On Being a Tourist

Coby Lubliner

It Takes a Village

“In a village of La Mancha, whose name I don’t want to remember...” So begins the first great novel – perhaps the greatest – of Western civilization.

But in a district of La Mancha called La Manchuela (“Little La Mancha,” or “The Little Spot – La Mancha means “The Spot”) there is a village whose name is very much worth remembering. And as Spanish place names go it is, in fact, fairly easy to remember. It’s Alcalá del Júcar.

There are many towns in Spain named Alcalá de [something]. “Alcalá” is a Hispanicization of the Arabic al-Kalaat, or “the castle,” and towns so named usually have a castle, standing or in ruins, on a hill nearby. “De” is how Spanish renders “on” when, in a place name, it refers to a body of water. And this village indeed has a castle, and is situated on the banks of the river Júcar.

The Júcar is a major waterway of eastern Spain that begins its journey to the Mediterranean in the grandiloquently named Montes Universales, not far from where the Atlantic-bound Tagus (Tajo or Tejo) is born. It traverses some spectacular gorges both above and below the lovely old city of Cuenca, famous for its “hanging houses.” It is dammed at the huge reservoir of Alarcón before finding another set of gorges, which is where Alcalá is located. It then leaves La Mancha and enters the old kingdom of Valencia (now, officially, the Valencian Community), where it acquires the alternative Valencian-Catalan name Xúquer, passes yet another big reservoir (that of Tous, whose disastrous overflow in 1981 led to endless litigation) and, after some more meandering, enters the Mediterranean at the seaside resort of Cullera.

The gorges around Alcalá rise at a bend in the river, and the core of the village is built on the side of a steep hill jutting into the bend. The hill is crowned with the expected castle, originally Moorish but rebuilt over the centuries, and restored fairly recently. Taking any of the lovely, flower-bedecked streets in an uphill direction will eventually bring one to the castle. About halfway up one finds the church, late Gothic and early Renaissance, and the Baroque ayuntamiento (city hall). And all along one finds houses that are built into the rock, several of them open to the public as cuevas (caves), with mysterious names (the Devil’s Cave, the Cave of Masagó); some of them extend through the entire width of the hill, with windows overlooking the other arm of the river bend.

Down in the river’s floodplain (and, boy, did that river flood, before the dams were built!) is where the restaurants, hotels, shops and other tourist amenities are located, as well as a lovely park incorporating canals and bankside walks.

For Alcalá del Júcar does attract tourists. How could it otherwise? It’s only one-and-a-half highway hours from Valencia, and several guidebooks sing its praises. But it remains basically unspoiled, the kind of place that for me is the ideal tourist experience: a village that fits into its natural surroundings; that provides opportunities for long countryside walks or bike rides, but also congenial places to stay, eat or gather; that has well-preserved old houses but also well-fitting new ones; that gives off a sense of history through old monuments but also through living traditions: this is the kind of place that has provided me with my most memorable experiences as a tourist. That the place may attract other tourists besides me doesn’t bother me, if these tourists seek more or less the same experience that I do. Souvenir shops are okay, if they don’t overwhelm the village’s commercial center and leave room for grocers and shoemakers, and if they sell mainly local products. And there must, of course, be a good cheap hotel and one or more good cheap restaurants.

I like good cheap hotels. There is nothing quite as satisfying as finding a hotel that, while meeting certain minimum criteria, is cheap. If it goes above the minimum, so much the better. If, for example, it has a well-appointed lobby, fine: I like to hang out in beautiful hotel lobbies, with good art on the walls, elegant furnishings, maybe even a pianist tinkling away in a corner, accompanying the tinkle of cocktail glasses. But I don’t need to stay in a hotel in order to enjoy its lobby, and I have found that in most cases it’s the appearance of the lobby and other public spaces, even the façade, that determines the price, far more than the rooms. If a room is clean, reasonably well lit, with a firm bed, a shower with good hot-water pressure, a telephone with a direct line, and heating if the climate requires it (no fireplace, please), I am satisfied. A television is nice in a place where I don’t have much to do at night. And if the furnishings are simple, I prefer the room to be small.

I also enjoy a good cheap restaurant, one that feeds people who live or work in the neighborhood, with no pretensions to a “fine dining” experience, but where the cooks honestly ply their skill to the best of their ability without having to rely on rare ingredients, where the house wine (if the cuisine in question invites wine) and house bread (or its equivalent) are reliable.

