Guest post by Peter Klika
It’s not like I’ve never ridden in a tourist bus with the guide barking out the sites. I’ve been on tours of temples in Japan where, by the third temple, they all began to look the same. Even delightful river cruises have all the passengers sitting like obedient children in rows waiting for the tour guide to interpret what they are seeing. This is the average travel experience for hordes of tourists where everything is prepackaged, predigested, and predetermined: No beggars, no homeless, no dirty streets or jostling crowds. Everything has been sanitized and packed with a pretty but pricey bow.
So what’s missing from this cookie cutter experience? Its serendipity – those pleasant unexpected and unplanned experiences that bless those who take the road less traveled.
Imagine a trip to Rome where the itinerary is preselected and begins at 8:30 sharp with your pre-ordered breakfast. You board the air conditioned bus and sit across from the pleasant couple from Ohio. She is reading People Magazine and he the sports page from USA Today. Your seat mate is a gregarious retired police officer who asks if you liked your American Breakfast.
The bus stops briefly at the Coliseum where everyone jockeys for the perfect selfie. Then lunch where everyone sits at a long table and selects from a menu in English. And of course there are hamburgers and Cokes if you don’t like rigatoni. There is no bill. It’s prepaid. You barely speak to the waiter even though he speaks perfect English. Then off to the Fountain of Trevi and other famous sites finally arriving back at your hotel just in time for CNN and maybe even Jeopardy . There might even be a night tour as an expensive add on.
Now imagine waking up in a small pension with no plan for the day. You stumble down the stairs and struggle in broken Italian to order a real cappuccino. No Starbucks nearby. The waiter smiles at your efforts. You spread out a map of the city with walking routes on one side and a subway map on the other. You decide to skip the Coliseum and take a long walk to a small art museum.
You get lost on the way.
You stop strangers on the street and point to the museum location. You finally arrive to find it blessedly uncrowded. Lunch is around the corner. There are actually local people eating there. A good sign. You order pasta primavera from the menu even though you aren’t quite sure what it is. The pasta is fresh and the dish exquisite. The bill is reasonable. After all, real working local people are eating here.
The afternoon is just more walking and sitting at a cafe with a Cinzano umbrella. You sip a glass of mellow Tuscan wine and watch working class Romans passing by. You return to your pension pleasantly tired with a smile on your face.You just had a very personal and very authentic experience. No cookie cutter tours for you.
Some would complain that our intrepid traveler never got to see the Coliseum or get that perfect selfie, but they are missing the point. Rome is not just the Coliseum or a bunch of other sights anymore than Bangkok is just the floating market and the reclining Buddha. Sure, these are iconic images, but they are not the nuanced findings of a good wander about the city, getting lost and then found. Most importantly, the people you meet on the packaged tour are not the average people, who are the real Crown Jewels of any city or country.
So leave your Fodors and Lonely Planet behind. Make a reservation at a smallish hotel or pension. Pick up a map, and start walking. The road less traveled awaits.