In an age of overtourism and set itineraries, walking gives us the freedom to set our own pace and make our own discoveries. And if you’re a traveller, that’s what it’s all about.
It’s the thrill of sipping your first espresso with a tattered map of Venice, crumpled from last night’s rain, spread out before you on the sidewalk with no guidelines and nothing but the curves of the Canal Grande to steer your path.
Or taking your first steps towards Montmartre on a whim, after you’ve arrived at Palais Garnier only to find it closed.
It’s a walking tour through Cairo’s City of the Dead, and learning about Egypt’s historic heroes laying in dusty tombs attended only by a cleaning woman who asks visitors for tips.
And it’s waking up in a hotel room in Poznan, a city you’ve arrived to last night and have never seen in daylight.
In a culture where ambitious tourists make maps to mark off the number of countries they’ve visited, and where cities are reduced to the highlight reel of Instagrammable spots, it’s a countercultural act to spend a day aimlessly wandering. It’s saying no to must-see lists and the historians’ ideas of what’s most significant.
And it’s a rebellion against materialism itself and the commodification of countries that exist for the tourist only as photo opps and backgrounds for selfies.
A history of slow travel
Has travel always been about ticking off a list of top attractions? Or are itineraries the invention of tour companies who package cities down into schedules to entice their clients?
Museums and historic monuments have been visited for centuries. But the pace of travel has picked up in the modern day, pushed onward by the steaming engines and airplanes that have made travel affordable for many.
Though it wasn’t always that way. Or at least not in the classic novels I’ve read. And not because of anyone’s preference for slow travel, but simply because fast travel as we know it wasn’t possible.
In The Custom of the Country, an Edith Wharton novel published in 1913, a honeymoon meant a lazy few weeks in the Italian countryside, hiding out in shady orchards from the afternoon sun.
It was all a waste of time for Undine, the novel’s narcissistic heroine. But the scene was meant to create tension and offset her new-world, fast American ways with the old European traditions of her French fiancee.
Travel in the modern day
These days the whirlwhind European tours of Undine’s dreams are standard. Few ever spend entire weeks in the countryside walking along the orchards.
But if you’re a traveller, there’s still nothing like walking through a foreign city to let it unfurl spontaneously at your feet. You’re free to set your own pace, to wander and peek behind every gateway or to rush past or hail a taxi and skip it altogether.
Because there will be failures and wasted time. Maybe you’ll find yourself in a business district and realize you’ve walked too far and the Starbucks and skyscrapers will only bore you. Or you’ll underestimate the distance on the map and the time it takes to walk to that green square of a park. Or you’ll find yourself deep in a residential suburb, and it will start to rain with not a single bus stop or taxi in sight.
But that’s all part of the experience because the wrong turns will remind you of the unpredictability of walking. You’ll appreciate the pleasant surprises all the more after you’ve stumbled. They’ll be your very own discoveries.
Slow travel challenges
Though if you’re a woman, or travelling solo, walking won’t always be as easy as a stroll down the Champs Elysses for dinner. Because walking freely connotates freedom and ownership of the public space, there will always be those threatened by a woman who wanders where she pleases.
And there will always be neighborhoods where, because of race or class, you will attract suspicion. Most tourists, after all, want to see A, B and C. And if you wander outside that itinerary then you’re either lost or have ulterior motives.
It’s uncomfortable for the natives when a foreigner sees their country’s rougher and less polished bits. It’s embarrassing – because what are they looking at, and what do they want?
But very often, people are flattered that you’ve deemed their suburb or sidestreet cafe worthy of your curiosity. They’ll make an extra effort to make a good impression, knowing how our ideas of a new place often hinge on just a few days spent there, interacting with just a few people who’ll likely fuse into our memories of the place for years after.
How travel breaks routine
When you’re walking through unfamiliar ground, your awareness of the place will be much sharper because it’s new.
Our brains are hardwired for survival and for sensing any kind of danger. So when we’re in our familiar routine, making coffee or driving to work, we’re often in a foggy daze. We arrive at the office without remembering much of our commute.
We forget entire years in dull cubicles. But we remember our vacations far more sharply because we’re constantly outside of our comfortable routines.
The Situationists knew this with their performances in 1960s Paris aimed to break apart the threads that make up the fabric of our ordinary days.
But you don’t need avant-garde theater in the subway to wake yourself up out of that stupor.
It can be as simple as taking a different turn while walking the dog or going down another street to work.
Walking gives us the freedom to make our own discoveries, set our own pace and follow our instincts.
In a world of overtourism where cities are literally sinking under the weight of the masses, walking still gives us that sense of discovery.
And if you’re a traveller, that’s what it’s all about.