Where in the world is my happy place? Well, I grew up and live in London, and it’s a place that I don’t take for granted. How could I? The city fascinates me – a monster of growth and change, rising from the ashes of endless fires, plagues and invasions to form this fascinating, multicultural metropolis.
Down every twisting alleyway and cobbled courtyard are stories of imagination and intrigue, love and loss, stretching back for centuries. It’s invigorating to live somewhere where there’s always something to do, people to watch, history to digest and culture to admire. There are plentiful pubs, too – some older than many nations.
So I guess you could say I’m a city boy, through and through. I couldn’t imagine living somewhere where all of this dizzying energy wasn’t on my doorstep, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
And yet… I recently took a micro-cation to Madrid. I enjoyed the usual city highlights: art galleries, great food, cheap beer. But then I did something people don’t often do when visiting a European capital. I took a coach out of the urban sprawl, to a place without terraces, or original Picassos, or womb-like bars open until dawn. After an hour on an essentially empty coach, I arrived in a small municipality called Manzanares.
I wasn’t there for the ancient castles towering on the hillside – though they were a nice surprise. I was there for the mountains.
Who knew such incredible landscapes were a stone’s throw from Spain’s capital? That day, my friend and I walked (and climbed, and stumbled) until we couldn’t walk any further: alongside idyllic streams, up cragged climbs and through thicketed forests, while eagles soared overhead and mountain goats peered at us from their improbable perches.
I think my favourite part about hiking is the way that previous ramblers signpost trails with small strips of chalk or paint. When you feel bewildered, or convinced you’re walking in circles, you spot your marker on a corner of a rock or a tree and it’s like a little beacon of light, guiding the way. You feel an eerie connection to the people who have walked before you, in the same way you do when walking the storied streets of London.
This wasn’t the biggest or best hike I’ve done, but it reminded me of what I’d been missing in my big-city bubble. The sensation I felt that day is exactly the same one I felt on epic treks that I’ve completed on the trails of Te Anau in New Zealand or Tam Coq in Vietnam. The scenery in those far-flung destinations may have been more memorable than in Manzanares, but the feeling was the same – utter calm, complete contentment.
I’ve never been very good at meditation. The act of consciously trying to switch my brain off seems to set my synapses on fire. But walking at altitude to the honeyed sounds of birdsong is the closest I can ever get to actually feeling zen.
I took the coach back to Madrid that evening and filled myself with Jamon Serrano and Estrella and watched some live music. And sure, that’s where I’m more at home. The city is my place. But escaping to the mountains, if only for a day – that’s my happy place.