I enjoy such an eating place far more than an elegant restaurant that caters to gourmets and critics. And it isn’t just a matter of cost; even if I am being treated, I never feel quite comfortable in a place of the latter type.

This is not to say that the presence of one or more pricey restaurants necessarily spoils a village. They are often charmingly decorated, and there is no reason why the local rich folks and well-heeled out-of-town visitors should not have a place to spend their money, especially if some local gastronomic specialties beckon. As for me, I will walk by, read the menu, and move on.

Other “touristy” villages that I have visited, and that have left me with magical memories, include Mendocino, on the coast of Northern Califirnia; La Grave, in the French Alps; Hvar, on the Croatian island of the same name; Viladrau, in the Montseny mountains of Catalonia; and Panajachel, on the shores of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. There have been, and I hope there will be, many others.

What’s a tourist?

As the noted travel writer Pico Iyer has written, “it’s fashionable nowadays to draw a distinction between the ‘tourist’ and the ‘traveler’” (though Iyer, in a brilliant essay titled “Why we travel,”(1) goes on to draw a different distinction). And when this distinction is made, “tourist” is invariably a pejorative, as it is when contrasted with “adventurer” or “pilgrim” as well.

But I confess that when I read or hear explanations of this contrast I feel that I am, at bottom, a tourist. I feel no need for dangerous adventure, nor do I feel the need to stay in a place for a great length of time in order to “really get to know it.” Often a mere day or two of walks through a city or village, visiting its landmarks and observing its people, gives me enough knowledge, or at least an illusion of knowledge (which, as a philosopher might say, is the same thing), to make me feel forever the richer for the experience. And yes, it is cities and villages, whether living or ruined, that draw me with far greater force than pure nature. I enjoy looking at beautiful scenery, mountains, lakes, seacoasts, clouds and all that; but I enjoy it all the more if there is a relatively unspoiled village, perhaps with an old stone or wooden castle and a temple of some religion or other, nestled in the valley, leaning against the mountainside or spread around the bay – in other words, a place like Alcalá del Júcar. I have asked people who have trekked in Nepal: “How are the villages along the way?” “What? Villages? I didn’t notice. There was that fantastic view of Annapurna, with the clouds around it...” is the usual reply. I am sure that the view of Annapurna, as I have seen in countless color photographs that are sold at arts-and crafts fairs, was indeed fantastic. And I will probably never trek in Nepal.

What’s a tourist, anyway?

In his biography of the Renaissance pope Sixtus V, the Austrian diplomat and writer, Baron Hübner (1811-1892, reputed to be an illegitimate son of Metternich), reports that in sixteenth-century Rome “there were no tourists.” “Tourism was born in the seventeenth century,” he adds, “and Englishmen were the first to practice it.” Before that time “no one traveled for pleasure, and those who might have had so eccentric a taste would not have dared acknowledge it.” In a remarkable insight, he finds the beginnings of tourism to coincide with those of landscape painting: “Claude Lorrain and the great Dutch masters created their masterpieces, in which, for the first time, figures are no longer anything but accessories, at the same time that the English, tired of their Whitehall festivities, of their country-house comforts, and of the monotony of Bath and Tunbridge, began to visit France, Germany, and Italy, in what was known as the grand tour.”(2)

This activity, regarded as the finishing touch in the making of an English gentleman, was first called simply “making the tour” (Sir John Evelyn, for example, wrote in 1652 of “A traveller... making the tour, as they call it”); the “grand” came in the following century. In the seventeenth century the word “tour” was, incidentally, pronounced like “tower,” and occasionally even spelled that way.

The term “tourist,” however, did not come into use until the end of the eighteenth century; one of the earliest citations is from the Revered Samuel Pegge the younger (1733-1800), who in his posthumously published Anecdotes of the English Language(3) asserts, in his hyphen-fond way, that “a Traveller is now-a-days called a Tour-ist.”

Mass tourism as we know it begins shortly before the middle of the nineteenth century, facilitated by the steamship, the railroad, and the telegraph; guided by Karl Baedeker (the first Baedeker guide appears in 1839); and organized by Thomas Cook (the first Cook’s tour takes place in 1841). But at that time, and for a long time thereafter, not all places were equally receptive to tourism. Hübner, who was himself an indefatigable traveler both before and after the genesis of modern tourism, writes that “those who have traveled in certain little-visited regions of Spain, Portugal or the East will remember the incredulity they met with as tourists, and the awkward situations, sometimes ridiculous and sometimes serious, that often resulted from it.”

