The world’s smallest kingdom

When he’s not fishing for squid or gardening outside his squat bungalow, the king of Tavolara lords over this tiny island’s 11 part-time residents and 100 nimble mountain goats.

Just south of Sardinia’s world-famous Costa Smeralda, the lonely island of Tavolara rises wildly from the cerulean sea like a jagged mountain. There are no roads or hotels, and the only inhabitable stretch is a white-sand tongue that’s best measured from end to end in steps.

Tavolara's jagged 565m limestone stack (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)

Tavolara’s jagged 565m limestone stack (Credit: Eliot Stein)

This is where I found Antonio Bertoleoni as our ferry sputtered to a float. Better known as “Tonino”, the 83-year-old former fisherman owns Tavolara’s only restaurant and is the reigning ruler of the island, which happens to be the smallest inhabited kingdom in the world. For the past 22 years, Tonino has commanded this 5sqkm mini-monarchy in shorts and sandals.

I’m probably the world’s most ordinary king.

“I’m probably the world’s most ordinary king,” Tonino said, burying his feet in the sand and looking toward his restaurant. “The only privilege I enjoy is free meals.”

The Kingdom of Tavolara is currently celebrating its 180th anniversary and actually predates Italy by 25 years. Forming your own island nation might sound like the kind of thing you’d dream up when you’re marooned in the Mediterranean, but the story began in 1807 when Tonino’s great-great-grandfather, Giuseppe Bertoleoni, became the then uninhabited island’s first settler. Described as a “half shepherd, half pirate” in the book Tavolara, Island of the Kings, the Genovese immigrant had recently married two sisters and was seeking a safe haven to escape his bigamy charge.

King Tonino outside of his restaurant (Credit: Credit: Riccardo Finelli)

King Tonino outside of his restaurant (Credit: Riccardo Finelli)

Giuseppe and his small harem soon realised that they were sharing their island paradise with a rare species of wild goats whose teeth were dyed a golden-yellow colour by the seaweed and lichen they ate. Word of the gilt-toothed goats eventually spread to Sardinia’s ruler, Carlo Alberto, who eagerly travelled to Tavolara to hunt the animals in 1836. Giuseppe’s 24-year-old son, Paolo, guided the hunting excursions.

“When he landed, Carlo Alberto introduced himself by saying, ‘I’m Carlo Alberto, the King of Sardinia,’” Tonino said. “And so my great-grandfather replied, ‘Well, I’m Paolo, the King of Tavolara.’”

After killing several goats and feasting for three days at Paolo’s home, Carlo Alberto was so delighted that he said, “Paolo, you really are the King of Tavolara!” before sailing off, according to Tonino. Joking or not, Carlo Alberto later confirmed that the far-flung island had never officially been part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, and he sent Paolo a scroll from Carlo Alberto’s royal family, the House of Savoy, that certified the monarchy’s status.

A rare species of wild goats roam Tavolara (Credit: Credit: REDA &CO srl/Alamy)

A rare species of wild goats roam Tavolara (Credit: REDA &CO srl/Alamy)

Paolo promptly created the Bertoleoni coat of arms and painted it on the wall of his home. He also drew a royal family tree and built a cemetery on the island for himself and his descendants. When he died, he insisted on being buried with a crown cemented atop his tombstone – something he never wore while alive.

In the years that followed, news of the island’s sovereignty spread beyond the Mediterranean, and tiny Tavolara even formed a handful of political allies.Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of Italy’s founding fathers, soon became a trusted advisor of the Bertoleoni family; and the King of Sardinia at the time, Vittorio Emanuele II, went so far as to sign a peace treaty with the stamp-sized island’s 33 residents in 1903.

King Tonino's restaurant is the only one on the island (Credit: Credit: Realy Easy Star/Alberto Maisto/Alamy)

King Tonino’s restaurant is the only one on the island (Credit: Realy Easy Star/Alberto Maisto/Alamy)

 

While collecting photographs of world leaders, Queen Victoria commissioned a British naval vessel to stop by the island so that officers could photograph Tavolara’s “royal family”. For years, the gold-framed photo was displayed in Buckingham Palace with the caption “World’s Smallest Kingdom”. Today, a giant copy of it hangs in Tonino’s restaurant, which is appropriately called The King of Tavolara and adorned with the royal crest that King Paolo I first designed.

After 126 years, the installation of a NATO base in 1962 effectively ended the kingdom’s independence, and made a quarter of the island off-limits to its handful of residents. Yet, like San Marino, Tavolara has never been formally annexed into modern Italy, making Tonino the fifth king in a kingdom that the world no longer recognises.

These days, when he’s not fishing for squid or gardening outside his squat bungalow, his majesty lords over Tavolara’s 11 part-time residents, 100 nimble mountain goats and a few species of endangered falcons that live atop the island’s 565m limestone peak. For the past 40 years, Tonino has been personally escorting visitors to his family’s island palace – first by rowboat, and now via a 25-minute ferry that he operates from Porto San Paolo.

“My family may have had a beautiful past,” Tonino said in a soft voice, “but we work hard and live simply, just like everybody else.”

In fact, running the kingdom is very much a family business. While the king and his nephew, Nicola, captain the summer ferry, the prince and princess in waiting, Giuseppe and Loredana, now run the beachside restaurant. Giuseppe’s nephew, Antonio, wakes up early to go fishing every morning and supplies most of the clams, lobster and fish that fly out of the kitchen each afternoon and evening.

Tonino likes to greet guests at Tavolara's dock (Credit: Credit: Realy Easy Star/Alberto Maisto/Alamy)

Tonino likes to greet guests at Tavolara’s dock (Credit: Realy Easy Star/Alberto Maisto/Alamy)

Thanks to a wave of tourism to the island, the kingdom’s GDP has been strong recently. Ironically, Tavolara is now the crown jewel in a protected Italian national marine reserve that has one of the highest levels of biomass in the Mediterranean. As a result, the island has quickly become one of the top diving destinations in Italy, with visitors flocking to swim with tortoises, sperm whales and basking sharks before coming up for air at the al fresco restaurant.

For me, it’s a privilege just to live here. Who needs a crown when you have a palace.

While Tonino still likes to greet guests as they come from the dock, his favourite part of the day is before the swell of sun worshippers and scuba enthusiasts descend on his empire. Just after dawn, he likes to walk past Tavolara’s handful of sunset-coloured homes and along a dusty path to visit the royal cemetery. Since King Paolo I passed in 1886, the plot has grown to hold every noble member of the kingdom – most recently Tonino’s wife, Queen Pompea, who passed away several years ago.

“I like to bring her plastic flowers,” Tonino said. “If I brought her fresh ones, the goats would just eat them.”

