I’m a Tourist

See the people in the yellow caps? That's a tour group! Piazza Rotunda (outside the Pantheon). Rome, 2012

See the people in the yellow caps? That’s a tour group! Piazza Rotunda (outside the Pantheon). Rome, 2012

“Tourist trap”
“Too many tourists”
“I’m a traveler, not a tourist”
The word “tourist” seems to have a lot of negative connotations. The definition of a tourist is one that travels for pleasure. Where did the negative come from? There’s a long tradition of people traveling from their homes to far off places. Maybe the religious pilgrimages could be considered early tourists. In the glory days of empires such as the Romans, Egyptians and Greeks, it’s likely people went to the major cities and centres to see the sights, perhaps get a glimpse of the ruler. These ancient sites continued to draw visitors all through the centuries. Explorers could be considered tourists, too, even if they didn’t know what they were going to find before they got where they were going.

The word “tourist” was first used in 1772. That’s just about the time that wealthy gentlemen began taking Grand Tours around Europe and some of the sites of the more ancient civilizations. They became tourists. Baedeker published guide books and maps to assist building an itinerary. At first, tourism was mainly something that you did if you had money or if you were poor and wanted to go on a pilgrimage. But soon, there were more means of transportation available which got cheaper and cheaper, chiefly train travel which linked widespread destinations. Organized tours companies sprung up. Local people made money guiding visitors. The industry flourished.

The crowds became thicker. And it seemed people in them started to be less inquisitive, more interested in the status of being able to say “I’ve been to…”. They were rude to the locals, didn’t try to speak even a few words of the local language or observe some of the customs. They complained because things weren’t the same as they were at home, as if they should be. That one always baffles me. Even today you hear people whine. If you want things to be the same as they are at home, stay home. The tourist gained a bad reputation even if it’s the case of a minority ruining the reputation for the whole because let’s face it, there are millions of tourists. They aren’t all rude and they don’t all complain. The crowds can be off putting. The attractions and the souvenirs become tacky, with too much corporate influence. But sometimes, corporate sponsorship is the only thing that helps keep them open. That’s not always a good thing but mostly, it is, especially in the case of historic sites. And “tacky” is often a personal opinion. Others might call it kitchy or fun. Everyone has different tastes.

Our tour group from the UK tour 1993

Our tour group from the UK tour 1993

People are becoming proud of bragging that they are a traveler, not a tourist, and they go to places that are less popular, more remote, and “live like the locals” as much as they can. That’s great if it’s what you want to do. If you want to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Great Wall of China, or the Pyramids of Giza and elbow your way through the crowds, that’s great, too. There’s always a way to avoid the more crowded times if crowds give you the heebie jeebies. You can still living like the locals and see the famous sites, visit the galleries and museums, shop and enjoy a wonderful meal with local wine. Locals do that, too.

As for me, I’m a tourist. I really enjoy historic sites, museums (especially quirky small ones, but any will do), galleries, cathedrals and other religious buildings (because the art is usually superb). I shop a little, take a huge amount of photos and like to try local beers and wines along with my food. As far as the major class “attractions”, I find a large majority of them are over-hyped, over-expensive and end up a disappointment. “Is that all there is?” I pick and choose, depending on the value that I perceive it to have for me.

The White Tower, Tower of London

The White Tower, Tower of London

The Tower of London is expensive, but it’s very historic. The Crown Jewels? I’ve seen them but I found the armoury and museum far more interesting. I’ve been to the Eiffel Tower but I haven’t gone up to see the view, which is a bit odd for me because I usually like going up high places like that. I do, however, think it looks amazing now that there’s a sparkly light show at night every hour. The Roman Colosseum was all the better because we booked a tour and heard about the history behind it. That really added to our experience.

It really does come down to personal taste as far as what you would enjoy, what you feel is worth the money and effort. Be polite, be curious, be open minded and be flexible. Go with the flow and be on your toes, too, because another down side to being a tourist is that you might be a target for petty crime, especially in crowds.

Whether you consider yourself a tourist or a traveler, you’ve journeyed away from home to experience new things, different cultures, or just a change of scenery. Whether it’s around the world or a day trip to a nearby location, being a tourist means new memories. That’s never a bad thing.

More views on being a tourist on WordPress’s daily challenge, here.

