The farther away I get from my days of traveling abroad, the more I have come to appreciate one aspect of my holidays more than any other. It’s not the beaches, though I definitely long for warm sunlight and rolling waves. It’s not the sight of palaces, carved stone and preserved marble to admire. It’s not even the variety of local dishes that we dearly miss – fresh seafood, freshly made pasta, paella, or a glamorous high tea served with sparkling champagne.
Instead, it’s something simpler. It’s the rooftops.
To my mind, every city is seen best from a rooftop. It doesn’t have to be a skyscraper or any grand building – just the top of a restaurant or the terrace above an apartment block. There is something about the view downward, of watching people amble up and down the streets, being level with laundry strung on lines, that gives one an insider view of a place that nothing else can match.
In San Miguel, Mexico, we would take our coffee every morning on the rooftop terrace of the coffee shop and look down onto the quiet streets below, watching people come out of their doors and scurry off to work, or to breakfast. We had a view across the street of plants on a terrace to which someone carefully tended.
In Positano, Italy, the view was grander. Because Positano sits so high up on the Amalfi Coast, the rooftop view encompassed the whole valley below. Amalfi, Atrani, Minori and in the distance, Salerno. Tiny roads with tiny cars speeding along the precarious curves of the coast. And beyond that, the Tyrrhenian Sea, boats bobbing at anchor or ships sailing past, just small dots of white in the deep, sapphire water.
In Paris, the view from the rooftops is both awe-inspiring and commonplace, depending where in the city you are. In 7th arrondissement or the 6th, it’s a view of mansard roofs as far as the eye can see. It’s smoke curling up from the cafés below and the sound of musical French conversations mixing with the sound of glasses on bistro tables. And perhaps, if your view is especially good, it’s the Eiffel Tower in the distance, glittering on the hour at night. If you are in Montmartre, though, the rooftop view is less grand but just as magical. It’s winding streets and tourists wandering. It’s the apartment across the way where a family is eating dinner or watching TV. There are grocers below selling the sweetest strawberries you’ve ever tasted and a wine seller across the way who will charge way too much for a bottle you could buy in Avignon for half the cost.
And while we’re talking about Avignon, I should mention that the terrace views there are cobblestone streets and Medieval churches. Vineyards in the far distance are just splashes of green and the idea of Paris seems completely foreign.
Finally, in Amsterdam, the view from above is what one would expect; canals. Canals everywhere, water and streets, and tall, thin houses lined up like soldiers on the banks. Near the red-light district, in the Jordaan, a second- or third-floor view offers a glimpse of scantily clad women leaning out of the windows, looking either seductive or bored based on who is passing by at the moment.
Yes, it’s the rooftops I miss most. The rooftops put you in the midst of the city, yet somehow slightly removed to observe the everyday lives of local inhabitants. I miss that feeling of life happening right in front of me, beneath me, across the street. Until I recapture that, I’ll just sit on my porch with my coffee, looking out, watching, hoping … and waiting.