When travelling around, on holiday, I used to visit many of the buildings and sites recommended in my travel guide. See this! See that! Do not fail to visit this church, you must go to that museum, my guide said, and although I do not want to say that I visited all these places (in the end I wanted to keep some time for visiting the places I liked and for doing the things I preferred), I went to a lot of the sites advised to visit, anyhow.
Since a few years I do less so. Sometimes I feel a bit guilty and think it is stupid not to see the highlights of the local, national or international culture I pass, but often I had the feeling that they do not really appeal to me. Of course, the master pieces of art and intelligence are beautiful, but each time most of what I see appears fundamentally new to me. It is as if through the years I haven’t developed a mental frame that helps me to compare a new church and its ornaments, the next mediaeval town hall and the next painting or sculputure with those that I had seen a day before, not to speak of what I had seen months or years ago. Often the things I see do not fall in a slot, by way of speaking. Of course, there are exceptions. I remember that when I went into a church in Florence, my eye was immediately caught by a beautiful statue. It appeared to be one by Donatello. And Dutch painters, not only the big names like Rembrandt or van Gogh, have by far more meaning for me than foreign painters. But let’s say that 95% of those “musts” for tourists do not really fit a scheme in my mind, and I forget most of it very soon. This doesn’t mean that I do not visit those highlights of art and intelligence any longer, but gradually I have changed my strategy. I have become very selective and I look only at those things which probably will fit my mental scheme. So when I was in the Escorial near Madrid I gave only attention to what was related to Dutch history (and I visited the Escorial because I expected to find such things there). The LVR-LandesMuseum in Bonn was interesting for me because of it prehistoric objects and I ignored all other departments. And so on.
I hardly dared to tell other people about my “disinterest” for the highlights of culture till I read Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. In this book de Botton shows us ways of travelling but he also put these them into perspective, especially the more “traditional” way of visiting famous places. When de Botton was in Madrid and stood there amidst of a crowd of tourists, he wondered “what am I doing here?” And a few pages further he points to the terror of the travel guides, which praise certain places as interesting, force you to visit them and to show enthusiasm, and implicitly belittle those people who do not agree or prefer to ignore these places. Besides that, so de Botton, it happens often that we see these things on the wrong moment, when we are not yet ripe for appreciating them. This can make that the new information has no value for us (compare what I told about my mental scheme). Or if it has, maybe it would be better after our visit to the Notre Dame in Paris, not to go to the next tourist attraction nearby but take a train and compare it with the cathedral in Reims. That makes more sense than just keeping looking around where you are, with a travel guide in your hands, for by doing so your curiosity is deformed by a superficial geographic logic, by what happens to be placed together – things that may have no intrinsic relations – and by what is only recommended by our travel guide. It is the same, so de Botton, as letting your choice of books be determined by their sizes and not by their contents.
When I had read The Art of Travel I felt very relieved and now I dare to tell everyone: I did not see that famous sculpture, that church and that painting and I avoided them with intention. And I need not be ashamed for doing so and telling it to you, for being selective when travelling around does not only fit better my idea of what makes travelling around pleasant, it has also a philosophical foundation! See what de Botton wrote about it!