If places can have a soul, this is one of my favourite types…
Like a large number of my so-called “X” and/or “Y” generation, I love travelling. I love the way different places have their own colour, their own nature, I love the smell of the air, and the sounds, unique to each place – whether that’s wind rushing through caves or rain pounding on houses, church-chimes or cow bells, market shouts or calls to prayer.
I love swimming in an ocean that I know is connected to somewhere else that I’ve been, and also somewhere else that I’ve been, and somewhere else that I haven’t, and I love standing on a mountain looking down at the mist, and that brief glimpse of far off landscapes when just for a moment the mist clears. I love finding out what different cultures have for breakfast, how people get around, what the word, in their language (or languages) is for “beautiful”.
I ‘travel’ rather than ‘holiday’ because I seek the ‘soul’ of a place. This may seem a slightly mystical perspective, but by soul I don’t mean to refer necessarily to something spiritual or cosmic. I do, however, align my thinking with Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, who champion the status of the flâneur –the city wanderer who as this article argues, seeks a “form of transcendence” or dreamlike experience.
“The crowd was the veil from behind which the familiar city as phantasmagoria beckoned to the flâneur. In it, the city was now landscape, now a room”
– Walter Benjamin
More recently, Will Self and Iain Sinclair have spearheaded the revival of psychogeography, a notion of thought that considers the act of ‘drifting’ through an environment as a form of communication with it, a discovery of its pulse beneath the surface.
In the course of my travels, I have found that the souls of places can be loosely grouped into ‘categories’ – personality types if you will – and one of my favourites of these categories is what I call places with a “candle spirit”.
…Yes, here’s something else I really love: candles! I use candles at dinner, to concentrate when studying, to feel closer to those far away, candles even played a central role in my wedding. What can I say, I really, really love candles.
“How far that little candle throws its beams!
So shines a good deed in a naughty world.”
– Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
When I light a candle, I feel a sense of communion – whether that’s with the people I am with, the room I am in, the document I’m trying to write, or just with myself. Candles, like open fires, have a magical quality to them. They have the ability to completely transform your surroundings – to make the space you are in become something other. They illuminate faces, cast shadows, make strange shapes on the wall. I understand why Charles Dickens (also a flâneur) used to write by candlelight late into the night, claiming its transformative effect fired up his imagination. Candles make a normal space into a dreamscape, but by the very act of their primal energy – a simple source of light, and heat and life, they make it shared, even if you are alone.
It is this property of magic and communion that I like, and delight in finding. These locations (usually cities or towns) are places for wandering, talking, looking and thinking. Long conversations with a bottle of wine (or whisky, or a local tipple) between you. Dimly lit corners, small groups. Time seems to stop and capsule you in.
If you, like me, love a bit of candle-spirit, enjoy late night talking (as the candle ebbs away), while a shared bottle, carafe, or a pot of tea becomes somehow part of an enclosed space of communion, then you may well enjoy this handy compilation of my favourite (so far) candle-spirit destinations.
Seville is one of those places that you can go to for a long weekend but can just as easily stay for a week or longer, using it as a base to visit some of the other fantastic nearby towns of Spain, such as Cadiz, Cordoba and Carmona. For candle-spirit action, a long-weekend will suffice. Famous for its orange blossom and its mix of Moorish, Gothic and Baroque architecture, Seville is an aesthetically pleasing city in which to walk, wonder and talk.
I went in October, when the sun is golden and low and the al fresco action is still very much in full swing. As is the Mediterranean way, restaurants start to fill up late in the evening, spilling out into the streets and squares, often replete with the sounds of Spanish guitar. Ambling from bar to bar, drawn in by the smell of coffee and staying for large glasses of Rioja and little tapas plates of local cheese, meats and stuffed mushrooms is how I like to spend my evenings here.
Ah Copenhagen, a city right at the heart of Hygge, of course it would be on this list. I really enjoyed the warmth of this city – the warmth of the people, the blankets on the chairs in the bars alongside the waterfront in Nyhavn, and the many liqueur hot chocolates I opted for as a ‘nightcap’ before heading home.
While still harnessing Scandinavian chic, Copenhagen puts effort into making you comfortable. Soft, reclining chairs, clean lines and open spaces make people-watching a pleasure. It’s also a land of fairy tales, although in my opinion not enough is done to celebrate local author Hans Christian Andersen. However, it’s not hard to transport yourself into that imaginary realm of gingerbread houses, lonely mermaids and fairy gardens as you gaze from a café window on to cobblestones that glint in the rain.