Like most of the Bertoleonis who came before him and the prince who will one day succeed him, Tonino is technically an Italian citizen. He once vowed to make an appeal to Vittorio Emanuele IV, the son of the last King of Italy and the self-proclaimed Duke of Savoy, for the royal family to once again recognise the Kingdom of Tavolara, but then had a change of heart.

An island paradise you haven’t seen

A trip to this long-lost Eden – known for its tropical forests, azure seas, creative cuisine and quirky city – will show you a whole new side of Cuba.

The city of 60 gardens

When Shanghai residents are looking to escape, they head to this tranquil city of gardens and canals.

Life in one of the world’s most populous cities can be exhausting, which is why Shanghai residents are always looking for ways to escape the skyscrapers and traffic.

A favourite option lies just 100km to the east of the Chinese megacity – and only 30 minutes away by high-speed rail: the historic city of Suzhou.

Founded in 514 BC by King Helü of the Kingdom of Wu, Suzhou is one of the Yangtze Delta’s oldest and most prosperous cities. Its position between the Yangtze River in the north and Taihu Lake to the west meant that the city always had an abundant water supply, which fed the canals and classical gardens that Suzhou is world famous for.

The tranquil Master of the Nets Garden is a popular attraction (Credit: Credit: Rita Heine/Flickr/CC-BY-ND-2.0)

The tranquil Master of the Nets Garden is a popular attraction (Credit: Rita Heine/Flickr/CC-BY-ND-2.0)

The first gardens were built in the 6th Century BC, but at the city’s heyday (roughly from 1500 to 1700), Suzhou had more than 800 of these tranquil spots, designed by scholars to replicate the natural environment on a smaller scale. Today there are 60 left to explore, nine of which are recognised asUnesco World Heritage sites.

My first stop was the Humble Administrator’s Garden–Suzhou’s largest – located north of the historical quarter. The secluded 52,000sqm park was commissioned between 1510 and 1516 by tired political envoy and poet Wang Xiangcheng, who wanted a place to spend his retirement in peace.

From the tall entrance gates, a labyrinth of cobblestone pathways led to small pavilions scattered throughout the garden on low, rocky hills; their curved roofs providing shade for the visitors resting on wooden benches below. In the garden’s centre were a number of ponds, interconnected via narrow streams that flowed underneath charming bridges, replete with darting orange-and-silver fish.

Scenic Suzhou is an inspiration hotspot for artists (Credit: Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

Scenic Suzhou is an inspiration hotspot for artists (Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

There must have been at least 100 admirers trying to catch the lush landscape on paper. Art students with sketchbooks and easels sat on the pavilion steps, or on large, smooth rocks by the main pond, which was barely visible under gigantic lotus leaves. It was a beautiful – though crowded – sight.

I made my way next door, to the free Suzhou Garden Museum. Inside the low Ming-style building were landscape designs made by artists hired by Suzhou’ intellectual elite during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. Over hundreds of years, a large elite class had formed here due to Suzhou’s prosperity from trade and manufacturing, making the city synonymous with high culture and elegance.

The narrow canals remind visitors of a time when Suzhou was less populous (Credit: Credit: Russ Bowling/Flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

The narrow canals remind visitors of a time when Suzhou was less populous (Credit: Russ Bowling/Flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

Back then it was believed that the unpredictable beauty of nature allowed intellectuals to think properly. This meant that having a garden was essential – and so a green space became part of every Suzhou household. While the elite competed over their elaborate garden designs, even the poorest city dweller would have planted some shrubs in his courtyard.

Chinese classical gardens are significantly different from gardens in the Western world, however. As the Chinese believe, Europeans want to conquer nature, keeping plants and bushes behind their appointed boundaries. Chinese garden designers, on the other hand, seek to find the ultimate harmony between man and the natural world.

Chinese tourists kick back in Suzhou (Credit: Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

Chinese tourists kick back in Suzhou (Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

This means that although the bushes, plants, trees and flowers might seem to grow wildly, they are in fact meticulously planned around pavilions, ponds and bridges in order to reflect the Chinese appreciation of balance and harmony. Rocks play an especially important role in this philosophy, symbolising the bridge between humans and nature. Although stones might look scattered, their placement between the manmade pathways and the garden’s natural elements – bushes, trees and waterfalls – is highly deliberate.

To see the city in its heyday, visit Suzhou’s small historic quarter. White two-storey Ming-style houses look over tranquil canals bordered by graceful willows, and playful stone bridges and steps descend from the quays. The contrast with Shanghai’s shiny skyscrapers and intense traffic couldn’t be clearer.

Visitors can enjoy a boat ride through Suzhou's canals (Credit: Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

Visitors can enjoy a boat ride through Suzhou’s canals (Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

At times, the main street Pingjiang lu can feel like a tourist hotspot, with vendors selling everything from Nutella waffles to brightly-coloured Chinese fans. But when I visited, there was nothing glossy about the traditional wooden boats that drifted through the canals, steered by scruffy old men who didn’t seem at all eager to take my money.

I decided to stop for a light lunch of juicy xiaolongbao at Shi Jian Huo Jian, an unpretentious restaurant on the crossing of Pingjiang lu and Baita lu. This delicious dish of small, steamed, meat-filled soup dumplings is typical to the Jiangnan area, where both Shanghai and Suzhou are situated.

Traditional soup dumplings, called xiaolongbao, are a Suzhou favourite (Credit: Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

Traditional soup dumplings, called xiaolongbao, are a Suzhou favourite (Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

My final stop for the day was Jinji Lake, 7km to the east and one of the many lakes in the area that helps bring calm and cool air to the city.

While the lanes were narrow in the historic quarter, the landscape was here vast and open. As I followed a long, winding boulevard along the water, the only sounds were my footsteps on the wooden boardwalk and faint conversations blown from over the water. The few visitors I could see were riding the tandems and tricycles for hire on the west side of the lake. On the opposite side, the outline of a Ferris wheel loomed through the fog next to a series of high rises. Boats drifted to the manmade isles in the lake’s centre. As I strolled a little further, I heard some older ladies chatting in a thick Suzhou accent.

The water around Suzhou offers space and tranquility (Credit: Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

The water around Suzhou offers space and tranquility (Credit: Eva Rammeloo)

I felt myself relax and unwind. If I’d had more time, I would have gone camping at Lake Taihu in Suzhou’s southwest or visited the famous old town of Tongli in the city’s south. For now, though, I stopped and listened to the birds and the sound of the boats splashing on the water, enjoying the solitude and peace before returning to the hustle and bustle of Shanghai.

Why ‘squinting’ leads to better sight

Florence is a boot camp in the power of seeing properly, by narrowing our field of view in order to expand it.

My favourite travel quote comes via the Indian poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Musing about why he travelled so much, Tagore concluded that he did so “in order to see properly”.

