I’m not a good tourist. It’s that short attention span thing. A guided ramble through a great cathedral or a stately home is lost on me.
I tend to fidget after 15 minutes, my mind wanders and my feet generally follow.
It’s not that I lack interest. The opposite in fact. But I prefer to soak up a place at my own pace with no more than the rudimentary bare facts as my companion. I fill in as I go along, depending on what takes my fancy.
There is something about tour-guide history that can turn a breath into a yawn. Too earnest at times and too trivial when not.
Oftentimes myths are peddled as facts and third-hand hearsay as gospel.
Historians are often sniffy about what is called public history in the trade – a reasonably new academic discipline that focuses on how Joe Citizen interacts with the past through various strands of popular culture and engagement.
But while few of us have the time or patience to explore history through weighty tomes (academic historians mangle syntax in what is surely a universal code), most people consume it via historical fiction, period dramas and, indeed, tourism.
So, you have to know how to imbibe the good and flush the bad.
A ramble through an ascendancy pile down the country, full of 18th-century bling, will draw appreciative purrs from visitors.
But unless the guide references the house’s imperial links, then the experience is little more than a sham. Context matters.
The good is even easier to recognise and I stumbled upon the very thing in Bordeaux last week.
This small, beautiful port city is perfectly formed, a tidy walking town with enough things to see and visit in a few days but not so many as to be intimidating or exhausting.
Must-sees include Place de la Bourse and Cathedrale Saint Andre, while a boat trip down the racing Garonne River and an afternoon tasting wine in Saint-Emilion are, predictably, highly recommended.
But it was a visit to an ugly concrete edifice on the edge of town that showed me how history and tourism can rhyme when a city gets it right.
In 1941 the Nazis built five U-Boat bases along Cote Atlantique and the one in Bordeaux – the size of a football stadium and boasting 11 submarine pens and three dry docks – survives with its brutalist credentials intact.
Built by slave labour – mostly Spanish republican prisoners delivered by Franco – it withstood thunderous Allied bombing and was only abandoned by the Kriegsmarine months after D-Day.
Recently reopened as a cultural centre – delayed due to Covid – the impenetrable walls of this hideous construction tell us all we need to know about recent European trauma and the lessons it can teach us. Especially now.
This is a past so close that it gains a tangible immediacy.
A crude monument to Europe’s darkest hour liberated from its hideous origins. Living history doing an honest day’s work.