We were sipping our cocktails, watching the sun exhaust itself behind the silhouetted islands of the Jardines de la Reina in Cuba after a long day of saltwater fly-fishing when Hardy roused our worn-out little group, spread out like drying beach towels on the bow of the Halcon, by positing this gum-drop of a question: “What’s your favorite place in the world?”
Photos by Peter McBride.
I noodled Hardy’s question as two egrets did a mating dance in a nearby lagoon. Someone said Vietnam. Someone else San Miguel de Allende. Did Bruges get a vote as well as Porto Seguro, Brazil? I believe they did. Still, there was no consensus. As the seductive sky slipped on a purple robe and followed the sun into the night, Hardy, offering me a touch more of the Douglas Laing single-malt he’d brought over from London, tapped the ash off his Cohiba and said, “What about you, Lansing? You travel more than the rest of us put together. What’s the best place in the world?”
You know that Johnny Cash song, the one they use for some hotel chain ad? “I’ve been everywhere, man/Crossed the deserts bare, man/I’ve breathed the mountain air, man/Of travel I’ve had my share, man/I’ve been everywhere”? Well, that pretty much sums me up. So I get asked this question a lot. And I always give the same answer: There is no best place.
I mean, really, is Paris better than New York? Barcelona better than Buenos Aires? It depends on when you’re there, what you’re doing, and, most importantly, who you’re with.
Everyone nodded at my sage pronouncement, ending the discussion. Or so I thought. “What about this, then,” said Fletch, the best fisherman in our group, tossing a new lure into the darkness in hopes of a nibble. “What’s the sexiest city in the world—better yet, the sexiest small city in the world?”
All right. Good. Now, I felt, we had something to talk about. Beginning with the parameters of the question, like what constitutes a small city (consensus: it has to feel intimate and walkable, even if it has a relatively large population). That settled, we began to brood over the larger question: What, exactly, makes a city sexy?
A full moon was starting to rise; we were all feeling pretty good after a glass or two of whisky. Veiled in darkness, we talked about the components necessary to fall in love with a place, and though there were some disagreements, in the end we agreed on three main criteria.
First off, it should be seductive. Which means you should fall in love with the place slowly. There’s got to be a sense of beguilement, a feeling that it’s going to reveal its secrets gradually, that there is going to be a fair amount of discovery involved, and you need to be involved in the discovering. Can’t just hop off the plane and go, Hey, ain’t this the cutest little town you’ve ever seen? Because we all know those feelings last about as long as a Britney Spears’ marriage.
Next, everything about the place has got to stimulate your senses—all of them—giving you pleasure in the way it smells, tastes, sounds, feels, as well as awakening things in you you weren’t even aware of. Like feeling breathless when you hear opera live for the first time or sampling a Oaxaca mole sauce and wondering why you’ve never tasted that before.
Finally, it should arouse you even when it’s not at its best. Any city can look beautiful on a perfect summer day when the light is just right, but what about on a cold, wet winter morning or a feverishly-hot afternoon when it’s humid and sticky out? A truly sexy city should stir your emotions even when it has a bit of bed-head; it should be a place you love—perhaps even more so—when the landscape has gone bald in winter or when it is a little past its prime. As James Salter wrote of Paris following the First World War: “The face was still ravishing but the tone of the skin had lost its freshness and there were faint lines in the brow and around the mouth.” Which only made him love her even more.
“Think Sean Connery as a city,” I mused. “Or some place that conjures up Sophia Loren. That’s what we’re all looking for, lads.”
“I can’t imagine anyplace that good,” Fletch said.
Hardy issues his challenge to find the sexiest small city in the world.
“I might know a place,” Hardy said in a whisper. He took a sip of whisky and looked up at the full moon rising over the mangroves as we waited for him to continue. The evening was calm except for the night cry of an unseen bird somewhere in the thicket. “It’s been a few years since I was there but I still think about it. It’s like a song you can’t get out of your head.” He took a pull on his cigar. “I’d be willing to bet that if Lansing went there he’d agree with me.”
So in the darkness, 50 miles off the southern coast of Cuba, glasses were clinked and several friendly wagers were placed. Since I was the judge and jury, I was not allowed to bet. Which is just as well. Because although our friends would probably label me even more of a romantic than Hardy, like Fletch, I doubted there really was any place in the world that could live up to the high expectations we had set. At least nowhere I’d been. And like I said, I’ve been everywhere, man.