 

 

Blackpool beside the sea

Blackpool Illuminations along the Promenade

Blackpool Illuminations along the Promenade

One of the places that brings back fond memories of childhood for my husband is the city of Blackpool on the northwest coast of England. Blackpool was and is a very popular place to take your family for a summer holiday, seaside towns being a big draw for the British. Blackpool has been a big attraction since the early Victorian era and really boomed once the trains came. There are miles of beaches and three piers were built out over the sea. The piers contain games, rides, market stalls where you can buy kitchy souvenirs and a bucket and spade for sand architecture. There are lots of food stalls as well.

Along the promenade, the road that follows the seafront, and in the general vicinity are hotels, guesthouses, bars and restaurants, exhibitions and Bingo halls, theatres, shops, and lots of other things for the average holiday maker to do and see. There’s a large theme park at the south end, called the Pleasure Beach. Trams traverse the coast back and forth, and on the beach, the kids can get donkey rides. It really can be quite a tourist trap, but I will admit there’s a lot of things to do as a family, there can be some really good entertainment featured as well and who doesn’t like the beach and the fresh, sea air?

Blackpool Tower on the Promenade, rife with attractions

Blackpool Tower on the Promenade, rife with attractions

I mentioned early in the summer that we were planning a day trip here on my recent visit to the UK. My husband’s family spent many a holiday week in Blackpool and he has fond memories of it. I have to confess, I find it a bit over the top and tacky but it does have it’s pluses, too. The Blackpool Tower is pretty neat and I always like to go up in towers and high places. It has a beautiful Victorian ballroom as well where you can still go for a cup of tea and a dance around the room, accompanied by a cheerful bloke playing a massive pipe organ.  If you like arcades or scary rides, (which I don’t!) then you will be oversaturated by choice. There’s also some world class theatres and venues where  you can attend shows, concerts and gigs.

Blackpool is only 60 miles from the Manchester area so it’s very easy to do a day trip there which is what we did early in September during my visit to the UK. One other thing that Blackpool has is the annual Illuminations and I really did fancy seeing those.  Blackpool city council erected what may have been the first electric street lighting in 1879. It was an event that nearly 100,000 people came to witness. In 1912, to mark a Royal visit to open a new section of the promenade, a display of lights was erected along the street. This was in May and it was so popular that they did it again in September. It was hugely popular and they did it again the next year but World War I put a halt to it until it was revived in the 1920s and aside from a 10 year break through WWII and post-war economics, it has been a yearly tradition, growing bigger and bolder every year. It stretches 6 miles along the Promenade.

Since we planned to stay late to see the lights, we didn’t head out until mid morning, arriving close to lunchtime so that was our first order of business. Food. I don’t know why we picked a pub on the Promenade because I’m sure there were probably much better ones away from the main “drag” where the food was better. This one, a Weatherspoon’s franchise, was very Meh and disappointing. We should have known better, restaurants in the thick of the tourist area generally aren’t the best places to eat. Mind you, most of Blackpool is a tourist area but I think venturing back from the main Promenade will give you better choice and quality. Lessons learned.

We walked behind the Tower (having been up there on one other previous visit) because I wanted to see the Victorian Winter Garden. The Winter Garden was built in 1878. It’s got several venues in it, with theatres, a ballroom, restaurants and exhibition space. We couldn’t go into the ballroom and there was an inside illuminations exhibit also going on which we didn’t visit. We walked through the lobby and up into the main concourse to see the glass roof and dome and peek into the Spanish section which is all done up like the interior of a Spanish pirate ship. It was very nice, what we did get to see of it. Outside, along one of the exterior, less decorated walls of the building were panels of street art which were all interesting to see. Not always sure what the artists were getting at but it was still neat.

From Blackpool Central Pier to the South Pier and Pleasure Beach rides

From Blackpool Central Pier to the South Pier and Pleasure Beach rides

We then walked down by the beach, watching the children get donkey rides and then went over onto the Central Pier to walk out to the end. School is back in so Blackpool was fairly quiet and most of the rides were still or only had one or two people on them. There were still quite a lot of people but not that many families or children. The pier is lined with a wooden bench built into the sides with old white painted wrought iron bench backs. They are often worn through and rusted and the wooden seats are in very bad repair and I’m sure can’t be very safe. I suppose it would cost a lot of money to restore all this.