The traveller experiences a place with all five senses, but none is more dominant, more all-embracing, than sight. Or, as another observant traveller, American writer Henry Miller, once said: “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

An aerial view of Florence

An aerial view of Florence (Credit: Tetra Images/Alamy)

Tagore and Miller were on my mind during a recent visit to Florence. The Italian city –the birthplace of the Renaissance and arguably home to more beauty per square metre than any place in the world – taught me how to see “properly”. I had spent years looking at the world, but looking and seeing are not the same thing.

I had spent years looking at the world, but looking and seeing are not the same thing.

Over the centuries, Florentines have honed the art of seeing. A city of merchants, its residents had to gauge the size of a shipping container or the quality of dye used to make the city’s renowned cloth. Later, the artists of Renaissance Florence, from Botticelli to Ghiberti, would use similar skills to gauge proportion and depth in their artwork.

The Florentines were (and are) notoriously discriminating, if you’re feeling generous; picky, if you’re not. They possess a finely tuned sensitivity for the distinctive and the exquisite, and a visceral disdain for the shoddy and the ordinary. Nothing offends their sensibilities more than something that is a little bit off. A Florentine would rather miss by a mile than an inch.

The Opificio delle Pietre Dure restoration laboratories at Fortezza da Basso in Florence

A restorer works on a painting in the Opificio delle Pietre Dure restoration laboratories at Fortezza da Basso in Florence (Credit: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty)

Florence reveals itself in layers. Literally. The artwork we admire today wasn’t always the first draft. Using X-ray and other technologies, researchers have found layers of previously undetected detail hidden beneath the city’s canvas and wood. And so it is with the city itself. Sure, theUffizi is the best-known museum, but the Bargello and many other “lesser” museums offer their own beauty.

My favourite is the Specola, the museum of zoology and natural history. It took some work to find. I hit a few dead ends – Italian dead ends, so they were stylish and interesting – before discovering the museum hiding between a cafe and a tobacco shop. Forsaken and sad looking, the Specola gets few visitors.

The Specola, the museum of zoology and natural history

The Specola, the museum of zoology and natural history (Credit: National Geographic Creative/Alamy)

That’s a shame, for it has its own charms. In fact, I didn’t know they made museums like this anymore. Stuffed animals were displayed behind grimy glass cases: cheetahs, hyenas, walruses and zebras, all with the same frozen expression, a combination of shock and repose, as if they had no idea how they ended up here but were resigned to their fate nonetheless. It was all very 19th Century. I half expected Charles Darwin to pop up at any moment.

The past, it’s been said, is a foreign country. They do things differently there. The Florence of today is, of course, very different from the Florence of Michelangelo and Leonardo’s day. The Florence of today has pizza and pasta and espresso and wi-fi and tour buses. What to do?

A visitor looks at two paintings by Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence

A visitor looks at two paintings by Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence (Credit: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty)

“Squint.”

That was the advice of a friend back home when I’d mentioned my plans to visit Florence. I’d laughed it off, but I now realized it’s actually a smart tactic. As the great psychologist William James said, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” Sometimes we can see more by narrowing our field of view than by expanding it. The zoom lens reveals as much as the wide angle, and sometimes more. And so I zoomed, blocking out the tour buses and the pizza joints and the street vendors hawking velvet paintings of Bob Marley.

The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.

If you want to “see properly”, it helps to have a sharp-eyed guide. Mine was Eugene Martinez. I liked the name of his tour company, Ars Opulenta, which is Latin for “abundantly luxuriant art”. It sounded unapologetically decadent and overflowing with goodness.

What really sold me on Martinez, though, was his dog. While the other websites featured sombre men and women striking serious art-is-no-laughing-matter poses in front of some sober Florentine landmark, the Ars Opulenta page greeted me with a photo of Martinez and a hound of indeterminate breed. Both were smiling, with the red-tiled roof and shiny gold spire of the Duomo barely visible in the distance. The dog was no accident. He’s good for business. Dogs are comforting, reassuring, while all this art, this genius, is intimidating. What if we don’t “get” it? What if we say something silly that exposes our ignorance? What if we are not worthy? A smiling canine presence puts people at ease.

The Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy

A view of the Museo Nazionale del Bargello (Adam Eastland/Alamy)

In the days I spent with Martinez, walking the cobblestoned streets of Florence, visiting the Bargello and one of the city’s still-functioning tile workshops, he taught me how to see the artwork for its own sake, on its own terms, and not burdened with expectations of what I should be seeing.

I liked the way Martinez said crazy, blasphemous things, such as “I don’t care for the Renaissance.”

“What?” I replied, dumbstruck. “You don’t like the Renaissance?”

“I don’t. It’s too pretty for me.” I was pondering what he meant by that when he said,

“Give it a few days. You’ll see what I mean.”

Inside the Palazzo Pitti

Inside the Palazzo Pitti (Credit: John Kellerman/Alamy)

A week later, at the Pitti Palace, I did. While most buildings in Florence are the epitome of sophisticated understatement, the Pitti Palace is huge and garish. It’s an architectural emoticon, a monument to excess. Walking down one of the oversized corridors, ogling the David knockoffs, past the inlaid tiles and the ornate tapestries, I realized, finally, what Martinez meant when he said that the Renaissance was too pretty for him.

He meant too “pretty” in the sense of too flowery, overwrought. Some art simply tries too hard to please. This doesn’t apply to all Renaissance art, of course. Some of it is absolutely worthy of our affection – but that’s a judgment we need to make ourselves rather than blindly following the lead of an art historian, or anyone else for that matter. By pretending that allRenaissance art is equally good, we undeservedly elevate the bad art and do a disservice to the abundance of great art that the Renaissance did produce.

And, more importantly, we betray our own eyes ­– our own hard-earned ability to see properly.

Seeing art, it turns out, is less important than the art of seeing.

Florence's Palazzo Corsini

Florence’s Palazzo Corsini (Credit: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images for Peuterey)

The world’s most visited cities

What is it like to live in a place known for its sights… and crowds? Residents of 2014’s most visited cities spill how they find solitude – and why they love living there anyway.

The same attractions that prompt people to love visiting a city – top-ranked restaurants, vibrant nightlife, diverse neighbourhoods, iconic sights – can entice them into staying longer term. In fact, many of the world’s most visited cities, as ranked by 2014’s Mastercard’s Global Destination Cities Index released in July, are also popular destinations for expats.

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But being a resident of one of the world’s most visited cities is not without its unique set of challenges. “Coming from a smaller city in Canada, I was overwhelmed at first by how crowded certain areas of Paris were,” said Erika Belavy, who moved to the City of Light from Calgary, Alberta, seven years ago. “When I first moved to the city, I made the mistake of choosing an apartment right beside the Arc de Triomphe. No matter what time of day, or which month of the year, there were so many tourists it was a nightmare getting on the nearby metro.”

