In Defence of Sightseeing

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The air was heavy. A red mist began to rise around my head. I had a vision of myself vaulting over the child below. What kind of stupid man would block the bus exit with his buggy and refuse to budge? If one cannot respond to a kind request, I fumed, what hope is there for humanity?

Then it happened. I tutted. Loudly.

My mind flashed back to a similar bus situation, upon moving to Paris four weeks earlier, as the blue-rinsed commuters telegraphed their disapproval of one woman’s pram-wrestling boarding of the number 81. It struck me: I had become a little old Parisian lady.

This kind of self-discovery, to my mind, puts Marco Polo to shame and is the holy grail for the introspective travel writer. Especially as it’s about me. Except for one thing: all of the above took place in the shadow of the Sacre Coeur.

Thousands of independent travellers share a horror of the overfamiliar; we want to emphasise our thorough appreciation of a place and its culture, gain an insight into the people – and we would not be caught dead up the Eiffel Tower. It seems self-evident that the worst parts of any destination, the most money-grabbing, tourist heaving aspects, will be found in impressive proportion within viewing distance of any major monument. Much of it gives the impression (not entirely inaccurately) that tourist are a bottomless pit of money. At Notre Dame one may enjoy waving bits of paper before the nose if one stands still for more than thirty seconds, the aforementioned Tour Eiffel boasts unrivalled queuing, while at the Louvre a prospective admirer of the Mona Lisa will no doubt appreciate the tranquility afforded by four hundred jostling elbows. Worse still, we find ourselves surrounded by pale imitations of ourselves in the form of novelty T-shirt wearing, socks-with-sandals sporting, tacky fridge magnet purchasing tourists. I choke on the word. Choke!

The disappointments and inconveniences of major tourist sights are well documented, and the reasons for avoiding such tourist-crammed areas are considered and well-meant (as well as a little snobbish). When one wants to gain a deeper understanding of the local people and their lifestyles, there really isn’t a lot you can do about it when yelling your crepe order over the heads of an idling tour group.

In a city like Paris, however, non-touristy sights are thin on the ground. Nowhere in the world have I encountered such a density of – gulp – attractions, but the annual turnover of tourists within its twenty arrondissements more than compensates. More to the point, had I gone to Paris as a student and not visited any of the tourist destinations, what would I have missed?

I may have missed out on the beautiful Pantheon with its confused ecclesiastical heritage, or the view from the Pompidou Centre. When you’ve got postcards to send anyway, why not buy them at St-Michel with everyone else, where genuine Parisian students hang out and you can witness a political demonstration or two?

There’s a reason that the Musee D’Orsay is a popular destination – its collection – and while Versailles can be downright unpleasant with its surfeit of tourists, once you get past the gritting of teeth and grumbles of, “Someone should really do something,” the apartments really do provide an insight into the ambitions of Louis XIV. While travellers may be justly disinterested in the doings of the tourist masses, there’s little point in getting snobby towards those who have a genuine interest in and knowledge of local history.

People travel for all sorts of reasons. I find it quite wrong to suggest that going to “see things” is in any way an invalid proposition. There are good reasons for travellers to be interested in people and character, but many of us have tangible interests, particularly those with a passion for architecture. In the style and decor of a church many travellers can read insight not only into the current population, but into the priorities and preoccupations of long-dead designers and craftsmen. In this spirit I chased down the Lavirotte-designed public toilets at Madeleine – perhaps off the tourist trail themselves; certainly under it – and the Opera Garnier, my spiritual home and favourite building in Paris. And I don’t care if it is crawling with tourists. It’s magnificent.

Much is dependent on outlook. One can find oneself immersed in a city, speaking the language, surrounded by locals, and still gain no insight into the society. Equally, one can queue for the Louvre with a thousand tourists and be motivated by a love for their extensive collection of pre-19th century art, ancient Babylonian decor, or Levantine religious sculpture. Is this wrong? Is it shallow to be concerned with anything beyond the local community, or to be primarily interested in other things?

I confess that I do own quite the tacky fridge magnet collection – but I still haven’t been up the Eiffel Tower.

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