Updated on September 4, 2016
Updated on September 4, 2016
While checking out some of the (non miles and points) travel blogs that I follow this morning, I realized how hard it actually is to travel somewhere that is actually off the beaten path.
In surfing through About Me pages and blogrolls I realized how many of the “off the beaten path” destinations are more realistically, “second on the beaten path” destinations. Places that casual vacationers may not squeeze into a two week trip to Europe, but people backpacking for a longer stretch of time likely will.
For example when we traveled to Slovenia, I had just barely heard of Ljubljana, the capital, and had never really heard of Bled. Still, somehow, (through Drew’s research most likely,) we ended up in Bled. It was the dead of winter so there were hardly any tourists and the place had this magic floating about in the form of low-hanging clouds. Everything was shrouded in mist, mysterious and completely novel. I felt like we’d found that hidden gem of a place.
But then, about a year and a half later, we returned in the summer to find the place crawling with tourists. The once placid lake was dotted with tourists in their row boats, paddle boats, swan boats, etc. Our walk around the lake was crowded instead of mysterious. It was still undoubtedly a delightful visit and a delightful town, but the magic had vanished with the mist.
The town I thought had been a hidden gem and an actual “off the beaten path” destination, was actually quite a hot spot.
Turns out my former ignorance of a place is no indication of its popularity.
Similarly, Drew and I visited the quaint little Halstatt in the wintertime. Looking around, it was easy to see that the little town, though seemingly hidden away in the mountains, had a bit of a tourist thing going on during the summer season. We could see closed restaurants, cafes, and the parking lot had a payment booth. Still, we recommended the spot to a friend who was visiting in the summer.
Just as we’d found Bled a more crowded place in the summer, so too was Halstatt. Enjoyable, but very crowded and touristy.
Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnova can almost be considered an “off the beaten path” destination, until you realize that there is a semi nightly light show that decorates the castle. Imagine my surprise as I’m sitting on a quaint little Airbnb balcony above a narrow network of cobble-stone alleys. I’m picking out the old castle in the dusk as it seems just across the valley from my little balcony, when all of a sudden it starts dancing with red beams of light.
As quiet as the town seemed, even during summertime, you can hardly call a castle with a light show “off the beaten path.”
The only places I feel like I can truly call “off the beaten path” are places I traveled to for completely non-tourism reasons, or stumbled upon quite accidentally. For instance, the little town where my niece comes from in Ukraine. It has a name…but we barely could figure its name out because the tiny town was not plastered with English signage and there was not an easily navigable bus to take us there. Instead, we had a hired van driver take us there, arranged via the adoption agency. And instead of a hotel, we stayed in the upstairs apartment of the local clinic. I’m not even sure a town like that has a hotel at all.
But…it did have a castle.
The castle had no light show. In fact, I’m not even certain we saw more than a handful of other tourists while we visited it, and they were almost certainly local tourists.
Or for example, the city of JingZhou China. We did not visit the city because we heard it referenced in a guide book or saw its images on a google search. We visited it because our friend was teaching English there. Despite being one of the few cities in China that still has its ancient surrounding wall, and despite having a population somewhere nearing a million, it can definitely be called “off the beaten path” for Western tourists. We spent the first hours of our arrival being followed and gawked at as we tried to find our way around. No one had seen people like us before. While the city may get a bit of domestic tourism, even that is a bit of a stretch.
The funny thing is, I’ve never ever recommended these genuinely off-the-beaten path destinations to anyone, despite the fact that they are some of the most exciting and treasured travel memories I have. The thing is, places like that aren’t amazing and special because of their unique sites. In fact, they are amazing and special for exactly the opposite- for their total, lackluster normalcy. The pure fact that they are somewhere else’s “utterly normal” is what makes them a Western tourist’s “off the beaten path.”
I adore someone else’s normal. It’s one of my favorite things about travel and it’s one of the most difficult to find. Because you really can’t google these places. You find them instead when you get lost, literally straying away from that intended beaten path you had set out on. You find them when you visit people who are most definitely not tourists. NGO’s, teachers, even pen pals. You find these places by accident or by deviation from your travel goals, and so, there is almost no way to contrive these experiences.
The only thing you can do is be ready to say “yes” when someone living in the middle of nowhere China invites you to visit. Or be ready to give up on your original plan of driving all the way to Mostar, stopping instead in a totally unheard of town to spend the night.
You won’t always find castles in these places, but you’ll find someone else’s ordinary, which is quite a thing for a traveler to find.