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.

14 February 2009

Celebrate Bad Engineering!

Let’s take another trip to an otherwise popular destination, just to see how disappointing it really is. Shining the harsh (but accurate) light of reality on a place is, after all, what we do best, and it’s what you ultimately want to read about. Enjoy this sad, entertaining, true-life tale. As usual, we didn’t. —MB & JS

Among the classical ruins of the world, very few were poorly made. Time—that vicious enemy of ancient architecture—simply took its toll. The Coliseum? The Great Pyramids? The Welfare System? All were marvels in their day. Wonders of the world. Remarkable feats of humanity overcoming impossible obstacles. These icons still exist, in one form or another, and people still flock to them.

But there is one tourist destination that celebrates bad engineering, one structure that—beautiful though it may be—wouldn’t have lasted a century if it hadn’t been for some last-minute heroics. We’re speaking, of course, of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

People still visit Pisa for its tower, even though they are no longer allowed inside. People travel great distances from their comfortable homes to gaze upon a building that by all rights should have collapsed years ago. What makes it so famous?

While Italians have been justifiably maligned over the years—for their politics, their beer, and their train system—they have also contributed great things to the world. Spaghetti, expensive shoes, and Sophia Loren come immediately to mind. So why admire a building they should have reinforced with foresight? No one visits France to study the brilliance of the Maginot Line. No one visits New Orleans to ogle the levee system.

We went to see the leaning tower as young boys. After a whirlwind tour of Florence that included more statues, churches, and museums than exist in all of Alabama, our family jumped into a rented sedan and drove the fifty miles to Pisa. Along the way, our parents regaled us with descriptions so impressive, the tower took on mythic qualities usually reserved for biblical stories, like Moses living to be 700 or children being stoned to death for disobeying their parents.

By the time we arrived, we were on the lookout for a crooked Tower of Babel stretching into the clouds. Instead, we found a roadside attraction on par with the giant ball of string.

Sure, the Tower of Pisa is a pretty tower, as bell towers go. Sure, it’s an oddity. Sure, it leans a dramatic ten percent, although it’s no longer falling. But the Tower of Babel it ain’t. For starters, it’s only seven arcades (levels) high, not counting the base and the belfry. Its 293 steps fall far short of the thousands needed to reach even the Mount Vesuvius’ peak. It simply cannot compete with the fabled Tower of Babel. We were crushed.

Built over two centuries starting in 1173, the Tower of Pisa began its decline sometime before 1260. We can’t be exact, of course, since complete documentation doesn’t exist; however, we can assume that the tower was meant to be usefully vertical. This knowledge fills us with relief, but it also points to certain, um, design flaws someone made somewhere along the way.

Who made the initial mistake? No one knows for sure, since the architect carefully destroyed all references to his name and skipped town in the dead of night. Well, that’s mere speculation on our part, but as theories go, it’s as valid as any. If your masterpiece started listing to one side, wouldn’t you get out of Dodge before Dodge ran over you? This much we can surmise: just because no one knows the name of the original architect, chances are he’s no longer a card-carrying guild member.

Here’s what we’d do to the Leaning Tower of Pisa if we had our druthers.
[Note: Although this looks like Jason, it’s not. We don’t know who the hell it is, but we like the photo.]

Lessons Learned: Skip Pisa and spend more time in Florence. There’s a city with everything you could want: shops, food, and art. And crowds. It is so crowded, in fact, it makes the Los Angeles freeway system at rush hour look like a garden party. On second thought, avoid both Pisa and Florence. Go north to Genoa or south to Rome. Italy has so many sights to offer, it would be a shame to waste even one afternoon.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 4
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 3
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 1/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Pisa International Galileo Galilei Airport
Native Population: 85,000
Normal Attractions: Architecture (besides the tower), history, churches, scenic beauty.
Final Point of Interest: The great astronomer Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa, but he didn’t stay either.

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