Don't Even Go There—Travel Writing for the Rest of Us

Even if the world is your oyster, you can still chip a tooth on its shell. While travel magazines feature exotic locales of breathtaking beauty, we expose sites so depressing that no traveler this side of Edgar Allan Poe would venture there without a tub-load of tranquilizers. Take Las Vegas (please) and the $5.99 all-you-can-eat buffet line at Sam’s Town. That's the world we explore at Don’t Even Go There.

On this site, we tell of places we’ve visited but wish we hadn’t. We reveal vacation plans gone awry and relate horror stories from the road best abandoned. These true stories reflect where we’ve chosen to go. We only have ourselves to blame. We rarely needed to exaggerate—the truth really is stranger than a Dan Brown novel.

Don’t Even Go There: travel tips for those of us who aren’t escorted by security guards, pampered by wealthy benefactors, or provided a generous per diem. This blog is for seasoned travelers and armchair tourists who want the real world first-hand and head-on, with all its drama, horror, and humor. You’ll laugh at us, cry with us, and decide to stay home more often.

25 October 2008

Gone But Not Forgotten

Here’s a piece from our long-lost past. It was a time when we were younger, more innocent, and—dare we say it—more optimistic. There are two words that sum up our feelings of those long-ago days: good riddance. Still, maybe there’s a lesson or two to learn . . . or to relearn. —MB & JS

The Boston Garden is gone now, demolished. Part of history. You can’t go back for a visit even if you wanted to. Trust us, it’s just as well. The Garden embodied the old bait and switch—you know, when you’re promised one thing but receive something much more, ah, minimal—better than any single structure could, and it could only have survived all those years in Boston, Massachusetts, a city as crazy for its sports teams as the Kennedys are for scotch.

The city loved it and hated it . . . for good reasons. Ours: it stank.

Don’t get us wrong. People came from all over New England to catch a game, a concert, or even the circus at the Garden. Every major act played there. It became famous as the home of the basketball Celtics and hockey Bruins. Beneath all those championship banners, Celtics players learned how to avoid the dead spots on the parquet floor, where the ball would simply thud like dropped bowling ball. Bruins skaters, who always seemed a step slower than junior varsity all stars, benefited from the smaller-than-regulation ice surface.

But the Garden itself often outshone the events it staged. Its electrical system was as fragile as a light bulb filament. Its roof sometimes leaked. Rats scurried about as if the arena were a casting call for the movie Ben. When fans stomped on the cement floor to root for the home team, the whole building—floors to rafters—shook as if Mama Cass had returned from the grave for an encore. The place smelled, too, and we’re pretty sure it had nothing to do with Boston’s famous baked beans. Then there were the restrooms. Women waited days to use the facilities. Men peed into long metal troughs where you got to know your neighbor more intimately than you cared to.

Yet the Garden promised history in the making with every concert, game, or event it held. We’ve personally seen Keith Moon collapse over his drum kit in a drunken stupor to stop a Who concert before it ever started. We’ve seen Bobby Orr score an empty-net goal from the length of the ice (while the crowd complained that his shot was six inches off-center).

That’s the bait. Everyone who attended an event at the Garden hoped to see history, like when Larry Bird sank a buzzer-beater or when Orr flew through the air to win a championship. Usually, though, the only history anyone ever saw was the historically high price of the ticket.

The Garden experience always superseded whatever happened there. We remember waiting in line for a half hour to overpay for a warm beer and a cold hot dog. If we wanted popcorn, we knew to buy it early in the season, while it was still fresh. To get to our seats in the nosebleed section, we had to negotiate a near-vertical ascent up concrete steps. Sometimes we could see only with a telescope; sometimes we couldn’t see at all because we had an obstructed-view seat. As we squirmed in the hard-backed chairs, some jerk inevitably spilt beer on us. Century-old candy—or something worse—stuck to the bottom of our shoes and stayed there for weeks.

Leaving the Garden after a game, our ears rang and our stomach gurgled. With luck, the memory of the night would last longer than the dull ache in our backs. More likely, we’d tell ourselves that once again, we paid way too much to see something in person we’d have enjoyed more watching on TV at a neighborhood bar (of which there are many).

As we joined the throng of drunks and pickpockets on Causeway Street, we realized that despite attending an event at the wildly popular venue, we’d been taken. They traded on the allure of the name—The Boston Garden—and sold us a bill of goods. And maybe a month-old hot dog.

Lessons Learned: Thank God some things don’t last forever. Unfortunately, there are “Boston Gardens” in cities all over the country. Caveat emptor. Buyer beware.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 4
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 4
Discomfort Level: 5
Grunge Factor: 4
Inactivity Guide: 2
Rent-Attainment: 4
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 3/5
Vibe-Rating: 2

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Logan International Airport
Native Population: 599,000 (city only)
Normal Attractions: Fenway Park, other (older) historical sites, museums, colleges and the college nightlife, and Cambridge across the river.
Final Point of Interest: Boston has many squares connected by narrow winding streets, which reminds us: How can you tell a tourist on the roads? He uses his blinkers. Don’t drive; take the T (the MTBA: the mass transit system).