As we got near the end of the pier, we noticed a guy running hell bent for leather across the vast expanse of beach to the water’s edge. Graham reckoned the beach was so wide he’d be exhausted by the time he actually reached the sea! About 10 feet before the edge, he stopped and stripped off his swimming trunks and charged into the water, completely naked! Graham shook his head mournfully and said “On behalf of the entire Northwest of England, I apologize”. The guy’s friends were running along behind him and one of them stopped and picked up his trunks, eliciting an angry response by the swimmer. What did he expect? He later came out, covering his bits with his hands, to join his group and no doubt, persuade them to give him back his swim gear.

We had a drink and sat in the sun for a bit and then decided to take the bus to the far northern end of the city, where the illuminations began. We thought we could hang out there for awhile, have our evening meal and then make our way back once the sun set, enjoying the lights, even if we hopped on and off the bus to go ahead a few stops at a time. We got there, and discovered there really isn’t much there to do. It’s all larger hotels, no shops or anything to look at. We had a drink in one pub we found and decided what we’d do is get the back all the way back to the Pleasure Beach where we’d parked the car. We could find somewhere there for our dinner and by that time, the sun would be going down. We would then drive the “strip” to see the lights from the car. All the traffic goes along there slowly so people can get a good look and we would be able to as well.

It’s all right, planning, but plans don’t always go the way you expect. We missed the last bus, which apparently stopped at 6. Doh! Never mind, the tram was still running but they won’t take our all day bus pass so we had to buy tickets. We found a little Indian curry house near where we parked. We were ready for it, too, and it was quickly getting chilly so we were glad of a warm place to sit! The food was good and cheap, what else can you ask for?

The slow drive along the Promenade, with the iPod hooked up to the car stereo for a soundtrack, was fun. There are a variety of light displays, more traditional bulbs, and LED lights, tableaux, signs and two of the old fashioned trams were decorated up elaborately, one like a ship and one like a train. Very good! The far north end had lots of scenes lit up either by spot lights or were made from the lights themselves. Four styles of a sun, Daleks and the Tardis, Alice in Wonderland, American Natives, Dancing girls, a haunted house and more. I think I liked this section the best. It was difficult to photograph from the car, though. I did get some good photos and I did some video clips as well. We enjoyed the ride so much we turned around and came back down the other way and then headed home.

Day Trips: Blackpool

Blackpool is a seaside town in the northwest of England. It has been a firm and traditional summer holiday destination for well over a century. It has all the seaside traditions – sand, donkey rides, arcades, piers (three!) with attractions and there’s lots of shops and places to have fish and chips along the seafront. There are streets upon streets of small hotels, guest houses and B&Bs. There are Bingo Halls, theatres, exhibitions (some tacky, some not) and there’s a huge theme park filled with rides and games called the Pleasure Beach. They even have the Blackpool tower, a mini-Eiffel like structure on the seafront that has a grand ballroom in it and an observation deck high in the sky.

My husband spent many a happy holiday there as a child. They took the bus, or “charabanc”, “chara” for short. They did all the things families do. There were many great memories. He’ll be emmigrating to Canada and wants to see Blackpool one last time so we’ll jump in the rental car and drive up from Salford, just about an hour’s ride away by car.

I’ll confess. Blackpool has always felt a bit tacky to me, a tourist trap, but I’m not British and these seaside wonders are not ingrained into my psyche.  Also, I grew up in a city by the sea so the ocean isn’t as much of a novelty. We did go once before, for an afternoon and we went up in the Tower, found a Doctor Who exhibit and had a walk along the seafront for a bit.

In September, I think the weather will be a bit warmer than it was on the day in the month of May when we went last time. Maybe a paddle in the sea while walking on the beach might be something we’ll do. I think I’d like to walk out along one of the piers, perhaps take the tram to the Pleasure Beach (though you won’t get me on those enormous roller coasters for love or money) and see what other interesting or dubious things to do away from the sea front streets.

One thing I do want to see is the Illuminations. The Blackpool Front (the seafront) and streets are lit up with neon decor, some of it very artful, from the beginning of September through early November so whatever day we decide to go, I want to stay late enough to see the lights turned on. There are indoor illuminations too, at Illuminasia in the Winter Garden.

