If there’s one thing I’ve learned about travel over the years, it’s this: no matter where you go, someone famous will have been there before you. And more often than not, they’ve not only been there, but they’ve said something far more profound about it than you could ever muster.
Time and time again, the smart-arse in question will be Ernest Hemingway. Or Winston Churchill. Or Mark sodding Twain. Those three really got about. I’m told Gankhar Puensum in Bhutan is the world’s highest unclimbed mountain, but I truly believe if anyone ever conquers it, at its summit they’ll find one of Twain’s discarded notebooks, full of self-satisfied musings on the majesty of the views.
I think we’d all like to believe we’re capable of making genuine discoveries — that like Indiana Jones we’ll one day find somewhere remote, exotic or overlooked and become the first person to really get under its skin. So when you’re shown a picture of a bearded Victorian writer, posing in a frock coat and stovepipe hat by the foot of the volcano you’ve just climbed, it can be a tad dispiriting.
But there’s a positive side to this too. It can also be comforting to know someone civilised and cerebral has successfully trodden the path you’ve chosen — especially when your travels have taken you way beyond your comfort zone.
And sometimes, the presence of a famous ghost can give a trip an extra dimension. I once travelled to the Fiesta de San Fermin in Pamplona with a group of friends. This particular festival has a strong association with Hemingway, and as we drifted along the crowded cobbled streets in our white trousers and red sashes, sipping wine from leather pouches, it was hard not to imagine ourselves as characters from his novel Fiesta. It might not have been planned this way, but Heminway’s legacy certainly added something to that trip.
Of course, some travellers take matters further and actually choose their destination on the basis of a famous association. And I can see the appeal of this — after all, if you want to get a better understanding of a figure like Freud, why not seek out the house where he lived, the desk he worked at and the coffee shop where he refined his theories.
But if the sole objective of your trip is simply to follow in someone’s footsteps, it seems to me a risky sort of endeavour. However good an idea it might first appear, there’s always a chance you’ll end up stood in the rain staring at a blue plaque on the wall of what’s now a Halfords, wondering why you bothered.
The smarter approach, I think, is to visit somewhere desirable in its own right, and to regard any famous associations it might have as an added bonus. Of course, to do this you need to pick your subject wisely. If the figure you’re planning to follow lived and worked in Luton, it might be wise to find a Plan B.
Similarly, it’s surely better to pick a figure who really interacted with their immediate environment — someone who drank in the bars, saw the shows and frequented the cafes. That way, retracing their steps will be fun as well as ‘fascinating’. Imagine that!
And, most importantly of all, make sure you know when to quit. There’s a time for traipsing around a Parisian cemetery, looking for Oscar Wilde’s grave — and it’s definitely not during a thunderstorm. That’s the point when you should just give up and retire to a cafe for coffee and escargots.
Of course, it’s easy to be cynical about this type of travel. There remains the suspicion that these are the type of trips that people like to read and talk about but never actually do. After all, why follow Churchill to Madeira, when you could hit the beach or go skiing?
But I’m convinced there’s something to be said for following in famous footsteps. For most of us I think it’s in our nature to seek out the places that inspired those who’ve inspired us. Plus, under the guidance of a famous ghost, you can often see a whole new side to a destination — one you’d never have otherwise glimpsed. Maybe even one Mark Twain hasn’t written about.
Published in the November 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)