Saturday, 28 November 2009

Travel by numbers

I don't usually rant on this blog. I reserve my best rants for the pub - usually the front bar of my local at about two in the morning.

But I felt like a little rant today. I am tired of travel-by-numbers journalism. In fact I am tired of anything-by-numbers journalism.

Ten top sights of Cambodia!

Five best landscapes in the world!

Seven things to do in Rome on Wednesday morning if it rains!

48 hours in Mumbai!

100 best films of all time! (Doesn't include a single Kurosawa or Bergman, or Once upon a time in the West, so how good are these 100 best films? Hm?)

Yes, I'm a hypocrite, I write these articles myself sometimes. Editors tell me they are popular.

But what does it do, this 10-best mentality? It reduces travelling to tick-boxes. I've seen the Vatican, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, the Capitoline, the Forum, the Lateran, tick, tick, tick, I've seen Rome. (What? and not seen the amazing burning sky mosaics in Santi Cosma e Damiano? the amazing rococo townscape around Sant'Ignazio? the head of Saint John the Baptist - or at least, the one that's not in Amiens or Damascus?)

It implies that if somewhere isn't on the list, then it hasn't 'made it', it's 'failed' as a tourist sight, it isn't important or worth seeing. So all those lovely little discoveries, tiny simple churches or sudden surprising outbursts of fantasy, aren't worthwhile.

It stops you getting the kind of obsession that can transform your life. Tick-list Rome has room for at most three Berninis - St Peter's, the Cornaro chapel, and the Chigi chapel at Santa Maria del Popolo. I've never seen the perfect Sant'Andrea al Quirinale on a 'top ten' list, though it is definitely on mine (as is the creamy perfection of Borromini's Sant'Ivo). My Rome is transfused by little veins of Baroque - I've been tracking down more little Bernini works every trip, and I still have lacunae in my list, because a church was unexpectedly closed, or I didn't have time to get across town. Even a simple tombstone (no, scratch the word 'simple' - nothing Bernini did was ever simple) - even a small tombstone on a pillar is worth my tracking down.

And so when I came to Versailles, through mirrored galleries under golden ceilings, the moment of real splendour was when I saw, suddenly, Bernini's Louis XIV - amid the faked up glories of a hollow regime, a flash of insight, spontaneity, genius. (I'm told Bernini worked directly in marble for this bust, without making a maquette first - typical of the sculptor, and perhaps the reason the work feels so immediate and vivid.)

Ah, spontaneity. That's the other thing missing from the top ten lists. Travel-by-numbers is about 'let's see sunset over Fez from the Merinid tombs. Done'. What it's not about is staying up there, listening to the dusk muezzins starting up like sirens, echoing each other in clusters of notes till the valley rings like a Tibetan singing bowl. What it's not about is meeting a couple of Americans on the way down who tell us the best muezzin they've ever heard is at the Marrakesh bus station, of all places; or walking into 'our' banana juice bar to a great smile from the guy behind the counter, who always poured in too much sugar with his trembling old hands (until we got to like it).

Travel by numbers is the opposite of psychogeography. It's seeing things on the surface, never delving below.

Travel by numbers doesn't have time for reading the landscape, for making comparisons, for learning what's really underneath the culture. (I've just been reading a marvellous book, Houses of God, by Jeannette Mirsky. It has wanderlust-provoking photos of Borobudur, the Parthenon, Angkor Wat, the Kinkaku-ji... but it explains the philosophical underpinnings of the architecture; how the world-mountain idea develops, for instance, through Hindu and then through Buddhist works, or how Buddhism itself changes in nature as it spreads through different countries and cultures.)

Travel by numbers means you never meet anyone. You never really get to know Bernini, or Louis XIV, or the anonymous woodcarver who put pigs dancing to a bagpipe high up in the roof spandrels at Elm church, near Wisbech.

So why is travel by numbers so popular? I wonder. It can be useful; like the catch-all question, 'have I missed anything?' at the end of an interview. It can be a good way to provoke interest in a destination - I read a 'top ten' of Turin recently that made me think I really need to go there.  And of course it's going to be popular with PR people for the various sites, hotels, restaurants that find themselves in the top ten. (Tell me I'm too cynical. But I'm not sure that I am.) I've found the 'top 100 films' features sometimes useful in alerting me to movies that I didn't know about - but then, reading a good film studies book is what I really should have been doing, not messing about with 'top 100' web sites...

It's just that if we let the 'top ten' dominate our view of the world, we're not really travelling. We're just collecting. Ticking boxes. Being consumers. Giving and receiving nothing.

I was tempted to head this piece 'Top ten reasons why top ten lists are evil'. I didn't.


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