Don’t get me wrong...I love a hidden gem as much as the next traveller. Venturing off the tourist grid just a tad, and discovering an amazing place, person, sight, smell or taste, is as soul reviving as seeing some of the world’s most celebrated attractions. These moments of unexpected finds make one feel like an ancient explorer; perhaps the first and only soul to ever stumble upon a particular treasure.
Considering the fact we live in an era when you’d be hard pressed to unearth a nook of the world not yet ‘seen’ or ‘done’ by someone else (apparently there are a few in the depths of the Amazon but I’m far too allergic to all things sticky and bitey to prove the theory myself), feeling like a 21st century Marco Polo in Europe certainly has its rewards. Yet sometimes, I do wonder if our incessant drive to unveil the unexplored has the potential to lead us astray.
Are we doing the places we visit a disservice, by blatantly dismissing some of their most revered attractions?
On my last trip to Paris, spending an entire afternoon sharing several cafe au lait and philosophising with a struggling painter along the shores of the Seine was by far the most unforgettable experience, yet this does not mean that I should have blatantly ignored visiting the Eiffel Tower. There is a very good reason why this is, after all, the most visited site in the world.
Here are the top three risks I believe we run, when we take the chase for the authentic a little too far.
1) We can forget to admire mankind’s greatest treasures
Purposely avoiding Milan’s Cathedral or Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia because one deems them to be ‘overly touristy’, could seriously see you miss out on some of the most incredible creations of mankind. Of course, there is beauty and magic to be found in the unexplored back alleys of both cities, yet if your chosen destination has some truly amazing attractions, revered for hundreds if not thousands of years, don’t forget to dedicate at least a little of your time and attention to checking them out. Sure, you need not spend hours fighting crowds or get ripped off blind by deciding to have a meal or grab a drink anywhere near such sites, but intentionally steering clear of a city’s best spots will be a disservice to you, first and foremost.
2) We may end up more disappointed than enlightened
Head off the beaten path and you may be happy to discover you are the only one walking that mile. Soon enough, however, you may also realize why on earth no-one else is there.
On a recent visit to Venice I went on a mission to explore the north-western corner of the city; an area I had yet to visit in all my previous trips. At first, I was very happy to leave the crowds of San Mark’s behind, yet it turned out my elation was a wee bit misguided. I ended up just wasting three hours of a glorious autumn day to ‘admire’ the city’s housing commission hood. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but let’s just say there was nothing very admirable about them. Had I not gotten lost on the way back (the Venetian maze is only inspiring some of the time), I would’ve only wasted an hour and a half!
You may well have an incredible encounter and find something worth remembering when you venture off the beaten path, but it is never guaranteed. By all means get lost ad infinitum if you’re spending weeks on end in a place, but if you only have three days at your disposal to visit Venice you may want to think long and hard before skipping the major parts to search for beauty elsewhere.
3) We risk not seeing the true authentic
On a family visit to Italy last year, my cousin and I made up a convoluted excuse to miss lunch at home one day. The reason we made up a ridiculously elaborate story was because we needed to be away from Pescara for about three hours. What we had been secretly plotting for days...was a gastronomic splurge at the McDonalds in Vasto. Now, before you have an epileptic fit at what I’m about to say, get a grip.
Sometimes, just sometimes, I get so sick of eating pasta every day that I want to scream out loud. No, seriously, it happens after two weeks being fed ad burst-um by my aunties. Anyway, whilst my own desire for culinary diversity may be justified by the fact that I was brought up in Australia, it does not explain why this particular joint was filled to the brim with Italians. There were students, couples with kids and even a few pensioners lunching alone. I know many would not be seen dead stepping foot in a McDonalds when visiting Italy; in a country renowned for its culinary genius, it is certainly not warranted. However, our little escapade proved to be an eye-opener for me. Just ten short years ago McDonalds were closing five minutes after opening up, due to the fact that Italians are, for the most part, extremely traditional. Yet perhaps times are changing and the culture is, slowly but surely, mutating. Could there ever come a time when Italians are as likely to gorge on a hamburger-and-fries-combo as they are chowing down a plate of carbonara? Maybe not, but maybe...yes. Would this make the country any less authentic? I don’t think so. If you want to experience what Italy was like three decades ago, then I’m afraid you should have visited three decades ago. Places, cultures and habits change over time and those who refuse to accept the fact may be missing out on witnessing the whole incredible process. Just because a country is ancient and well established does not mean its people are immune to change.
My guess is that to be a conscientious and enlightened traveller, one should endeavour to observe all that is happening around them, without judgment or preconceptions. We may even discover an authentic side of a country no-one else has yet to see.