Other possibilities, if we have the time include a peek into the Winter Garden Opera House, and the Grand Theatre, two wonderful old Victorian theatres.  There’s the World Fireworks Championships on several dates in September, that would be pretty amazing, I would think. We shall see what we have the energy to do! I anticipate plenty of rests with cups of tea/coffee, maybe a fish and chip meal and a sit down to watch the sea.

 

Tour Ireland (2002) Part 4 – Shopping and Bling

Blarney Castle, Ireland

Blarney Castle, Ireland

Day four of our tour was focussed on shopping and “bling”:

Weather not too bad today. The day was hazy bright most of the time. This is our shopping day, or morning, that Bill has been banging on about all week, reminding us that the huge woolen mill shop will have the best prices for things we’d want to get. Considering that the guide gets a percentage of purchases when we stop at most places like factories and visitor centers, the cut he gets from Blarney must be better than most. My friend Rose (she lives in nearby Cobh) told me that even she, as a taxi driver, will get a percentage or discount if she takes a customer there.

We drove across the south interior of Ireland in about 2 and a half hours through the Kerry Mountains, farmlands and the rolling patch-worked hills. They grow a lot of sugar beet here and there’s also a sugar refinery.  We arrived in Blarney at 10:00 as expected.

This was the longest stop of the tour, at 2 and a half hours during which we were expected to get lunch as well.  Our time was our own. If anyone wanted to visit Blarney Castle and kiss the stone of eloquence, they should allow about 3/4 hour at least to walk through the park, climb the staircase and wait in the queue. All I had thought was to take a photo of the castle but you have to pay 5.50 euro just to get into the grounds along with the castle visit. We didn’t bother. I had no interest in kissing a piece of rock that millions of tourists had also laid their lips on. I never had a problem finding words  to say what I wanted to convey. And more besides! (as you can tell!)

Carole wanted to shop so she walked back to the Blarney Woolen Mill. I decided to see if I could get a photo of the castle in the distance from some vantage point. I crossed a small river or brook and walked along a brick wall. Over top of the wall, at one break in the vegetation behind it, I could stretch up and see the castle in the distance and with the tree branches framing it, it actually turned into a lovely photo.

I walked back towards the town, stopped in a supermarket to get some batteries, and  spotted a little cemetery so I had a look in there at the stones. There are a lot of Celtic crosses in cemeteries in Ireland. We’ve driven by some that seemed to contain nothing but!

Over to the woolen mill. I hadn’t really planned to buy too much other than maybe some more linen.  The shop really is large, on two floors and has everything organized in sections.  I ran into Carole who had already bought, paid for and arranged for shipping for her purchases. Now she was in search of smaller, general items.

The prices did seem to be reasonable, certainly no more expensive than some of the shops we’d been in outside of Dublin. I haven’t been in any of the shops that sell similar items in the city so I can’t really compare but it stands to reason it would be cheaper than in Dublin.

In the end, I bought a few things, linen and souvenirs, some china and a thick red and black plaid scarf that I still wear today on really cold days. I spent far more than I expected even with the 14% you get reduced for the tax and I have no idea where it’s all going to fit in my cases! I didn’t get it shipped because I do have that spare fold up carrier bag I can use if need be.

Carole and I met for lunch at 11:30 in front of the complex which also houses a hotel, bar and restaurant which is cafeteria style where we went to save time over searching for somewhere in the village. The complex was in fact a mill at one time and there are artifacts around the grounds and in the stone buildings.

You should have seen the number of shopping bags that were carried back on board the bus! That didn’t count the stuff quite a few people had shipped! Everyone chattered amongst themselves, showing and telling about their treasures and bargains while we made our way over to the east and then north through Cork City and the county country side heading north along the coast through some pretty towns along the route to Waterford.

Creating crystal in Waterford, Ireland

Creating crystal in Waterford, Ireland

Our included visit this afternoon was to the Waterford Crystal factory where we will get a tour. As usual, off the bus, into the loo. We were shown a short video that showcased the various millenium celebrations around the world and ending with the one in New York City where the traditional Times Square Ball was that year made of Waterford Crystal and wired for a light show. The presentation ended with a replica descending in front of a black screen with a city skyline behind it. Impressive with the lights flashing in patterns and colours and ending in full brilliance.