One English traveler in those inhospitable climes who was a contemporary of Hübner, Baedeker and Cook but who was decidedly not a tourist – he seemed to have no interest in natural beauty, art or monuments – was George Borrow (1803-1881), whose engrossing The Bible in Spain recounts his adventures while roaming that country (with side trips to Portugal and Morocco) as, of all things, a Bible salesman during the tumultuous 1830s. This curious profession, besides providing a living, seems to have been motivated less by a love of Christ than by a hatred of the Catholic Church. Borrow was a big strong man of striking presence, with a gift for languages and a knack for meeting interesting people of all ranks, from diplomats to bandits and crypto-Jews. He was especially interested in Gypsies, about whom he wrote a novel and a descriptive treatise. He even wrote a dictionary of Romany, a language that he had learned (along with many others) while still in England, and his knowledge of it allowed him to pass as a fellow Gypsy among the gitanos.

Borrow’s adventures are fascinating, but I have no wish to emulate them. My enjoyment of visits to distant places resides mainly in just being there, seeing what there is to see, but also sharing the moment-to-moment experiences of the people who live there: shopping, public transportation, and local entertainment.

It’s what I mean by being a tourist.

Islands on Two Wheels

One thing I like to do, as tourist, is bicycle around, and across, a small island – small enough so that, if not the whole island, at least a big chunk of it can be visited in a day. It’s something I’ve managed to do on Catalina and Corfu, on Isla Mujeres and l’Ile aux Moines. What this means, of course, is that, since I’m not in the habit of shlepping a bike when I travel, the island must be touristy enough to have a bicycle-rental shop near the ferry landing. The alternative, joining a tour group that provides bicycles, has no appeal for me; much of the exhilaration for me is in the ability to make stops and turns at random, on the spur of the moment.

Thus when, a few summers ago, I decided to replace the usual direct France-to-England hop with a ferry crossing that included stopovers in Jersey and Guernsey, I was delighted to discover that on the latter island, one of the most enchanting places I have ever visited, the magic began as soon as I stepped off the boat. Since I was only spending the day there, I needed some place to leave my suitcase. And right there on the dock at Saint Peter Port, over the same door, were signs announcing Left Luggage and Bicycle Hire. Obviously, the place was made for tourists like me.

My first attempt to explore an island by two-wheeled transport was a long time ago, in Majorca. Majorca is far too big to be explored by bike in a short time, and before going there I had been told in Barcelona that the best way to do it was by motor scooter. I naively thought of a motor scooter as something like a hybrid between a car and the kind of scooter I had ridden as a child, with a bit of bicycle thrown in; and so I believed that, since I knew how to handle those three conveyances, mastering a scooter would be no problem. I found a rental shop near the hotel where I was staying in Palma, asked to rent a scooter for the day, and soon discovered that managing the hand controls for gas, clutch, brake and gears was a skill that did not come naturally, and after a few minutes I had to give up in embarrassment, amid the chuckles and no doubt derisive comments in Majorcan (which I didn’t understand at the time), and having to pay for an hour’s rental. My exploring was limited to Palma and its immediate surroundings, on foot, with a sunburn (soon faded) and some slides (still bright) to show for it.

I did manage to learn to ride a scooter, a few years later, while living in Paris, where I made a Vespa 125 my main means of transport; I took a motorcycle course at an auto-école, and earned a French motorcycle license. And many years later, living in Barcelona, I learned Catalan (of which Majorcan – mallorquí – is a variant, as is Valencian); and so, on my next visit to Majorca, I was able to understand the locals. And, yes, they did make derogatory remarks about tourists.

I can live with that.

August 8, 2002


1. Salon Magazine, March 18, 2000.

2. Sixte-Quint, par M. le baron de Hubner d’après des correspondances diplomatiques inédites (Paris: A. Franck, 1870). Hübner wrote the original in French and later translated it into German. The English translation by J.E. Jerningham (The Life and Times of Sixtus the Fifth [London: Longmans, Green, 1872]) is too inaccurate to be used verbatim.

3. The full title is Anecdotes of the English Language; chiefly regarding the local dialect of London and its environs; whence it will appear that the natives of the metropolis and its vicinities have not corrupted the language of their ancestors.

© 2002 by Jacob Lubliner

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