Every good travel schedule should have room for a surprise or two.
By Michael Gebicki
I’m standing in Egypt’s Luxor Temple, breathing in the dust of time and letting my imagination run riot. Luxor Temple is a wonder of the ancient world, more than 3000 years old, a witness to the artistry and sophistication of the civilisation that arose on the banks of the Nile.
What I’m seeing is what the pharaoh Tutankhamun would have seen. Another pharaoh, Akhenaten, might have conceived his radical concept of a single god in this very temple, and possibly even discussed his idea of a sun deity with his queen, Nefertiti.
In front of me, a tour group is standing in a half-circle and they’re transfixed – not by the fluted columns in the Hypostyle Hall, not by the Colonnade of Amenhotep III, not even by the pink granite obelisk erected by Ramesses. They’re looking down at a scarab beetle clawing its way across the sandy floor. On cameras and phones, they’re charting the beetle’s progress as it scuttles toward the Avenue of Sphinxes, and there’s every chance that this will be the memory of their time in Luxor Temple that they will take back home.
"What Paris has to offer is a small, heart-leaping joy that comes with the unexpected."
“Better to travel hopefully than to arrive”, someone once said, referring to the twinge of disappointment that often comes with your first vision of the Trevi Fountain or the Forbidden City.
What you get from travel is never quite what you expect. We might set off with a bucket list of experiences and must-sees to be ticked off, yet those might not be what sticks in our memories.
One of the reasons is that we’ve been overexposed to the wonders of the world, thanks to National Geographic magazine, David Attenborough and countless television docos. Long before we get there, we know what Angkor Wat, Venice and the Grand Canyon are going to look like. We’ve ridden with Kazakh nomads hunting foxes with golden eagles in the Altai Mountains and seen orcas stalking seals on Antarctic ice floes.
Is it any wonder that the reality of these places can seem a little underwhelming?
Even if the Taj Mahal or Machu Picchu are less electrifying than you expect them to be, what Agra and Peru can bring to your travels is the revelation that comes with the unexpected.
For proof, look at Paris. There is no other city that attracts as much swooning adulation as Paris. You suppose you will fall in love with Paris, and chances are you will never see a more beautiful city or one more seductively packed with visions of splendour. But along with the Louvre, Eiffel Tower and Place des Vosges, what Paris has to offer is serendipity, and the small, heart-leaping joy that comes with the unexpected.
Although you might research Paris diligently and arrive armed with good intentions – galleries to visit, cheese shops, the latest hot brasseries – Paris has other ideas. You will leave your hotel in the morning fired with a sense of purpose, but the queue at the Musée d’Orsay will put you off so you’ll wander across the Seine and into the Jardin des Tuileries, stroll into the Musée de l’Orangerie and stand slack of jaw and possibly teary before Monet’s Water Lilies, then drift along the quayside past the bouquinistes – sellers of second-hand books and postcards – where you will stop off for a coffee and pastry.
This will take the edge off your hunger for lunch at Pierre Sang, and so you’ll end up wandering aimlessly along the Canal Saint-Martin. And so it goes.
Paris is one huge distraction, and it is not so much the grand boulevards and art that you will tell stories about; it’s the lady who sits down at the next table in the cafe and feeds a croissant to the dog tucked into her handbag.
When you come down the escalator at Châtelet Metro Station to be serenaded by a string quartet or stumble across the Berthillon ice-cream shop on Île Saint-Louis on a hot afternoon, Paris has just given you a memory. And at night you will return to your hotel with sore feet and unfulfilled intentions – but completely satisfied.
Although these soul-turning moments are not predictable, they can be fostered. Getting off the beaten track is one way. While the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Uluru and the Himalayas will look pretty much as you expect, chances are Iran’s Imam Ali Mosque or Scoresby Sund in Greenland, the world’s largest fjord system, will take you by surprise.
Although even in Scoresby Sund, aboard a ship threading between iceberg peaks that ring the fjord, my most powerful memory is drinking coffee on the bridge surrounded by silent Russian crewmen, dawn blossoming in a molten splurge, listening to Annie Lennox singing Cold over the PA system.
The internet has opened a new world of possibilities that take you backstage for an insider’s view. Websites such as Voyagin will put you on a tour of Tokyo’s izakaya bar-dining scene or night cycling through the back streets of Bangkok.
EatWith, Feastly and Travelling Spoon are some of the internet start-ups that allow you to sit down for a home-cooked meal with locals, in their own salon, dining room, kitchen or yurt.
In Italy, Italian Stories can take you into the workshop of a craftsman who makes oars for Venetian gondolas, or a tarot card painter in Milan.
It might be Charles Bridge and the baroque wonders of Old Town Square that bring me to Prague, but I don’t expect too much of them. However, if I happen to catch a snatch of a cellist playing Dvorak as I pass by an open window in a back street, that’s magic, and a gift I won’t forget.
This article is from the December issue of INTHEBLACK