OVER the years and many travels all over Europe, the US and occasionally even further afield, we have learned to take advantage of the benefits of local knowledge. It’s hardly an original notion, but I am constantly amazed by people who go somewhere with an idee fixe and consequently only find what they expect, go somewhere with no idea of anything and find nothing or, worse still, go somewhere with the intention of finding fault and then vent their vitriolic, bile-laden, ignorant prejudices on Trip Advisor.
Our experiences, based on a combination of years of magpie gathering of random facts and talking to people wherever we go, has been that even the most miserable or boring journey can produce some memorable moments and that following the suggestions of locals can lead to delights we could not possibly have otherwise discovered.
The inspiration for a journey can have an improbable starting point – a lifelong love of tennis and admiration for the greatest woman grass court player led us to a winter holiday in a remote village in the Krokonose mountains of what was still Czechoslovakia; a passing comment, “Yonder the Piggly-Wiggly” in the film Driving Miss Daisy, took us on a trip to Mississippi and Louisiana, to see this southern institution, which grew from the original supermarket (the very first self-service store, with its “wiggly” aisles is in a museum in Memphis, Tennessee); and a passion for the paintings of Lukas Cranach took us to the ancient German city of Wittenburg, not long after the Berlin Wall came down and the divided country was reunited. Luther was a friend of Cranach and many of the great artist’s paintings are on the walls of the city’s churches where Luther preached.
Following local knowledge – which may be from natives or other visitors – can help you find affordable restaurants where locals eat, interesting sites and views which aren’t in the guidebooks, and routes which are off the beaten tourist track.
When the children were young we spent many holidays at a little gite amid the vineyards close to the Dordogne, and found many places – shops, cafes, castles, ancient churches, lakes where we could swim – thanks to the local knowledge of the owners.
A visit to Venice – one of our favourite cities – was made even more memorable by a German friend who found a family restaurant near our locanda. Il Mascaron had hand-written signs that said (in Italian) “no credit cards” and “no English menu.” The menu was short and directly related to the fish purchased in the famous Rialto market each day, the portions were generous, and after three days we all felt like family too.
On a summer holiday to Colorado with my teenage son and daughter we were talking about visiting the 700 year old cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. But it was a busy holiday weekend and a coffee vendor in a Denver market told us to avoid the crowds and queues at Mesa Verde and instead visit Hovenweep, a hardly known archaeological site from the same period. He was right – a long dirt track into the desert, with the mystical Ship Rock on the horizon, was rewarded with a chance to explore the atmospheric ruins entirely on our own.
On another trip, this time exploring Kentucky and Tennessee, we took the advice of a Chinese record shop-owner in Louisville to find and follow what we thought was the “Berticone Parkway” and turned out to be the Bert T Combs Mountain Parkway, through beautiful eastern Kentucky, named after the state governor who initiated the building of the 76 mile highway.
One of our favourite diversions happened in the depths of winter at the place known as Four Corners where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet – Navajo craftswomen selling their jewellery and weavings in the snow told us to go to “Goosenecks” on our way to Monument Valley, but wouldn’t tell us why, just laughing and saying we must go. So we did. A long detour to we knew not what, over snowy high desert. When we got there, we saw nothing. A bit frustrated, I got out of the car and walked over to the information board, then realised the ground just a couple of yards from my feet dropped away in a sheer cliff, 1,000 feet deep, to where the San Juan river has carved some of the world’s most dramatic meanders. Breathtaking.
Our most recent trip to California, where my daughter and her family live, brought two new delights. A Lyme Regis friend, who worked in San Francisco for some years, recommended a great deli and cheesemaker, Cowgirl Creamery at Point Reyes Station, near the Pacific coast national park where we watched elephant seal and looked for whales. And the cook at our B&B in Santa Barbara told us about a restaurant which took us right back to our own teenage years when singers sang of San Francisco and we all wore tie-dye and hoped for world peace. The Inn of the Seventh Ray at Topanga Canyon, a dreamily beautiful natural canyon, unbelievably just minutes from Santa Monica and Los Angeles, is an open-air restaurant by a quiet creek, where squirrels and an eye-browed thrush foraged, the atmosphere and the music are Zen-influenced but the food is 21st century contemporary, with everything as fresh and local as possible.
We don’t use satnav – we use maps, which come in useful when a fatal smash closes the interstate or autoroute and you have to find your own way round. The directions we like come from the people we meet – if someone says: “You must go there,” we do.