There’s an old adage to the effect that the best tourist experiences are obtained in places where tourists don’t go, and in recent weeks, I’ve been on a couple of trips which amply bear that out. Take, for example, this photo which I took in the Hall of Mirrors at the palace of Versailles at the start of the month.
Do you observe the fine detail of the splendid decoration, and is your mind at once focused upon the politico-spiritual ideology of le roi soleil, the Sun King, Louis XIV? Of course it isn’t, because you’re battling to get through the vast throng of visitors and tour groups, many of them composed exclusively of selfie-obsessed young people from east Asia.
(I should add that the Hall of Mirrors was one of the few parts of the main state rooms with this much space to move around in. Many of the smaller rooms were like Northern Line station platforms in the rush hour.)
Now contrast that with this photo that I took in the Francis I gallery of the Palace of Fontainebleau a couple of days later.
Yes, it really was that quiet, despite Fontainebleau being, in some respects, even more interesting than Versailles (‘I see your unified baroque vision of Louis XIV, and I raise you both stunning Renaissance decor and absolutely bonkers Napoleon memorabilia.’)
Of course, this ‘headlining’ of particular attractions is an issue everywhere. Witness the queues to get into the Tower of London or Buckingham Palace, or the ‘See Britengland in one day!’ coach tours which we used to get aplenty in the mornings at Oxford, before they headed off for lunchtime at Blenheim Palace and tea at Stratford-upon-Avon – these stops being, of course, typical ‘tasters’ for the whole country. Arguably, Tripadvisor has made matters even worse. But there’s a lot to be said for getting well off the beaten track, and that’s certainly what I did last weekend, which I spent in Trnava, Slovakia. Actually, this wasn’t a tourist jaunt but a research trip, its principal purpose being to track down some obscure information in the local archives (successfully, I might add). Even so, I had plenty of time to look round the town, and what an unexpected delight it was, with glorious baroque buildings which would, undoubtedly, have been completely overrun with tourists if they were in, say, Prague. As it was, I spent a good twenty minutes sitting in the glorious cathedral of Saint John the Baptist and was completely alone for the whole time, while there were no more than a couple of people in the almost equally spectacular basilica the other side of town, and they were genuine worshippers. Those experiences undoubtedly provided as good an insight into the age and art of the baroque as could be obtained in many a much better known attraction – probably better, indeed, given the time, space, and peace and quiet available to the traveller.
One final thought. I had a bit of time to kill in Vienna’s main railway station on the way home, and saw trains arrive from, or depart to, the likes of Prague, Budapest and Zagreb, all of which, for the first three decades of my life, were behind ‘the Iron Curtain’. My own trains to and from Trnava crossed the Austrian/Slovakian border with absolutely no visible or other indication that one had gone from one country into another (unlike what you encounter on the borders between, say, England and Wales, or England and Scotland), let alone across what was once one of the most formidable and notorious borders in the world. So the mindset that I grew up with, namely that such places were in ‘eastern Europe’, has been well and truly binned. It’s central Europe again, geographically and culturally, and in that sense, it’s as though the fluid old Habsburg empire is back, as if nothing much has actually happened in the last hundred years.
If he was somehow to come back to life today, and be sitting on Platform Nine of Vienna Hauptbahnhof, I suspect that old Emperor Franz Josef might be reasonably chuffed at that.