I like to get high when I travel. Okay, that came out wrong. Too bad there isn’t a magical key on this keyboard that will erase or go back a space and eliminate what I just wrote. I guess I will have to explain.
What I’m trying to say is that I love getting to the top of buildings or hills that afford a panoramic view over the city. There is something peaceful and thought-provoking about being high above it all, looking down on humanity and all the comings and goings of the world. It is a ritual of mine when I travel. When we arrive in a new city and see a hill above, I immediately think to myself: I need to get myself up there.
These adventures up high are often accompanied by what Kristi has coined “steps of death.” In Asia and Europe in particular, where people have been living since forever, they have carved steps into the mountains to “ease” these vertical ascents. The problem with steps is that there are no switchbacks – they are often straight up. The problem with going straight up is that no matter how great of shape you are in (and I am rarely in peak physical condition) it is always really damn hard.
The Holy Grail of vistas is when there is a cable car to whisk us to the top; however, like the one time in Cape Town, I often talk us into hiking up anyway even though I suffer unspeakable pain and sweat gallons of liquid.
Below, as mentioned in the headline, is a photo essay of cities and towns I’ve photographed from above. I have ranked these views not in beauty, but in how much suffering it took to get to these spots. We will start with the easiest.
This beautiful view was the easiest to attain – we merely strolled down the street to this point. Had we been staying below in old town, it would have a bit more challenging.
View from atop Il Vittoriano. We took an elevator to this point, which wasn’t physically painful, but it cost 13 Euroes, which is something like $800, so that part was really painful.
A short hike leads to this beautiful view above La Cumbre in central Argentina, which is a totally under-visited and underrated part of the country.
By serendipity, we found this vista at sunset in Jerusalem. We watched this scene on a Jewish holiday as the call of the muezzin from dozens of mosques echoed all around and an Israeli soldier with an automatic machine gun stood nearby. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life.
Florence from Michelangelo Square. We were there on a blustery, November day and I wished for a second that we were there instead on a pleasant summer evening. Then, as I jostled for this photo op with a gaggle of aggressive tourists with camera phones, I realized that during the summer there must be something like 600,000 people at this vista. Suddenly, the wind and cold were not so bad.
The view of urban sprawl from the Parthenon is something to behold. I think it is more impressive than the ruins themselves.
Hitherto this point in the photo essay, we have only dealt with a minor amount of leg burning, cussing and pain. The climb to this point was a little challenging, but going back home during a deluge was worse. I was totally soaked. I wish I had a photo of the front desk agent at the hotel who looked at me and said, “OH MY GOD!”
I may just retire in Guanajuato someday. This is one of the great cities in Mexico and I loved my time there. I remember hiking to this point was a challenge for two reasons:
1) I had to navigate a confusing labyrinth of alleyways, calles and steps
2) I was suffering from amoebic dysentery.
I remember sucking air like a man rescued from drowning on this brutal climb. Maybe it was the fact that Cusco sits high in the Andes at 11,000 feet, or maybe it was the fact that I was really out of shape that year, but this hike really kicked my butt. I vaguely remember getting overtaken by an Incan lady who must have been 110-years-old.
This hike was in no way easy. I started from my guesthouse down by the clock tower (center right of the photo) and hiked up about 3 miles to this point to get the moonset and subsequent sunrise. This spectacular view was worth the effort.
The sunrise from the Saraswati Temple in Pushkar, India, is absolutely worth waking up at 4am and hiking up a steep hill to see. Warning: beware of the aggressive monkeys up there. (I really hate monkeys.)
The hike to the top Table Mountain was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, and it happened to coincide with the time in my life when I was the fattest and most out of shape. I was struggling for air as if I were on Everest; I was seeking shade like a man lost in the desert seeks water. A man, who must be an ultra-marothoner, ran past me once on the way up and then ran past me again as he bound down the mountain like a goat. Kristi even had to frequently wait for me, something that has never happened before or since.
It was a demoralizing climb, but worth every drop of sweat, blood and tears. If there is a better city view, I need to be there now. Cape Town, the open Atlantic Ocean, seaside cliffs extending off into the distance, the sun slipping into the sea, the gondola operator calling over and over again on the loud speaker to get in or get left behind – this all conspires to create one of the most magical places on earth.
This is why I like to get high when I travel, because nothing beats these views.
Where are your favorite vistas?