We then split into two groups and headed into the factory proper. Here then is a condensed version of  Waterford Crystal: It was founded in 1783 by brothers George and William Penrose. The factory has been at the present location, on the edge of town near a community college since 1971 and employs 1600. The craftsmen have a minimum 5 years apprenticeship and normally 3 more for the masters in the various fields of glass blowing or cutting  and engravers do 3 years at a local cottage before training for 10 more.

Crystal is made from silica sand, potash and litharge and is heated to a molten state in gas ovens to 1400 degrees.  The first room was where the ovens are. Most of the blowers and cutters seem to be men, and the guide said it wasn’t a reflection on women, it’s just that women rarely seem to choose this field. There are women that work in other support roles in the factory, quality control etc. The molten crystal is pulled out of the oven in a blob, the size depending on what will be the end result. The blowers all know exactly how much to pull out of the fire for what they are making. It’s on the end of a 5 foot long or so metal rod.

The item is shaped using wooden tools soaked in cold water to gently give it a starting point. It is then lowered into a wooden mold below the feet of the men and they blow through the long tube and the molten crystal expands to the shape of the mold. When it comes out of the mold it now looks like glass and it’s smoothed and sanded lightly. It’s broken off the tube and laid on a  conveyer belt. The crystal is cooled for up to two days and then checked for flaws. If there is the slightest mark, it’s smashed and melted down again.

A Waterford Crystal master craftsman

A Waterford Crystal master craftsman

We saw the crystal shells marked with a grid pattern and then watched some of the cutters grind the classic Waterford patterns into bowls and glasses on a diamond tipped wheel using the grids as a guideline. The actual patterns are not marked on the glass unless it’s a special  one of a kind or limited edition design. These are all master craftsmen that have had to memorize all the 60 or 70 standard patterns during their training. We saw another room where the carvers work on solid pieces like figurines (and cottages!). They create a clay model for these as a guideline. The wheels used to carve the solid pieces are stone with small diamond tipped ones for the finer detail work.

We saw the engraving room. This kind of engraving comes out looking like frosted inset sections etched into the crystal. Engraving is the most time consuming and difficult of all the jobs.  The artisans make their own copper tipped tools, softer than diamond tipped. One tool we saw was made from a copper coin! The room wasn’t brightly lit overhead though each work station had good spot lights. We then had a more personal demonstration from a veteran cutter who talked to us and answered questions about his career and the working conditions and shifts.

We had a half hour or so in the showroom and gallery which was interesting. They had replicas of some of the most spectacular pieces like a lot of the trophies for world famous tournaments such as the World Cup, the Super bowl and the PGA golf. We saw a large chess piece that stood about 4 foot high and outside the gallery was a full size crystal mailbox and a full size crystal grandfather clock! Wow! It was quite a fascinating visit.

While we were in there, Alec and Bill took the luggage to the hotel in Waterford. It looked like a city with some interesting spots to explore, just judging from the drive through. We had a nice view from our hotel room over an inlet on the city side of the hotel. We had signed up for a visit to an old country pub before dinner tonight so there was only time to change and freshen up with a cup of tea before we left.

We drove to Kilmeaden where the Cozy Thatch pub was. It has been voted tops in an annual Irish Heritage Pub of the Year contest several times going by the plaques displayed This is a low white thatched roof building, some of which dates to 1475. It was purchased by a family called Horton in 1780  and turned into a public house and it’s never been sold since, having passed down through the generations. It has two fireplaces burning peat, and is in an L shape.

The pub also doubled as the local funeral parlour for the village soon after it was established until 1969 when the government passed a law forbidding wakes in pubs.  In the room at the back where the deceased would be laid out is a large bed that dates before the Horton family bought the building (because it was built inside the room and  too big to get out of the house) and family and friends would gather here to wake the dead. Having the wake in a pub just solved both of the pressing needs. The Irish have always celebrated the life of the deceased with memories, music and drink. Only seems convenient to have the two under one roof!

The family that owns the pub (the publican’s mother was  a Horton) also brews their own lager on the premises and lives there as well. We sat down in groups and ordered the first of our two drinks that came along with the price of this excursion. I opted for the local lager and it was very nice! We were then entertained by a singer called Tommy Commerford who does this for all the tours I believe.  We enjoyed the music, the atmosphere and the drinks. I really like the smell of the peat fire though I’m not sure I could describe it. It’s a pungent aroma but not quite like a fragrant hard wood or pipe tobacco. It burns hot and for a long time too apparently.

