When I was in my twenties, impecunious and pretentious, I travelled enthusiastically as far as my budget would allow, and sometimes a little further. I was occasionally alone but more often with family and friends. I remember one friend in particular who was tiresomely anxious that we should never call ourselves ‘tourists’, or be perceived as ‘tourists’ by others. Rather, we were ‘travellers’, though, as far I could tell, we queued for the Uffizi, and the Vatican Museum, the Duomos, and the Pinacotecas, just like everyone else. And although my friend was sometimes dressed eccentrically, I believe I looked as scruffy and ill-dressed as the ‘tourists’ we despised. I’m sure we took the same holiday snaps home, and the stomach upsets too, even if not the t-shirts.
What is it that makes some of us determined to be a cut above the others? Why do we strive to be different – by which I mean more entitled, somehow, to be where we are? There’s nothing shameful about tourism, as far as I know. And why do we so eagerly avert our eyes and close our ears to the braying voices of our compatriots, and seek out those places, churches, hotels, beaches and restaurants that no one else knows about? We never find them, of course. If they exist they’re already mobbed by crowds of people exactly like us. How we love to find that restaurant where the locals eat, forgetting that they eat there to get away from us.
These days, I’m quite comfortable being a ‘tourist’, and I’m happy to speak my own language with people who are just like me, or indeed not like me at all, even if they avert their eyes at first. You can’t run away from yourself.
As a tourist you have hard choices to make. If you’re seeking authenticity, isolation, and communion with the locals, you must forget comfort, safe food and drink, easy access and escape. If you want seclusion and comfort, you must accept the ferocious expense of it, and mustn’t expect anything to be authentic. You won’t learn a lot about the country you’re visiting and its people if you’re holed up in a five-star resort hotel. You’ll be surrounded by the burnished rich, and you’ll be served by people who’ve had all the individuality trained out of them. If it’s exclusive, it’s excluded everything of value as well as the ‘riff-raff’.
The middle way is simply to accept that if there’s an affordable, moderately comfortable place in a spectacular setting, then you won’t be there alone. If it’s perfect, then the crowds will have found it.
Take Loutro, for example, on the south coast of Crete, a spectacular bay that you can only reach by boat. The sea is unpolluted, the architecture simple, the hotels and guestrooms affordable, the cafes and restaurants neither sophisticated nor primitive. It’s hard to get to, but thousands do. This tiny strip is the perfect getaway with a population density nearly the equal of Gaza. And your friends from home will have the room next to yours and you’ll chat about Brexit at the Bar. And yet I would return.