Still, it does not take residents long to learn how to navigate the crowds and find secluded spots. We talked to expats and natives to learn what it’s like living in some of the world’s most visited cities – and the secrets to steering clear of the constant crowds.

London
Great Britain’s capital came in as this year’s number one most visited city, with 18.7 million international tourists estimated to arrive in 2014. (Mastercard combines tourism board statistics, flight schedules and expected passenger loads to project the year’s arrivals.) London native Sophie Loveday said she hardly notices the influx. “You just get used to so many people being around,” she said. “It’s what gives the city such a buzz!”

Trafalgar Square (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)

Many of London’s visitors find themselves at some point here, at the city’s iconic Trafalgar Square. (Amanda Ruggeri)

Even so, she said she always tries to avoid the West End’s Leicester Square because the pedestrian plaza is too commercial – with or without tourists. However, she will brave the crowds of Covent Garden, a shopping district in the West End, thanks to its quirky shops and hip vibe. East London’s Brick Lane is also a must-visit, despite being “heaving full of people”; the neighbourhood’s Indian curries are considered among the best in the UK, and the restaurants and food stalls make finding a good meal easy.

Shopping in Covent Garden (Credit: Stuart C Wilson/Getty)

Shopping in Covent Garden, shown here decorated for Christmas, can be crowded — but rewarding. (Stuart C Wilson/Getty)

To escape the city, Loveday travels to the southwest suburb of Richmond. “You can see deer running through the park or take a boat down the Thames river,” she said, then finish the day off with a meal at a waterfront pub like the Bavarian beerhouseSteins or the popular restaurant Gaucho, which serves Argentinian food and wine amid cowhide-fabric furniture.

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There are no shortages of neighbourhoods (called districts) to fit any vibe. Loveday lives in the southwest district of Tooting, which she loves for its multicultural vibe and influx of young professionals who keep the area lively. She also recommended Angel, in northern London, due to its “cool and friendly” vibe.

Bangkok
Due to political protests and the Thai government shutdown in 2013, Bangkok slipped to number two in this year’s global rankings, yet is still expected to draw 16.4 million international visitors in 2014. Thankfully, residents say, the influx is seasonal, with most visitors coming November to February. Ketsara Chocksmai, a Bangkok native and tour director for Thailand’s smarTours, said she especially finds the city pleasant from June to September. “It’s our rainy season, so not many tourists come to visit this time of year,” she said. But since it usually does not rain all day, locals can still enjoy being outside.

Tourists in Bangkok (Credit: Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty)

Tourists pose with sculptures at Bangkok’s Grand Palace. (Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty)

Despite its reputation for wild nightlife, Bangkok also has its fair share of quiet spaces for people to get away. Locals often seek peacefulness in one of the city’s many Buddhist temples, such as the old town’s Wat Phra Kaew, considered the most sacred in the country due to its 6.6m-tall “Emerald Buddha”, carved from a single piece of jade. Lumpini Park and Benjakitti Park, downtown, can also be peaceful escapes – aside from early morning and late afternoon, when they tend to be popular with joggers and yogis.

Paris
The French capital is expected to attract 15.6 million of visitors in 2014, many of whom are drawn to its iconic landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and the Louvre. But those same icons are exactly the areas that locals generally avoid. “There is no amount of money you can pay me to go to the Champs Élysées in the middle of August,” said Christina Tubb, vice president of a French technology firm who moved from the US in 2009.

The Louvre line (Credit: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty)

Visitors wait outside the Louvre’s main entrance on a summer day. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty)

Still, when she does visit the tourist destinations, she knows the local secrets – like getting a friend’s season pass to hop the line at the Musee d’Orsay or using the “secret entrance” at the Louvre (at Porte des Lions). “I’ll still bite the bullet and do a lot of touristy things because it’s half the reason I live here,” she said.

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While crowded in the summer months, the Latin Quarter also has its fair share of restaurant refuges if you know where to go. “There are certain streets that can be very touristy, but right around the corner there will be a restaurant or café that is considered an institution of the neighbourhood and hasn’t changed its menu since the ‘20s,” said Belavy. Both Tubb and Belavy also frequent the Marais for its specialty shops, where, Belavy said, “the charm outweighs the stress of the crowds.”

The Marais (Credit: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty)

Visitors and locals relax outside a cafe in Paris’ Marais. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty)

Despite its size, each of Paris’ 20 arrondissements (municipal districts) have a neighbourhood feel. Once run-down, the 10th arrondissement in the city’s northeast is now undergoing a revival, attracting a young crowd with its hip bars, art galleries and tree-lined Canal St Martin; the 3rd and 9th also attract bohemian residents. Those looking for something quieter can explore the 15th, a residential area just south of the Seine which is home to upper middle-class families, or the 16th or 5th, which are known for having particularly good schools.

Singapore
An island, nation and a city, Singapore attracts residents and tourists from around the world, and also benefits from being the hub for many visitors travelling onto other Southeast Asia destinations. Both international traffic and local crowds can contribute to congestion in the city. “Even Singaporeans are crazy about shopping and eating out,” said long-term resident Jayant Bhandari, who grew up in India. “I prefer not to go to [the shopping district Orchard Road] much, not so much because of tourists, but because they are too busy.”

A selfie in Singapore (Credit: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty)

A visitor snaps a selfie with Singapore’s skyline from the Marina Bay Sands resort rooftop pool. (Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty)

The clean and efficient Changi Airport makes it easy for residents to escape to more than 200 international destinations at a moment’s notice. Singapore is truly the best airport I have ever been to, and I have been to more than 60 countries,” Bhandari said. “It is cheap and easy to fly in and out.”

The Singapore Botanic Gardens also provide a pleasant escape for locals and tourists said Amy Greenburg, an editor ofExpat Living Singapore who moved from Los Angeles two and a half years ago. “It’s like Singapore’s own Central Park,” she said.

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The city has 28 districts, and an expansive mass transit system makes living in any of the districts a viable option. Greenburg lives on the Singapore River in Robertson Quay. “It has a lovely, relaxed vibe and a great variety of restaurants, bars and coffee shops, many of which are dog-friendly,” she said. Other popular expat neighbourhoods include River Valley, Holland District and Tanglin, which are central and have lots of shops and businesses, and the more residential East Coast.