We arrived back at the hotel for about 8 for dinner. There was another tour group from Trafalgar there just on the beginning of their tour. Dinner was fine, we were seated at long tables which to me makes it feel more like a convention or something. I prefer the smaller tables of 4 or 6 or even 8 where it feels a bit more private.

Stay tuned for our last tour day on the bus.

Tour Part 1

Tour Part 2

Tour Part 3

Tour Part 5

Tour Part 6

More Begorrathon.

A Word a Week Challenge – Kitsch

This week’s challenge word on A Word A Week is Kitsch, a word close to my heart. Tacky souvenirs! I don’t buy a lot of them, but I do enjoy looking at them to see what vendors try to flog to tourists. My souvenirs of choice are usually fridge magnets and tea towels, one decorative and one useful and they both can be kind of kitschy sometimes. Kitsch generally means something gaudy, not quite tasteful, sometimes outrageous, maybe charming and quaint, retro and most of the time, fun. Sometimes they’re mass produced and cheap, sometimes just brightly decorated. What they often are not is priced cheaply! Here’s some kitschy souvenirs I’ve seen in my travels:

Matryoska Dolls, the kind that have smaller and smaller ones inside each other

Viking fridge magnets in Copenhagen!

And more magnets, from Amsterdam

Souvenirs

New York City souvenirs

Check out some fun souvenirs in Galleries Lafayette

Check out some fun souvenirs in Galleries Lafayette

Nutcrackers at the Manchester Christmas Markets

Nutcrackers at the Manchester Christmas Markets

Fab Photo Friday – Christmas markets

Manchester Christmas Markets at Town Hall/Albert Square

The Christmas market tradition seems to have started in Germany and Austria and that area back in the 15th century. They can trace the Dresden markets to 1434. There are some markets that may be even older. They take place in the 4 or 5 weeks of Advent, before Christmas from late November through December.

They have become huge tourist attractions in recent decades and many countries now have them. While the goods can be somewhat expensive, you will also get lots of really well crafted items and can try foods that you wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to try. The crowds at most of them can be very claustrophobic and you’d want to watch your wallets! You could even make a strong case for them being tourist traps, I suppose.

While in Manchester, U.K. recently, I managed to catch the opening weekend of their Christmas market. It started life as a German style market but has grown though much of it is still in that theme. There’s little wooden huts across several squares and streets with the Town Hall square being the main area. The crowds got to be a bit oppressive at one point so we made our escape but we saw quite a bit of it.

Someday I would like to visit some of the ones in Europe, like the Dresden one or maybe Vienna. There’s something about the old squares surrounding the markets that’s appealing. I have a friend that has just got back from a river cruise and stops along the way for the markets. I can’t wait to hear her stories and see her photos!

Tourist Traps: Come one, come all

Crowds at the Colosseum in Rome

People look down on the most popular spots in a destination, calling them “tourist traps”. They say these places are rip offs, scams, and attract throngs of crowds. All this can be true. But on the other hand, many of these places are of interest for various reasons, be it historical, architectural, religious or otherwise. Many of these places are iconic to the destinations. Does that mean you *should* avoid them?

Not necessarily. Some of them I do avoid, but many of them I visit anyway. It all comes down to personal choice and there are always ways to minimize the “trap”.

If the attraction has a very expensive entry fee, you have to decide how important it is to see it. If you can get the experience from viewing it from the outside, then it’s free. You don’t have to buy from the souvenirs or eat at the restaurants on site or near the site. If it’s that iconic, you can get souvenirs and postcards of it anywhere. Just compare the prices before you buy.

If it’s the crowds that put you off, go early in the day, or late in the day. If you can travel off season in the spring, fall or winter, even better. Chances are, there will still be lots of people but it won’t be claustrophobic.

I mention all this because I’ve just come back from Rome and believe me, there are quite a few iconic tourist destinations there that attract crowds. The good thing is that many of them are free or aren’t exorbitant in price.

So what did we see of these sites?

Vatican Museums = 15 euro for an adult entry.  Colosseum  = 12 euro for an adult entry. We paid a bit more because we booked a tour for both of them. In both cases, you see the highlights (Sistine Chapel!) but you can then stay on and wander around at your leisure. We were there in mid November, too, so though there were still lots of people, the crowds did not make us feel closed in.

