Out of this world: The disorientating delights of Singapore

Singapore cityscape. (Shutterstock)
Updated 17 October 2018
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Out of this world: The disorientating delights of Singapore

  • Singapore feels like a vision of the future
  • A dreamlike sense of utopia accompanies the city

AMMAN: More than anywhere else I’ve visited, Singapore feels like a vision of the future. Sure, there are cities with taller skyscrapers, faster trains and a more fervent embrace of LED lights, but there’s something about the uniform modernity, efficiency — and, yes, cleanliness — of the southernmost Asian Tiger that seems like a very particular glimpse of an imagined sci-fi world. There is certainly nowhere else on earth you can stroll through a simulated cloud forest, in the world’s largest greenhouse, and be back at the roulette table, or sleeping in a five-star hotel, within minutes.
All this is possible within Singapore’s ultra-modern waterside core, which radiates outwards from the skyline-hugging, S$8 billion, Marina Bay Sands resort — an imposing row of three skyscrapers linked by the 340-meter SkyPark. Such brazen disregard for the rules of nature have led to inevitable comparisons with the Gulf’s vertiginous post-globalized metropolizes (which are not always unfounded — the Sands bears more than a passing resemblance to Abu Dhabi’s The Gate Towers).


In front sits the ultra-modern, and excellent, ArtScience Museum, its curved outcrops shaped to resemble a lotus flower (or an open hand). Behind you’ll find the beguiling Gardens by the Bay, a 100-hectare stretch of exotic vegetation that has no business in a tropical climate, punctuated by giant dancing steel “supertrees” serving a nightly lightshow. The real freakery takes place inside two huge ticketed greenhouses, the technicolor splendor of the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest, which eerily simulates climbing a mountain. If feels, of course, nothing like a real forest — but an imagined reconstruction by post-apocalyptic survivors.
But Singapore’s architectural and horticultural conjuring is only part of the story. A sense of post-national futurism feels stamped in the spiritual DNA of the place. Singapore has four official languages — but non-native English is the most widely understood, with 80 percent fluency. In this imagined future, a global tongue overcomes all tribalism.
Singapore’s fabled orderliness really is a thing. After a few hours in the country, spotting a discarded cigarette butt feels like proof of a minor insurrection. It’s notable that one selling point of the famed Long Bar at Raffles Hotel — established in 1887 and named after the Brit who founded the city — is being allowed, nay encouraged, to throw peanut shells on the floor, in some arcane colonial ritual. Fun has never felt quite so organized.
Leisure takes place where and when its supposed to, such as on Sentosa — a former POW camp brutally used by the Japanese in World War Two, now a resort island that’s home to 14 hotels, two golf courses, Universal Studios Singapore and the city’s second casino. A five-square-kilometer super-real whirl of primary colors, it’s hard to imagine a more artificial environment outside of Disneyland.


This dreamlike sense of utopia accompanies one across the city. Most unnerving is a visit to the much-hyped Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street — traditional neighborhoods which have been brazenly gentrified into sanitized tourist attractions. Strolling through the former, I look up at rows of brightly colored banners waving from every window of an apartment building. What looked like a vibrant display of individuality unraveled when I realized every banner was of a uniform size and placement.
But this could teach the Gulf’s rapidly modernizing cities a valuable trick: Rather than decimating low-income neighborhoods, often home to colorful communities — give them a clever name and market them as cultural destinations. Who wouldn’t want to visit Mini Manila or Little Lagos, after all?


Magical Madrid: The unique charms of the Spanish capital

Madrid the capital of Spain. (Shutterstock)
Updated 13 November 2018
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Magical Madrid: The unique charms of the Spanish capital

  • Madrid is a European capital like no other
  • Madrid’s blockbuster sights regally lived up to their generations-old hype

LONDON: It was bad luck that brought me to Madrid — or perhaps fate. Midway through a two-month road trip around Southern Europe, diligently skirting the coasts of Portugal and Spain, but with no intention of venturing inland, my 20-year-old campervan broke down in the scorching Andalusian planes, some 30 km outside Seville, officially the warmest city in Europe.
My fate was sealed by the calendar as much as the location: It wasn’t just that I blamed the searing summer sun for overheating my ancient engine, but also for thwarting any chance of its repair. For the month of “Agosto,” I soon learned, the south of Spain simply shuts down. There wasn’t a garage in town with the faintest bit of interest in fixing my motor. And so, after a fortnight of shade-seeking 40-degree days and flamenco-filled nights in Seville, I impulsively rented a car and made a spontaneous six-hour road trip to Madrid. And whatever the repair bill ended up being, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Arriving exhausted at dusk, I emerged from my air-conditioned car to find the climate completely transformed, temperatures hovering in the pleasant mid-twenties, surrounded by commuters ambling amiably to street-side tavernas rather than racing to the metro — or hiding indoors like their southern compatriots.

Hurried logic (and a whiff of luck) had brought me to the south-western edge of the central Sol barrio, a maze of winding streets with colorful cafés and tapas joints that seem to be as busy for breakfast as in the early hours, entertaining a constant flow of customers and an insistent throb of lively chat. It was the perfect tonic for the breakdown blues.
Arriving without preconception or preparation had its benefits. I was free to follow whims, enjoying the kind of aimlessness which can only be bred through enforced limbo. Evenings drifted by nibbling gambas al ajillo (garlic prawns) and pimientos de padrón (padrón peppers), while practicing my newly acquired Spanish with friendly locals at Bodegas Melibea, an audaciously decorated café with wide open windows offering cooling vistas of the ever-changing street scene.

Madrid’s blockbuster sights regally lived up to their generations-old hype. The Plaza Major really could not be better named — a bright rectangular space built around the turn of the 16th century, lined with interconnected regal rows of identical three-story buildings, sporting a total of 237 tiny balconies.
Grander still is the Royal Palace of Madrid, a magnificent maze of 3,418 rooms which make it Europe’s largest royal residence. Be sure to stop at the nearby Temple of Debod, an ancient Egyptian temple donated to Spain and incongruously rebuilt in the early 1970s.
I had heard of the Prado Museum, of course, and held some inkling of its famed depth and breadth, but little could prepare me for the boggling floorplan and epic catalogue of art, which stretches from the 12th to 20th centuries. At any one time, only about 1,300 of the institution’s collection of more than 20,000 works is on display — but that still means that if you entered at 10 a.m., stayed until closing time at 8 p.m., and took zero breaks, you would have the equivalent of 27 seconds to view each work. Time is likely to be considerably tighter when an extension is unveiled next year, coinciding with the Prado’s 200th anniversary.

Temple of Debod. (Shutterstock)

More manageable and equally essential is the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, one of Europe’s greatest exhibitors of 20th-century artists which pays homage to the country’s headline exports Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí — including staging the former’s epic “Guernica,” a stark, monochrome Spanish Civil War epic which rightfully ranks among the century’s greatest cultural achievements. At 7.7 meters wide, it’s a work that no postcard or textbook reproduction can do justice to — a statement which needs to be experienced in the flesh, and studied up close, to appreciate even a jot of its power, scope or intent.
Madrid is simply magical. Not in that quaint, stately, Western European way of Vienna or Prague, nor with the pretentious powerhouse vibe of Paris or London. And nothing like the crumbling grandeur of Mediterranean neighbors Rome and Athens. It’s a European capital like no other — and it’s the one I’d move to in a heartbeat.