National Day (Credit: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty)

Fireworks burst over Singapore on the city’s birthday, called National Day, on 9 August 2014. (Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty)

Robert Shen, a VP of business development for luxury design firm Wilson Associates, who moved here from Los Angeles seven years ago, lives in the newly gentrified Geylang area, located in the northeast. “It’s considered ‘city-fringe’, so it’s close enough to town, the beach, public transit and lots of great local food,” he said. “The Geylang enclave is slowly becoming more and more hip for both locals and expats.”

Dubai
The biggest city in the UAE saw the largest year-over-year increase in visitors of the top five cities, attracting 12 million visitors in 2014 – 7.5% more than the year before. At that rate, the city will overtake Paris and Singapore, potentially becoming the world’s third most visited city in less than five years. As for the crowds, residents simply build their schedules around them. “We have our routines at the weekend that ensures that we are out of the malls by early afternoon, but this is to avoid residents as well as tourists,” said Emily Christensen, director of recruitment service at H30 International, who moved to Dubai from the UK 14 years ago.

Burj Khalifa (Credit: Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty)

A sunset silhouettes Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower and one of the city’s main attractions. (Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty)

Downtown Dubai, with attractions like the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world) and the Dubai Mall, gets congested in the afternoons and evenings, so locals avoid it unless they’re going out for a meal. To get away within the city, Christensen heads to Safa Park, just 6km southwest of downtown Dubai. “There are playgrounds, a cafe, pedal-karts, a boating lake and just acres of space – and rarely tourists, unless they are visiting a resident,” she said. Locals also go to throw barbeques, play cricket or practice yoga. Andrea Anastasiou, who has lived in Dubai for seven years and writes the Scribble, Snap, Travel blog, also said those looking for “authentic Dubai” should explore the historic Bastakiya district, 12m north of downtown Dubai. “Its labyrinth of narrow streets hail to a Dubai of humbler times,” she said. “This area is full of character; the buildings are from a bygone era before electricity and air conditioning, and used to be cooled by wind towers.” The bohemian area also has restored homes and charming cafes.

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Christensen and many other expats live in Arabian Ranches, 24km south of downtown. As one of the first places where expats were able to buy property, it tends to be populated with families and kids. Those looking for an area with more singles and young couples should seek out the Dubai Marina, which has plenty of hotels, bars and restaurants. That said, “parts of the Marina can still be filled with the sounds of construction, so you need to be careful when looking for a place to live,” said Carrie Brummer, an American artist who lived in Dubai from 2007 until 2013.

Many of those living in Dubai have limited work visas and it is nearly impossible to become a citizen. This can make it hard to feel an enduring sense of belonging in the city, but locals said it is easy to find friendly people looking to connect.

The lake at the end of the world

Barely one hour from Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, Lake Bohinj is in the middle of nowhere – out of season and time – and it’s wonderful.

“We have a saying here in Slovenia,” said Grega Silc, a Hike & Bike Slovenia tour guide, as we cycled around the riotous green of the ridge. “In Bohinj, we’re a day or two behind the rest of the world.”

Silc grinned; a day or two is manageable. The lag used to be worse. For centuries, the sheep- and goat-herding villages around the glacial Lake Bohinj were cut off from the rest of Slovenia by poor roads and vertiginous terrain, clustered in the shadow of the Julian Alps. Transport to Ukanc – a hamlet on the far side of the lake whose name loosely translates to “the end of the world” – could take weeks.

Wooden houses make Bohinj feel timeless (Credit: Credit: zkbld/Thinkstock)

Wooden houses make Bohinj feel timeless (Credit: zkbld/Thinkstock)

However in 1906, during the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, tunnels were blasted through the mountainside and a railway was added along the water, connecting the northern mining town of Jesenice to the empire’s Adriatic port of Trieste in the south. While the Bohinj region became slightly less remote geographically, it later spent decades as part of communist Yugoslavia, becoming isolated from the rest of Europe politically. And despite Slovenia’s independence in 1991 and admission into the Eurozone in 2007, a deep connection to the past and a slower-paced life remains.

Here, among the wooden houses and open haylofts of Bohinj’s sparse and scattered villages, it’s easy to pretend the Austro-Hungarian Empire has never fallen. Alpine shepherds and cowherds still head to the top of Mount Vogel to graze their livestock on wildflowers. Every September, villagers still celebrate their return on the banks of the lake with folk singing and dancing at the “Cow Ball”.

Cows graze in mountain pastures in the Julian Alps (Credit: Credit: Jezer Mojca Odar)

Cows graze in mountain pastures in the Julian Alps (Credit: Jezer Mojca Odar)

On the spring day that Silc and I went cycling through the region, we saw at most a hiker or two on the footpaths or cycle roads. The lake was so still it was impossible to tell where the pine-streaked ridges ended and the waters began. The silence was overwhelming.

In the hamlet of Ribčev Laz, we took a break from peddling and stood at the edge of the lake by the milk-coloured Church of St. John the Baptist. “A mystery”, Silc said. Nobody knows exactly how old it is – it was built sometime before the 15th Century – and no one knows the meaning of the interior fresco: a white devil sits on Cain’s shoulder and the angels have vampire fangs. But, as Silc explained, it was common for Christian dogma to meld with folk traditions in a place as historically isolated as Bohinj.

Across the bank from the church stands the slender, dark bronze statue of the Zlatorog, or Golden Horn – the magical stag believed to guard the ridges around the lake. In the glint of the afternoon light, it almost looks real. A 20-minute cycle ride from the church, “Devil’s Bridge” spans over a furious gorge. According to legend, the devil built it in exchange for the soul of the first one to cross; however, clever villagers tricked a dog into making the trip. This is a land of stories. It’s the sort of place where one’s imagination might run wild.

We continued to cycle through villages, alpine fields dotted with wildflowers and forests where the branches trellised above our heads. The white of the clouds, soft against the blue of the sky, faded into the snow on the mountaintops. It was the sort of place, I thought, where you can forget any other places exist.

The quiet stillness of Lake Bohinj can feel overwhelming (Credit: Credit: Slovenian Tourist Board)

The quiet stillness of Lake Bohinj can feel overwhelming (Credit: Slovenian Tourist Board)

“Agatha Christie used to come here,” Silc told me proudly. “But she never set any of her works here. She said it was too beautiful a place to set any murders.”

And Christie wasn’t the only writer to fall for Bohinj’s charms. Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was a regular visitor to Ukanc. “An existentialist going to the town of the end of the world,” Silc acknowledged. “Makes sense.”

We stopped at the bottom of Mount Vogel, a seasonal ski resort, where a cable car took us to the top. A sign compared the current wait time – 15 minutes – to the six hours or more it took during the days of communist Yugoslavia, when facilities were limited and people queued up at dawn in the hope of a single trip up and down the slope.

