If you arrive overseas without any foreknowledge of the history, culture or politics of the country you are visiting, you are bound to have the most superficial experience. You are relegated to the dull explanations of commercial tour operators whose spiels, aboard forty-person motorcoaches, can't possibly capture the colorful story and current posture of every foreign country. You rely on poorly educated, one-dimensional young tour guides to tell you what you are looking at.
Let me cite, as one example, the dilemma of an American tourist who arrives in Spain without any real understanding of the history or culture of Spain. While Spain isn't unique in this regard--every European nation requires advance study to be properly enjoyed—Spain is typical in being utterly incomprehensible to tourists who arrive without having spent even a single evening in a library reading of its unusual history that so shapes the appearance of what you see today.
Too many tourists arrive in Spain without the slightest awareness that for 500 years, Spain was a Muslim nation occupied by Moorish armies who left distinctive structures in their wake. A similar number of visitors are utterly unaware that Spain's once-awesome power permitted it, in the 1500s, to subjugate such faraway nations as Belgium, The Netherlands, and the Philippines. Nor do they fully understand that Spain so colonized vast areas of the world that today some 500 million people on earth speak Spanish. Scarcely any young tourists realize that Spain was a violent testing ground for the later military conquests of Adolf Hitler, leaving such relics as a cathedral for Fascist soldiers and Picasso's searing mural of Guernica (pictured), on display at locations outside of and within Madrid.
All of this—and more—is available to be seen in places ranging from the Islamic palaces and gardens of Andalusia to awesome monuments elsewhere to Christopher Columbus. But they require, for full understanding, that you first read of the historic and cultural background that resulted in such sights.
What sort of reading is best done for a trip overseas? A general history is of course indispensable, but if you haven't the energy for a serious tome, you should at least pick up a readable historical novel like one by James Michener, or (for Italy) The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone. You will find works dealing with the history of art--the various stages, the different approaches to art over the centuries. You should very definitely read the delightful book called Cathedral by David Macaulay, which explains for children why cathedrals were designed in the manner chosen for them (you will be visiting a great many cathedrals overseas, and they should not be approached as an untutored ignoramus).
Travel brings to you only what you bring to it. Your next trip, first spend time reading about the destination to which you are traveling.
Photo credit: PedroBelleza/Flickr