When travelling, sometimes it’s best to leave the guidebooks at home.
The 19th century Polish poet Stanislaw Jachowicz once wrote about his countrymen’s tendency to praise whatever is foreign while not knowing what they have themselves. It sounds better in its original (and rhymes), but the quote simply means the grass is always greener on the other side.
It’s also a meaningful observation when you consider how people travel and spend their vacations. When it comes to Poles, many travel thousands of miles to Italy or France for weekend getaways but few ever visit the cities just a few hours from their homes.
There’s nothing that’s as exciting and mind-expanding as traveling to far-off destinations and immersing yourself in a foreign culture. But sometimes this drive to explore makes us overlook what’s right under our nose. Sometimes we take for granted what our closer surroundings have to offer.
When I was living in Poland, I passed by the small city of Plock, northwest of the Polish capital, on my way back home to Warsaw after a weekend on the Baltic coast. I didn’t know much about the city except that it was old and sits on the Vistula river. Plock isn’t on the lists of the country’s top attractions, but that night it looked more beautiful than many other tourist-hyped cities I’ve seen. Massive, illuminated cathedral spires, a castle and church stood tall atop a steep hill that dropped down to the river, where the lights of the city were reflected in the water in streaks of yellow and red. It looked like an old kingdom linked to the modern world and to the other bank of the river by a slim bridge.
When a friend and I took a week-long trip across Poland, I quickly put Plock on the itinerary. We first visited a few well-known cities. When we finally arrived in Plock, our family called to ask how our trip was going. They’d been enthusiastic to chat about the other cities we’d seen, but in Plock they only asked us, “What the hell are you doing there?”
When I flip through the photos from that trip, ironically most of them are taken in Plock – especially in the stunning park above the Vistula where we wandered through the heavy morning fog and photographed the tall trees, churches and the castle that peeked through the grey like a scene in an old film noir.
Those kind of trips are my favourite and most memorable because the places are my own discoveries — no travel guides, friends’ recommendations or anything else steer me. Those kinds of trips leave you constantly surprised during your improvised explorations because you arrive knowing next to nothing about the destination.
Since I moved to Egypt, I’ve also travelled off the tourist itinerary and I have received similar reactions. “Why did you go to Mahalla?” a friend asked after I returned from the industrial Nile Delta city that sparked the January 25 Revolution. I wanted to ask them, “Why haven’t you gone yet?” I know there aren’t exactly many hotel choices or family fun parks there to keep visitors entertained. But seeing the textile factory whose workers were the first to tear down Hosni Mubarak posters — or to go into it as far as security would allow us — was certainly an experience worth the speed-limit-defying minibus trip from Ramses Station.
Similarly, when thousands of Egyptians travel in the summer to the crowded beaches of Alexandria, I prefer the smaller city of Port Said, where you can cross the waters by ferry into Port Fuad, enjoy a fish lunch, sit on the beach and watch the boats heading to the Suez Canal over a shisha under a beach umbrella in undisturbed peace.
The trips I’ve taken to Egypt’s major tourist sites were memorable and beautiful, but the more obscure and non-touristy places I’ve visited offered a more authentic and original experience.
There are still many places I’d love to see, and the list keeps growing the more I travel and learn about the country: There are the old cotton plantations of the Nile Delta, the small fishing villages and coastal cities like Damietta, the salty marshes of Lake Manzala, the mango harvest in Ismailia, or even the belle epoque hotels of downtown Cairo. While it’s understandable that large tourism companies don’t offer packaged tours to such destinations, it’s harder to understand why so few residents seem unenthusiastic about exploring their own country.
Lesser-known destinations may not offer the photo opps of places like the Giza pyramids or Khan el Khalili, but they give you an experience that to me is the epitome of travel: they let you explore, discover and roam free.
I’d love to hear from you. Do you travel off the beaten path? What are your favourite places off the tourist itinerary?