A cable car pulls up to the snow-covered top of Mount Vogel (Credit: Credit: Turizem Bohinj)

A cable car pulls up to the snow-covered top of Mount Vogel (Credit: Turizem Bohinj)

As the car pulled us upward, forests gave way to bare cliffs. Silc pointed out a goat-like chamoix leaping across the snowdrifts. Spring – or summer – does not exist at the top of Mount Vogel. While people are swimming in the lake, up here, snow shrouds the horizon. Without even the changing seasons to mark the passage of months, time felt slower still.

We sat in the chalet at the top of the cable car, huddled over cabbage stew that had been sharpened with sausage and thickened with beans. Silc ran into two friends – also tour guides – napping against the wood-slat walls while their guests wandered the mountainside.

“A hard life”, one of them winked at me. “I quit. I am going back to the factory – first thing tomorrow.”

The Bohinj region is barely one hour from Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, but we hardly noticed. We were in the middle of nowhere, out of season and time – and it was wonderful.

The world’s greatest walled cities

What’s it like to have a towering piece of history surrounding your backyard? We asked residents of five fortified towns across the globe.

Massive stone walls were once the last line of defence for ancient cities – impervious structures built to protect their inhabitants from enemies outside. Over the years, many of these walled cities have crumbled. But those that remain continue to protect a way of life for those living within, providing residents with a daily appreciation for history and influencing various aspects of life, from safety to traffic to tourists and more.

We talked with residents of some of the world’s best-known and best-preserved walled cities – all Unesco World Heritage sites– to find out what it is like to have such a towering piece of history surrounding their backyard.

Dubrovnik, Croatia
Already beloved for its attractive seaside location and easy airport access, the Mediterranean city of Dubrovnik has become even more famous in recent years as the fictional setting of King’s Landing in the popular television show Game of Thrones. The medieval walls that run nearly 2km around the Old City date back to the 16th Century, and its pedestrian-only roads help maintain the historically preserved atmosphere.

Women sitting by Dubrovnik's city walls (Credit: Credit: Santiago Urquijo/Getty)

Women sitting by Dubrovnik’s city walls (Credit: Santiago Urquijo/Getty)

The Hollywood-inspired tourist influx has brought changes to the Old City, noted Dubrovnik-native Maja Milovcic, as many residents have moved out and now rent their apartments to visitors. Still, the locals that remain are dedicated to preserving the unique way of life that the city walls foster. “Children that grow up in the Old Town have respect for history and monuments,” she said. “The town teaches them what the beauty and harmony of architecture means for the future of this city and for new generations.”

The walls seem to foster a sense of community too. “Many young families with children return here as it is much safer and friendlier to live and protect your children from any possible danger.” Milovcic added. “[Growing up,] the whole city was like a big playground for children to play in.”

For those looking to live outside the tiny Old City, upscale Ploče sits just to the east on the waterfront, while the Lapad peninsula, 3km to the north, is popular for its walkable promenades and bay views.

Jerusalem
Though the walls surrounding today’s Old City were built in the 1500s, stone has surrounded this history-seeped settlement since Biblical times. “The sense that it’s ancient – even outside the walls – is felt in the old stones of the buildings, the street names and those residents who are six-, seven-, eight-generations [native to] Jerusalem,” said Liz Cohen, who writes about her expat experience on Lizrael Update.

Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City (Credit: Credit: Gali Tibbon/Getty)

Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City (Credit: Gali Tibbon/Getty)

Though some might believe that Jerusalem has a political or intense vibe, Cohen said living within the city changes your perspective. “When you live here, you have a sense that everything will be ok,” she said. “We [the people that live here] are vastly different – you can tell very easily by dress – but more often than not, people will help each other out on the bus, at the market on the street.”

Throughout Jerusalem – both within the Old City and outside its walls – neighbourhoods are often dictated by nationality or religion – though some areas are more mixed than others. English and French speakers often flock toward trendy German Colony, tranquil Katamon or upscale Rechaviaall just a few kilometres west of the Old City. Nachloat, located 4km northwest of the Old City, is particularly popular among students for its historic character and bustling Mahane Yehuda Shuk, the popular street market. Almost everyone lives in apartments, as houses are very rare.

Ávila, Spain
The Walls of Ávila were constructed in the 12th Century to protect its residents from the conflicts between the warring Castile and Leon kingdoms. Nearly 1,000 years later, they continue to completely encircle the perfectly preserved town, which is scattered with Romanesque and Gothic churches. “The effect is as if you were living in a tale, set in the Middle Ages,” said Ávila-native Carolina Ares. “It’s magical.”

Medieval walls surround Ávila, Spain (Credit: Credit: Matt Trommer/Thinkstock)

Medieval walls surround Ávila, Spain (Credit: Matt Trommer/Thinkstock)

The laid-back city is friendly, with a tranquil and relaxing vibe. Residents tend to be older – and while there are plenty of cultural and literary activities that celebrate the compact town’s history, activity dies down at night.

Expats who are looking for a (slightly) faster pace should look south of the city walls. “Young people tend to move to the south because the city is growing in that direction,” said Jorge García, also an Ávila native. “There are more facilities than in the centre,” he added, and the area has an exciting energy. Living further south also affords more space: most people within the walls live in smaller flats, while detached options are available outside of the city.

Cartagena, Colombia
Halfway around the world and hundreds of years later, Spain built another set of walls. The Caribbean port city of Cartagena proved to be an important Spanish outpost. Both the English and French made attacks on the city and Spain spent millions of Spanish reales providing for its protection in the pirate-plagued 18th Century, funding the walls and fortresses that still stand today.

Bicycling through the Clock Tower in the walled city of Cartagena (Credit: Credit: Antonio Salinas L/Getty)

Bicycling through the Clock Tower in the walled city of Cartagena (Credit: Antonio Salinas L/Getty)

Living in the Old City feels like living “in a real-life movie set”, said Silvia Tcherassi, fashion designer and owner of the Tcherassi Hotel, a renovated colonial mansion within the city walls. These mansions, along with the animated plazas and independent cafes and restaurants, provide a lively backdrop to those that live here.

Tcherassi added that Cartagena feels like a true Caribbean city. “The Old City perfectly captures this spirit: happy, friendly, vivid and dramatic,” she said.

Expats looking to get close to this authentic vibe should live near one of the many plazas where fruit vendors set up shop and locals gather for conversations, such as the Plaza de la Aduana, the oldest in the city, or the Plaza de los Coches, known for its balconied houses with colonial arches. Less than 1km south of the walled city, Getsemaní attracts hipster types for its vibrant street art and its up-and-coming restaurant and hotel scene.

Many of the colonial mansions within the Old City have been transformed into comfortable apartments, while high-rise modern flats can be found outside the walls.

Carcassonne, France
Living within the 3km-long walls of “La Cité” – the walled medieval citadel within the city of Carcassonne – one can’t help but become a history buff.

