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5 Questions for Liam Hetherington

Posted on January 17, 2008 in Traveler of the Week

With a vast appreciation of art and history and a great it’s-the-journey-not-the-destination attitude that is evident in each of his dozen journals, New Travel Writer of the Year Liam Hetherington is no travel rookie. No matter where he goes, from Mongolia to his hometown of Manchester, he brings along his open mind, a thirst for knowledge, and something to write with so he can share his experiences. He is able to find positive things in every moment of his travels, whether they’re supposed to happen or not. Liam Hetherington’s honest opinions and intelligent writing make us proud that he shares his travels with us, and happy that he was voted New Travel Writer of the Year!

IgoUgo: It seems you tend to devote more than one journal to a particular destination. Are these different trips or are you looking to highlight different aspects of the same trip? For example, you mention you have visited Poland three times; were you on a stag-party trip when you followed the Pope Train?
Liam Hetherington: I do like to travel about an area when I get there, often trying to link together places of interest in what limited time I have off from work. So, for instance, I visited Venice, Padova, and Verona all in the same week-long trip; likewise, in one week I was able to travel up from Salzburg through Ceske Budejowice and Cesky Krumlov to Prague. Previous journeys prior to joining IgoUgo have included a loop of the Baltic from Vilnius in Lithuania up to Tampere in Finland, and traveling overland from St. Petersburg to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Express. I believe that the journey can often be just as rewarding as the destination itself, whether it involves lazing on a felucca as it tacks up the Nile, bonding with Mongolian smugglers over noodles and vodka as your train ploughs east through Siberia, or holding on for dear life while huddled in the boot of a Peruvian taxi as the driver accelerates around hair-pin bends above sheer thousand-foot drops.

At the same time, there are certain cities I tend to revisit, either because they are good nodes from which to travel out, or just because I like them so much that I enjoy getting a deeper knowledge of them. Certainly Prague and Krakow, both of which I have visited three times, would fall into the latter category, as would Riga and St. Petersburg (twice each). The first three of those cities I have visited as part of a stag group. I was in Krakow on such a trip when I took the Pope Train to Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. I had arrived a day earlier than the rest of the group, and was looking for a trip out of the city as a chance to see a bit more of Poland. As it was, the insight it delivered into the importance of Catholicism to Poland even today provided a very interesting counterpoint to the students we later met in the bars and clubs of Krakow.

IgoUgo: “Pilgrimage” is a term used throughout many of your journals, and churches feature prominently. You are a self-proclaimed agnostic, but do you treat your travels as pilgrimages?
Liam Hetherington: In a way, yes; pilgrimages were traditionally a way to become closer to one's god and hence were spiritual exercises. They still exist today, but maybe not by such a name. Why else would people force themselves to hike for three days along the Inca Trail when there is a perfectly good train that gets you to Machu Picchu in a couple of hours? The journey has become part and parcel of the appeal of the destination. In some ways, the blisters and aching calves are all part of a penitential act—a thought process that states that we are not worthy of seeing this legendary lost city unless we suffer for it. What are your travels to all the away games of your long-struggling football team if not a triumph of faith over experience? What is that once-in-a-lifetime visit to Graceland if not a modern-day pilgrimage, viewing the relics of Elvis Presley in the same way others visit the tombs of St. Francis of Assisi or Thomas à Becket?

The reason churches feature so prominently in my travels is maybe tied up with why I am an agnostic. These religious sites have become repositories for the treasures of the world. To me it seems like it is a rare Italian church that does not have a Titian, a Caravaggio, or a Fra' Angelico on its walls. Yet to marvel at the gold reliquaries, the exquisite artistic altarpieces, the finely carved mahogany choir stalls, and then to step back out into the real world of Lima, or Manila, or La Paz, with their beggars and slums and grinding poverty, is like a slap in the face. And it often seems to be those with nothing who are content to wait for the riches of heaven. The opiate of the masses, indeed.

While the concept of organized religion has never really sat well with me, I have always been deeply impressed by acts of simple piety, and deeply envious of those who do possess the sort of faith (of any persuasion) that cannot be shaken by such contrasts. And I am an unapologetic believer in the transformational power of culture. I can still recall the sense of fulfillment I felt wandering alone along the Great Wall of China, wondering at Giotto's luminous frescoes in Padova's Capella degli Scrovegni, or espying my first Monet in the Hermitage and understanding what all the fuss was about.

IgoUgo: You say you want to visit all the UNESCO World Heritage sites—a lofty goal at 851. Is this project linked to the amount of history you include in your journals? How is your checklist going so far?
Liam Hetherington: I first stumbled across this list in the summer of 2004. In the intervening three-and-a-half years I have been fortunate enough to visit 53 sites in 18 different countries. It is a goal that I know that I will never accomplish, but it is nice to have something to aim for. Additionally, it has led me on very rewarding detours that I perhaps ordinarily would not have taken—such as the side trip to Kalwaria Zbrzydowska from Krakow mentioned above, or Cesky Krumlov, Novgorod, the monastery of St. Katherine in the Sinai. These were all places that I specifically sought out because they were on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and I came away feeling much richer for the experience.