The real “trap” feeling of the Colosseum is all the vendors in the area around it, both with booths set up or walking through the crowds attempting to sell you things they’re carrying. That can be really annoying. There’s also a few “gladiators” in costume and if you want your photo taken with them or want to take a photo of them, they expect cash payment. You can always take a photo from farther back with your camera’s zoom! The queues for tickets can certainly be very long. If you can pre-purchase them either online or from another agency, you will be able to use a much shorter line. We sailed through that one.

You see all the people in the photo with this post? This was taken on a November mid afternoon after we’d left the building. None of them are in queues to get in. They’re all just milling about looking at the structure from the outside. The day we were there, there seemed to be far more people outside than inside. Some are part of organized groups but most aren’t. Many, I’m sure were inside or were going to be.

St. Peter’s Square and Basilica are free and on Wednesday’s for the Pope’s “audience”, the square can fill up with thousands of people so keep that in mind.

Other famed tourist spots in Rome are the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps, and the Pantheon and piazza outside. The worst crowds we encountered here were at the fountain. There’s a tradition that you can toss a coin into the fountain to ensure a speedy return to Rome and it’s one that a lot of people take up. We did go, because the Baroque fountain covering the wall of a building really is lovely but we didn’t stay too long.Most of these are public squares or Piazzas so of course, they’re free to visit.

We visited all of these but my favourite is the Pantheon.  It was originally a temple and now a Christian church. The round domed structure is really beautiful inside. It, too, is free to enter and when we were there, not overly crowded though busy.

What seems to make an attraction a “tourist trap” is the sense that it’s not worth the price of admission or that it’s overpriced and far too crowded. The souvenir shops and restaurants tend to be overpriced. The food often of lesser quality (at least the ones by the Colosseum were, the other squares, maybe the quality doesn’t suffer but they ain’t cheap, even just for a cup of coffee.)

Some places you go are “visitor centres” and some of these really feel like rip offs. Some are very good with lots of information about the site but some are set up like a cheesy “experience” and you get little bang for your buck.

I wouldn’t avoid popular tourist attractions. If you’re going to Paris, why wouldn’t you want to see the Eiffel Tower? You don’t have to pay the price to go up, you can see it from most places in the city. You can walk across Tower Bridge in London for free. You can see the Statue of Liberty from the free Staten Island Ferry in New York.

Some attractions have a free entry day once a month or are discounted if you enter late in the day or on the evening opening. Expect more crowds but it’s a way to see or do something you might not want to pay the full price for otherwise.

It all comes down to your own interests, priorities and budget.

Defending Rick Steves

Waterlooplein flea market, Amsterdam

There’s a lot of criticism about the American travel guru, Rick Steves. Over 20 years ago he began with his guide Europe Through The Back Door, espousing off the beaten track visits to Europe. He recommended places, hotels, restaurants and talked about museums, gallerys, and all the must see sights for first time tourists. He gave tips on how to get around using local transportation. He highlighted his own favourites. He became wildly popular among American tourists who flocked to Europe and crowded into the “off the beaten track” areas and sights, creating mainstream locations out of them. For this, he’s been criticized.

I’ve been reading some forums about this, mainly on Trip Advisor and there are as many opinions and points of view as there are comment posters. Now I like Rick’s tv travelogues and have made notes of places I might like to see when I know I’m heading to a location he’s written about or featured on television. I never would have known about a hidden courtyard in Copenhagen where you can find colourful old houses, the oldest in the city, without his feature. He didn’t say where it was exactly, but I knew the general area and recognized the street and found it myself.

The thing is, I *am* a tourist. I appreciate tips on how to get from one place to another. I appreciate suggestions for hotels and restaurants. I will check them out, hotels especially, and though I have never actually booked any, I know they will be reasonably priced and well run.

Rick Steves has introduced traveling to a heck of a lot of people that probably never would have had the confidence to go otherwise and if they end up relying a little too much on the guidebooks, is that still such a bad thing? Guide books should be just that, a guide, not a bible, not the be-all and end-all strict rulebook and if some are wearing blinders and see nothing but what is in his or any guidebook, then they aren’t going to get as full an experience as they could have. But if they come home and say they had a wonderful time, then what difference does it make in the long run? If they decide the trip was too regimented, well they’ll know for the next time.

