Ever notice the apathy on the faces of people who say, about a holiday, or an experience, even a marriage: “Been there, done that?” No one says that to brag or celebrate; it’s dry sarcasm meant to topple and politely insult. I was never one for clichés. I don’t like tired expressions. And yet, that phrase kept buzzing around my mind like a swarm of annoying flies, as I was in Toledo.
My mind worked in future tense: “When I get out of here, the best thing I can tell people about Toledo is been there done that.”
This must have been around 12 o’clock, two hours into our intended day-trip to the ancient capital of Spain. Even then, I was already looking forward to leaving the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What kicked off the run-like-hell instinct: the swarms; the swarms; and the swarms of tourists and the inevitable hive of tourist-trap restaurants they inspire. Toledo, I’m sure, is a charmingly beautiful city. Its views of the unique Spanish countryside, its grandiose walls and tiny streets, the Gothic churches emboldened by El Greco’s brush are all wonders in their own right. And I’m sure, if a dictator-style ban were put in place banning all tourists from the place, Toledo could be mesmerising.
But instead you just feel like you’re on a Hollywood set. The entire city’s historic, many-centuries old make-up has been taken over by tourism. Tourism here is a virus that makes its host dependent on its infection for existence. Souvenir shops are everywhere on the main streets, all selling the same swords and mazapan, restaurants are over-priced and parodies of Spanish food, deer, partridge, oxtail stew, all exciting if you see them on one menu, but by the 10th restaurant they look as enticing as a ‘Toledan’ sword. The cafes on the Plaza de Zocodover are over-priced (unless you fancy McDonalds in Spain’s ‘gastronomic capital’) and busy with Americans, Chinese, Italians and your own countrymen – wherever you’re from.
When we booked our return tickets from the Atocha station in Madrid we chose the six o’clock train to return. After we had lunch at around one o’clock we looked at each other and asked gleefully: “could we change the time on the train tickets so we could leave earlier?” It turns out you can. And by four o’clock we were back in Madrid, blessed, divine, exciting Madrid!
All the while, on our train ride back to Madrid, we couldn’t stop laughing at what was happening: we were running away from Toledo! One of Spain’s most visited sights, its historic capital, found on many postcards, Hollywood films; and we, me especially, the supposed history buff, were running away from it! Back in Madrid, our home away from home, whenever we indulged in a genuine taco or churro, we couldn’t help thinking, “you can’t get this shit in Toledo!” Ah, dry sarcasm.
But our running away from Toledo, I later realised, altered the way I think about certain destinations and the tourism industry in general. And not in a way I much care for, either. Here’s how:
Lesson 1: Tourism is a Destructive Paradox
Think of the most beautiful places on earth. Think of Hawaii, the Bahamas, the Amalfi coast, the Cote d’Azur. From the pictures you find online or in brochures they look picturesque, pristine, inspiring. But just remember: there are about a million other people all over the world looking at those same pictures and brochures at this very moment.
Toledo made me cynical. Now, if I think of going to Hawaii I don’t imagine the sensational volcanoes and sophisticated, beautiful beaches. I imagine droves of tourists filling up souvenir shops that all sell Hawaiian lei flowers and miniature dolls of grass-skirt women playing guitars. When I think of what I’m going to eat there I think of luau nights where neither the dancers nor the fellow-eaters are even remotely Hawaiian – as Hawaiian as Obama, in fact.
There is a paradox to the tourism industry that we are all chained to: the more beautiful a destination, the harder it falls. If you want to go there it means everyone wants to go there which means you don’t want to go there. And really, I blame package tourism! That scars and pollutes our planet more than any Fukushima or Chernobyl could! At least people know to avoid Fukushima and Chernobyl!
Lesson 2: Don’t Eat There
As a rule, whenever a restaurant has a top location, the food tends to be a disappointment. Or the service. Or the price. But it will somehow be disappointing. Why: the owners rest on their laurels, they think, people come to eat here for the view, so whether or not they like the food, they’ll come anyway. There are exceptions to this, of course, but in Toledo, it’s the widespread rule.
After all, it’s true, everywhere in Toledo is scenic. Whether you’re in the Plaza de Zocodover, or near the cathedral, or on the bastions. So most restaurants at least look like they’re half-arsed. Put some oxtail soup on the menu, some tables outside and tourists will flock no matter what.
Don’t get me wrong, the food will be fine, and occasionally pleasantly surprising. The first time you go! But they won’t be the kind of places you’d want to return to time and time again. In fact…
Lesson 3: Don’t Live in a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Or in any major tourist attraction, for that matter. Yes, it’s exciting living in the tower of Babel, you’ll never know who you’ll meet, the whole globe is on your doorstep. But this is a sad, brutal fact: mass tourism doesn’t visit, it invades.
I believe there is a country no one knows about though everyone knows of. Call it Touristlandia. It has a great many cities under its dominion. From the aforementioned Hawaii, to London, Hollywood, Disneyland, Florence, and of course Toledo. Touristlandia also governs over major attractions, pieces of territory carved out of cities belonging to other states. The Eiffel Tower, Empire Building, the Vegas Strip, Niagra Falls, the Coliseum and on and on go the names of the clichéd nation’s possessions.
And where there’s Touristlandia, there are its citizens. Mostly people who defected from wealthy, affluent nations like America, China, Russia; when they defect, the government of Touristlandia gives them free cameras to replace their eyes, they give them maps, a hankering for souvenirs, and, of course, package tours. God help us this is one hell of an army!
Wherever Touristlandia occupies, its souvenir shops, tourist traps, mindless visitors, and Segway tours always follows until, the host city becomes unrecognisable. You think you’re going to see Toledo, but really, you’re going to Touristlandia. A parody of Toledo. Nothing else. And you don’t want to live there.
Lesson 4: Leave the Brochure, Do Your Research
Everything can be made to look picturesque on a website. In reading up for this article I found a picture advertising Istanbul. It was a close-up of the Hagia Sophia with a verdant background behind it. Wow, Istanbul must be a time-machine, so old, charming, well-preserved and sacred. Now, I’ve never been to Istanbul, and I hear it genuinely is incredible, but that photo doesn’t show you the inevitably grubby streets and hordes of street sellers trying to get you into tourist-trap restaurants that you find in any major capital city!
Toledo really has made me cynical. But in a good way. Let’s be honest about travel. Yes, places have their grubby parts, perhaps they’re not as clean as you expected them to be; but that’s a good sign: it means people actually live there! Brochures and tourism advertising gives the impression that you will be the only people in Istanbul or London. To hell with that.
We travel because we want to see how our fellow human beings live in different climes of our one planet. When you travel with tourists, you don’t see that, you just see how people travel, which, you already know because… you’re travelling. Mass tourism murders the joy and infantile pleasure of travel. Apart from, you know, invading entire countries for the sake of the great fatherland Touristlandia.
There is hope, of course. Touristlandia hasn’t won yet. There are still places on earth where real people live, people who eat real food and not parodies of it, people who don’t have a camera lens for eyes, people who don’t have a sixth finger that extends into a selfie stick. Do your research: you have no excuse. You have the internet, tripadvisor (study that with a sceptical eye, mind you), google maps, street view, and hell, even books and other people! I’d rather take my travel advice from a writer than a travel agent. Any day. Or learn about good places to eat from Anthony Bourdain rather than a Lonely Planet guide.
And please, please, please…
Lesson 5: Don’t Travel in Packs
I would rather see the Coliseum filling up with crowds going to watch a gladiatorial match than people queuing up to see where they used to have gladiatorial games! At least the former is more honest.
I would hope that people who are reading this blog aren’t sheep-travellers. However, for those of you out there who like to join groups, join tours, travel in peak season, get on Segways and hire a tour leader, I say to you, please: Don’t.
Seeing Toledo swarmed by flocks of people who need a guide to think for them was like seeing a gorgeous woman stripping naked for you only at the end to discover you have to pay, just like everyone else. By that, yes, I do mean to say that mass tourism is whoring. We are whoring out Toledo, the Coliseum, the Eiffel Tower – and it’s not fair.
Not fair for those of us who, when we travel, would rather go down a side-street, find a good local bar and drink with locals than flock to a landmark monument. We want peace, we want the silence of knowledge, not the buzzing of mass ignorance. Some places are sacred. And I don’t mean the Vatican or Lourdes. I mean the Left Bank of Paris, the canals of Amsterdam, the Barrios of Spanish cities, the Trastevere of Rome. These are places where you can eat well, drink well, enjoy something new, learn about the way locals live.
And even beyond that. Touristlandia has expanded to control places where people don’t live. Natural wonders of the world like Niagara Falls or the Alps – places now stamped with Touristlandia’s unmistakable virus. At times, of course, it is a necessary evil. You need to make a place accessible, user-friendly. But don’t fill it with souvenir shops, tour buses, and microphones. That is simply defiling a place.
To certain natural and historical wonders I think group tourism should be banned. There should be an efficient public transport system to take people there and nothing more. If you want to go to Petra and know its history, get a car and buy a book and enjoy it in silence.
How can you really enjoy the beauty of something whilst listening to a tour guide and with your eyes glued to a camera lens?
Tourism seems to have become a future-based experience. Go there so you could say been there done that and got the bloody t-shirt. It’s about bragging, showing people back home a selfie of you with a tiny bit of the landscape behind you, about showing them souvenirs you bought, about the people you met on the tour. If you want to do that, just stay at home and watch Travel Channel, for all our sake.
Travel should be about the present. For a brief moment in your life you’re living like someone else, in a different part of your world, it’s a sensual experience; after all, if there’s one thing people know how to do, is live. And different climates require varying but altogether equally high-quality lifestyles. So go there and live it for a while! Live well, differently. Take a few photos by all means, in case Dementia creeps in one day – but enjoy it before it’s over.