De Botton goes to Madrid for a conference and decides to stay through the weekend, although he does not tell the hosts who booked his hotel. On his way back to his room on Friday night, he decides not to eat dinner alone in a restaurant, lest he become “an object of curiosity and pity,” so he eats some crisps from the minibar and goes to bed. He feels “an intense lethargy” the next morning as he peruses the hotel’s travel magazines and two guidebooks that he brought from home, which “conspired to suggest that an exciting and multifarious phenomenon called Madrid was waiting to be discovered outside.” But he feels disgusted at his own lack of enthusiasm for a city that many tourists would be eager to visit.
Contrary to the chapter’s title, de Botton has little curiosity about Madrid and is reluctant to think of himself as a tourist: for the first time in the book, the reader encounters a traveler with few expectations and little excitement about the prospect of seeing a new place. Whereas the guidebooks try to set expectations for travelers, de Botton wants nothing of it—in fact, perhaps because of his realizations in the last few chapters, the guidebook seems to turn him off—and yearns for the familiarity of London.
The German Alexander von Humboldt sailed from Spain to South America in 1799. Well-educated in the sciences and history, Humboldt “had been looking for opportunities to travel to someplace remote and unknown,” and managed to convince the king of Spain to fund a trip to South America. He returned in 1804, when he moved to Paris and wrote a 30-volume book, Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, summarizing his scientific findings.
Humboldt was motivated by a radical and universal curiosity about everything he could discover—like Baudelaire, he merely wanted to go “anywhere!” and set out convincing the king to fund his travel because of his intense draw to the foreign as such. The length of his writings demonstrates the fruits of his journey and the depth of his dedication to science.
When Humboldt set out for South America, Europeans knew little about the continent. Humboldt collected hundreds of new species, redrew maps of the continent and its rivers, made important discoveries about the Earth’s magnetic fields, studied indigenous peoples, and discovered sea currents. He had an “extraordinary curiosity” about the Earth and everything on it.
De Botton attributes Humboldt’s wide-ranging and influential findings to his sheer curiosity about everything unknown. Unlike in contemporary tourism, Humboldt’s fact-finding expedition was continuous with his life’s work rather than a break from it—unlike most travelers, then, his trip’s purpose was determined from the outset.
After a maid interrupts de Botton in his hotel room three times, he decides to get up and moving to avoid further interruptions. He eats breakfast and goes to Old Madrid, the medieval history of which his guidebook chronicles in detail. As tourists stop by to take photographs, de Botton anxiously wonders, “What am I supposed to do here? What am I supposed to think?” Humboldt, on the other hand, undertook an “unambiguous” quest to learn as much as possible and undertake scientific experiments. He obsessively measured water temperatures on the trip over, and spent weeks cataloguing plants on the Venezuela coast before trekking into the New Andalusia mountain range and measuring the altitude and water temperature there.
De Botton only manages to leave the hotel room once he is too irritated by the maid to stay—just as he leaves London from frustration with its weather, he only leaves the comfort of his hotel room because he can no longer stand it. Unlike in Barbados, in Madrid nothing outside truly appeals to him. He does not understand the point of taking photos, which foreshadows his later essay on drawing, for he feels no need to document his experience and nothing about Old Madrid quite catches his eye. Humboldt’s quest is driven by its novelty, but de Botton finds Madrid’s tourist attractions stale and their importance overplayed.
Unlike South America, everything about Madrid “was already known.” The guidebook emphasizes the dimensions of plazas and statues to the point where it “occasionally seemed impatient in presenting its facts,” as in its detailed description of the Pontificia de San Miguel, a church that de Botton finds hideous.
De Botton finds the guidebook frustrating because it insists on cataloguing facts that have no impact on his life, his travel experience, or his personal curiosity.
