Every city has a skin.
An epidermis, so to speak: layers of outer show between its perceivers and it skeletal structure.
If a city is not careful; if she does not cleanse, tone and moisturise twice daily, if she does not take in the requisite sustenance for healthy existence, her skin can become tired and, frankly, her glory fades.
Like beautiful, sophisticated women, our cities preen themselves. But unlike the rest of womankind their age is their greatest asset. Remaining beautiful is simply a matter of economics and taste; age counts for much with the global harem.
Thus, sardonic London reclines on the banks of a river which has served her well since she was a naive young girl, some 2000 years ago.
Dressed impeccably, with accents saluting old, new and Carnaby-Street lairy, one never forgets that Roman feet trod her streets. She has artlessly displayed some of her old city walls and now and then continues to surprise us with a trinket from her extreme youth: a well beneath the foundations of a skyscraper; remains of a settlement long gone.
A veritable Scheherazade, this one, full to brimming with stories. But it is as well to be able to come and go from her presence. One would not like to be pinioned beneath her gaze at some gathering, unable to escape. She knows far too much.
Her impeccable peer, Paris, chooses a river too. She is poised on the Seine, the closest city to perfection. A perfect combination of clutter and geometrically demure space, she takes her name from the Celtic fishermen, the Parisii, who settled around the Ile De La Cite. Her history stretches as far back as her colleague on the island across the channel. Her age precedes Julius Caesar and all those clumsy centurions’ feet who tramped and overran her in 52BC.
Paris has her stories, but her visitors are often so overawed by that flawless skin they are rendered speechless. Grace and beauty abound, blended with an earthy sensuality, there on the banks of the Seine.
There sits young, strapping Addis Ababa, at the foot of a mountain, with hot mineral springs to recommend her to a royal family. Shabby her attire may be but she holds her head high at an altitude of around 2,300 metres.
Affable Seattle chose an ocean to sit beside, and while her peoples might boast a history of 4,000 years, the Europeans only began to settle on the isthmus 150 years ago. She has a youth and vitality on her side: a can-do idealism which has not yet become wise and world-weary. And she does love a good cup of coffee.
Each city has her own, distinct personality. And some lie very close to you.
I say this because I have, of late, become interested in a city of breathtaking extremes: Rio De Janeiro.
What must it have been like to have been the little Portugese boy in the crow’s nest as that first expedition inched its way along Brazil’s Atlantic coast, into the sixteenth century, to see paradise for the first time?
Guanabara Bay,with Corcovado and Sugarloaf Mountains standing sentry, and stretches of golden sands and green peaks as far as the eye could see: if someone would only invent a time-and-space machine, and make me that little Portugese boy, so that just once I could see the January River as a young girl, without her settlements. Truly, she must have seemed a heaven on earth in those far off days.
But great tall buildings flock to the feet of the mountains now, and favelas cling to Rio’s slopes: this exuberant city is as sophisticated and high-spirited as the day is long, with her Ipanema Beach and her samba and her Carnival; her skin glows with costly vitality.
She, like many of her sisters, has a dark side. And there are many there, in that most visited and celebrated of cities, who find life interminably grim. Christ the Redeemer stands on the mountain and looks down on all human life: on affluence and poverty, walled security and urban warfare of epic proportions. It does not seem fair that the Vidigal shantytown, home of unimaginable squalor and deprivation, twinkles seductively at the base of Two Brothers Hill, with its bayside view of Ipanema Beach.
Rio is a very beautiful, excessively privileged city of light and darkness.
Travel to this seductive, machiavellian city is now a life aim. Rio’s skin is firm and golden in the sunlight, she is lush and green and fertile as the day European eyes lit on her five hundred years ago. But she hides more than she tells, and human life takes many forms in that heavenly hades of a bay.
Because for this city, the outer show, that burnished skin, does not quite eclipse its skeletal structure.