September 22, 2014

"On the one hand, to 'do' the Uffizi or the Louvre or Teotihuacan or Machu Picchu or the Great Wall is to impose artificial closure."

"To see a thing as a tourist is, somehow, to dispense with it. On the other hand, is visceral distrust of such tourists truly the proper response? After all, who among travellers has not stood before a work of art, or an inscrutable series of druidical stone structures, and wondered in silence: How long must I stare at this thing before I have seen it?"

From "What Is the Right Way to Travel?" (in the NYT).

21 comments:

Greg Hlatky said...

"What is the right way to travel?" Not at all. I mean, global warming, right?

BarrySanders20 said...

Traveling to see man-made things is a big waste of time. Buildings, especially castles, statues, art, etc.

Nature is different. Niagara Falls, Redwoods, Tetons, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Smokeys, any shoreline -- awesome.

Big man-made things superimposed upon nature, like bridges, or the Hoover Dam, are impressive and worth a look. Never felt like I had to have closure when looking at anything man-made, but never expected much either. Mayan ruins, pyramids, meh.

Mark said...

I guess bucket lists are out.

Anonymous said...

I am an engineer. I love visiting man-made things. I work with buildings every day and get to roam around in the basements, crawl spaces, mezzanines, attics and rooftops where most people never go. I find it fascinating.

Nature is OK, too.

broomhandle said...

I agree with Barry but the places that really blow my mind are the ones that seem to blur the line between the natural and the man-made. Arches springs immediately to mind.

buwaya puti said...

Never understood why one had to visit some famous object in person merely for the sake of seeing it in person. The only way it could be fun I think is if there is some object to it.
My best tourist experience in fact was as a kid back home in Manila, wandering around the walled city. Parts of it were awesome, to me at least, in a city with not a lot to look at, parts were the usual Manila level of squalid. It started getting into my mind though that this huge thing had been designed for a purpose, and then I started crawling all over every bastion, tracing lines of fire and crossfire, multiple layers of defense, fallback positions, covered approaches, etc. It is (or was) a truly formidable thing, assuming the power relationships and technology of its day (the 17th century). It wasn't just some random crumbling walls that merely were, it was an enormous integrated piece which had a justification for every brick, that could be rationally traced to both tactical and strategic objectives. In a way that things in modern Manila usually couldnt. Our ancestors were anything but stupid.
Manila is a lousy place for tourists, but its not a bad place to learn some things.

AustinRoth said...

"Never understood why one had to visit some famous object in person merely for the sake of seeing it in person."

To experience firsthand what makes it special, to determine for yourself if you feel it is special, too, and if so, why, rather than to reply on the interpretations of others. That includes photographs as well, which in the end are just visual interpretations of that portion or view that the photographer found compelling.

Or in a similar vein, as Billy Joel said, "But you can't get the sound from a story in a magazine."

Same concept.

John Lawton said...

In my mid-1970s art history class, the professor made a big point that a two-dimensional reproduction of a work of art or architecture (in a book, on-screen, etc.) gave only a hint of the thing itself. Scale, texture and context are critical to comprehending the true nature of the object, and can only be realized in person. He was remarkable teacher and his insight has enriched my life ever since.

Gahrie said...

Travel has always been a valuable luxury, first primarily as a source of future income, but also almost as importantly to the human animal, to explore. We all have this instinct within us, and it develops to varying degrees based on need, education and experience.

We are all lucky enough to live in a world in which we can access the contents of all the world's libraries and museums at will, even while walking through a park, or along the beach.

I have seen pictures of Stonehenge, and I have been to Stonehenge. (Early enough that the public was still allowed to touch the actual stones, and wander among them.) Even as a pre-teen there was something undefinably special about actual being there and touching the stones...feeling the age.

cubanbob said...

BarrySanders20 said...
Traveling to see man-made things is a big waste of time. Buildings, especially castles, statues, art, etc. "

No offense, but thats nuts. A photograph isn't experiencing the real thing whether man-made or natural. And speaking of natural wonders no amount of photographs will ever capture the majesty of the Victoria Falls and no photograph of the Mona Lisa will ever capture the essence of the painting that is gained by viewing at the Louvre.

The Crack Emcee said...

"How long must I stare at this thing before I have seen it?"

Until you're crazy, idiot,...

MarkW said...

Feeling superior to middle-class tourists has been a key pleasure of upper-class travel for a very long time. This is from 1908:

"If you will not think me rude, we residents sometimes pity you poor tourists not a little--handed about like a parcel of goods from Venice to Florence, from Florence to Rome, living herded together in pensions or hotels, quite unconscious of anything that is outside Baedeker, their one anxiety to get 'done' or 'through' and go on somewhere else. The result is, they mix up towns, rivers, palaces in one inextricable whirl. You know the American girl in Punch who says: 'Say, poppa, what did we see at Rome?' And the father replies: 'Why, guess Rome was the place where we saw the yaller dog.' There's travelling for you. Ha! ha! ha!"

