As a lifelong urbanite, I've always felt comfortable learning cities "by Braille." I put on my walking shoes and wander, making mental maps as I go. I experience serendipity, yet can generally intuit where things are likely to be – the CBD, the government center, nightlife.
This summer our family spent time in Berlin, Venice, Florence, and Paris. Of the four, Paris was the only one I'd been to before. By the time we got there, it was like greeting an old friend.
Berlin is a fantastic city for many reasons, a remarkable blend of modern sophistication and livability. I also "grokked" it – navigating the city was easy, in no small part because of its terrific public transit and very walkable neighborhoods.But deeper than that, the city made sense to me at a visceral level.
Venice was harder, but I experienced it spatially as a puzzle. As we got lost in alleys three cobblestones wide, I contemplated both the audacity of building such a place and how different the medieval mind must have been. If cities are concretization of place and time, then Venice seemed farther removed from my daily experience than any place I'd encountered in India or Latin America.
Then we came to Florence, and for the first time I was confronted with a place that I couldn't comprehend. The square on which our apartment was located – Santo Spirito – was lovely, with a daily market that changed subtly with the days of the week. The rest of the city, however, felt like a museum of itself. Most Florentines live in the suburbs, having abandoned the city proper to the hoards of tourists who descend upon it each summer. For those who come to worship at the temple of Dante or take in art at the Uffizi until they go cross-eyed, Florence is a rich place. And certainly Tuscan food and wine are sufficient distraction for anyone. Yet for those of us who travel to experience place, Florence is disappointing.
Arriving in Paris felt as though we had come back through the looking glass. It was legible; I could find my way once again. I still had my sight, but more importantly, my sense of touch was returned to me.
What makes places legible for you?