Most of my travels this year have been in search of all kinds of beauty in this world: the trills and dips of Wagner’s operas in Paris, the natural splendor of the Great Barrier Reef, the solemn ancient mystery of the Minoan palaces and Angkor Wat, the much-touted but no less spectacular glories of a sunset in Venice.
But I like my beauty with a side of messiness. If it’s too perfect I just feel like I’m in Disneyland, which is my idea of actual hell on earth (#unpopularopinion) and then I’m bored and skittish and I want to leave to find something real.
I think this is why, in my recent travels, I much preferred Budapest to Dubrovnik. Both are breathtaking old cities in their own ways.
Dubrovnik: a victim of its own success
But Dubrovnik’s old town was like a little Disney: pristine, obscenely perfect, glossy and untouchable and full of lumbering cruise ship tourists stuffing shitty pizza into their gaping maws. In the middle of the day, it was difficult to even move around because it was so overcrowded.
I did love it at 1 am when the streets were still glossy but entirely empty except for a few friendly little cats. But otherwise its beauty left me cold and claustrophobic.
There’s good reason for Dubrovnik’s outer sheen, off-putting as I find it – the recent war with Serbia where the city was shelled terribly. Most parts of it have been restored and rebuilt in my lifetime, and that resilience is inspiring.
But the same goes for Mostar in Bosnia-Hercegovina, which I found retains more of its local charm and all of its beauty after rebuilding their ancient Ottoman bridge.
And Budapest? Ah. Budapest is buda-best, in my book (THAT WAS A REAL BAD ONE, sorry that’s the wild jet lag of my current life).
It has all the glorious beauty from its heyday as a stylish empire city – spiky gothic palaces, turreted lookouts, lions regally snoozing as they guard a bridge over the Danube.
There’s just enough chaos and crumble to feel real. Life itself is full of stumbles and marks and potholes, some big enough to swallow a person whole for a time. It’s not all shiny and smooth, whatever social media would have us believe. And pretending it’s otherwise – that our lives are all cool flawless marble – is to miss the beauty of the pain too.
Wagner’s operas wouldn’t be as thrilling without the loss and sadness of Isolde’s love. The beauty of ancient Akrotiri lies partly in its total abandonment and burial. And so I let go of the ideal of shiny perfection, let my marks and bruises show, and I let life in all its imperfect beauty in.