19 October 2008

Quote of the Month

This quote is from a friend of ours, but we couldn’t have said it better ourselves. It reminds us the days when travel was safe and a sense of humor didn’t get you locked up. Enjoy.

Heard on a party flight to New Orleans for Mardi Gras: “The captain has turned on the Fasten Seat Belt sign indicating our initial approach into New Orleans. Please return the stewardess to her original upright position.”

–Jack Molisani (2006)

06 October 2008

Where the French Are Actually Friendly

It’s time for another out-of-the-way, find-it-if-you-can, we-do-want-to-go-there gem. You read that correctly: we love this hidden jewel. When you travel as frequently and as far as we do, you’re bound to happen upon a place you like—even if just by accident. Here’s a destination that will surprise you as much as it did us. —MB & JS

When most people travel to France, they naturally go to Paris. Who wouldn’t? The food, the shopping, the museums, the history . . . it’s all there. Of course, all that culture comes with a price: having to subject yourself to the haughty waiter who knows that if you leave, some other slovenly American tourist will take your place, only too eager to be insulted in a language he doesn’t understand.

Instead of Paris, some vacationers choose the Bordeaux countryside. The French are noted for their wines, and this region has the grapes. Other travelers go straight for the French Riviera: Marseille, Cannes, Antibes. If you can afford it, you won’t regret it. Then there’s Chambéry, the gateway to the French Alps. Skiers and mountain climbers alike flock there to push their endurance to the limit or just do a little shopping.

But for those who want to experience France without getting caught up in all the hype and circumstance, we recommend a little out-of-the-way stop in scenic Besançon. Sitting along the Doubs River in the Jura Mountains north of Lyon and east of Dijon, Besançon defines the term “provincial.”

Known as the Greenest City in France, Besançon seems to have evolved out of the mountains organically. It’s as if the buildings somehow rose out of the earth on their own—like mushrooms, only less nutritious. Green parks, tree-lined streets, and public gardens create the rich atmosphere of country life inside a city. It’s the result of a culture that clearly had different values from those of Paris.

Besançon has a university, and the students imbue the city with a vibrant nightlife that rivals any settlement its size. The students also keep the town from wallowing in the past like a Presidential candidate who refers to Ronald Reagan in every campaign speech. As a result, the town maintains a pleasant mix of old and new. Best of all, the local French behave like real people. As incredible as it might be to believe, it’s true: Besançon residents actually respect strangers and tolerate diversity.

We arrived as exchange students and fell in love with the languid pace of life there. What better place to experience a foreign culture than an oasis of liberté? What better place to (God forbid) study than beneath a broad-leafed deciduous on a sunny day? We took advantage of the opportunity and learned our lessons well—both scholarly and worldly. The French we learned unfortunately didn’t stick, but what we learned about the French there has never left us.

Walking around the old city, we remember feeling like we’d been transported to a different dimension, where elements of the 1990s mingled improbably with those of the 1920s. Frisbees whizzed by the old men feeding pigeons in the park. Hippies with guitars sang old French ballads. A pretty girl, after asking for a Gitanes and a light, wove a delightful verbal tapestry that included Jean Cocteau, the hunchback of Notre Dame, and George W. Bush. We understood about half of it, but decided it was a fantasy a la Alice in Wonderland.

In the nearby mountains, outside the city proper but within hiking distance, lies the ruins of an ancient fort called simply The Citadel. The Spanish built it originally, but the Germans used it most recently. Obviously, neither was very successful.

We found the trip into the hills a valuable learning experience. The location afforded us expansive views of the valley, which we gobbled up, while the ruins provided a terrific spot for a picnic of French bread, cheese, and lots of wine, which we lingered over. After our leisurely repast, we took a trek around the grounds to help us work off the calories. The hike, in such an historic and very public place, taught us one of the most valuable lessons we learned all year. It wasn’t a history lesson, but a life lesson: never pass up an opportunity to pee.

Lessons Learned: Besançon might be the perfect place to attend college; it’s said to be among the most popular places in the world to learn French. It’s also a perfect place for a detour during a European vacation. The area still beckons us back across the ocean and across the decades. It might not be the idyllic spot today it was back then, but it would be difficult, if not impossible, to change enough not to warrant a visit.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 3
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 2
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 4

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg or Lyon Saint-Exupéry International Airport
Native Population: 135,000 (city only)
Normal Attractions: The university, museums, history, bridges, architecture, arts (it’s known as one of France’s “art cities”), and music festivals.
Final Point of Interest: The city’s history dates back to before Julius Caesar’s time, but don’t make the same mistake he made. It’s not a city to conquer, but one to savor.