I was one of that generation of culture-starved young who fled to London, congregated in Earls Court, took jobs and haunted the theatres, opera houses, galleries, gardens, historic houses and and museums of that great capital. The London of 1960 was a magic place, quite unlike the frenetic, heaving, money-driven megalopolis of today but I still get a buzz every time I return, which is almost annually. The Poms have lost none of their refined condescension towards "colonials" but there are others they can and do patronise these days, like Poles. In the meantime cultural life there remains as vibrant as I remember and the food these days is much better.
Sicily is one of my favourite destinations. Noto, Siracusa, Taormina, Piazza Armerina, Catania all have their unique charms but it is Palermo where there is most to discover, the jaw-dropping sculpture in plaster by Giacomo Serpotta, a local who never left the island; the oratories with the odd unrecorded Old Master over the altar (Van Dyck lived here in 1624 and painted inter alia a superb canvas of St Rosalia, patron saint of Sicily, for the Oratorio del Santa Domeico); the Villa Palagonia at Bagheria; the Palazzo Cinesi; the exuberant baroque architecture; the vast Teatro Massimo, the palaces of the Sicilian nobility and the English marsala traders who married into the nobility, and the now seedy but still atmospheric Botanic Gardens and everywhere the slightly menacing air of the Palermitanos. What history is here, Greek, Roman, Norman, Bourbon, layer upon layer like mille foglia.
Neo-classical nuts go even nuttier in Stockholm. A gorgeous city this, handsome, civilised, with nice food, nice people and one of the largest, most beautiful and best-kept English-style landscape gardens in Europe, complete with multiple exotic follies including a pagoda, a Turkish pavilion, a Sultan's tent in painted copper. If I was able to choose any house in which to see out my days it would be the royal pavilion at Haga, built by the pleasure-loving, theatre-mad Gustav III, a summer residence comprising smallish, spare neo-Pompeian rooms in ice blue and pale grey. Gustav left here one evening in 1792 to attend a masked ball at the opera house, where he was assassinated, a lamentable end to a royal dreamer.
What can one say about Paris? It is the loveliest of cities bristling with places to parade, promenade or perambulate aimlessly. Great art, glorious buildings, majestic boulevards. Despite the recent terrorist attacks, Paris is always en fete, showing off, displaying its plumes and defying any other city to match is magnificence.
I first visited Prague in the Soviet era. It was like a great painting in need of cleaning, which it has now had, and its epithet as "the Golden City" is well deserved. As capital of the Holy Roman Empire under Charles IV it achieved a singular magnificence. The miracle is that apart from the Town Hall that they burned to the ground, the Germans left it untouched during World War II. On the aforementioned first visit I crossed the Charles Bridge to the old town and instead of heading for the square I veered left and ambled down through rows of houses untouched since the 18th century. At the end of a narrow street I came upon the swift-flowing Vlatava on the surface of which floated two fine white swans. At that very moment the sun came out and the afternoon light struck the gold stars that cover the roof of the National Theatre, and they glinted like small suns. It was a sight so heart-stopping that I burst into tears of joy.
Leo Schofield is the artistic director of Sydney Sings, a new festival of song in the harbour city. On July 28 – August 7. See www.sydneysings.org.au