Stop, look and listen: travel and unseen history

The world around us is, as I embarrassingly proclaimed in my personal statement, infused with history. Physical monuments and the stories that they tell provide a rich depth to the world around us. When I travel I love to learn a little more about my destination, it background, culture and why it is as it is. It gives me a sense of connection, a greater knowledge about which places are the best to go to and, for certain areas, a helpful bit of revision. Yet sometimes the conventional historical locations fail to captivate me.

For many of us, our encounters with history on our travels are limited to the set piece locations of postcard fame. Eye catching destinations such as the Acropolis and the Sphinx are fascinating monuments both in their past and in our presents. By all means they are incredibly impressive and beautiful, but they are, at least in my view, too large, too commodified, too taken over by their own size to be able to convey any sense of historic power or depth. Rather, these have simply become large architectural equivalents of green screens, to be filtered, posed in front of and generally prodded and poked into conveying the broader message, rather than their historical meaning.

For me it has always been the small things, the little side streets and the monuments, the hidden and the tucked away, the overlooked and the passed by, that have given true memories to my visits both at home and abroad. I clearly remember visiting France, touring the battlefields, seeing the set piece monuments and the tales of such death and then, driving to a small French village, seeing their slightly decrepit monument. Upon closer inspection, however, something about it struck me. Almost two sides of this three sided obelisk were taken up by the names of the dead of the Algerian War whereas the dead of the second world war — often thrust to the forefront of the tourist experience — was relegated to the bottom in less than a half dozen names. This village, its people, its history and its culture were shaped by a war in the hot desert of North Africa in a conflict that I doubt many of the tourists milling around France had ever heard of. Only by examining this monument, giving it a few seconds of my time, did I fully come to understand something, little as it may have been, about the world around me.

For me it has always been the small things.

Visiting these monuments, minor as they may seem, can give a depth to your destination, a richness to every little bit of the world that you pass through. They help us to understand where we visit, they give us a greater sense of attachment to your destination, an emotional understanding and connection to a village, city or even just a street that can only be gained by seeing some small part of its formation.

For me, I had the privilege to visit Sicily just over a year ago. Sicily is a place of truly great historical significance. Yet, through getting lost en-route to the great Churches and palaces of the 11th Century, I stumbled across a small monument, placed up against a Church wall on the side of a hill. Not a grand gold-plated palace, or a basilica of stone and power, but rather a monument to the victims of Mafia violence. Nobody flew here to see it, nobody asked directions in broken Italian for it, it wasn’t marked on any maps, yet here it was, a monument to the lived experiences of so many Sicilians and to the character of part of this island.

It is those little things that add to travel, the plaque to that locally famous poet, the statue of some long-lost son and the memorial to those lost in some long-forgotten war. When we travel we taste their food, we judge their clothes, we attempt to learn their language, yet we, all too often, do not take the time to dip our toes into the history that is so formative to that rich tapestry. So the next time you go on holiday, whether in the UK or abroad, take a few moments. Go look at that ruined Abbey, Google Translate that sign or peer at some moss covered bust. Who knows what you’ll find.

It is those little things that add to travel.