“The Paris of the South” & other travel cliches
comment 13 Written by on July 19, 2011 – 11:49 pm


Basra, Iraq – “the Venice of the North”. Photo from WikiCommons.

Did you know that “Bogotá is the Athens of South America”?

Apparently, it’s because of its many universities and libraries. And, maybe if you squint a bit – while taking very hard drugs – its brick bullring could look a little bit like the Acropolis.

The old compass-point cliche is a travel-writing classic. Amsterdam is the Venice of the North. But so is St Petersburg (according to The Independent), Bruges (says a 1915 book), Stockholm (the New York Times) and Birmingham (the Metro), with Hull chasing them all up from behind (The Daily Mail). Meanwhile, the “Venice of the East” has been Bangkok (The Jakarta Post), Osaka (The Japan Times) and even Basra (CS Monitor). As this Travel PR blog points out, anywhere with some sort of network of water is fair game.

The Bogota-as-Athens one was new to me. Surely others could usurp that title? Buenos Aires, for example, has more universities.

Yet Buenos Aires is, of course, busy being the Paris of the South.

As I once wrote: “If someone gave you a peso for every time the Argentinian capital has been described as the Paris of the South, you would easily have enough for the finest steak dinner in town.”

That was perhaps my greatest understatement. You could invite the entire River Plate football team to join you (a consolation dinner perhaps), and still have some spare change.

The general consensus among people that know Buenos Aires well is that only one neighbourhood (Recoleta) can really be compared to Paris, because of its grand architecture and chic residents with little dogs.  At a stretch, you could perhaps the outdoor cafes and second-hand book stalls in Palermo.

I loved this recent entry on The Real Argentina blog, by travel writer – and one time BsAs resident – Dan Neilson: “I wish I could condemn every travel writer who has ever described Buenos Aires as ‘the Paris of the South’ to a two week stay in Retiro”, a working-class barrio, with a villa (favela) and a distinct lack of literary cafes, which is actually more typical of the city’s wider picture.

In some ways, I quite like these comparisons in travel writing. We build them up, then we tear them down. They work to give the reader an initial idea of what to expect (eg Bangkok has lots of water), then, when that becomes old news, we can laugh at their absurdity and go into more detail.

A few years ago no one knew much about Buenos Aires. The Europe comparisons at least gave people a vague idea of what to expect. (Let’s face it, they are going to be immersed in this side of town anyway. No one is going to stay in Retiro for more time that it takes to catch a bus.)

At least I don’t know many people who have been disappointed by Buenos Aires. (“This godawful place is nothing like Paris. Get me out of here!”)

Nonetheless, these comparisons are often lazy and reductive.  They can be a giveaway that the writer doesn’t really know their subject and isn’t aware that the comparison has been overused.

The main trouble comes from  high expectations. The secondary place (eg the Birmingham in a Venice comparison) always comes across as the poor relation, with travel writers creating disappointment through their exaggerations.

Yet, ultimately, these comparisons are surely just a bit fun and no reader in their right mind should really expect Birmingham and Venice to be interchangeable.

A couple of weeks ago, I was joking about these cliches on Twitter. Travel writers @Willhide and @mrdavidwhitley gave some witty examples of ones they’d seen or would like to see. I wish I had favourited them so I could find them now. All I can remember is that it ended up descending into mock examples, such as Cordoba being the Goa of South. (FYI Cordoba is a green and hilly landlocked province in the middle of Argentina. No beaches, no fish curries and, as far as  I know, not many trance parties.)

If anyone else has spotted some good compass-point travel cliches, do share.

Do you think these comparisons are damaging, positive or just a bit of fun? Do some work, while others don’t? As a travel writer, would you employ the from time to time? As a reader, have you even noticed?

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13 Responses to ““The Paris of the South” & other travel cliches”

  1. Well, there was the guy on my tour that time who insisted on comparing every aspect of life in Buenos Aires with Toronto (mainly unfavourably), so Buenos Aires, the Toronto of South America probably won’t catch on just yet. Sounds catchy though.

    As for the Paris comparison, I’m pretty sure that from this side of the Atlantic the average Porteño sees it the other way around – Paris, the Buenos Aires of the North!

  2. Love it. Actually, I do remember a guy from the Midwest telling me he didn’t like BsAs much because it was practically the same as Atlanta or Oklahoma City. All these big cities are the same etc etc. “Buenos Aires: just another Oklahoma City”: could that work?

  3. Warsaw has been called the Paris of the North many times. Despite being not much further north than Paris.

  4. I posted some pictures of Annecy on Flickr, and got asked several times if they were taken in Venice … one lady described it as ‘like Venice, only cleaner’ which I thought was, actually, a pretty fair description.

    And, last week, there was an article in one of the Sundays describing it as … guess what? … the Venice of the Alps!

  5. Seems that Paris and Venice are by far the most common ones. How aboutLondon? I’ve never seen anywhere described as ‘the London of…’. We need to invent something. Maybe Frankfurt is the London of Germany.

