Recently, my travels have been focused very much on Europe again (see: Spain, Italy, Portugal, and more). And as I’m visiting old castles, reading plaques, and listening to audio guides, it occurs to me that I’m engaging with these things in a different way than I did many years ago.
While I’ve seen more castles, museums, and churches than I can remember, it seems that I once often only skimmed the surface of what makes them so interesting.
A crucial element was often missing from my early European trips: a better understanding of the insanely intertwined history of the continent.
Once you really get into the history, traveling in Europe gains so many new layers. This is obviously true for any travel destination, but I find it’s doubly so in Europe.
Still, the history isn’t always that easy to get into.
Tell me: have you ever been on a tour of some historical place and found all those historical facts and figures simply entering one ear and exiting the other?
I hate to admit it, but this has often happened to me. And that’s despite being generally into history.
I mean, I’ve always really wanted to care about this palatial room or other having been built during, I don’t know, the reign of King Blah the Noble of the Fifth Habsburgian Empire During the Mid-Early Pre-Renaissance Era (??) — but do I really care? Can I really connect to this?
There have been many times where I simply couldn’t.
And I’m surely not the only one who ever felt that way!
I think the problem is that what’s often missing from the facts and figures on museum signs, on plaques, and in tour guide soundbites is a broader context. Despite loving history class back in high school, it’s still not always obvious how to connect all the dots.
I guess there was only so much they could cover in school. As far as the curriculum went: basically the Romans came, some dudes had their heads chopped with guillotines, and then two World Wars happened. (Sorry, did that go too fast?)
It’s obviously helpful knowing the broad strokes of world history and its most consequential eras. But this still often doesn’t equip you to understand the significance of specific towns, regions, or historical sites when you travel, not to mention all the whirling histories of countries that weren’t major powers at the time — or just didn’t figure much into your country’s version of history.
The more you travel, the more you realize you don’t know. But I find that with age it becomes easier to give all that history a proper place, probably because you’ve had more time to put some of the pieces together.
But I also owe my increased appreciation — and things will take a bit of a twist here — to playing video games.
Maybe that’s surprising, but there are video games that can teach you a lot about history. As a geeky kid I loved to play the strategy game Sid Meier’s Civilization, which absolutely isn’t historical at all (the joke is that Gandhi always ends up nuking you). But later I played games like Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings, simulations that can include real events, places, and personalities.
Thanks to these games, many of the more specific (even obscure) pieces finally fell into place.
For example, as I’m writing this I’m in Andalucia in Spain, a region which was once under Moorish control. Playing Europa Universalis some years ago as the Muslim nation of Granada — and fighting desperately against the Reconquista — made me understand this period in a way that hadn’t clicked for me so much before.
By playing these games, I finally understood why in Croatia the coastal areas feel completely different from inland — and why people there often insist on calling themselves Dalmatians and not Croatians. Of course! All that shit used to be controlled by the merchant republic of Venice… and was later part of Italy! Duh!
I know now not just because I saw a sign in a museum, but because I was the Venetians in the game. I fought bitterly with Genoa, that other major merchant republic. Managing trade routes throughout the Mediterranian made me truly understand how these two powers were once so influential.
By messing around with history interactively, it gave me more of a structure for all the stuff they skipped over in school. This sort of Trojan Horsed me into the previously impenetrable walls of the intricacies of European history.
Those dull names and dates in museums? I actually give a shit now! (Most of the time, anyway.)
Those history sections at the end of the Lonely Planet? It’s freaking catnap to me! I snort it!
Okay, it’s not like I travel with a stack of history books now or anything. But these days I do like to go on a bit of a Wikipedia history binge as part of my trip research. Before I went to Estonia last year, I loved reading about the Northern Crusades. When I visited castles in Romania, knowing they once marked the frontier with the mighty Ottoman Empire made them truly come alive. I could easily picture armies roving through the valleys and trade routes snaking through them.
It’s a lot of fun finding unexpected connections between places you’ve been to — for me especially in Europe. As you rove around the continent, you can find yourself not just traveling through space but through time. You see not just the modern country, but get to think about that whole layer cake of previous versions beneath it.
Whenever I think I’m getting sick of seeing ‘just another church’ or ‘just another castle’, I find there are always more interesting layers to peel away from that big old stinky onion of history.
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