The Troubles With Travel Porn

Arrive before the big lines of tourists, around 9:30 or 10:00 AM, you'll have enough time to linger by one of the enormous bronze doors at La Sagrada Família. The doors are covered with bronze ivy, and in that bronze ivy are bronze beetles and other bronze insects, and if you look very closely you will see that each of the leaves and each of the bugs are unique. Some extremely skilled person, a member of a dying profession, spent months or years casting these little details that you can only see if you stop for a minute and look at a door.

Antoni Gaudí had this level of detail in mind when he started designing La Sagrada Família in 1883, the building remains under construction to this day, and the current estimates (pending funding, and you can donate to the construction here) for completion being somewhere in the mid-2020s. You can read all about its construction, the difficulties of the Spanish Civil War and the Franco regime, Gaudí's connection with the Modernisme movement in the arts that centered around Barcelona, while still being quite apart from the movement itself. But you cannot actually experience the movement itself without walking the streets of Barcelona, turning a corner, and finding yourself looking at the Casa Batlló (which is an apartment building with an architectural rendition of the story of St. George and the Dragon on the roof).


There is a genre of journalism that I will refer to as "travel porn". If you own a television, you have probably seen examples of it. In a travel porn video, a host or hosts will show up at an exotic location under some overarching pretense for the series (frequently food, but sometimes in search of housing or just seeing something pretty) and begin talking to a local while walking around the city with a camera crew in tow. The host will visit some famous locations, or make a point of avoiding the touristy parts of the city, and talk about them in passing, and within 22-45 minutes of show time give you the Cliff's Notes of a trip to Trieste or Tokyo or Phuket.

In a typical episode, the hosts and editors and camera crews and random locals they "meet" along the way (I am still unclear about this. How do they find these people? Are they aware of the show's format before they volunteer? Are they compensated for showing off their city? Do rando tourists try to track them down like just another sight on the checklist of "things to do in this place" the show cannot help but create?) will give a good flavor for the city itself. In most, though, you're left with the impression of visiting some far-off land without ever leaving your couch. On a marathon binge-watching, you could be left with the impression of visiting the far corners of the world in an afternoon.

And what is wrong with a little bit of travel porn every now and again? To be fair to the genre, it did inspire me to visit Vietnam, which was a phenomenal place and one of the countries I would drop everything to visit again given the opportunity. Plenty of other people have similar stories. But travel porn has the same problem as human porn -- it gives a false impression of reality, and creates the illusion of experience without all the nitty gritty details that give real reality its texture.


There is a street in Barcelona called La Rambla. It runs from roughly the Plaça de Catalunya to the Mirador de Colón and the sea. La Rambla was originally a drainage ditch, but by the mid-13th century it was a city on the edge of the old medieval walled in part of the city. In the 18th century the city started planting trees along the road, and it eventually became a huge open-air market.

The whole thing is now shops and stores and restaurants, and little of it is actually Catalan (I did not go into the McDonald's or the adjoining KFC, but I feel confident in saying that their menus were not adapted too much to honor Catalan regional cuisine). This street is inhabited almost exclusively by tourists, and people looking to part the tourists from their money. This includes pickpockets (my Barcelona friend who was showing me around was quite adamant we be careful here) as well as people selling Real Madrid jerseys (???) and sombreros (!!!) to from what were mostly British or American tourists.

La Rambla cuts through the middle of Barcelona's Old City; the side streets are a maze designed to confuse invaders; somewhere in this tangle is what is believed to be one of the oldest synagogues in Europe (according to the tour guide, Barcelona had a very good relationship with its Jewish community during the Middle Ages, right up until the marriage {with a Papal dispensation for consanguinity, I learned researching this} of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile and the expulsion of all non-Christians and the Spanish Inquisition). Spitting distance from all this history is a vendor selling a specifically Mexican hat to Anglophone tourists in a part of Spain that didn't want to be Spanish.

You will never see these sombreros in travel porn, because it would force the host to pause and address the stupidity of it all. I find this troubling because tourists and tourism can redefine a location's identity. Some places are fighting back (Barcelona's new mayor, Ada Colau, campaigned against tourists and won, and when I was there you would see signs that basically demanded the tourists please go away so Barceloní can enjoy locations like Park Güell without it being completely overrun), and I hope more follow, because this is the ugly side of tourism and it's something travel porn never shows you.

Travel porn cuts out the ugly bits of a location to give the impression of a relaxing vacation, or at least if the problems are addressed they are done in passing right before a commercial break, for the sake of indulging the viewer's fantasy. It's easy to fantasize about a vacation to a city when you don't see what tourism does to it, and it's easy to convince yourself you've seen a place after watching a show with a charming host showing you what looks like local life. But you need to see this stuff, the labyrinth of roads and a medieval church with a book fare and some mob of idiots wearing sombreros with "BARCELONA" stitched in the brim, really see it in person, to get a feel for a city, tourism's (the inevitable result of travel, and the point of this blog) relationship with it, and how you really feel about it. The hiccups and weirdness and absurdities are a feature of travel, not a bug.


I'm writing all of this because one of the things I'm worried about is this blog becoming a sort of travel porn. I will write about flying in Lufthansa's First Class in an upcoming trip; it will likely warrant being written about. I will write about being in Paris. I will write about around the world trips and eating fish on the fiftieth floor of a Japanese high-rise and any other experiences that strike me as being worth writing about. My goal in all this is not to make people jealous, or to even suggest a new place for them to take a vacation. What I don't want is for people to see a few photos and read a few paragraphs and think they've been to Berlin. What I want to do is pique people's interest about all the places there are in the world, and convince them to travel with a sense of curiosity about the place they're going to, and to highlight things like the Catalan Sombrero Shops and the bugs on the doors of the most obsessively detailed minor basilica in the world (La Sagrada Família is huge -- the spires make it one of the tallest buildings in Barcelona -- and it isn't even a cathedral, for Barcelona that's be the Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulália). My goal is to write about my perspective on the world in such a way that you, the reader, feel interested in seeing it for yourself, the messy bits and the wondrous bits and the stupid bits and all.


On my second-to-last scheduled day in Barcelona (my first effort to depart involved an airplane with a broken fuel gauge, and the pilot decided that no, we won't by flying over the North Atlantic with only a vague feeling for the fuel situation), I was walking near the Avinguda Diagonal when I turned a corner and a man in a blue polo shirt and shorts got in my face and began pointing at me and saying something very specific to me in what I assume was Catalan (a language I do not speak) and if not Spanish (a language I have in the past had survival-level familiarity with but not enough to understand angry-pointing-speak). I stood there, about six inches away from him, looking at him from behind my sunglasses, as a few people slowed down to see what the hell was about to happen. After ten seconds of this, the guy stomped off and I continued looking for a place to sit down and have a coffee.