De Botton ties his boredom and lack of curiosity to the difference between tourism and factual expeditions. Facts are useful, so others take an interest when a traveler learns them for the first time—Humboldt was “besieged and feted by interested parties” when he returned to Europe, and he gave lectures to scientists across the continent about his discoveries. All the knowledge he sought out “must have been guided by a sense of others’ interests,” and luckily for him, “almost every existing fact about South America was wrong or questionable”—even the location of Havana’s Naval base on the map.
Whereas everything de Botton saw in Madrid had already been learned, everything Humboldt saw in South America was novel to Europeans, which meant his efforts always implicated a broader community and human scientific project. But now, as travelers are unlikely to make new scientific discoveries on their trips, the reader is left to wonder how casual tourism can truly enrich human life.
De Botton quickly realizes that “new factual discoveries” are now impossible, however, and his guidebook confirms this with its maddening attention to details that he finds irrelevant. His learning only matters if it is “life-enhancing.” But German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche actually found this kind of learning more important than “sterile” factual quests for science. Nietzsche quoted the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “I hate everything that merely instructs me without augmenting or directly invigorating my activity.”
The guidebook seems to expect travelers to be surprised and enriched by specific measurements and dates, but de Botton suggests that such information is often useless for tourists because it does not affect their own lives; Nietzsche takes this further, seeming to suggest that even voyages like Humboldt’s are “sterile” unless they can speak to everyday human experience.
For instance, Nietzsche thought that a traveler could go to Italy and realize that “the Italian Renaissance had in fact been the work of only a few individuals” who transformed European society forever through their effort. This might inspire the traveler to attempt the same, and recognize “that the life of man is a glorious thing.” Similarly, by learning history, Nietzsche thinks that a tourist could “acquire a sense of continuity and belonging” and justify their own existence by understanding the history and culture that made it possible.
Nietzsche may not necessarily disapprove of de Botton’s guidebook: rather, he wants the traveler to look past the mere facts they learn about places and instead understand the deeper historical and cultural processes that create such places in order to grasp the underpinnings of the present world. The implicit goal of this learning is to help the tourist pursue their own happiness by showing them how they can contribute to the human collective.
De Botton takes another look at the Palacio de Santa Cruz and wonders whether the kinds of architectural innovation it exemplifies could still be possible in the contemporary world. He hopes that “we might return from our journeys with a collection of small, unfeted but life-enhancing thoughts.”
De Botton learns to reinterpret his guidebook’s boring string of facts about architecture in a way that teaches him something meaningful about the present. Whereas the Palacio de Santa Cruz’s measurements or dates of construction will not stick with de Botton, the “life-enhancing thought” that architecture can change the world might.
The historical “explorers” who presumably wrote de Botton’s guidebook also took it upon themselves to decide what mattered and what did not. Tourist attractions in the city are ranked with stars, like hotels or restaurants, and this has the “pernicious” effect of telling visitors how enthusiastic to be about visiting each place. De Botton feels he is expected to agree with the “official enthusiasm” that a certain monastery is “the most beautiful convent in Spain” and imagines that the guidebook may as well have added, “there must be something wrong with the traveler who cannot agree.” Humboldt never had to deal with this kind of pretension, for nobody told him what mattered and did not; he got to decide for himself what was interesting and worth studying.
De Botton sees the star rating system as dangerous because it sets rigid expectations for travelers, prescribing what to feel instead of letting them react naturally and personally to the places they encounter—for instance, it tells the reader what counts as “the most beautiful,” which is a fundamentally subjective aesthetic judgment that is only meaningful when it describes an observer’s feelings about a place. The rating system suggests that travel is about collecting historically important facts rather than learning personally from one’s encounter with the environment.
De Botton wonders what “an uninhibited guide to Madrid” based on his own subjective rankings would look like: he is more interested in Spanish food’s lack of vegetables, Spanish people’s long names, Spanish men’s small feet, and the prevalence of modern architecture. This would have determined his path through the city rather than “the unexpectedly powerful force field of a small green object by the name of The Michelin Street Guide to Madrid.”
