Paris has all but exhausted the superlatives that can reasonably be applied to any city. Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower have been described countless times, as have the Seine and the subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences between the Left and Right Banks. Yet, what writers have never been able to even slightly reflect is the grandness and magic.
Paris probably has more familiar landmarks than any other city in the world. As a result, first-time visitors often arrive in the French capital with all sorts of expectations: of grand vistas, of intellectuals discussing weighty matters in cafés, of romance along the Seine, of naughty nightclub revues, of rude people who won’t speak English. If you look hard enough, you can probably find all of those. But another approach is to set aside the preconceptions of Paris and to explore the city’s avenues and backstreets as if the tip of the Eiffel Tower or the spire of Notre Dame wasn’t about to pop into view at any moment.
You’ll soon discover (as so many others before you have) that Paris is enchanting almost everywhere, at any time, even ‘in the summer, when it sizzles’ and ‘in the winter, when it drizzles’, as Cole Porter put it. You’ll be back.
You’re nursing a drink in a canal café when you hear Bach. A man with a wild hairdo is playing organ and trumpet on a nutshell of a boat, while his feet do the steering. Only in Amsterdam and back by popular demand. After a few years’ pout, this beautiful city has found its old self – quirky, creative and open-minded. Yet beneath the self-assured exterior, mental notes are everywhere. Not long ago the Netherlands swung towards the right, with crackdowns on immigration, religious freedom and red-light districts. Even in freewheeling Amsterdam, people were asking themselves: is too much tolerance a bad thing?
You can breathe easy: the soul-searching is over. The core values of Dutch society that we knew and loved have emerged intact. Newcomers who integrate are welcome; practising a faith is OK, as is the right to turn away from it. You like reefer madness? Fine, let’s hit a coffeeshop. A studded jockstrap for skate night? No problem, that’s crazy enough. Tolerance hasn’t gone out of fashion, it’s just had a makeover.
The city’s gorgeous looks haven’t faded either. The moments you spend ogling the old merchants’ villas, the Jordaan’s charming lanes or the lush Vondelpark are as magical now as in centuries past. The cafés are full, the museums are littered with Golden Age art and everyone still parties like there’s no tomorrow. Amsterdam is a delight to visit any time of year, but it’s hard to trump Queen’s Day, the world’s biggest party-cum–garage sale. In summer there’s an endless parade of festivals and events such as the Holland Festival, the Roots Music Festival and the outrageous Gay Pride parade, as well as delightful concerts on canal stages.
This city is too relaxed to stop being fun. To join in, all you need to pack is a few days’ attitude.
If ever a city could claim split personality, it’s Brussels. French versus Flemish, historic versus hip, bizarre versus boring. Full of contrasts, contradictions and intrigue, this is a multicultural equation that goes much deeper than just red tape and Eurocrats. An historic heirloom is closer to the mark. And in an age where so much is already discovered, Belgium’s capital seduces as one of Western Europe’s unknowns.
Brussels is a city of fine food, café culture, Art Nouveau architecture and the surreal. Pull up a chair and join laissez-faire locals who value the city’s casual atmosphere. Watch money go down on swish Ave Louise or buy dried caterpillars just blocks away in Matonge, the capital’s African quarter. Some of the world’s most enduring images of surrealist art were created in the nondescript northern suburb of Jette. And the architecture ranges from monumental edifices such as the Grand Place to organic Art Nouveau façades and the EU’s real-life Gotham City.
Constant among all this is the quality of everyday life – the shopping’s great, the restaurants fab, the chocolate shops sublime and the pub scene extraordinary. For a long time Brussels didn’t go out of its way to impress, but its stint as Cultural Capital of Europe in 2000 saw the city dusted and polished in a flurry that brought renewed life to historic buildings and decaying streets. A new spirit, just short of cockiness, emerged, flaming outside interest and inner-city regeneration. Nearly a decade on, Brussels is looking better than ever.