“It makes you think about what life would have been like for those living here many hundreds of years ago, and the skills of the artisans who worked to build the chateau, houses and walls of La Cité, which have withstood the test of time,” said Australian Jacqui Boulter who moved to La Cité in 2013 and runs the L’Echappee Belle Bed and Breakfast.

Carcassonne, France, seen over vineyards (Credit: Credit: Ken Welsh/Getty)

Carcassonne, France, seen over vineyards (Credit: Ken Welsh/Getty)

Within La Cité itself, there’s less than 50 households of permanent residents – an even tinier number when compared to the four million tourists who visit the citadel each year. “Most tourists are not aware that there are people living here,” said Boulter. “They tend to think it is purely a tourist attraction.”

It’s become harder to live within the ancient walls in recent years, as the bank and post office have closed and vehicular access (limited to only residents and deliveries) becomes impossible with the summer crowds. That said, those that do live in the city support each other and welcome the respite in winter.

Many expats choose to live instead in Bastide St Louis, the “newer” part of Carcassonne, 1.5km to the west of the medieval city. Though few tourists ever make it there, the Bastide St Louis area has its own share of interesting museums and independent cafes. Living alongside the Canal du Midi that runs through Carcassonne is also a popular choice for those who like to be near the water.

Scotland’s wee but wild road

A 516-mile route that passes through spooky ruins, fairytale glens, toothy castles, rugged fairways and shingle-sand beaches. Not to mention distilleries.

Locals call it the “wee mad road”: a looping ribbon of asphalt that hugs the coastline between the fishing hamlets of Inverkirkaig, Coigach and Achiltibuie in the northwestern Scottish Highlands. “These single-track roads can take you to some wild places,” said Lesley Crosfield, the proprietor of nearby boutique hotel and restaurant The Albannach. “That’s why it’s always worth taking the slower road: there’s so much to learn around here.”

Crosfield runs Britain’s northernmost Michelin-starred restaurant, 85 miles northwest of Inverness. It’s exactly where she wanted to be. She first fell in love with Scotland’s northwest coast in the 1980s – and is now gearing up for more changes in the next year than she has seen in the past 25.

Achnahaid Bay (Credit: Credit: Prisma Bildagentur AG/Alamy)

The view from Achiltibuie of Achnahaid Bay on Scotland’s northwest coast (Credit: Prisma Bildagentur AG/Alamy)

The road that runs right past her front door now forms part of the North Coast 500, launched last summer by the North Highland Initiative. Taking its cue from one of Scotland’s unofficial national anthems, (I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles by The Proclaimers, the 516-mile itinerary climbs north from Inverness into the wild counties of Caithness and Sutherland, skirts the northern edge of the country, then drops south along the mountainous western coast. It runs past a sort of greatest hits of Scottish icons: spooky ruins, fairytale glens, toothy castles, rugged fairways and shingle-sand beaches. Not to mention whisky distilleries.

At first, the road winds through lands of corn, sheep farms and grain distilleries: quiet places where puffy sheep and cattle grids bring traffic to a standstill.

Beach near Cromarty (Credit: Credit: Sham/Alamy)

The North Coast 500 cuts past wild sand beaches, like this one near Cromarty on the northwest coast (Credit: Sham/Alamy)

But when turning west at the village of John O’Groats in Scotland’s northeast corner, zigzagging across the largest rolling expanse of peatland and blanket bog in Europe, the circuit turns up the Highland drama, looping past ancient lochs and the denuded glens of Ross and Cromarty. Here, it veers into remoter parts of the Highlands that only those with more fertile imaginations care to call home.

Ross and Cromarty (Credit: Credit: Robertharding/Alamy)

At the glens of Ross and Cromarty, shown here, the route turns up the Highland drama (Credit: Robertharding/Alamy)

Such risk-takers include people like Danish sculptor and ceramic artist Lotte Glob, who – between hiking trips into the wilderness – attracts buyers from across Europe to her studio. Or Paul Maden and James Findlay, who left Glasgow for Durness to found Cocoa Mountain, the UK’s northernmost chocolatier – now located in a Cold War station built in the mid-1950s to warn in the event of a nuclear attack.

“The traditional crofting life doesn’t tend to match up with espresso and artisan chocolates,” Maden said while boiling cream for a batch of single malt whisky caramel cappuccinos. “But business is booming.”

These are the kinds of success stories that the North Highland Initiative, which was inaugurated by Prince Charles to stoke interest in the area’s off-grid attractions, is aiming for.

Loch Eriboll (Credit: Credit: Iain Sarjeant/North Highland Initiative)

A stop along the North Coast 500 at Loch Eriboll in northwest Scotland (Credit: Iain Sarjeant/North Highland Initiative)

Already reaping the benefits are Martin and Claire Murray, who began distilling Rock Rose gin in a copper still at the Dunnet Bay Distillers, eight miles northeast of the town of Thurso. Thurso is the improbable tip of another new Scottish touring route, the Scottish Gin Trail, launched in January by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association.

The botanicals used by the Murrays – 80 different kinds, at last count – have all been foraged and stocked from the surrounding wetlands with the help of local herbalist Brian Lamb. They include sea buckthorn, juniper, mint, hawthorn, bog myrtle and the Murrays’ signature ingredient, the flowering herb rhodiola rosea, which flourishes on brackish cliffs overlooking the North Sea.

To some extent, all of the historical romance of Scotland can be tied to this coast. At its halfway point sits the Cape Wrath Lighthouse, poised on the barren north-westerly corner of mainland Britain. Then there is Ardvreck Castle, a rectangular keep on Loch Assynt supposedly plagued by devilish mermaids. Pictish sculptures at the town of Portmahomack represent some of the great puzzles of medieval archaeology, while the holly-topped islands of Loch Maree shelter the remains of a forgotten graveyard and ancient druid hermitage.

The town of Thurso (Credit: Credit: Will Newitt/Alamy)

The town of Thurso is now a stop on both the North Coast 500 and the Scottish Gin Trail (Credit: Will Newitt/Alamy)

Even Loch Maree, like Loch Ness, has its own fable as a refuge for the Muc-sheilch: a cross between an eel and a muckle-headed sea monster.

Given that the road could scarcely be more isolated, it’s surprising to find so much life off of it. Beyond the road is the territory of the majestic red deer, where stalkers’ paths weave through swathes of Scots pine and forest oak. Muscular stags can often be seen surveying the roadside from a rocky outcrop.

