28 May 2010

Friday flicks: a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a light show, and/or the apocalypse

Here's what Frommer has to say about the Grand Place in Brussels:

It's a spectacular sight: I know of none other in Europe to equal it. ... This is a square whose only buildings are the ancient and untouched Guild Halls of the Middle Ages. Each is festooned with a brilliantly-colored flag, and the cornices of the buildings are covered in pure gold leaf. Stand in this square, and you will be thrillingly transported to the world of Breughel and Van Eyck, of Rubens and Rembrandt. 

He's right: the Grand Place is indeed spectacular, if mildly overwhelming in its Gothic grandeur. I half-expected a fanfare of trumpets to fill the air as Lee and I stepped into the sprawling square, or to catch a glimpse of a ghostly regiment of medieval soldiers on white steeds lining up in formation in front of City Hall. The whole space seems to echo with history and import and opulence in such a powerful, hypnotic way that you can't help but feel majestic and important yourself. You might be sitting on a curb, eating a Belgian waffle, but that is one epic waffle. Your paper plate suddenly looks like silver. The busker a ways down the sidewalk? He's your personal musician, a member of your High Court, retained purely to entertain you as you feast. It's good to be Tourist King.

This is, in short, an impressive place. No wonder it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

So why, I ask you, do they feel the need to liven it up with LOUD, SCARY LIGHT SHOWS?

Lee and I were staying in a hostel mere steps off the Grand Place. We were settling in for an early bedtime (okay, Lee was doing that; I was compiling my notes) at about 10 p.m. our first night in Brussels, when we heard an earth-shattering blast of Wagner-or-something--the sort of ominous and over-the-top opera music played during the opening frames of Hollywood battle scenes, as the army of bad guys appears on the horizon. The music seemed to be on an endless crescendo, the intensity and volume rising with each passing minute. It was terrifying. We looked out the window for the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse but saw nothing. Arming ourselves with, um, pens--we're writers, after all--we went outside to investigate. This is what we found on the Grand Place (for the full effect, turn your speaker to 11, then put a megaphone in front of it and put your ear in front of the megaphone):

(Just watch ten or twenty seconds to get a feel for it; the spectacle doesn't translate to video very well, and my hand was less than perfectly steady, so there's really no reason to watch the entire video.)

21 May 2010

Friday flicks: the best street musicians in Amsterdam

I was surprised by Amsterdam's relative lack of good street musicians--most were half-stoned backpackers strumming beat-up guitars and slurring out Bob Marley's greatest hits, or wheezing into a didgeridoo.* 

Of all the cities on our itinerary, I had expected Amsterdam to have the liveliest street life, and the widest range of living statues and jugglers and mimes and musicians. But there really weren't that many, and those we did find were, as a rule, atrocious--like the world's creepiest, least-coordinated Michael Jackson impersonator, who stood outside our hotel most days. Alas, I took no video of him (I didn't want to feel obliged to give him money). 

But I do have a video of some musicians who made up for their less-talented peers. This group, from Spain, was good--transcendently good--particularly the clarinetist. 

Incidentally, I think that street performers are one of the benefits of tourism. Yes, there are performers in random parks and streets all over the world. But crowds attract performers, and some of them--like this band, or the various entertainers at Mallory Square in Key West--are mesmerizingly talented. If you want good, cheap entertainment, seek out the places with great street performers--seek out the beaten path.

* I saw at least two or three didgeridoo-playing backpackers in each city (including a duet in Vienna), and always found the sight both laudable and laughable. That's a heck of an instrument to lug around for weeks or months at a stretch, so kudos for the audacity and determination required to do so. But really: why? A guitar I can kind of understand; a recorder or something that fits in your pocket makes even more sense. But a huge horn that is not particularly melodic and which you, dear backpacker, clearly don't even know how to play? That I will never comprehend. (Although I will state, for the record, that I think the didgeridoo does sound kinda cool. For the first 90 seconds.) 

Okay, granted, I suppose it's conceivable that you, white American backpacker, have played the didgeridoo all your life, starting on the mini-ridoo when you were a toddler, jamming with your high school buddies in your parents' garage, showing off your skills at the college talent show, getting in on the retro music craze with a didgeridoo-wop swing band, maybe playing a hymn or a Beatles ballad at your friend's wedding. It's not impossible.  Or ... Did you recently decide to start playing (and hauling) it because this particular instrument--more than, say, a tuba or an oboe or the similarly-shaped Alp horn--has all kinds of fascinating cultural connotations and is an ideal symbol of how you're a true citizen of the world, deeply aware of indigenous traditions across the globe? (... With whom you're currently hanging out in spirit, even if you it appears that you are, in fact, sitting smack in the heart of tourist territory.)   

(Sorry, I'm in an especially snarky mood today. I've been reading The Tourist.)

14 May 2010

Friday Flicks: The Glockenspiel in Munich

Remember the Glockenspiel? Also known as Ye Olde Chuck E. Cheese? Europe's second-most-disappointing tourist attraction? No? Yeah, I've tried to repress it, too. But just in case you were wondering if it is really as silly as I claimed, here's proof, complete with some mocking commentary from our tour guide.

You have now seen more of the Glockenspiel than anyone ever needs to see. If you're in Munich, take my advice and skip it.  (There, I just saved you a good twenty to thirty minutes of your life. You're welcome.)

09 May 2010

Three's a trend

Zeitgeist! Others are hopping on the "old guidebooks make for interesting trips" bandwagon.

