Don’t Judge the Country by its Capital

The capital may have its own charms, but the country often resides outside city borders.  
Vardhan's Column
Nara, Japan. Photo by: David Sacks/Getty Images

Most people probably despise you, you know.

If you live in Delhi, that is—but that’s a fate common to most denizens of capital cities anywhere in the world, so don’t kill yourself yet. Perhaps it’s the perception that politicians keep all the country’s money for ‘their’ city, or just the importance given to the centre of power in the media, but capitalistas everywhere are seen as arrogant, power-hungry SOBs—even if you’ve been a saint all your life. It isn’t fair.

However, capital cities do have a melting-pot, where-the-money-is character of their own, and most tourists tend to judge the entire country by the big-name capitals, which drives everyone else right up the wall. The legendary rudeness of Parisian waiters is extended to all French people, who often watch aghast as tourists cringe before them and expect to be spat upon. Tell a Mancunian that if you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life, and he will happily take that irksome life-force away from you. From the stories of Amsterdam, you’d think that people in the Netherlands do nothing but smoke weed all day before popping into the local red-light district for a quick aperitif before dinner. And worst of all, tourists assume that once they’ve seen the capital, with its monuments and quirkily designed Ministry of Boring Bureaucrats, they know the country. Look, Delhi is nice, nicer than a lot of people give it credit for, but if a tourist informs me that he’s been there and so knows India, he’d be in for an earful.

Let’s hop across to Tokyo—a defining capital if ever there was one. It’s a pachinko wonderland, destroyed a zillion times by Godzilla but still thriving, totally jammed with traffic, enormous, eye-wateringly bright, noisy and utterly insane. It’s a manga city, almost a caricature, where people dress up ‘Lolita style’ and sleep in capsules. And people think all of Japan is like that. Not so. The countryside is full of little blue trains with engine drivers who actually wait for you, and sweet little ladies who could be characters from an Enid Blyton book. Even the cities are completely different. Nara has deer in the streets. Deer. Kyoto is a sea of calm (apart from the strangeness of tourists running to take photos of geisha, like they were in a wildlife sanctuary) and filled with trees, with only the occasional building poking up above the green. Also, just to make sure you know you’re not in Tokyo, you stand on the other side on escalators. Childish, but it shows you how much the rest of Japan wants to be seen as not-Tokyo.

Less than an hour outside Amsterdam is a golden little city called Haarlem, fun in a very different way from Amsterdam. Haarlem is cosier and slower, less about canals and beckoning ladies behind windows, and more about flowerpots on windowsills, the lovely cathedral square, and the hofjes. These look like nothing from the outside, just high walls with a demure little door, but step through said door and you’re in a little enclosed courtyard. They are a sort of old-world charity home, often for elderly ladies who could support each other—a little world within itself. (Amsterdam has an excellent one too, the Begijnhof.) Then there is that cathedral—grand, medieval, and with at least one legend about a hand poking up from the graves within. Outside, you’ll find a market square and lots of restaurants at which to admire the cathedral through a glass of beer, and tiny, picture-postcard streets radiating off it. Sure, I love Amsterdam, but my heart belongs here.

And finally, Paris, the alpha and omega of all two-day-forty-country-with-our-own-utensils trips to Europe, and often all that even other tourists see of France. No matter that they don’t see wheels of goat cheese in little town markets, or the seaside at La Baule, or the love of aviation in Toulouse. Most people take the elevator up the Eiffel Tower and think they’ve seen France. No you haven’t, mon escargot. Try Bordeaux at the very least, which surprisingly can even look a little like Paris, with its grand beige buildings—the crucial difference being that while you go to Paris to get your feet crushed by other tourists at Notre Dame, you go to Bordeaux to learn about wine. And how much nicer that is! You can either go to the Ecole du Vin and learn to swirl, taste and identify wines, or just devise a trial-and-error education for yourself, and enjoy the hell out of Bordeaux. As a bonus, the people are nice too.

As a matter of fact, they generally are. Even the arrogant SOBs.

  • Vardhan Kondvikar is a travel, car, and humour writer and editor, who is known for road trips, generalised exasperation and far too many bathroom stops.

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