The enchanting smell of the bakery woke me every morning; the neighbours’ chatter in a delectable foreign tongue easing me from dreams to reality. My mother and grandmother bustled in the courtyard behind the house, their banter in the same language I spoke but sweet to the ear nonetheless. My sisters played on my dad’s lap in the hammock outside while my aunt and uncle chatted at the table beside. Our days in that place started with these warm smells and comforting sounds and were followed by winding excursions to the Mediterranean beach, fresh ice creams awaiting us.
Many evenings during this month, festivities took over the village: little girls my age dressed in polka dot dresses with frills on their sleeves, their mothers and aunts and cousins adorned the same, flocked to the square in colourful packs. Men in vests tuned their guitars while families filled the streets and the balconies above the plaza. I watched, entranced, as the women began to dance, feet stomping to rhythms so fast I could barely keep track, hands snapping castanets in syncopation, their frilled tails twirling behind them. Tired but ecstatic, we would walk back through the narrow streets, uphill all the way to our little house.
I was enamoured, totally and completely. Cómpeta, this small village in Andalucía in the south of Spain, was my first sweetheart city. I knew I would come back and I promised the Spanish language would one day become my own. Even at just seven years old, I felt a light inside of me in this place, a comfort and familiarity with these surroundings that was not through experience but sensation alone. That’s what a sweetheart city is: a place not native to you but where you feel both at home and more alive in a way that no other place can make you feel.
What I didn’t realize at the time in this Andalucían corner was that I hadn’t just fallen in love with this one town but the whole country. I made good on my promise to return, traveling back to Spain on family trips and school excursions a few times before finally moving there in my early twenties. I also came to speak Spanish fluently, as I told myself I must do.
During those later trips and the three years I spent living in Spain, I realized I had a sweetheart city in Madrid, too. To this day, my heart skips at the thought of the Spanish capital – I can smell its air, taste its food, find my way through its winding core to my favourite corners.
Sometimes I think I became myself in that place, I found who I wanted to be – or perhaps who I always was. This is a key element of what makes a sweetheart city, I think. It isn’t just the delicacies and the architecture, but what the locale makes you feel about yourself when you are there. I am exceptionally fortunate to have traveled to so many wonderful places in my lifetime and I have loved many. However, none made me feel like the same way. Madrid – Spain, really –has me enganchada (hooked) for life.
This past summer, I was thrilled to visit this sweetheart city of mine again and discover that of my best friend Sonja for her wedding.
Born in Sarajevo, Bosnia, Sonja spent her summers in her father’s hometown of Vela Luka, Croatia. When she and her (now) husband decided to get married, they chose the small island town of Vela Luka to host just 30 of their nearest and dearest. While I had visited the Croatian island on vacation before (at Sonja’s recommendation, of course), I had never been back with her.
When I arrived and saw her in this new terrain, I recognized immediately the joy and contentment on my bestie’s face. In Vela Luka, she became her true mermaid self, in and out of the turquoise Adriatic every hour, munching on fresh figs she picked from a tree on the road, always barefoot. Sonja and I met in middle school in Toronto at 12 years old. Since then, we have been best friends and watched each other grow through so many moments of life. Despite knowing each other so well for so long, never before had I seen her like this, in her element. I realized I never could have known this part of her because it could only fully come alive in this special place.
After the beautiful wedding in Vela Luka, I flew to Spain to celebrate the nuptials of another dear friend. Returning to Madrid felt like coming home. The last time I visited the city was in 2011. In between then and now, I had recrafted roots as an adult in my hometown of Toronto and lived in India for the better part of a year. I didn’t know how I’d feel – if that sweetheart feeling might have changed for me because I had changed so much in that time.
But no. Spain still felt as familiar and enchanting as it always had. And despite the great life changes that had occurred in between my visits, I experienced those same glorious sensations: the contentment in my middle, the skip in my step. It felt so good.
It’s truly something else to have a sweetheart city.
I would delight in hearing tales about your favourite places. Please feel free to leave a comment below and tell me what corner of the world makes you come alive again.