Travel off the beaten path lets you explore and be surprised. It’s the lesser-known places that offer the most authentic experiences.
Polish poet Stanislaw Jachowicz once wrote about his countrymen’s tendency to praise anything foreign while not knowing what they have themselves. It sounds better (and rhymes) in the original, but it just means the grass is always greener elsewhere.
It’s also meaningful when you consider how people spend their vacations. When it comes to Poles, many travel abroad for weekend getaways but few ever visit the cities a few hours from home.
There’s nothing as exciting as far-off destinations and foreign cultures. But sometimes this drive to explore makes us overlook what’s under our nose. Sometimes we take our closer surroundings for granted.
When I lived in Poland, I passed by Plock on my way back home to Warsaw after a weekend on the Baltic coast. I didn’t know much about the small city except that it sits on the Vistula river.
Plock isn’t on any lists of top attractions, but that night it looked more beautiful than many other tourist-filled cities. Massive, illuminated cathedral spires, a castle and church stood on a steep hill that dropped down to the river, where the lights of the city were reflected in yellow and red. It looked like an old kingdom linked to the modern world by a slim bridge.
I quickly put Plock on the itinerary when a friend and I took a week-long trip across Poland. We first visited a few well-known cities. When we finally arrived in Plock, our family called to ask how our trip was going. They’d been enthusiastic about other places we’d seen, but in Plock they only asked: “What the hell are you doing there?”
When I look back at photos from that trip, ironically most of them are from Plock: from the stunning park above the Vistula where we wandered in morning fog through towering trees, church towers and a castle that peeked through the mist like a femme fatale in a film noir.
Off the beaten path trips are often most memorable because they’re our own discoveries. No travel guides, friends’ recommendations or anything else steers us. These journeys leave us surprised because we arrive with nothing telling us what to expect.
The Egypt less travelled
Since I moved to Egypt, I’ve travelled off the tourist itinerary and got similar reactions.
“Why did you go to Mahalla?” a friend asked after I returned from the Nile Delta city that sparked the January 25 Revolution. I wanted to ask, “Why haven’t you gone yet?”
I know there aren’t many hotel choices or family fun parks there to keep visitors entertained. But seeing the textile factory where workers first tore down Hosni Mubarak posters — or go inside as far as security would allow — was an experience worth the harrowing minibus trip from Ramses Station.
Similarly, when thousands of Egyptians travel in the summer to the crowded beaches of Alexandria, I prefer the smaller cities. In Port Said you can cross the waters by ferry into Port Fuad, have a fish lunch, and watch the boats heading to the Suez Canal over tea in the sand.
I’ve taken some amazing trips to Egypt’s major tourist sites, but I’ve had more authentic and memorable experiences in the lesser-known places.
There are still many I’d love to see, and the list keeps growing. There are the old cotton plantations of the Nile Delta, small fishing villages and coastal cities like Damietta or the belle epoque hotels of Cairo.
Understandably, large tourism companies don’t offer packaged tours to such destinations. But it’s harder to understand why so few residents are interested in exploring them.
Travel off the beaten path may not offer the photo opps you’d get in Giza, but it makes you feel like a true explorer: discovering the unknown and roaming free.