On Preparation, and how to enjoy history properly

As a kid, my parents dragged me to half a million fascinating places between Portugal and Germany, and I have clear memories of quite a few of them. The common element of all those memories, though, is that I frequently barely even remember the historical or cultural significance of the place, but rather some silly anecdotal event that happened. Getting lost as an eight year old in the Schönbrunn palace and deciding to continue on with a random tour group I found, or carrying our pet cat through an abandoned-feeling monastery in Spain. There’s a place I went in Germany which I couldn’t describe as anything except ‘the place we watched a squirrel run up a vertical wall’.

Obviously, unless it’s a particular hobby of theirs, children are rarely as fascinated by who-lived-here-when and who-died-how as adults are. But even travelling as an adult I’ve found that a lot of the time, seeing the must-see sights of this famous city or that can be, rather, well, boring. This is despite my being both keenly interested in and possessed of a relatively well-developed understanding of Western history.

Almost everything is wonderful if I read the helpful placards and remember which king Henry VIII was (the one with all the wives, FYI) and what else was happening in the world at that time (European expansionism, mostly) because then I can put personalities to the scenes in front of me, whether it be an ornate display of the tea-table or a half-destroyed dungeon where some political prisoner was kept. That is without debate: it is amazing to see the remnants and reproductions of how these famous characters from our cultural development and their fellow man lived.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time, you don’t really know the specifics of what you’re visiting. Yes, the Arc de Triomphe is an impressive monument in and of itself, but if you’re very vague on what Napoleon actually did except be made fun of by modern day students for being short, it doesn’t mean a great deal beyond that. The solution is surely to read the informative plaques that inevitably accompany any popular tourist site, but even then, the information might not be available in your language or it might be too dreadfully brief and expect you to already be well-versed in the exact succession of royalty in Hungary in the 18th century. Not many of us, sadly, are. Guided tours are often perfect for filling these gaps, but might be impossible due to timing, language barriers or costs.

What’s the solution, then? Should we confine ourselves only to seeking out the historical monuments we already know the history for? Of course not. The answer, while perhaps a little unattractive, is to read up beforehand. It sounds counterintuitive to think that you should be studying for your holidays, but the fact remains that you’ll get more genuine enjoyment out of what you’re seeing if you know why you’re supposed to be enjoying it. That’s why people get tours, after all – to have someone explain why they should care. But it’s easy to do it yourself, too, whether by buying a guidebook or just letting yourself fall into the rabbit hole that is link-hopping on Wikipedia. And as an added bonus, you can customise your research to include exactly what it is that interests you most – though you do run the risk of ending up completely off topic and wanting to go visit another three different sites because of what you’ve read about them!

In simple terms, unless you’re ready to throw yourself on fate’s /hands/ and hope that there will be adequate information that fits neatly into the jigsaw puzzle of what you already know, or, at least, an interesting event involving small furry animals, it’s nothing but a good investment to be prepared with all the facts you need to truly impress everyone with all your brand-new knowledge about the place you’re going to – even before you get on the plane.

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