the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Greg Sheri­dan

IT’S funny how your favourite city may not be your favourite for walk­ing in. Jakarta is a great city, in­fin­itely in­ter­est­ing and to any writer with the en­ergy of a purring kit­ten a source of end­less, com­pelling ma­te­rial. But you re­ally can­not walk any­where much in it be­cause of the smog and the traf­fic. Sim­i­larly, the big­gest Amer­i­can cities, Los An­ge­les most ob­vi­ously, as­sume that while peo­ple may walk on tread­mills for ex­er­cise, ev­ery­body trav­els by car.

This is of­ten true even in small-town Amer­ica. Re­cently, I stayed in a re­sort in Florida, on the Gulf Coast, where there was no cof­fee shop or gro­cery store within walk­ing dis­tance. Absolutely ev­ery­one there ex­cept me had a car. By chance, there was a Hil­ton ho­tel nearby and it was there I took my sus­te­nance, though of course walk­ing in the ver­dant grounds of the re­sort was a great plea­sure.

The best walk­ing cities, like Lon­don and Is­tan­bul, are an­cient, densely pop­u­lated places with an abun­dant ar­chi­tec­tural in­her­i­tance and a grand scale. Large swaths of Lon­don and Is­tan­bul of­fer you a new ar­chi­tec­tural trea­sure around ev­ery cor­ner. Not to men­tion, in their cen­tres, count­less cof­fee shops that whis­per in­trigue, and book­shops galore. Of course they have their grimy bits too.

Per­haps the most exquisitely beau­ti­ful city in the world is Ky­oto. But its tem­ples are too dis­persed to travel around by foot.

But I want to of­fer you, dear reader, an in­side tip. The great ne­glected walk­ing city is Wash­ing­ton, DC. Al­to­gether, Wash­ing­ton is a great city. More so even than New York (an­other metropolis de­signed for the foot- bound) and cer­tainly more than Lon­don or any Asian city, Wash­ing­ton ef­fec­tively is the cap­i­tal of the world. More de­ci­sions af­fect­ing more peo­ple are me­di­ated in Wash­ing­ton than any­where else. A lot of peo­ple un­der­stand that. But it is also, cul­tur­ally and am­bu­la­to­rily, an ex­quis­ite and ne­glected gem.

It’s not ne­glected by Amer­i­cans, of course, who come there in great num­bers to see its mon­u­ments, and to cel­e­brate and learn some­thing of their national story.

Amer­i­cans have a per­haps un­fair rep­u­ta­tion in many parts of the world for be­ing a lit­tle loud as tourists. But the Amer­i­cans who com­mit tourism in Wash­ing­ton have a higher pur­pose in mind and gen­er­ally com­port them­selves with dig­nity and good hu­mour; they dis­play in spades what for­mer Age edi­tor Michael Gawenda once mem­o­rably called ‘‘ the great Amer­i­can friend­li­ness’’. Gen­er­ally Amer­i­cans are at their best when they are a lit­tle earnest. A pil­grim­age to Wash­ing­ton is as close for mil­lions of Amer­i­cans as it gets to a pil­grim­age to Mecca for Mus­lims.

It’s easy to miss the beauty of Wash­ing­ton un­less you look for it sys­tem­at­i­cally. The Mall and the Smith­so­nian are de­signed for walk­ing. Amer­i­cans com­mem­o­rate their his­tory su­perbly. Wash­ing­ton is full of real his­tory as well as beau­ti­ful, cre­ated mon­u­ments to his­tory such as the Lin­coln Me­mo­rial and the Viet­nam and Korean war memo­ri­als. But there are many other Wash­ing­tons to ex­plore.

There are dozens of gal­leries through­out the city. Ev­ery block seems to host a Star­bucks or Cari­bou or some sim­i­lar cof­fee out­let, with plot­ting and schem­ing al­ways un­der way. There are su­perb dis­tricts around Dupont Cir­cle with that dig­ni­fied old Amer­i­can ar­chi­tec­ture and finely man­i­cured streets. There are walks among the cherry blos­soms by the Po­tomac River, seafood restau­rants in abun­dance, funky His­panic ar­eas such as Adams Mor­gan. There are cob­bled streets and arts and crafts, an­tiques and sec­ond­hand book­shops in Old Town Alexan­dria. And you can get across town on what must be one of the best and eas­i­est sub­way sys­tems in the world.

There are broad av­enues that re­ward ev­ery neg­li­gent stroll with a tri­umphal statue cel­e­brat­ing Amer­i­can his­tory. I should di­rect you to Sheri­dan Square, where a Civil War gen­eral I claim as a dis­tant rel­a­tive, an ex­tremely vi­o­lent but per­son­able cava­lier, sits tall on the big­gest steed I have seen.

It’s one of those cities, like Lon­don, New York or Hong Kong, where even if you don’t have any par­tic­u­lar busi­ness there you can feel the en­ergy pul­sat­ing out of the pave­ments. It has four splen­didly dis­tinct sea­sons, from a sub-zero win­ter to a bak­ing sum­mer and the charm of the cherry blos­som in spring.

I have the sense that for­eign tourists don’t visit Wash­ing­ton as much as they might. It’s a gem, hid­den in plain sight.

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