1. Today in the New York Times travel section: Simon Akam tours Britain with a 100-year-old Baedeker book.

2. A couple of weeks ago, on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," Andrei Codrescu had an essay about finding a 1911 European guidebook. He muses:
Instead of going to places sold now to tourists, why not use the old travel books as guides and go one way or another to the places where European explorers, from Sir Richard Burton to Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould went? And not only them. One could spend a fruitful year in search of places once featured in old city guides, like the famous New Orleans city guide written during the Great Depression by writers of the WPA.
I've said before that I think willful ignorance might be the next hot travel trend, but I never thought that writers for actual respectable news outlets would be so absurd and foolish hip and sophisticated as to follow my lead (presumably inadvertently; I have no delusions that I'm an actual trend-setter) and use a seriously-outdated guidebook. Go figure.

And, actually, I rather like the idea of this becoming a genuine travel trend. I'm imagining hordes of tourists waving around various yellowed tomes, hopelessly lost but enjoying every moment.  I can support that--and I can certainly think of sillier travel trends. When we get to the point where there are guidebooks to help you figure out what old guidebook to use when you go abroad, that's when things have gone too far.

[Thanks to Eva Holland at World Hum for tipping me off about the NPR story.]

07 May 2010

Friday Flicks: off the beaten path in Amsterdam

Our tour guide in Amsterdam said that if we rented bikes and followed the Amstel River out of town for just a mile or so, we'd find ourselves in Ye Olde Holland, with cows and tulips and windmills and clog-wearing farmers inviting us into their ramshackle canal-side cottages to sample their Gouda ... Okay, slight exaggeration. But we really were promised cows and pastoral countryside.

Instead, no matter how far we pedaled, we found nothing but suburban wasteland:

I should take my photos from this excursion and photos from the New Jersey Turnpike and make them into a guessing game: "Jersey or Holland?" Like this one below. Which is it, Jersey (or suburban area in the USA) or Holland?

Yeah: Holland. No cows here, at least not in forms larger than a quarter-pound (with cheese). It was pretty dreary: malls and fast food and industrial parks and even self-storage. Self-storage!

Also the world's most depressing car wash. Excuse me, make that Car Wash Center 2000. With incongruous Statue of Liberty figurine (dressed in some kind of American flag toga thing) on the roof:

Lesson: just because it's off the beaten path doesn't mean it's charming. As I said at the end of the video, it's definitely a part of Amsterdam that most tourists don't see. And for good reason.

05 May 2010


Is it weird to make a high-tech map of a low-tech, essentially map-less journey? Possibly. I'm doing it anyway. It's very much a work in progress--eventually, I hope to mark all the places I mention in my blog posts and add lots more photos and videos. For now, though, here's a taste of Amsterdam, Brussels, Berlin, and Munich. Click the link below the map for a larger version

View Europe on Five Bad Ideas a Day in a larger map

- There are multiple markers for each city, so zoom in for the full effect.
- BLUE = brief commentary, with a link to the related blog post
- YELLOW = photo
- GREEN = video

03 May 2010

Reading list: crunching the numbers

Hey, the US Office of Travel & Tourism Industries just released the outbound tourism figures for 2009! Are you as excited about this and totally pumped up to start analyzing the numbers as I am??

No? Huh. Well, your loss.

The key figure is -4 percent--that's the change in travel from the US to Europe from 2008 to 2009. No surprise there, given the state of the economy. Total amount of US citizen air traffic to Europe was precisely 11,929,977 (note that this is the number of airplane trips, so if you flew to Europe two times, you count twice; if you went by boat, you count not at all, and ditto if you're not a passport-wielding citizen).

In other news, I recently finished reading Pico Iyer's The Global Soul, about which I'll offer a full review sometime soon. Short version: being born in Culture A, raised in Culture B, and now living in Culture C makes it difficult to feel at ease. Also, globalization creates a cultural dissonance-slash-fusion that is at once beguiling and bewildering. Obvious, self-evident? Okay, sure, maybe. But Iyer's commentary seems awfully prescient and impressive considering that it dates to 2000, before Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and much of the internet as we know it transformed how we communicate and how we both create and consume culture.

Next on the reading list (forgive the non-MLA-approved citation methodology below):

  • Worldwatch Institute Paper 159: Traveling Light: New Paths for International Tourism (Lisa Mastny, Ed.; 2001)
  • What is the Impact of Tourism? (Roman Espejo, Ed.; 2009)
  • The Travel Industry (Gee, Makens, and Choy; 1989)

... and two that I read a long time ago but need to revisit:

  • The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (Dean MacCannell; 1976)
  • Tourism in History: From Imperial Rome to the Present (Maxine Feifer; 1985)

Note the dates on those sources: most are at least twenty years old, the exceptions being the two shortest and most esoteric ones. Most of the other books I've found about tourism (e.g. Paul Fussell's Abroad) were also published somewhere between 1970 and 1990. I find this most curious because, if anything, the subject has gotten only more complex and interesting with the rise of eco-tourism, grief tourism, and heritage tourism (etc.), plus the indescribably immense impact of the internet on our ability to plan our trips and keep in touch while we're abroad. Seems like now would be a great time for another influx of tourism-examining books. So where are they? (That's a serious question, by the way, not just an excuse for me to say, "Gosh, maybe I'll just have to write such a book myself! Oh, wait, I'm already doing that! Look at me being all timely and zeitgeisty!" Honestly: Where are the real books by the real journalists?)

Any suggestions for tourism-related books I should read? Especially newer ones that I may have missed? Let me know! Comment below or e-mail me at doug@douglasmack.net.