One of our valued travel journalists, Neil Kreeger, expert in New York, South African lodges and Paris' culinary delights, puts the word 'secret' back into context as a counter-argument to the industry's current (and extremely annoying) habit of overusing the term with numerous guide books on the market promising travellers a destination's secrets and tips on how to shop, eat, drink and breathe like a local.Whether there has been a recent rise in the number of these types of publications and articles or whether I have for some reason only just noticed them is hard to say, but there seems to be an obsession amongst journalists at the moment for letting the general public in on the so-called secrets of cities. Claiming to contain information, sights, monuments etc that absolutely no one knows about and that are so far off the tourist trail that you have to be Edmund Hillary in order to visit, these publications seem to be taking over from the more traditional guides and even from forums where travellers exchange experiences and give recommendations (without, we add, boasting that they were the first to have discovered a particular point of interest). To be frank, these incoherent, self-righteous and superfluous guides are starting to get on my nerves.
As soon as you publish a piece of information that you claim to be a secret, it is by definition no longer a secret. It would be like excitedly exclaiming to your best friend that you plan on throwing a surprise party for them. These guides and articles should therefore in fact be called, for example, "The top 10 secret cafés in Paris that are secret no more because I here within blow their cover", or perhaps "What used to be secret New York until the publication of this book on secret New York."
Quite apart from this evident contradiction, there are no secrets anymore. People are travelling more than ever, information is being exchanged across the globe on the internet and what might be a 'secret' to one person (in that that person has never heard of it) is something extremely familiar to another person. What's more, it's not like anyone is actively hiding some aspect of a city from anyone passing through. Cities are for the most part open books, free for anyone to explore and discover in their own way. If I happened to stumble upon a local restaurant in Barcelona frequented only by locals, they would not all suddenly rise from their seats, form a human wall in front of it and pretend it didn't exist. It's not a secret. It just happens not to be along the main tourist route. If a visitor is that interested in the 'real' Barcelona they will find it for themselves; no need to give them a list of 'secrets' to check off a list. And if they are not that interested, well then they won't buy the guide or read the article anyway.
And anyway, do tourists actually need to know about this restaurant in Barcelona? In a city like Barcelona, if the food was that good word would have got out a long time ago and there would no longer be a 'secret' to divulge. And why is it that you suddenly have to 'become a local' as soon as you leave your home town? It requires years of living in a place to become anywhere close to being a local so why embarrass yourself trying to order, behave and eat like someone from Barcelona?
If you flick through a guide book which asserts having regrouped many of the secrets of a city, many of them will actually be things which a) are not secret at all, b) have only made the cut because they have a quirky fact about them - the knowledge of which will add absolutely nothing to your visit, and/or c) are little known for good reason: because they are of no interest at all. Indeed, much of the material in these publications includes places the equivalent of which we would never feel the need to visit in our own backyard, so why on Earth would we develop an interest while abroad? It seems to me like a bit of a con, as if travel authors and publishers have run out of ideas for material and are creating excuses to put together an ultimately valueless book that people will be fooled into buying in the hope they will suddenly become a true local.
What's wrong with what a city is famous for anyway? Just because something is a 'secret' or not well known it doesn't make it more interesting than what is famous. There is much to admire about the Eiffel Tower, the Sagrada Familia or the Empire State Building. Even if you have been to Paris 10 times, you may still want to visit the Eiffel Tower as it holds such an important place in the city's landscape and arguably symbolises the city in a way that nothing else could. Sometimes you can search too far to be wowed when what you're looking for is in fact right under your nose.
I'm not for a moment suggesting that travellers shouldn't experience something other than just the main attractions of a city. What I object to are claims of secrecy and the constant pursuit of what is put across as ways of differentiating yourself as a traveller. There is nothing worse than being smug with inconsequential facts about someone else's city. There are no such things as secrets today. Just let people discover places themselves and if it's worth knowing about they'll find it.
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