The balconies of Montmartre, Paris

I think a lot of people have discovered travel and found the confidence to go because of Steves. He’s become enormously popular and perhaps has become more of an institution than he ever thought he would be. Perhaps some of the lesser known neighbourhoods, attractions or restaurants are now clogged with American tourists. I still don’t think that’s a bad thing. I still think that whatever gets you on a plane or train or into a car to explore somewhere new is worth vying for space with other tourists.

In the beginning, he was espousing independent travel but his company now hosts group tours as well. I have taken some bus tours in the past, though not his, and have enjoyed them as an overview of an area. They  have their advantages and disadvantages but I believe they have their place and are great.

In one of the messages posted on one of the Trip Advisor discussions, someone wrote “Rick Steves is the set of training wheels that keeps you from ending up flat on your face on the sidewalk on your first trip to Europe. He does a very good job of telling people that yes, you CAN do this, and look, it’s pretty easy.”   I really like that philosophy, “training wheels”.  First time travelers to a foreign country need them in many cases. Training wheels give you the confidence to know you will be ok when they come off.

Rick Steves’ guides are updated regularly which many others are not. His practical information is second to none. You might not agree with his favourites and top things to see and do but everything is subjective, isn’t it? Even a hotel your best friend loved may not appeal to you. I’d rather use a guidebook that’s accurate regardless of what company produces it.

This really says everything I feel about Steves’ or any other company’s guide book. It’s a place to start. It gives you an idea of what there is to see. It details the practical information you need to know. It gives you some background and history. Guidebooks, websites, forums and tv travel shows all work together to give you things to put on all those lists you make to organize your travels. Don’t restrict yourself to what’s in a book. Use it as a stepping stone.  Ask questions in forums on sites like Trip Advisor or Virtual Tourist, both of which have busy forums and great fellow travelers that will given you excellent advice. These sites also have good travel guides and tips from people who have been where you want to go.

Now… I better finish this up. Rick’s new season is starting on PBS and he’s featuring Ancient Rome. Since I’ll be there in a month, I think I might make a few notes!
Rick Steves’ website

Trip Advisor forums

Virtual Tourist forums

Fab Favourite Photos – Eiffel Tower

Eiffel tower at night

The last time I saw Paris…was November 2007. You can see the Eiffel Tower from many places in the city where it dominates the left side of the Seine. You can come round a corner and look down a street and see it reaching up to the sky. I believe there’s a height restriction in the centre of Paris so there are no tall skyscrapers to obscure the view for the most part .

Though we were able to see the tower, we didn’t get up close to it until the late afternoon of our second day in Paris. It gets dark early in November and when we hopped off the bus by Palais de Chaillot across the river, it was 6 p.m. and dark. We were just in time to see the tower sparkle which it does on the hour for about 10 minutes. Very cool!

Eiffel Tower from below on Champs de Mars

The first two photos here are the ones I like the best of all the ones I took. The one down further at the end of this post isn’t that great, it’s out of focus a tad and there’s camera shake happening but I like it because you can really get a sense of how gigantic this structure really is! You don’t realize it until you’re close to it or underneath it. You *know* it’s got to be big because you can see it above all the buildings but your perception of it isn’t really accurate until you see the tiny red lights of the cars beneath it!

Eiffel Tower looming over the vehicles

The Eiffel Tower is on everyone’s Must See list for Paris and most people make the journey up to at least the second level. I’ve been here twice and haven’t gone up it either time. The queues were not overly long on that November evening but it was chilly even on the ground and I didn’t see the point of paying a lot of money. I’d rather go up high somewhere else and get my photos of Paris with the Tower in the photo! It’s a bit of a tourist trap, really, and visiting it with my feet firmly on the ground was enough for me.

Don’t get me wrong, though, just because something is a tourist trap doesn’t mean I won’t do or see it. It all comes down to whether I think it’s worth the money or not. We’re going to visit the Colosseum in Rome, which is another of those TTs but we’re also going to get tickets to see the dungeons and up on the third level, too, which you don’t get to see with the general entry fee. Plus, my partner has never been to Rome before and he wants to do all the traditional sight seeing for his first visit and that’s fair play.

The Eiffel Tower is quite someting to see, even just for the architectural value.

And when it sparkles it’s pretty!