Sometimes, it’s just an hour outside Paris. Or a state of mind, like Hiroshima. Or the distance between two cities like the frightening, beautiful emptiness that is the Australian Outback.
You just have to look.
Picardy, in France, is a region you don’t hear of, not as a name at least. You might have heard of the Somme, where some of the most awful World War I battles were fought. Or of Chantilly cream, much tastier than World War I. But you won’t have heard of the region much – a big shame, because it’s immensely likeable. Pretty as several postcards, dotted with impressive architecture and stuffed to les gills with excellent food, it’s an astonishing place to discover, lurking so close to one of the world’s great tourist cities.
The Outback makes you wonder whether MasterChef was actually a good thing for Australia: all that good food and glossiness has made us forget that the country is mostly Outback, a huge, fascinating, murderous wilderness. How do you explore it, then? You can do it by train, on the very comfortable (and pretty epic) Indian Pacific, while eating gourmet food all the way. You can do it by seaplane, exploring the wetlands around Darwin and trying not to be a crocodile’s breakfast. You can do it by road and on foot, exploring iconic Alice Springs and looking for bizarre road signs in King’s Canyon. Your shoes will be covered in red dust, but it’ll be worth it.
And what do you say about Hiroshima? This city would be justified in seething with hatred, in wanting to do to the world what was done to it; instead, it’s a city of peace, and you say the city’s name with a lump in your throat. But, in sakura season in particular, Hiroshima is simply a wonderful place to be, with picnickers sitting on carpets of pink blossom, deer shamelessly demanding food on Miyajima Island, the blasted hulk of the memorial dome and the A-bomb museum now being prodded aside by a museum of modern art – this city decided it was going to live again, not be defined by one event, and I have enormous respect for it for doing so.
To complete the picture, we have a bonus feature – Rudyard Kipling’s India, an intriguing look at our country through British eyes, with, as its centrepiece, The Jungle Book – complete with King Louie’s temple (or close enough), a happy little dip into an India of long ago.
Get your boots on and go exploring – but shake them out first, because those Australian spiders? They haven’t seen MasterChef, and toes will do just fine.