Here’s a story about why finding great food can require great weirdness.
Let’s imagine your cruise ship is stopping off at Barcelona, and you only have a few hours. Whatever you do, there’s that gently nerve-shredding clock ticking away in the back of your mind, and getting lost is not an option. You want simplicity, guidance, and a route marked out in semi-patronising obviousness. Well hola, La Rambla! Before you stretches a 1.2 kilometre long tree-lined avenue filled with stalls, pavement restaurants and all sorts of colourful clutter.
Everyone’s going there. So this must be what people do in Barcelona! All of them!
Twenty minutes later, after half-heartedly weighing up the apparent merits of one eatery against another (“ooh, this plate of badly-Photoshopped fried eggs & chips is 2 Euros less than it is over there!”) you’re eating the worst food available in a city renowned for its fine cuisine.
But look: that’s understandable. Really. Everyone around you is doing it as well, and like them, you only have a few hours, so you’re going for the no-brainer option. It makes sense – even though years to come, when asked about Barcelona, you’ll say, “It’s like a huge boulevard thing with trees, and the food was ok, but I’ve had better at home.”
It’s not Barcelona’s fault either. It’s not the fault of the restauranteers, or the hawkers, or Cunard, or P & O Cruises, or anyone else. Looking at this vast machine for funnelling tourists towards low-quality experiences and presuming it’s designed to be that way…well, you’re missing the point. La Rambla started out as a sewage-strewn stream bed, but these days it’s airy, well-tended, and rather lovely – if you discount some of the things it’s filled with. It’s lined with greenery and beautiful stonework, and when the sun hits it, it’s ablaze with colour. Don’t be a jerk and blame La Rambla.
So who or what is left to blame? Back to yourself? Totally UNFAIR. How are you supposed to know about the Three Golden Rules? Are you forgiven for sticking to this hyper-suggestive landing strip of a route, sticking to it with the nervous fervour of a foreigner in a strange city who absolutely cannot afford to lose his or her way back? Yes! Can you be blamed for wanting to remain comfortable and safe (the whole point of going on a cruise, surely?) and not wanting to do anything weird?
Of course not.
But you’re still ending up with a plate of really expensive fried eggs & chips.
In frickin’ Barcelona.
I like to think I understand all these things. I like to think I’m being tolerant and empathetic when I say, “each to their own, some people like to have managed, predictable experiences, blah blah.” And I’m an independent traveller, not a cruise-shipper, so, that too.
But I don’t believe them. Not really.
I don’t believe them because I don’t believe anyone goes on holiday to deliberately have overpriced, crappy food. I don’t believe anyone wants to visit a city for the first time and not be able to remember anything truly good about it. And I don’t believe them because I’ve done those things in various places, and then revisited those places with a different attitude (and forearmed with much smarter advice) and ended up having a vastly more enjoyable time.
So to hell with not being judgemental. Maybe this is just too important.
Here’s what I believe to be a couple of universally applicable rules for experiencing a place for the first time – particularly if time is short.
1. Ask In Advance
Exploring is for people with the luxury of time. Explore where it’s non-essential (see 2), but when it comes to something as important as food, plan ahead. Ask where the city’s residents eat. Ask where is good and cheap and near where you’ll be arriving. Ask lots of obvious questions that will save you a ton of time, and do it before you even set off travelling. Implicitly ask by reading; explicitly ask by asking.
There is no shame in asking, other than the humility that comes from looking your ignorance square in the eye.
So – ask.
2. Avoid The Bleedin’ Obvious
Everyone is walking up La Rambla and avoiding all the shady side-streets.
Except – nope, they aren’t. Look harder. The cruise ship tourists are avoiding the side-streets.
If you go that way you’ll enter the Raval, which used to have a dodgy reputation but is now safe and, importantly for your stomach, filled with amazing multi-ethnic restaurants. And if you go this way, you’re in the Barri Gòtic, the centre of the old city where the ancient Roman fortress once stood.
In both of these areas, you’re going to have to work really hard to find an overpriced plate of egg & chips.
(But you know that already, because you asked about it in advance, right?)
Whatever you do and wherever you go, look for the other things. Look at what the bulk of everyone else is doing and look for alternatives. Look for people doing something a bit weird. Ask yourself, “What would be a really weird thing to do here, considering the face-slapping obviousness of the alternatives on offer?”
Flirt with that idea in your mind, until it’s making you sweat a bit – and then, when you’ve plucked up your courage, go do something a bit odd.
I’m sure there are many exceptions. I’m sure that in some cases, “do something weird” is the most dangerously misery-attracting advice possible. And sometimes I love going somewhere without knowing a damn thing about the place before I arrive. Treat these rules as suggestions (because who am I to tell you how to travel?).
But over the last 25 years – my adult travelling life – every time I’ve bucked these rules, either ignoring the experts or my own ability to be weird in any conceivable situation, I’ve had a crappy travel experience, and usually a truly wretched dinner as well.
Call me judgemental if you like . . . but we all deserve better.