The mountain pass to Applecross (Credit: Credit: Iain Sarjeant/Alamy)

The mountain pass to Applecross, the end of the North Coast 500, in the Scottish Highlands (Credit: Iain Sarjeant/Alamy)

Near journey’s end, toward the town of Torridon on Scotland’s west coast, the mountains create a shoulder of castellated tiers in red and chocolate sandstone. The highest and most imposing is Liathach, its great terraced wall dwarfing Upper Loch Torridon and the crenelated towers of theTorridon Hotel. Starkly beautiful, when wrapped in mist, it sends out a beautiful, welcoming impression. If only the mountain could speak, it would tell even better stories.

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The world’s best place to see stars

La Palma in the Canary Islands is perhaps the best place in the world to see stars – and other amazing natural phenomena.

As the sun dipped lower and lower over the lush, volcanic Canary Islands, travelling steadily onward on its inexorable collision course with the sea, ripples of anticipation resonated across our small group of stargazers. Clad in warm coats (nights on the craggy flanks of the Spanish island’s giant volcano can be blustery), we listened as astrophysicist Agustin Nunez explained why La Palma is – no exaggeration – the best place on Earth to see the stars.

A view of the Milky Way (Credit: Credit: Enrique Mesa Photography/Getty)

A view of the Milky Way (Credit: Enrique Mesa Photography/Getty)

First, he said, its position 100km off the coast of northern Africa means it is close to the equator, so you can see stars from both the northern and southern hemispheres – but in a temperate climate with placid weather patterns uncommon in the tropics.

Second, it’s very dark here, something that’s aided by an island-wide agreement to keep it that way, meaning all night-time lighting is either an orange hue (which doesn’t interfere with telescopes) or pointed down, at the ground.

But thirdly, and most importantly, is the wind. “Our trade winds are created by a high pressure system in the Azores, and travel more than 2,000km over the sea. When it hits our north shore, it’s crystal clear,” he said, noting that these smooth and slow winds creates an atmosphere where the stars are especially clear from the ground, both through a telescope and to the naked eye. “Here, we have the lowest turbulence on the planet.”

Where land and clouds collide (Credit: Credit: Tim Johnson)

Where land and clouds collide (Credit: Tim Johnson)

And all this is justly recognised: in 2012, La Palma became the world’s first Unesco recognised Starlight Reserve. The island is also home to one of the most important observatories on the planet: a place that houses 16 massive telescopes – including the largest one in the world.

It’s only recently that visitors have been able to partake in these excellent stargazing opportunities. For years, the observatory was a closed research facility, except for a handful of open days that attracted thousands of curious people. But with the observatory normalizing regular visits in 2013, the infrastructure – including a recent increase in guided starlight tours – is now in place for earthbound visitors to touch distant galaxies.

Down on terra firma, I was shown around the island by Sheila Crosby, an affable Englishwoman with a touch of the mad scientist, who worked at the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos for years as a software engineer. She’s also a certified starlight guide, and as she drove us somewhat erratically up and down La Palma’s winding roads, she started to explain the connections between land and sky, geology and astronomy – and how the island’s unique structure has created a number of Earth-bound wonders: for one, a cloud waterfall.

Above the clouds (Credit: Credit: Tim Johnson)

Above the clouds (Credit: Tim Johnson)

Screeching to a halt, I slowly relinquished my white-knuckle grip on the door handle as she pointed to a high, green ridge. Climbing out of the car, I saw it: a flowing mane of white clouds, slowly but surely cresting the top and tumbling toward us like a huge and fluffy waterfall. Crosby explained that clouds build up on the east side of the ridge until they burst over the edge, creating this strange and beautiful sight.

The cloud waterfall is caused by those same, star-perfect Atlantic trade winds hitting the tall, steep island. If this island was located anywhere else, and if it wasn’t a massive volcano, the cloud waterfall, the microclimates, the clear sky – none of it would exist.

Crosby added that La Palma’s volcanic soil is preternaturally rich, which, when paired with the island’s long growing season and abundance of microclimates, makes it an excellent place to eat and drink.

“We create about 40 different wines, and there’s nothing that won’t grow somewhere on this island,” Crosby said. “I often go to the farmer’s market and get a stalk of broccoli or some avocadoes, and the dew’s still on them. It’s that fresh.”

We toured around the island, visiting a banana plantation, strolling around the blackened remains of the San Antonio Volcano, and hiking to the edge of the Taburiente Caldera(the site of the blast that created this island), before heading to our final destination: the observatory. We drove higher and higher, my hand again braced against the door, as the lush coastal vegetation gave way to spindly trees. As we emerged above the tree line, on the high side of the Taburiente Caldera, near the volcano’s 2,396m summit, an otherworldly place revealed itself. All around us, strung along the highest reaches of the mountain, robotic, gamma-ray and reflecting telescopes sat ready to photograph the furthest reaches of the universe, a surreal, almost eerie sight in this treeless place.

Entering the observatory’s main base – a low-slung building that provides unglamorous but necessary facilities to researchers, including bunk beds and a cafeteria – Crosby introduced me to the site administrator, Juan Carlos Perez Arencibia, who quickly and eloquently expounded on what makes the observatory so special.

“Here, you can touch what the astronomers do,” he said, noting that researchers and anyone involved – or even interested – in star science uses the work produced here. “It’s not like reading it in a book. You go inside the telescopes that provide images for the whole world.”

Roque de los Muchachos (Credit: Credit: Kai Stockrahm Photography/Getty)

Roque de los Muchachos (Credit: Kai Stockrahm Photography/Getty)

And that’s exactly what we did. Donning hard hats, we walked up, under the 500-ton dome that houses the massive Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC), the world’s largest single-aperture telescope. I learned that the GTC is essentially one giant mirror with 36 separate panes, and felt a small spike of adrenaline as the telescope was readied to scan vast swathes of the night sky. The silvery dome – which looked like something out of Star Wars – spun slowly, a pane opening to let starlight in. Then, I felt a small rumble as the 385-ton platform that holds the scope – itself suspended on a ring of oil – swung into place.

Knowing he would soon be too busy to talk to me, I headed downstairs to chat with the chief astronomer, Gianluca Lombardi, who directs the operation as the telescope photographs the night sky. I asked him his favourite thing about the GTC, and sitting here, on this mountaintop in the middle of the ocean.

“Here, when you see the Milky Way above you, that kind of happiness, it reminds me of why I became an astronomer,” he said.

The next night, I operated my own small, simple telescope while stargazing with Nunez on the flanks of that grand volcano. But while mine didn’t have 36 panes or weigh hundreds of tons, it nonetheless revealed a stunning sky, bursting with light and revealing mysteries. I saw Venus, Jupiter and Saturn, complete with its icy rings. I saw the dark side of the world, as well as the crab nebula and the horsehead nebula, interstellar clouds of dust and gas often created by the explosion of short-lived stars. And – as Lombardi had told me – I felt amazingly, inexplicably, wonderfully happy.