The alternative to prescriptive guidebooks is for travelers to follow their own preferences and predilections: the details that capture de Botton’s attention and make Spain seem exotic are cultural differences unlikely to appear in the guidebook because they cannot be deliberately sought out by tourists. Again, de Botton’s emphasis on such differences suggests that he finds something exotic about Spain.
While climbing the stunning Mount Chimborazo in Peru, which at the time Europeans thought was the world’s highest peak, Humboldt noticed seemingly minute features of the landscape, like the heights where he found lichens, moss, a butterfly, and a fly. De Botton wonders about the origin of this curiosity, and suggests that these minor details mattered because they implicated broader questions.
Humboldt’s curiosity seems peculiar: he is surrounded by a breathtaking landscape yet focuses on details that most mountaineers would find irrelevant. The details that Humboldt picks up on reflect the underlying curiosities that drive his personality and character.
De Botton thinks of curiosity as “made up of chains of small questions extending outwards, sometimes over huge distances, from a central hub composed of a few, blunt, large questions,” like “Why is there good and evil?” and “How does nature work?” By building outward from these questions, people start to care about smaller ones, like how high on mountains flies can live. Humboldt’s big question was “Why don’t the same things grow everywhere?” and he had investigated it relentlessly since age seven. At base camp below the mountain, he immediately began drafting an essay about the altitudes at which various plants and animals could be found.
Humboldt’s lifelong fascination with the differences in flora and fauna across landscapes recalls Flaubert’s lifelong obsession with Egypt: in both cases, travelers’ deep attunements to particular places and questions reflect fundamental truths about their character, which supports de Botton’s idea that travel can reveal and reflect people’s purpose in life and suggest a path toward personal happiness.
Humboldt’s example demonstrates “the importance of having the right question to ask in the world”—but most things do not “come affixed with” the right questions. For instance, the Michelin guidebook’s passage on one Madrid church simply described its walls and chapels, but “gave no hint as to how curiosity might arise.” The traveler would have to connect the guidebook’s bare facts to the “large, blunt questions” at the center of curiosity. De Botton suggests that a tourist visiting the church might want to ask about why people build churches in different styles, or worship God at all.
People cannot find a sense of purpose through travel until they recognize the connection between the things they notice and the broader meaning in their lives. This is one reason why it might be important for travelers to follow their own subjective interests rather than following a prescribed path through a new city: it can help them recognize their deeper areas of curiosity and the big questions that drive them in life. In his 2014 exhibit “Art as Therapy” at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, De Botton brought to life the idea that questions should come affixed to tourist attractions.
De Botton warns about the danger “that we may see things at the wrong time, before we have had an opportunity to build up the necessary receptivity” to the environment to truly connect our observations with greater questions. Geography makes this harder, for relics from one era or group so often stand next to others that bear on vastly different questions and dimensions of curiosity. In Madrid, the 18th century Royal Palace stands next to a gallery of 20th century art, but if someone wanted to focus on learning about the former they might be better off visiting the palace and then taking off for other European cities with similar architecture. Travel’s geographical logic is as superficial as a course reading list based on the length rather than content of the books.
Travel requires a certain amount of preparation to yield its greatest fruits; de Botton argues that people must move deliberately through the environment, seeking out their own enlightenment, and this requires a certain degree of self-knowledge about one’s values, interests, and aesthetic biases at the outset. Travel requires people with a sense of their particular subjective relationship to the world, for geography and guidebooks alone will not make a trip personally relevant.
Later in his life, Humboldt lamented that people complained he was “curious about too many things.” De Botton lauds this wide-ranging curiosity, but also hopes the reader will be sympathetic for travelers who “have occasionally been visited by a strong wish to remain in bed and take the next flight home.”
De Botton values Humboldt’s encyclopedic curiosity, which reflects his deep commitment to revealing the world’s truths, while also pitying his own aversion to touristic travel, which tells him only meaningless information about the world. It is unclear how de Botton ultimately responds to Nietzsche’s preference for personal over scientific facts.