The photo that makes the cover of a guidebook serves two purposes: to visually represent the soul of a region, and to sell a place as a traveling destination. The image sits next to countless others on a shelf attempting to stand out, all for the sake of inspiring window shoppers to plan their next adventure based on that depiction. Usually, the photo is of a well-known natural landscape or a towering man-made structure. You buy the book, read it thoroughly and start to plan and imagine what your trip will look and feel like. And then you go.
So, what do you do when you get there and that visual from the cover of your book that you just couldn’t wait to see—or maybe it wasn’t on the cover but inside the book or on your favorite travel or image site—is under restoration?
This has happened to me numerous times in my traveling life and has caused different levels of heartbreak. The first time it affected my plans was in Barcelona, Spain. I had trekked across town to see one of Gaudi’s famed Roman Catholic cathedrals. Scaffolding lined the steeples. No pictures to take, no peace to behold, just construction covering some form of beauty that I wouldn’t get to see. I walked on and forgot about it quickly. I knew I’d be back to Barcelona one day. But this continued to happen again and again–in sections of the Great Wall of China, all across Manhattan on any given day, at Diocletian’s Palace in Croatia, and most recently in Russia.
Sergiev Posad was far enough outside of Moscow that I knew I had only one shot to get the one shot. I knew that I might never be back in Sergiev Posad. It is the holiest place in Russia; its holiest church was under repair. This church was on the cover of my guidebook, the most recognizable domed Orthodox Church in Russia. Of all of the choices of what to show in a country so massive in scale and in scope, I was standing beneath the winner. “Wow,” I thought, “what beautiful scaffolding.” As an amateur photographer, I was not too upset, but my co-traveler, a pro, was. He wouldn’t have a chance that day to create his own unique image depiction of the blue-domed structure. It was perfectly hidden beneath blankets of snow and tons of steel. I encouraged him to shoot it anyway, but it just wasn’t the same.
Back in DC, I returned to work near the Capitol, where in 2013, the Washington Monument had undergone repairs after an earthquake the year before had caused structural damage in an upper section. Each day as I walked passed it, I watched thousands of tourists encircle the obelisk, their cameras fixed with great lenses that could have seen as far as Mt. Vernon. I realized: this was their shot to get the shot—and, would they ever be back here? The monument was covered from head-to-foot with a temporary structure inlayed with a lighting system that one could only see at night. “It looks ugly,” a man scoffed.
His misfortune and mine, however, could bestow a certain beauty requiring some introspection to find.
As citizens of the world, humans have come to expect repairs on the world’s great structures to happen without incident. Yet when confronted by unsightly restoration projects on our time, during our travel (especially if after a great photograph,) it can be extremely disappointing. This is a perfectly natural reaction, I think. But who are we to begrudge these buildings worthy of crossing the world to see, some beauty sleep, an occasional spruce up, a little love? Further, what is the shelf life of buildings constructed by the Ancient Greeks, by the Byzantines, by Americans during the industrial revolution? Certainly it depends on where (landscape, climate); how (with what materials and building methods); and why (what occurred there and with how many people?) the structure came into existence.
It’s an ancillary and often ignored consideration when planning a trip—that at any given time, any number of famous landmarks pictured on the front of those fabulous glossy guidebooks could be under repair. Fortunately, most small- to medium-scale restoration projects are done during off-season (which is incidentally, one of the smartest times to travel.) In my newly shifted perspective, I’ve decided that seeing the world’s great buildings under restoration is great fortune against the alternative of them being wiped from our global landscape forever.
Read about one of the world’s great architectural feats in Ancient Cities: Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina