to Venice while clearing out the attic last weekend and it set me off on a train of nostalgia. By chance, the find coincided with an anniversary. It was exactly 30 years ago this month – April 1989 – that I started to get to know the place.
It’s a long time ago, but the memories came flooding back: of the first time I saw the glowing gold of the mosaics in St Mark’s; of the shimmering reflections of the backwater canals in Dorsoduro; of soaking up the sunshine on the Zattere; of stepping into the half-light of empty churches and letting my eyes adjust as a Titian or Tintoretto emerged out of the gloom; and of being swindled out of 100,000 lire by the man in the waterbus ticket booth.
I stayed in Venice for two weeks, so there was lots to get nostalgic about, but I also began to reflect on how important it was to me to have been able to stay that long. Two weeks isn’t much in general holiday terms, perhaps. It’s perfectly normal for a summer break in a beach resort, or for touring around the Dordogne or Tuscany, for example.
At the time, being young and naive, a trip like that seemed quite an obvious thing to plan – but looking back, it strikes me that this was much, much longer than the vast majority of tourists spend in Venice, or in any other single city for that matter.
I suppose that is perfectly understandable if you think that most people either want to use their holiday time to explore a much bigger area, or have the opportunity to relax and do absolutely nothing. We are also culturally predisposed to think of cities as places to escape from, rather than to. Perhaps we also perceive them as expensive – although renting an apartment in central Venice, Paris or Madrid needn’t cost any more per head than a villa by the sea, for example. I don’t think day-to-day costs need necessarily be higher either.
Whatever the reason, I generally think we hugely underinvest in city breaks. We tend automatically to relegate them to a weekend hop of two or three nights at the most. But, as I found 30 years ago, plan a longer stay and you develop a different, much deeper relationship with a city. Not only do you have time to see some of the less obvious sights and to break away from the sterilised and increasingly overcrowded mainline tourist trail, but the everyday routines of the city – of catching buses, of buying bread in the mornings – start to become familiar.
So I realise now that those two weeks in April 1989 had a big effect on my travelling life. They made me crave deeper connections with places that I found especially appealing – particularly cities. Rather than tick them off as “done”, I leave wanting to go back again – to renew the routines, see how the cities have changed and find things that I might have missed.
It’s something I do as often as I can with Venice. For me it’s a wanderlust that is just as strong as the urge to go out and discover new destinations.
Five fine cities to visit in spring
The French capital was designed for spring – that huge patch of public space and promenading at its heart, the Jardin des Tuileries, swelling with birdsong and arboreal swaying; the gardens that frame the Musée Rodin (musee-rodin.fr; €12) rushing into life, the great sculptor’s masterpiece The Thinker resplendent amid floral colour.
Eurostar launched its direct rail service between London and the fabulously scenic Dutch city last year (trains take just under four hours; returns from £70). See spring in full swing at the celebrated Keukenhof garden, a 20-mile skip south-west of the city in Lisse (keukenhof.nl; €18). Here, arguably, is the season of revival at its most picturesque on the European continent, some seven million bulbs pushing up through the soil in what is a banquet of petals.
The Czech Republic’s urban kingpin tussles with the Keukenhof for Europe’s spring crown – by not looking very urban at all where Petrin Hill rears above the Mala Strana district. The noise of the city fades as you ascend this 427ft bluff in a haze of cherry blossom. At the top, the Eiffel-esque Petrin Lookout Tower (petrinska-rozhledna.cz) offers sublime views.
Denmark’s capital has its own take on green space in an urban setting. The Tivoli Gardens (tivoli.dk) have been operating as a haven of theme-park thrills and ornamental whimsy since 1843. As such, their appeal stretches from roller coasters like the 48mph Demon to a 1943 Ferris wheel, the playful Nimb Water Fountains and the Hanging Gardens – a hub of flower bed fragrance in spring.
Morocco’s swirling souk of a city is often deemed to be a dust bowl of medina madness and cavorting cobras on Djemaa el-Fna. But this opinion overlooks the leafiness of Jardin Majorelle (jardinmajorelle.com), the landscaped garden founded by French artist Jacques Majorelle in 1923, and nurtured by Yves Saint Laurent in the Eighties. A museum to the designer’s genius opened alongside it in 2017 (museeyslmarrakech.com).