Travel: The truth about Hitler and that seafood restaurant in Barcelona

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The Independent Travel
AS A SCHOOLBOY I remember being taken to see the spot where the Battle of Bosworth Field was supposed to have taken place. My God, I thought, the place where the history of England changed forever: this really had to be something.

Except that the field in fact turned out disappointingly ordinary. It was green and square and surrounded by hedgerows. I stared gloomily at the grass waiting for great historical insights. None came.

At the time, I put this down to my own lack of imagination. Where I saw an autumnal patch of damp grass, others (no doubt) were coming to profound conclusions about the nature of Tudor Britain.

Or were they? Could it actually have been the case that sites with "historic connotations" were actually con tricks, devised by local authorities as a means of enticing visitors with time on their hands? Was it, in other words, an Emperor's Clothes trick?

Probably not. I suspect that I was missing the point of why people bother to go out of their way to visit historical sites. It is nothing to do with being literal and stumbling upon real truths. It is all to do with imagining how things might have been.

In these very pages for example, we alleged in an article that Hitler visited a restaurant in Barcelona and "raved about the food there". The number of people who have since written (including the head of tourism in Barcelona) to assure us that Hitler never went anywhere near Spain leads us to suspect that the story may indeed have been apocryphal.

As a matter of fact, we do do our best to authenticate the information in these pages. But in another sense, who cares whether or not the story was true. Imagine what a fascinating thing it would have been if Adolf Hitler had dined in that restaurant and raved about the food. All right so today's food, decor and service are unlikely to contain clues of the Fuhrer 's visit, because historic connotations never reveal themselves anyway. But if people are going to make up extraordinary stories about Hitler ducking into fish restaurants in Barcelona and going home to tell his mates about it, it seems churlishly dull and unimaginative to protest.

Along the same lines, tourists have also recently been reported doing a crawl around the London pubs where Karl Marx allegedly used to get drunk. The mere idea of sitting in a pub where the father of world communism may once have cogitated on Das Kapital is obviously another cracking touristic experience.

Did Marx wet his beard for example? Was he a jovial philanthropist, shouting beers for his mates, or was he a narrow twisted pervert, sipping Prussian vodka in the corner? Visiting those old pubs will provide no answers whatsoever to these questions but will give us a damn good excuse to speculate about them.

Basically, truth is the last thing on our minds when we go out to enjoy ourselves. The queue of visitors to see Sherlock Holmes at 221B Baker Street has never been longer. And most of us are happy to visit ersatz bars in small English towns decorated in 1930s-Chicago-gangster style, in the full knowledge that we are not in Chicago and that it is not the 1930s.

Turning pubs and eateries into theme-locations featuring dead ideologues sounds like a promising new fashion. Let someone start a rumour that Pol Pot used to dine in a small brasserie near the Champs Elysees for example. In no time, tour guides will be spinning apocryphal yarns about the nature of Pol Pot's favourite dishes, stories which may subsequently worm their way into the travel supplements of newspapers. We will all have been strung along but ultimately no-one will be much the worse for it.

No-one, that is, except for those pedantic school-children who insist on looking for real truths in their tourist sites.

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