One thing I will never deny is that I am a history nerd. I studied it at university and have a deep fascination for why something came to be. The castles that dot the north Welsh coast are spectacular, and I remember childhood trips running about the battlements with a stick for sword. The real story behind their existence is that King Edward I of England sited them there to pacify the Welsh and keep them under his (armed) thumb. Knowing that, I think, helps you to better understand why they exist the way they do. Again, the Palazzo Ducale in Venice is one of the most stunning buildings in Europe. How much more stunning to appreciate that it was pretty much unique in its day in that it was not built by monarch or church, but rather to glorify the city's republican constitution. It returns once again to my interest in faith. What caused the pharaohs to raise the hypostile hall at Karnak? How were so many grandiose gothic cathedrals raised across Dark Age Europe when the majority of the population lived in mud huts? Why is it that some of the most beautiful works of art I have ever seen happen to be in a small private chapel in Padova? Belief, or at least lip-service to belief, explains their presence. Certainly in the case of the Scrovegni, the chapel was a sort of cosmic bribe to ensure a place in heaven, paid for from the proceeds of the infamous family's usury.

IgoUgo: Your latest journal, Riga – The Bad Boy of the Baltics, was fantastic, earning Top-Rated honors for its in-depth mix of restaurants and things to do. It also speaks to a larger trend of stag and hen parties that have been frequenting the city; a fact that you bring up in your overview. Do you feel that this type of tourism can ruin or has ruined such a place, or will it level out and not spoil the wonder?
Liam Hetherington: There is always a danger with places getting overexposed and thereby losing the essence of what makes them special. Flying to Riga, Prague, or Krakow is certainly more possible than ever for Brits thanks to budget airlines, the eastern expansion of the EU, and the UK's 'reas-on-able e-conomy' (in the words of Johnny Rotten). Of course, going purely for cheap beer and strip clubs is really lowest-common-denominator tourism. You might as well be in Romford as Riga, and it has changed these cities. Visiting again this September after a gap of two years, I was shocked by the profusion of pimps and scantily dressed 'hostesses'. And on that occasion, I was actually there as part of a stag party! Yet notably my experiences differed from, say Shady Ady's. While I was disturbed by the infrastructure that had evolved to deal with stag parties, unlike him, I never actually stumbled across another such party other than my own. And while we did go out drinking, and while we did have a go at firing Kalashnikovs, we also found time to look at churches, to visit the zoo, and to do our drinking with locals. So, not all stag parties are the same, and there is some worthwhile transaction going on—young Brits experiencing another culture, and their money enriching the local economy. Is that such a crime? Prague, for instance, seems to have weathered the storm and reclaimed its streets. I have full faith Riga can follow in its footsteps.

Nor should it be just stag parties that get tagged with 'ruining' a place. I don't want to go all Year In Provence and bemoan changes and evolution that are a natural part of a location's development. International sporting events can produce exactly the same results; I remember once having to flee Temple Bar in Dublin because it was filled to the gills with braying English rugby fans, the sort of people I would normally cross the street to avoid. A glowing write-up in a travel magazine can have the same effect. As can a location's inclusion on UNESCO's World Heritage List. Places that have been included as examples of pristine natural environments often simply don't have the infrastructure or resources to manage the resulting number of people who will endeavor to visit simply because of their inclusion on a list. And I am well aware that I should count myself among this group.

The trick, then, is responsible travel, and making sure that you lessen the impact you have on your environment while doing the most good you can with your expenditure. This goes just as much for a stag trip to Riga as for a family holiday to a Mexican resort or a safari in Kenya. I would recommend http://www.responsible-travel.org as a go-to resource.

IgoUgo: Finally, you were voted as the New Travel Writer of the Year; as a seasoned traveler, how does that make you feel? Are you inspired to travel or write about a specific destination?
Liam Hetherington: It is very flattering to be voted New Travel Writer of the Year. It's always nice to know one's efforts are appreciated. I always feel like I am in excellent company. There are so many fantastic writers as part of the IgoUgo community, people who can make even the most humdrum of destinations that you would never think of visiting sound like the most vibrant place to see. And I suppose that is the lesson of IgoUgo: you can find excitement and enjoyment anywhere. There is always that one little architectural treasure, that one bustling market heaving with locals, that one quiet little restaurant with home-grown ingredients that can turn an unscheduled layover into one of the highlights of a trip. So while I may dream of the turquoise domes of golden Samarkand, the creeper-strewn ruins of Angkor Wat, or the glaciers of Tierra del Fuego, I know that there is always something worth finding wherever in the world I may end up. And as long as I can make it to an internet cafe, I am one click of a mouse away from a resource to help me find it.

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