To find the essence of a city, take a walk On world's streets you can gain a sense of place

September 10, 1995|By Steve Silk | Steve Silk,Hartford Courant

I've never regarded myself as much of a boulevardier, but I do know a good street when I see one. And I'm not half bad at recognizing a comely square, either.

In miscellaneous rambles on five continents, I've discovered that the best way to take the pulse of a new town or city is on foot, tramping along its boulevards and byways, down its streets and across its squares.

Time and forgetfulness have obscured my memory of most of those thoroughfares. But a few remain vivid in my mind's eye, because they somehow encapsule the very essence of a place.

These are the streets with staying power -- streets to walk forever in memory, like some beachcomber endlessly patrolling a private patch of paradise.

Place de la Concorde

As a college student in Paris, I never once crossed the Place de la Concordewithout reeling at the sensation of having been transported, as if by magic, into a 3-D travel poster. From this 21-acre square (actually, it's an octagon), you can see tout le Paris: the broad and glittering Champs Elysees on its stately course to the Arc de Triomphe; the gardens of the Tuileries; the most exclusive shopping districts; and the swankiest hotels. Not far off, the silent Seine sweeps past. And there is the icon of Paris, the Eiffel Tower. It's a heady mix.

But the Place de la Concorde -- where Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and Robespierre were guillotined, where a 3,200-year-old obelisk from Egypt stands like an intruder from another world, and where thousands of slack-jawed tourists still snap photos -- is not so much a place to linger as it is a place to pause and survey the promise of a beckoning city. See it and move on.

Djemaa el-Fna

Unlike the Place de la Concorde, the Djemaa el-Fna, the old caravan crossroads of Marrakech in Morocco, is a square that's worth a stay.

Djemaa el-Fna means the meeting place of the dead, but this ancient square is anything but. Part three-ring circus, part open-air restaurant and part medieval bazaar, Djemaa el-Fna is a kaleidoscopic whirl of horn-tootling snake charmers, performing acrobats from south of the Sahara, dancing donkeys, itinerant fortune-tellers, mischievous monkeys and 1,001 other strange sights. Take, for example, the Blue Men, nomads whose skin has absorbed the cerulean dyes of their flowing robes, or the veiled and robed women who hurry about like windblown scraps of cloth. Or the wildly animated storytellers who entertain wide-eyed crowds.

At dusk, the square blooms with lantern-lighted stalls, impromptu restaurants where the specialties are bubbling stews great mounds of sumptuous-looking salads. Lurking about, vendors hawk curved, evil-looking daggers, cheap toys, counterfeit designer watches and who knows what else. There, too, is the Koutoubia Mosque; its castle-like tower is the city's most recognizable landmark. Just to keep things jumping, Djemaa el-Fna is crawling with pickpockets, beggars, hustlers and their prey: tourists. Chants and drumbeats fill the air, which courses with a thousand scents, sights and sounds.

And all that's on a slow day.

Ocean Drive

Word is that Ocean Drive ain't what it used to be, but when I visited a few years ago, this neon nether world between the Atlantic Ocean and downtown Miami was ground zero for what's hot and happening.

The South Beach area was the epicenter of hipness, a tropical melting pot of Europeans, Latins, Hasidim and Caribbean islanders. The place was crawling with fashion models and photographers who had discovered that its Necco-wafer-hued art-deco buildings made dandy backdrops for striking photos. Those buildings imbue the place with magic. The street is united by its single-minded architectural theme, and the shimmering unreality of it all makes the place seem like a far-out Fantasyland beyond even the wildest imaginings of the folks at not-so-distant Walt Disney World.

At night, the place exudes energy, as hot and sizzling as the neon that illumines virtually the entire stretch of Ocean Avenue, the most mind-bending strip of real estate this side of the Yellow Brick Road.

Corniche el Nil

Like the Djemaa el-Fna, the Corniche el Nil in Aswan, Egypt, blends the currents of deepest Africa with the swirling eddies of the East. Here, center stage is not the roadway itself but the sights along it, the storied Nile River, the regenerative force whose annual floods have nourished Egyptian civilization for 5,000 years.

In Aswan, the miracle of life amid death is on view daily. The impossibly fecund Nile, its very water soupy with life, irrigates a narrow strip of palms, their fronds waving like banners at the foot of an endless sweep of golden, windblown sand. On the `D blue-green Nile itself, that same wind propels dozens of white-sailed feluccas, the simple vessels that have plied these waters for millenniums.

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