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Lose yourself

[portfolio_slideshow id=35053]

All images by ©IBIT/G. Gross. All rights reserved.

Even in the heart of the biggest tourist traps, you can find the unexpected treasure, provided you’re willing to risk getting lost for a bit.

“Get off the beaten path.”

As a traveler, you hear that all the time — so often, in fact, that the advice itself has become its own beaten path.

It’s an attempt, I think, to counter our almost pathological need, fed and abetted by modern technology, to know exactly where we are at all times.

Handheld GPS devices consort with satellites in space to triangulate our precise location on digitized maps that show us where to go, and even the scenery along the way. The day I bought my iPhone 4S, it already had a compass in it.

These days, if you want to lose yourself, you have to work at it. Hard. But there are those who insist that it’s worth the effort.

One of them, Tiziano Scarpa, author of the book “Venice Is A Fish,” also lives in Venice — the ancient and endlessly seductive Italian city built on 118 artificial islands, interlaced by 160 canals and crisscrossed by more than 400 bridges, all set in the middle of a lagoon.

You’re going to get lost. Count on it. Mr. Scarpa’s advice: Relax and enjoy it. Let the carless streets take you where they will, and reveal Venice to you while you walk. As he puts it:

“Getting lost is the only destination worth going to.”

I learned that truth at the end of a research trip to Washington DC. With a few free hours before my flight home, I drove south Interstate 395 until I blundered into Alexandria VA and its collection of lovingly tended colonial homes.

Not colonial-style homes. Colonial homes. George Washington himself probably saw some of these places. I walked the tree-lined streets, mentally replacing the lines of parked sedans and pickups with boxy black horse-drawn carriages, driven my men in three-cornered hats and white powder wigs.

Eventually, I came to a classic Presbyterian church and its a small churchyard cemetery. I’d stumbled upon the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, which dates back to 1749 and still has an active congregation.

(Why was it called a “meeting house?” Because back when Virginia was a British colony, the only church allowed was the Church of England. To get around that, they had to call it something other than a church. And if you ever wondered why the Founding Fathers made such a big deal out of freedom of religion, now you know.)

I wandered the grounds, perusing the rough headstones — until I came across a tiny fenced memorial.

We all know about the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery, once known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It’s world-famous. Roughly 11,000 tourists a day stop there to watch the solemn changing of the US Army honor guard that stands watch over the massive, ornate marble tomb — 24/7, rain or shine.

The memorial here was the size and shape of a very small, decorative park bench. The inscription on its weathered bronze plaque read “Here lies a soldier of the Revolution whose identity is known but to God.”

I had stumbled across the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution.”

No one stands guard here. Hardly anyone ever comes here. Few Americans even know it exists. And had I not wandered into Alexandria on a whim, I would never have found it.

But you don’t have to venture out of city or state. Even a little willful wandering can pay unexpected dividends, which I found on a more recent trip to Seattle.

On a clear day especially, the 360-degree view from atop the iconic Space Needle is breathtaking. But a few minutes’ spin east across central Seattle can take you from the hilly crush of downtown to the pine-forested neighborhoods bounding the western shore of Lake Washington — and views to die for.

A short drive in the opposite direction to West Seattle can take you to postcard-worthy views along Elliott Bay and Puget Sound, as well as Lincoln Park, a gorgeous triangle of forested coastal ground, so green, fresh and pretty that you won’t mind walking in Seattle’s famous rain.

If you up a hunger for some fresh seafood, you have two options. You could drive all the way into Seattle and take on the tourist crush along the waterfront to squeeze into Ivar’s Acres of Clams, one of Seattle’s most renowned seafood eateries.

The alternative would be to stay in West Seattle and join the locals in the compact fish market-slash-grill called the Seattle Fish Co.

If you can find seafood any fresher than theirs, it’s still in the ocean. Their their fried oysters and fried salmon are crunchy, moist, well-seasoned. And their smoked salmon chowder is almost too good to be legal. All in a super-friendly, no-nonsense little neighborhood joint where you feel at home almost from the moment you enter.

Turning off that beaten path can be downright delicious.

But you don’t have to go miles out of the tourist zone. You can even carve out your own path right inside a tourist trap if it’s big enough.

Take Seattle’s Pike Place Market. This place is famous as the place where fishmongers toss child-sized salmon back and forth all day, to the delight of the tourists who crowd the display case with their cameras, smartphones and iPads.

But in fact, it’s one of the oldest public markets in the United States, having been in business since 1907, and is one the US National Register of Historic Places. It’s a warren of some 200 shops, stalls and eateries, some of them underground, where the teeming mass of tourist humanity largely doesn’t venture.

You have to break away from the tourist crush to find some of the good stuff, though. Like Seattle Watercolors and its artist-in-residence, Sarah Clementson. She turns her paintings of classic Seattle scenes into prints, calendars, even refrigerator magnets.

She’s also a fountain of knowledge about Pike Place Market, and she should be. As she cheerfully explains, her husband, abstract artist Michael Yeager, is the honorary “mayor” of the place.

A few steps beyond her booth is the Raven’s Nest Treasure, where I came across an opium pipe. Bronze bowl. Bamboo stem. Jade mouthpiece.

Talk to the folks there, and you’ll learn that Chinese laborers introduced opium to the United States back in the 1800s, but they weren’t the only ones using it. Your typical all-American cowboy was as likely to be found in an opium den as he was in a saloon.

A few steps farther and one level down, you can chill out at the Pike Pub and Brewery, a funky multi-level joint featuring craft beers with names like Naughty Nellie, Auld Acquaintance, Dry Wit — and my personal favorite, Kilt Lifter.

The mobs crowding around and crowding past the fish-throwing market will never know that any of this was here.

There’s no guarantee that you’ll find something sublime when you venture off that proverbial beaten path, but we do know this much:

If you don’t go, you’ll never know.

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