I just finished reading Paul Theroux's new book, The Tao of Travel. It's not a travelogue. It's more of an almanac really - a collection of quotes, thoughts and impressions, not just from Theroux but other travel writers as well.
One of the lists in the book is called 'Evocative name, Disappointing Place.' In it Theroux notes that while a place name can 'bewitch a traveller' the reality of that same place can be a bit of a let down. Amongst his list is Shepherds Bush, 'a grey, maladorous overpopulated district of greasy cafes, kebab shops and Australian mega-pubs'; Tahiti, 'a mildewed island of surly colonials, exasperated French soldiers and indignant natives; and Samarkand 'a stinking industrial city of chemical factories, fertilizer plants and out-of-control drunkenness.'
Paul Theroux has always been a bit of a grumpy traveller. His travelogues are littered with petty grievances and potshots, immaculately rendered, of course, in elegant prose. And his views are highly subjective. He has Mandalay on his list, describing it as 'an enormous grid of dusty streets.' It's one of my favourite places in Burma after a rickshaw wallah there took me home to meet his family.
It got me thinking though. Are some place names so redolent with promise that they can only disappoint? For an Aussie living in London I feel that disappointment most days. I mean, where's the crystal palace in Crystal Palace? And the wood in Wood Green?
Generally speaking though, I've been lucky in my travels. The places most vivid in my imagination proved to be equally so in real life. My arrival in Kathmandu coincided with an impromptu festival and I was caught up in a joyous crowd, swirling around Durbar Square with a dumb smile on my face. As I clambered off the ferry at Zanzibar the smell of spices stacked in hessian sacks on the dock washed over me. And in Esfahan I shared tea and shisha pipe with bearded locals under the arches of the medieval Si Se Pol bridge. All magical moments that remain highlights of my travelling life.
Of course, even truly remarkable places have their bad days. Trevi Fountain on any night of the week is like being caught in the Boxing Day Sales on Oxford Street. Bali loses a bit of it's zen calmness whenever an Australian football team drops in for their end-of-season booze-up. And I'm yet to look upon the pyramids in Egypt without my gaze being interrupted by a swirling plastic bag.
What makes these places special, I guess, is that they can rise above these impediments and still impress. Indeed, if you embrace the obstructions, like Doug Mack does in his slideshow, Not-So-Flattering Views of European Landmarks, the crowds, the hawkers and the scaffolding almost become poetic.
Where are the places that were better in your imagination than in real life? And, just to ensure that we don't all turn into grumpy old Paul Therouxs, which places were even better? Continue the discussion below or wade in over at the dedicated forum post here.
"I am rarely disappointed with places, thanks to my generally low expectations and ability to make most of a bad situation. But I was honestly saddened to find deepest-darkest Peru, neither deep nor dark. I blame Michael Bond for the disillusion."
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