St Petersburg, Russia
Russia: rich in so many ways, in history, in literature, in folklore, and of course – um, in vodka (what did you think I was going to say?). The word ‘glamour’ derives from the 18th century Scottish ‘gramarye’ meaning “”magic, enchantment, spell”, which seems an appropriate way to describe the feeling of St Petersburg glimmering around you in wintertime. Everything is gold, gilded and fading, and every window pours out a gentle flickering light that beckons you to come inside from the fierce cold to decadently and slowly dine while a piano plays in the corner and – as in the case of this restaurant – your waiter is summoned by ringing the little bell on your table.
Alternatively, many cafes and bars are underground, where candles abound and the past – the one underneath all that glamour – seems almost touchable. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Dostoyevsky, but you can almost hear the whispers of resistance, almost smell the drifting smoke of revolution. But it could be any time of day or night, any time in history. I love it!
I’ll admit, it took me a long time to love Paris. The first few times I went, I just saw crowds, busy-ness, rudeness on the metro, and overhyped tourism. I just didn’t get it. Some of my most loved writers and thinkers are French (Flaubert! Voltaire! Derrida!), and I am a very imaginative and occasionally sentimental person, so it wouldn’t have been hard to get caught up in the literary mythology of the Parisian streets and cafes. But I didn’t.
Despite not taking to Paris much, I seemed to keep ending up there, and this one time in the Spring of 2013 I was visiting my dear friend Sean with my all-time best candle-spirit friend, Clare and had a couple of days to myself, which I chose to spend mooching around Montmartre. Ironically, given it is one of the most prime tourist spots, it was here, sat in a window seat at Le Sancerre with a glass of wine, that I suddenly saw the worn black and white tiles, the popping of corks and whirring of coffee machines, the gentle flow of passers-by in the street, the low sun lighting up little details in the paving and the walls, and to quote that wonderful moment in Paris Je’T’aime, that was the moment I fell in love with Paris, and I felt Paris fall in love with me.
Seattle is to many people the mecca of coffee-culture, and I sure made it my life’s mission to test out this reputation. Yes, coffee is good here, and the scent of ground beans seems to linger perpetually in the air. Seattle is also the birthplace of that cute little coffeehouse called Starbucks, don’t know if you know it? Anyway, before Starbucks became the massive conglomerate that it is, it really was a cute little coffeehouse. When it became an international superstar, one of its key ‘visions’ was to create for customers a ‘third place’. The smell, the ambient music, the décor is all designed to put you into a state of communal comfort, a kind of whimsical, oneiric, suspended space and time. Sure, we take that model for granted in coffee-shops now, but we do, despite its sins, owe that to Starbucks.
Seattle still very much carries this spirit. Although it’s a typical city, busy, bustling and full of business types ordering lattes to go, there’s a spirit of music, creativity and magic that still exists in the alleyways, the corners and the waterfront, where the coffee-shops are open until late at night and collaborate with poetry, art and music events. You can still find a ‘third place’ here. Not in the Starbucks though. You have to queue round the block to get in.
I first went to Venice when I was inter-railing by myself in the summer of 2005. It took me about two hours to find the hostel. Directionally challenged at the best of times, it’s amazing that in the labyrinth of Venice I found it at all. Those two hours however, were hell. No matter which direction I took, which path I chose, I kept ending up at the same place which was the wrong place. In sheer frustration, I sat on some steps and started to cry. At the same time, the sound of a violin playing Que Cera Cera was floating down the canal. I turned my head to see where it was coming from, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw the hostel.
That anecdote may not describe why Venice has a candle-spirit, but then come on, you know Venice. You all know Venice. There’s something so enchanting and dreamlike about it, especially if you are all alone, lost, sitting on some steps and crying.
Hardly known for being a quiet, intimate getaway, true, but I think that Marrakech is at its best when it ‘glows’ rather than dazzles. I’ve generally found people’s experiences here to be quite polarised. Those in the ‘hate’ camp complain of its dirtiness, of their being constantly harassed, it’s too hot, too busy, etc. I agree these things can be irritating, but not only have I experienced worse in Asia, but also in Italy and France, so I’m not holding it against Marrakech. I associate here with colour – deep reds and oranges and browns, burnt colours – the colour of the spices heaped up like anthills in the food stalls, the rugs and lamps and fabrics in the souks, the mountains of oranges in handcarts ready to be made into fresh juice, the clay tagine pots… These are definitely candle-spirit hues.
At night, Jemaa el Fna (the main square) transforms into a sea of lanterns, each one casting shadows on to the ground that shift and dart through the filter of coloured glass. Storytellers, fortune readers and snake charmers spread out their blankets and begin their work, while clouds of cooking smoke and the sound of flute-music fills the air. What could be more magical than that?
So there you are. These are my top recommendations for this particular kind of geographical ‘soul’. Have you been anywhere with a candle-spirit? Any place to recommend to me?