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.

18 January 2009

Unfinished Business

Here’s a cautionary tale with old-fashioned message: You can’t judge a book by its cover. We’ve simply applied that message to a vacation destination. You might be surprised to read the following; at least, we hope you’ll be surprised. That’s why you’re here, reading this. That’s why we write it. Enjoy. —MB & JS

Imagine you’re promised the most amazing views in the known world. All you have to do is buy a ticket, climb some stairs, and gaze out the window. You pay the man and ascend the steps, but at the top of the tower, you find no windows. The explanation—“It’s unfinished”—doesn’t satisfy you, so you beat the crap out of the guy.

While you won’t experience this insult at an established tourist destination, you’d be surprised at how many unfinished buildings are pawned off on the public as major attractions. We’re not talking about once-finished structures that have since fallen into ruin like the Parthenon in Athens or the White House in Washington, DC. We’re talking about tourist traps that have never ever been completed.

Sound impossible? Hearst Castle remains unfinished, yet over a million people visit it every year. The Sagrada Família Cathedral in Barcelona, Spain, has been under construction for more than 100 years, and 2.26 million people visited it in 2004 alone.

The place that really caught our ire, though, was Neuschwanstein Castle in southern Germany. You might recognize it as the model for Sleeping Beauty’s castle in the original Walt Disney movie. Its contrasting, disproportionate spires mirror the mountain peaks surrounding it. Nestled in the incomparable Bavarian Alps, it’s noted the world over for its 19th-century romanticism, not to mention its hard-to-pronounce name (“Noy-shwann-stine,” which is best spit out as if you’re about to sneeze).

“Mad King Ludwig” (Ludwig II of Bavaria), who never met a coin he wouldn’t spend, built three castles in a spree that led to psychiatric treatment and a mysterious murder that remains unsolved to this day—both he and his psychiatrist drowned in waist-deep water. This true story taught us a valuable lesson: psychoanalysis can be fatal.

The two other castles Ludwig built—Herrenchiemsee, modeled after Versailles, and Linderhof, a cottage-sized palace by comparison—are worth visits on their own, but only Neuschwanstein has risen to become an international phenomenon.

Yet it remains unfinished.

Sure it’s picturesque in this view, but you should see the inside.
[Note: Photo used without permission; please don't sue us.]

When we arrived at the castle grounds in Hohenschwangau (another mouthful), we found we had to buy our tickets at the bottom of a hill and then make a 30-minute climb on foot. (Disabled tours are available, but if you are disabled, trust us: don’t even go there.) When we reached the castle entrance, out of breath and hoping to find a bench or maybe an oxygen tent, we realized instead that we had inadvertently wandered into the queue for the tour, a half-hour cattle call with no stops. We were rewarded with some amazing views, however, so we didn’t have to beat the crap out of anyone.

The guide shepherded us through the vast castle, all the while regaling us with tales about the rooms Ludwig obviously cared about: the fourteen rooms decorated to within a centimeter of their lives. These included the throne room, Ludwig’s suite, and the amazing Singers’ Hall. The castle had its surprises, too. Its dining table could be cranked down to the kitchen below like a dumb waiter on steroids. What we liked best of all, though, were the paintings in Singers’ Hall. Some of them had characters carelessly dangling an arm or leg out of the frame in three dimensions, as if they might step out of the picture and ask us what the hell we were doing there. In guttural German, of course.

In contrast to the ostentatious beauty of these rooms, most of the castle is quite empty. Between the visions of rococo reality, the guide hurried us through rooms that lacked, well, everything. The plaster walls were white and cracking, and not a stick of furniture intruded on the wooden floors. A barn would have been more inviting.

We realized we’d had to pay a flat fee to get the tour, but it only covered a minuscule amount of the actual square footage. Despite the grandeur of the finished sections, the castle is mostly unfinished, like a blank canvas with a tiny painted corner everyone swoons over. It’s like buying a three-bedroom house, but only furnishing the closets. You’d think the good German people would do something, anything, to finish the job Mad King Ludwig started. We’d have paid extra to see that.

Lessons Learned: Tours are available in English, but book in advance. If you must go for a visit, travel down from Munich when you’re bored of drinking or shopping or museum-hopping. But keep in mind that you, along with the other 5,999 others that particular day, won’t see a finished product. It is incomplete, a work in progress whose progress has stopped for good.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 4
Customer Dis-service: 4
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 2
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 3
Fun Fraction: 3/5
Vibe-Rating: 2

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Munich International Airport
Native Population: 14,000
Normal Attractions: The German Alps, lakes, everything you need for a romantic getaway. Don’t be surprised, however, if the environs impact your date’s mood enough so that you cannot finish with a happy ending.
Final Point of Interest: Neuschwanstein isn’t the only castle in the neighborhood. Visit Hohenschwangau, too.

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