  6. Actually, isn’t there a London in Ontario? Maybe London is the London of Canada.

  7. Responses from Twitter:
    Nottinghamshire: the Provence of the Midlands @DanielaMarchesi

    Sheffield: the Rome of the North. “It has seven hills, and Nonnas on Eccleshall Road do a mean espresso,” says @ACMGroup.

    Croydon: The Manhattan of London. @Shandypockets. “As seen in the Evening Standard,” says @davelee

    Morecambe: the Brighton of the North. (From today’s Guardian)

    And the best of them all comes courtesy of @Mikeachim who once saw somewhere described as “the Venice of Italy” without apparent irony. Brilliant.

  8. Sometimes comparisons can be evocative when used in articles.. sometimes they are a little funny. Shanghai was not the Paris of the East? I have to say it’s a gorgeous city indeed. All around Shanghai’s territory are scattered many water towns, and those are commonly defined Shanghai’s Little Venice. Of course with Venice they only share the presence of a waterway, nothing else, but they are nice to visit 🙂

  9. Well, Paris, Texas, really does have a reproduction of the Eiffel Tower (capped with a red Stetson). Can we say “Paris for cowboys” or “the Paris of the South West”?

  10. This is really funny; although I have never been to Bogota (or unfortunately, South America) I have heard that before! Thanks for the revelation.

  11. Of course one should well be familiar with the fact was long-dubbed the Athens of the Americas! …But today, Bogota is far larger, more developed and progressive than Athens, not to mention far more affluent.

    Can you fathom the fact that Buenos Aires is NOT Paris?

    It is unbelievable to read above your insulting commentary “if you take enough drugs…”

    Have you ever spent time in Bogota?

    Unlike Buenos Aires, New York or Paris, Bogotanos are actually not obsessive drug consumers!

    As a native New Yorker (now living in Bogota) who has also lived extensively in Paris, London and B.A., I can assure you that Bogota today not only has far more universities than B.A., but far, far more culture. Argentines searching for a greater cultural life-style, as well as many people from around the globe are actually now moving to Bogota!

    Where you aware that Bogota has the world’s largest and finest international theater festival?

    Are you aware that Colombia now out-produces Argentina and the rest of Latin America in book publishing?

    Please visit http://www.bogotabrilliance.com to obtain just a glimpse of the astonishing cultural ontology that Bogota has to offer.

    But the true reason Bogota was dubbed long ago the Athens of the Americas has more to do with its embrace of democracy than anything else. The principles of the enlightenment took root in Bogota stronger than anywhere else in Latin America; Colombia being the second oldest constitutional democracy in the world after the United States. It is no wonder that Colombia never suffered from the bloody dictatorial regimes that Argentina, Chile and even Costa Rica suffered from.

    Today, Bogota is far more than the Athens of the Americas, and I welcome you to come and see why.

    By Tobias de la Rochefaucauld on Oct 27, 2011 | Reply
  12. Hi. Thanks v much for your comment. Until you wrote this, I did not even realise what I had written could be misinterpreted as a slur on Colombians taking drugs. This was far from what I meant. It was an unrelated joke that I would have used for anywhere in the world (ie you – the tourist – would have to be mad or seeing things or on drugs to think the bullring looks like the Acropolis).
    I know Bogota fairly well and I’m a big fan. I never implied Bogota was lacking culture, just that I had never heard the Athens connection.
    Here is a piece I wrote on my most recent trip to Bogota http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2011/aug/19/bogota-colombia-city-restaurants. I agree with you in every way. It’s one of my favourite cities in the world. It is a shame I led you to think otherwise with what is essentially a fairly rubbish joke. I can see how you thought this though. Thanks for pointing out the mistake. Perhaps I should change it so I don’t mislead anyone else.

  13. Thank you very much for you kind and thoughtful response. You cannot imagine how much it has meant to me. After all, as a seasoned world traveler, you must know the awful and unfair misperceptions that still abound bout Bogota, and Colombia.

    My entire family, as well as virtually all of our expat friends love living in Bogota, but unfortunately, there is still so little quality and accurate information about this city (which is now the size of New York), that it is a constant challenge to try to inform people abroad about Bogota, and its excellent quality of life (minus the traffic jams). After all, how many more culture-loving visitors would come here if they realized that this city has over 75 museums, countless festivals, nearly 200 art galleries, and the magnificent theatre festival; the Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro de Bogota. Who could imagine that the most beautiful baroque Opera House in the New World; the Teatro Colon (which was built before the Colon of Buenos Aires), is to be found in Bogota.

    I was already well familiar with your terrific Guardian article, so I deeply thank you for your cognition and respect for this amazing metropolis, which in our view, given its passion for the arts, its strong financial and population growth (in a country that is a showcase of how to well-manage an economy), will soon be acknowledged as the new cultural capital the world, no matter how shocked some people may initially be.

    Again, I truly thank you for your wonderful response.

    By Tobias de la Rochefaucauld on Oct 27, 2011 | Reply

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