There are some fabled sites in this world that you simply have to see. And sometimes, when you drag your sorry travel-weary feet to get there, you exclaim: “Am I mistaken, or did I travel on a coach or bloody HMS Clownshoe to get to this paltry mount of ticketed nought?” Travel not only broadens the horizons, but it rams home some hard truths — one of which is that there are some sorry sites in this world, and someone is usually profiting from them somewhere.
In this truth, there is a lesson for all of us in that: Beware of the tricks of the guidebook. As is so often the case in short city breaks and such, you are told to go here, there and everywhere in a whistle-stop tour of wheels and waiting, but from a single seat you can see a city, and you might leave with less of a checklist, but contentment rarely comes from ticking boxes when you have to depart a happy here and now to get there. After all, what is travelling about if not following the whims of your own fancies?
Sometimes those fancies will be in line with the great cultural edifices that have been adorned with medals. If you’re in Rio and you’re constantly craning your next to look up at the majesty of the Christ the Redeemer, then why wouldn’t you want to get up close and gaze down for a moment? Alternatively, there are moments when you traipse across France to check out what is quite literally a slag heap—a slag heap with someone who will passionately talk to you about slag heaps and ask for some precious euros in return for the misfortune that has befallen you.
This site is called the Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin, and it is a heap of shit that UNESCO has proudly recognised as an important place for lobotomised visitors. It’s a difficult place to describe, not just because of painful circumstances, but because it is literally a pair of slag heaps and a small mining museum.
Now, I’m not enamoured with mining, I never have been, for that matter. On holiday, I’d prefer things like counting my feet rather than seeing a pickaxe, but each to their own, I’m sure there are some people out there thinking, what on earth is this guy talking about, “I proposed to my wife at the foot of those magnificent industrial landmarks”, but for everyone else, the world of disappointment is just a safe seat in a bar away from being avoided.
And once more, that is a point that proves all the more pertinent when the festivities away from the guidebooks are especially alluring. Take, for instance, Liverpool. This old port city has established itself as one of the UK’s most popular hot spots. There is so much to do and see, and the World Heritage-listed Maritime Mercantile City is not one of them.
On this occasion, it is not because it is disappointing, but because it is unremarkable. It is a pleasant patch of cityscape surrounded by buildings and people quietly muttering, “So, what exactly is the Mercantile City here”. Our advice would be to check out the Cathedral, the docks, and the many restaurants and bars instead.
And while we’re in the UK, let us ask another pertinent question: Who the hell builds a Stonehenge? Shrouded in mystery and the air of the Gods this site may well be more interesting from your sofa on the History Channel than it is in the drizzle of dreary reality. It’s not that it doesn’t have its own romantic allure, there is something frankly mental about its unknowable purpose, and in the right light, you can glimpse a smidgen of the mysticism that has seduced a thousand bearded folks who make their own elderflower wine.
However – and this is a big but – that ancient romanticism is eroded more so than the stones themselves by the fact you have to pay, and there is a barrier, and a surrounding wire. I’m not the most mystical person but if I was to be drawn into some sort of spiritual experience by a famous landmark then it would most likely be some sort of quiet sundown moment, as opposed to being surrounded by hundreds of people mumbling that “it’s not how it used to be” and seeing widespread security march around with the faces of disgruntled pugs. That simply isn’t the hippy façade that would suit it best.
In short, these tales tell you one thing: the world is your oysters, just make sure it is your oyster.