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The Stendhal Syndrome

Sometimes, you just get overwhelmed by the British Museum (Photo by Andrew Stawarz)
Sometimes, you just get overwhelmed by the British Museum

Saving yourself from sightseeing overload

The French writer Stendhal collapsed one day while visiting Florence, overwhelmed by the aesthetic beauty of the Renaissance and exhausted by trying to see absolutely everything. 

Stendhal's is an extreme case, perhaps, but he’s not the last one to break down from too much Europe. You may not faint in the piazza, but you might catch a cold, become irritable and tired, or simply cease to care whether there’s another Rembrandt in that museum. And that would be a shame. 

After a few days or weeks of pell-mell sightseeing, you’ll start wearing down. When the prospect of visiting the British Museum elicits from you merely a groan and a desire to take a nap, it’s time to recharge your mental batteries. Here are some hints for working through the inevitable burnout on the daily tourist grind (see here for overall itinerary tips).

Planning the daily sightseeing grind

  • Forget fame. Don't feel like you have to see something just because it's über-famous. Don't make Europe into a giant checklist. Visit what truly interests you, and feel free to skip what doesn’t float your boat. If you’re going to wear yourself out, at least do it on the stuff you truly enjoy. 
  • Pace yourself. Soak up the kaleidoscope of Europe’s cultural pleasures a little bit at a time. Schedule in rest periods. Don’t pack too much into either your trip itinerary or your daily sightseeing agenda. Leave room to breathe, space to picnic, and time to stop and smell the Earl Grey tea.
  • Variety is the spice of your travel life. Vary your itinerary. Try not to hit one big museum after another. Visit a park, ruin, church, or simply chill out in a cafe in between. Give other areas of your brain a workout for a while. This way the whole trip doesn’t blur into one large, colorful blob of old masters and cathedrals from which your memory can’t distinguish where Cambridge left off and Canterbury began. 
  • Take a siesta. A nap in the middle of the afternoon can do you a world of good, both mentally and physically. No, you're not in the Mediterranean countries, where most everything is closed in the early afternoon anyway, but embrace the concept regardless. Learn to take a riposo like the Italians, and you’ll not only appreciate their country more, but also get up the energy to finish the Florence sightseeing that did in good old Stendhal. 
  • Take a break. When the sightseeing starts getting to you no matter what precautions you take, stop sightseeing. If all you do is tick off museums and churches and such, you're heavily on the "tourist" wide of that old tourist/traveler distinction. Go see a football or cricket match. Go shopping. Whatever it takes to bring your cultural appreciation back from the brink. Sit down at a café table and write all those postcards you promised to send. Chances are just describing to your friends back home the wonders you’ve seen and once-in-a-lifetime experiences you’ve had will make you psyched to get more of Europe under your belt. Next thing you know, you’ll bop out of the post office raring to get back in the saddle and get on with the sights. 
  • Take a vacation. Stop racking up sightseeing points. Take a whole day to go to the beach, to sleep late and have breakfast in bed...at lunchtime. Get off the beaten path. Do anything but see the sights or attempt to engage the culture. (I once had a room in Venice's posh Hotel Danieli, and my windows overlooked the people-thronged Riva degli Schiavoni where the Grand Canal empties into the Bacino San Marco bay. I was nearing the end of a three-month research trip, and I was tired, so you know what I did all evening? I did a bit of people-watching from my window, sure, but largely I watched Charlie Chaplin's Gold Rush on the TV in my room.)

Remember: you are on vacation, after all.