But then, of course, Forster was going one step meta and satirizing (and himself feeling superior to!) the sort of condescending intelligentsia who look down on the tourists. And so it goes.

tim maguire said...

Let me guess (I'm not clicking), the "right way to travel" involves very large sums of money.

A couple years ago the Prof. blogged about a recently deceased trust fund parasite who was a great traveler in his youth and the post included a quote from him complaining about the decline of style in travelling. The real, but of course unspoken, message was travel was better when it was limited to a handful of extremely rich like him. The hoi polloi should stay home bent over their threshing machines and leave exotic enjoyment for the privileged few.

The New York Times feels much the same way.

MayBee said...

Why go to a concert when you can listen on iTunes?

Travel the way you want. See the things you want to see. Problem solved.

Tank said...


"On the one hand, to 'do' the Uffizi or the Louvre or Teotihuacan or Machu Picchu or the Great Wall is to impose artificial closure."


"To see a thing as a tourist is, somehow, to dispense with it.


I think there is a lot of truth to this. We just got back from two weeks in Texas. As always, I had a checklist of TTD - Things To Do. Also as usual, many of those things we did, enjoyed to some extent, and checked off. Others turned into an experience and memories that we'll never forget. It's hard going in to know which will be which.

A few years back, we spent four days in Paris. We checked off the Louvre; but I could have happily spent time every one of those four days in the Musee D'Orsay.


Blogger BarrySanders20 said...

Traveling to see man-made things is a big waste of time. Buildings, especially castles, statues, art, etc.


Personally, I love exploring castles, and, standing three feet from a Van Gogh, well there's no substitute for that.

Larry J said...

buwaya puti said...
Never understood why one had to visit some famous object in person merely for the sake of seeing it in person.


When I walked on the Great Wall, it was a cold and windy day. The walkway was steep and narrow. As a former soldier, it made me appreciate the hardships of the Chinese soldiers who had to stand watch on the wall. Simple pictures wouldn't have brought that point home nearly as effectively.

I've visited the Palace at Versailles. I've walked the halls of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire's palace. I've visited the Forbidden City and Summer Palace in China. One common theme is how the powerful show no hesitation to spend their nation's wealth on their own comfort and leisure.

As long as my health and finances permit, I intend to visit places personally. You're free to do as you please.

Unknown said...

I did a "med run" in the USN. Nuclear sub, very restricted ports. Naples, La Madalena, La Spetizia (no clue if the spelling is right, it was about 30 years ago) and a few hours in Athens. We would go out for weeks, come in for weeks. There were standard tourist trip things to do, guided tours and stuff. Then there was wandering around. I regret never taking the trip to Rome, never seeing the coliseum. My take away was there are two very different ways to do it; if you're on a schedule then the tourist mode is the only option. If you don't have a strict schedule and itinerary, you see a different world. Not better or worse, just different. later in life, things like a cruise in the Carib. I made a point to step out of the "tourist" mode & we saw some of the rattier, more picturesque, and "real" parts of islands. Not sure it was always perfectly safe, but I'm glad we did. Got asked if we were lost, which was kind of funny.

Peter said...

For what it's worth, one may get more from viewing a restored copy of the Mona Lisa than one can get from the original.

The surface of the Mona Lisa is badly crazed, and overall the image has become quite dark from the coats of varnish that were applied to it over the years, in attempts to keep it from further deteriorating.

No one dares to do much to the original, but software can remove the crazing and restore the colors to something closer to what they probably were when it was new.

So, the original is the one-and-only, and the restored copy is just a copy. BUT the copy is almost certainly closer to what the artist created, and may be more rewarding to view.

Similarly, if you want to view the gargoyles on the 61st floor of the Chrysler Building, you'll surely be disappointed if you try to peer at them from street level.

And so it goes: the original has mystique and value and a copy does not, yet often the copy gives the viewer a better view of the original than the original can, and without the inconvenience of having to travel to the original.

paminwi said...

My two favorite "sightseeing" trips were to whale watch off the coast of Massachusetts and to sit in the Musee Marmottan for hours in Paris to see Monet paintings.

Two very different experiences but both have stayed with me in a very wonderful way. Thinking about them now still makes me happy.

The Godfather said...

When I was 17 I hiked across the Grand Canyon. No photo could convey a sense of the size or beauty of that place, and after 54 years I still can see it in my mind.

I took a walk in Paris one evening and found myself walking under the Eiffel Tower. I had seen zillions of pictures of it, but I had no sense of its size until then.

Shanna said...

When I was 17 I hiked across the Grand Canyon. No photo could convey a sense of the size or beauty of that place, and after 54 years I still can see it in my mind.

I didn't hike it, but yes. I took a ton of video and when I got home it did absolutley nothing to convey was seeing the place was actually like. It's amazing. Truly.