I just spent 17 days crossing something amazing off my bucket list. In September, I cruised the Danube, Main and Rhine Rivers on a luxury boat with 160 other bedazzled tourists through six countries, past countless castles, innumerable cathedrals and more cobblestones than there are stars in heaven.
On our day excursions, we gawked our way through the narrow streets of more quaint towns than you can rattle a medieval saber at. Bratislava in Slovakia, Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic and Rothenburg in Germany, to name a few. Along the way, I shamelessly indulged in my sausage, pastry, beer and pork addictions.
I marveled at how these little towns had retained their charms while remaking themselves to face 21st century economic realities. Each of them attracts more than a million visitors every year. Crowds of tourists wend their way behind tour guides waving flags and umbrellas to keep them together, speaking in a dozen languages.
They stop for samples of gingerbread or pretzels. They shell out lots of euros for authentic souvenirs — most, of course, made in China. An occasional BMW, Mercedes or police van maneuvers carefully around the crowds, but automobiles are mostly forbidden. Clean public toilets are everywhere, but first you drop a coin in a slot.
All these towns used to do something other than sell charm, great food and trinkets. They were mill towns, government and military centers, agricultural marketplaces, usually clustered around a cathedral as the center of public life. That’s all gone with the wind.
Citizens of these towns today, for the most part, operate restaurants, stores and tourists attractions. Then they go home to “new” areas outside the medieval walls. This gives their towns a certain squeaky clean, Disney quality. Charming, quaint and wonderful, just not quite real. Not quite lived in.
I have pondered this since I returned to charming, quaint, historic Coupeville in the heart of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. It has made me more in love than ever with our historic sites, beautiful physical surroundings and great places to eat and shop. I realize that I stirred up a storm a few months ago when I poked some fun in this column at the many, many summertime visitors that come here to enjoy briefly what we get to enjoy year-round. Breathe easy, everybody. That’s not where I’m headed this time.
Unlike those old towns in Europe, Coupeville is still a government and military center and an agricultural marketplace. Most of us still live in or near town, not elsewhere, and we eat, shop and congregate here.
But, like those old towns in Europe, we are increasingly dependent on tourism for our economic growth, and in the 21st century that’s a good thing. Tourism is one of the few booming industries almost everywhere around the globe.
And here’s another good thing: Unlike some of those medieval towns in Europe, we aren’t a Disney caricature of ourselves — at least not yet. Those of us who live here and our visitors all recognize the genuine feeling of this place we call home, and that’s something to treasure and protect.
We do live in a Historical Reserve.
But for whom is it “reserved?” Fortunately, we have time to figure all this out, including how to better manage our growing popularity with tourists. All we need is the will and the consensus to do it.