Most places are the same as the one in which you live, except that they are less convenient. But if you must travel, below are a few notes that you will never find in any tourist guide.
Travelling in any airline’s cattle class is a most uncomfortable way to go anywhere. If Captain Cook had been faced with up to 24 hours in a plane to discover the South East Coast of Australia, as opposed to six months being tossed about in a ship, he might have told the Admiralty that it was not worth the trouble. There are supercilious people in the Northern Hemisphere who would still agree with that statement.
A full day in a train is wearing and dull, particularly as it doesn’t have the airplane’s in-flight entertainment system, and is noisier so it’s more difficult to sleep. Travelling by car is boring and dangerous, if you get sleepy. Walking takes too long; going by horse is not much faster, tiring and there is always the danger of falling off. Bicycling requires real energy. Ships may be fine for some, but once you are on them there is not much else to do but put up with the in-ship entertainment, talk to your ghastly fellow passengers, or retreat to the bar and hope you don’t get sea sick.
As for any place you might want to see, everyone else wants to see it too, particularly if the weather is warm. Famous tourists sites such as the second stage of the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum in Rome and the top of the Empire State Building – why on earth do people want to go up the top of the Empire state building? - can be so crowded as to be uncomfortable, especially in the warmer months. In all it is better, and certainly cheaper, to stay at home and play computer games. With information technology advancing in leaps and bounds you will soon be able to virtually visit famous places, both present and past, while remaining at home. This avoids queues, spending money on airplane tickets and dodgy hotels, tiresome custom and security checks, general exhaustion and crowding.
Once you finish the uncomfortable travelling and get past the queues, you will find that famous places are smaller and much less interesting than you thought they would be. The Sphinx in Egypt is a prime example. Admittedly you don’t have to queue to see it but the famous face is no bigger than a kitchen table. And you came all that way. Other places are famous for being mentioned in a song or in history, such as Piccadilly Circus in London and Union Square in San Francisco but are otherwise not worth visiting.
Once you get to where ever you’re going you are supposed to stand around reading placards put up at spots that are thought to be of interest. In some places visitors could spend the entire day reading these wretched things. Why can’t they simply say something to the effect of famous person (whoever) killed here on this date, so that the message can be comprehended at a glance; or ‘famous massacre occurred here centuries ago, much suffering’. You can then take in the ambience – the stone work and darkness. Scary place, something bad happened here a while back, got it! Then you can move on. Some details can be added for those who don’t mind standing around, feet aching while they read it. If you have any interest in the blind hatreds of a few centuries back, you can always read about it later on your tablet. They have everything on the Internet these days. Pictures are better too.
Many more people got killed through disease, overwork or neglect than got themselves killed by men of high social rank who turned out to be homicidal lunatics, but then who pays attention to the little people dying of mundane causes. Whoever said that history is one damned thing after another was right. Henry Ford also once said that “history is more or less bunk” and he was right too. We are supposed to learn from history, but mostly we cannot even learn from what happened yesterday.
After seeing a famous place, well-meaning people may drag you off to a museum so you can see stuff like, say, equipment the old explorers carted around with them; or some old Roman coins found in a set of ruins. The coins won’t work on any of the modern vending machines, and the camping and wilderness shops back home have much better equipment. We should summon up the spirit of those old explorers and send them off to those shops and then ask our summoned spirits what they think of GPS units. Now that would be interesting.
As for art galleries, usually the next stop after museums, they tend to blur. Was that set of canvasses from the French impressionists or the Dutch masters, and are we supposed to care that there is a difference? Contemporary art is best ignored until it gets older, and then disposed of in an environmentally unsustainable way. As for statues, they provide some decoration for large, outdoor spaces and a convenient roosting place for pigeons, but serve little purpose beyond that. Why would anyone want to see a collection of them? As for antique vases, bits of ancient jewellery and delicate latticework, flea markets sell that stuff on most weekends. Admittedly the flea market stuff is not a couple of hundred years old, but it’s often better made.
Here are a few notes, in no particular order, on places to avoid.
Rome – one of the few cities that has a set of ruins at its heart which it calls a tourist attraction. Why are two pillars on a slab of stone – all the remains of most of the buildings in the roman forum – worth preserving? Best to knock it down and put up an intact replica, complete with gift shops. Tacky? Possibly, but more interesting for tourists. If you must see anything in Rome check out the Pantheon. It’s just as old as the Colosseum, give or take a century, and is intact. Otherwise the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps are over rated, and the museums are too crowded. Am I biased against the place because my wallet was lifted on the Roman underground – a 200 Euro life lesson – well, yes.
The Sistine Chapel – if you want pictures in a church, why put them on a ceiling, especially when that ceiling is as high as that of the Sistine Chapel? Pope Julius II, who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling in the early sixteenth century, should have insisted on a nice flat white for the ceiling itself and asked for the paintings to be put at ground level, so that people can see them, and there would be more seats for the future billions of tourists.
Vienna – No-one seems to have told the Viennese that Mozart is several centuries dead, and that the Imperial dynasty was deposed a century ago, but then there are also a lot of old buildings they haven’t gotten around to knocking down. Sad really.
Paris – the Eiffel Tower is one of those monuments that’s famous for being famous. Originally built as the entranceway to the 1889 World’s Fair, the fair has long gone but the entrance has remained. Now it doesn’t do anything apart from draw tourists. If a gigantic lattice of brown iron work is your thing, then by all means go there. The snack food in the cafes nearby is tolerable. As for the rest of Paris, if gigantic stone buildings filled with paintings of eightenth century scenes make your warm inside, then you may need professional help; otherwise head for Paris. The original builders of the cathedrals could have built them for a quarter of the cost if they had ditched the unnecessary frills.
Pisa – they should straighten that tower. Why it was not torn down soon after the mistake in the design (shallow foundations in unstable subsoil) became apparent in the late 12th century is difficult to understand. The mistake is a celebrated one, but if people like looking at mistakes there are plenty of those closer to home. Whole governments come to mind. Why travel to Italy?
San Francisco – this city’s famous tram network is, is fact, quite rudimentary compared to the extensive networks in cities like Vienna and Melbourne. The one bright spot is the ruins of old Federal prison of Alcatraz. As a famous place of misery it attracts grumpy people like myself. In its heyday in the 1950s, the prison housed the hardest, most recalcitrant of the prisoners in the US Federal system. That meant it achieved a perverse attraction for the sort of people who end up in prison. It was a badge of criminal honour to serve a few years there. Shut down by the Kennedys in the 1960s, its main use now is as a tourist site and an occasional film location. Compared to European or even Australian cities the rest of SF is of little account. The best way to get out of this city is quickly.
New York – something can be said for the street life of this city, in that there are a lot of street vendors, but how do any of those vendors afford to live within commuting distances of where they sell tee shirts or knock-off sunglasses? All the places that you may have heard about over the years, such as Soho or Greenwich Village, have become gentrified and that means the real estate is expensive. Even in Harlem, which use to have a dreadful reputation world-wide, apartments sell for $US1 million plus. Otherwise the Statue of Liberty is an overgrown piece of terra cotta, Times Square is not much more than an intersection that may have been a town planning mistake, the Brooklyn Bridge is just a bridge and the Empire State Building is a tall building you can go to the top of, which may be a thrill for some.
Washington – tolerable, if you like monuments, but these always look far better in films than they do in real life, and certainly less crowded. The Lincoln Memorial, for example, looks much better in the 1950s science fiction film The Day The Earth Stood Still, than it does if you look at it yourself. In films, incidentally, famous places are never crowded with tourists and the main characters in them can park their late model cars very close to the monument in question. This easy access to key points in any city, including famous tourist sites, is often more difficult to believe than the ridiculous plots.
Las Vegas – this city is so tacky that it really should be a virtual model. That is, its representation should be stored on a computer. Then you can visit it without the trouble, expense and crowds. You can gamble online, why not put the whole city online? It certainly makes more sense than building replicas of the pyramids and the Eiffel tower and whatever else takes the fancy of the casino owners.
London – So you’ve seen Big Ben and the Tower Bridge and ridden around in the underground which, surprise, is just like undergrounds anywhere else. One difference is that there are more English people on the trains than in most other places, but that is a hazard of being in England. If you ignore them, incidentally, they don’t go away. The tower holds some interest as a famous place of past misery, but the crown jewels are barely worth a glance. Westminster Abbey is tolerable if visiting tombs is your thing, which is creepy. Compared to Versailles, Buckingham Palace looks dumpy. Admittedly there is a live Royal Family to live in Buck Palace but that just means that, unlike Versailles, visitor access is restricted.
Venice – if you like crumbling buildings slowly sliding under the water then by all means go to Venice. As the place lost importance in the seventeenth century none of the buildings have been redeveloped into something more convenient which is a shame. The famous gondoliers are too expensive to be worth the trouble and if you want a trip along a canal filled with over-priced houses, a lot of new world coastal waterside developments have canals, some of which have not silted up. You can hire a rowboat for a few dollars an hour.
Amsterdam – more canals, more museums to this and that. The Dutch version of history emphasises the time when the Dutch were the masters of the sea which is hardly surprising but almost amusing if you are familiar with the British version of maritime history.
All Asian cities – not worth visiting, unless you have business. Sure there are ancient temples and plenty of scenery in Asia, but these are mostly not in the cities which can be seriously polluted and gridlocked. Anything that is authentically Asian is modernised to be just like the West. Unless its brand spanking new in Asia it’s no good. Not fair to Asian cities? Perhaps Hong Kong is not gridlocked, but it is difficult to see why anyone would want to live there, unless they were earning a living. Perhaps the harbour is worth a look, otherwise it’s the place to go when you are on your way to somewhere else.
Egypt – no Pharaoh in Egypt in its glory days of 3,000 years or so ago, could rest in his pyramid unless he or she (there was one she) had put up another few square kilometres of statues and temples for this reason and that. If you like gigantic stone works that make no sense, unless you follow a detailed archaeological reconstruction, and endless lines of symbols that you can’t be bothered learning how to read, then Egypt is the place for you. The Pyramids are just big stone buildings in the desert just outside Cairo which you can take in at a glance. There is nothing inside except for a few empty chambers which you can’t visit anyway (at least you couldn’t when I went there), and the local authorities don’t care for you climbing on them, so all you can do is walk around them while being pestered to buy souvenirs. As for the famous Sphinx, see the note in the main article above. Cairo itself has an interesting, if seriously underfunded museum, if you can stand museums, otherwise the place should be avoided.