Why I struggle with slow travel

Ready to move on again: waiting for a bus

Ready to move on again: waiting for a bus

Many folks out there are championing the cause of slow travel. Why rush they say? Take your time, let yourself immerse in the feel of a place, in its culture. It’s a sensible and persuasive argument, but I have a confession to make. After our recent trip to the Balkans I have been reminded of a stark fact: I am not well suited to the traditional concept of slow travel, however alluring and sensible it might sound. I’m also very fortunate to have a wife and travel partner who shares the same affliction.

Deep down I’ve known it for many years. Right back from my teenage Inter-Rail days I was always the one backpacker who had more stamps in his rail pass than anyone else. Where others spent three days in a city I would spend two or even one and then move on; where some dedicated a whole day I was back at the station after a few hours, itching to move on to another place. In a typical day I might have walked on and off for maybe 10-12 hours, exploring city, suburbs and beyond.

The common thread that I draw from the pattern of our recent travels is that we share a need to keep physically active. While we’ll often find specific museums that grab our attention and that we make sure to visit, we’ve never really felt that compulsion to visit the big world-famous galleries, grand museums or the desire to attend the major art and cultural events. Neither are we inclined to seek out shopping malls or to spend our evening sampling a city’s many bars (although food plays a big part in any stop). Our city visits often don’t cover much of the traditional must-do list.

On the other hand, we will walk for many miles along a city’s streets, through its quite lanes, its surburbs and even its rural surroundings. We’ll explore nooks and crannies and come across all sorts of surprising finds. We’ve found beautiful churches, been led into schools by children and had conversations with the most curious strangers. We might buy a drink from a shop and enjoy it while sitting on a wall, watching the world go by while we relax. By the end of our ‘tour’ we’ll often see aspects of a city that we had never planned. After dinner we’ll take a walk through the streets and enjoy exploring the same places in the glow of the night lights. As a result we find our bearings around  new places relatively quickly and find a few favourite spots (some famous, others less so). And then, inevitably, the urge to get back on the road kicks in.

I must admit to getting most excited about our visits to the least populated places. 4 days at the Grand Canyon flew by with a series of day hikes beneath the rim, where we barely met a soul. I will never tire of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, with their wide open spaces, stunning landscapes and unlimited outdoor possibilities. A week on a small Scottish island is far more appealing to me than the same length of time in a major capital, and I rarely feel that urge to move on when surrounded by emptiness and solitude.

So perhaps my problem is not with ‘slow travel’, a concept which I consider full of merit. Perhaps it’s more a type of claustrophobia, where being hemmed in by crowds of people is only acceptable if I can see the exit; whether that be the next train out of town or a surrounding hillside for me to clamber up. When I have that space around, I can travel slower than most. In fact I can even sit still and enjoy the silence for a while.

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23 Responses to “Why I struggle with slow travel”

  1. Andy, another beautifully written post. Your reflections in this explore the same thoughts I had on my “The psychology of travel” on my blog. While I understand your thoughts on slow travel, I have to respectfully disagree with you.

    You define slow travel as how much time people spend in a place. I view it as how you spend your time in a place. How YOU spend your time IS slow travel. I love the way you travel. I would much prefer to wander the streets, get away from the tourists, see how the locals live, interact with them, and experience the place. Like you, I don’t care about shopping, have little interest in bars, or all the the big tourist sites (even those I do like to see, I like to go when the crowds aren’t there).

    In my opinion, you get it. What you do is slow travel. You define slow travel as people spending a few days in a place to get to know it. Slow travel is about experiencing the “real life” in a town or city. It’s about connecting and going deeper with the places you visit. Those who do “slow travel” need a few days to do it because it takes them longer to experience what you do. People have to spend that much time (aka slow travel in terms of time spent) to experience what you do in a few hours or a day.

    I’ll close with this – you get what travel is all about. You can call it slow travel or not but the bottom line is that experiencing the heart and culture of places is what slow travel is all about. For some, it just takes more time to get there.

    September 18, 2010 at 10:13 am
  2. I must echo the sentiments of this great piece. I’ve never really found the concept of ‘slow travel’ to be for me; every time I do spend a while in one place I do get somewhat bored. I find two days is the perfect time to explore a standard sized city, 3-4 days for the larger ones (capitals, etc.). Typically I’d spend the first day just walking round, trying to take in the main sights, but mostly to just get a general orientation and feel of the place. On the second day I would go to the specific places I want to see (e.g. interesting museums). After that I feel like its time to move on.

    September 18, 2010 at 11:40 am
  3. You are not alone. Slow travel would drive me crazy – unless I am there specifically to relax such as in Hawaii – then again, slow on my terms is how I like things best. Waiting for an extra hour for some form of transportation is bad whether in Hawaii or anywhere else….so you are not alone – and it’s great to know how we best love to travel on our own terms, no matter what others preach. Great post, Andy!

    September 18, 2010 at 12:44 pm
  4. Lovely! I have to agree with Jeremy, what you are describing IS slow travel or certainly a big aspect about it.

    We are doing probably the ultimate slow travel – we are 5 years into an open ended, non-stop family world tour. We’ve just written 8 reasons about why we do it:


    I agree with Jeremy that “experiencing the heart and culture of places is what slow travel is all about.”. We have found amazing advantages in spending more time in places and returning to some over and over often in different seasons when they are like totally different places. We have made deep friendships with locals and we are monolinguals raising a very fluent trilingal/triliterate who speaks some of many languages. Participating with locals that are friends during festivals has been also very enlightening and enriching.

    Time is the greatest gift today and true wealth. Slow travel like slow living or the slow food movement is about taking the time to really see, really immerse, really connect. All good things that enhance travel. ;)

    September 18, 2010 at 2:04 pm
  5. A wonderfully crafted and nuanced piece Andy, written, I suspect, with deliberate ambivalence. :-) As Jeremy said above, your ‘stop to smell the roses’ approach to travel, eschewing bucket lists etc, clearly marks you out as a slow traveller at heart.
    But I share your anxiety about moving on (as you know from my Flightster post) and think that I’m particularly afflicted by this urge when travellling for any length of time on my own. I think it’s a refreshingly honest thing for a travel writer/blogger to admit to too!

    Fellow slow travellers here might like to know that my own blog is about rail travel, that’s when I don’t get diverted onto other subjects: http://joolsstone.wordprerss.com

    September 18, 2010 at 4:47 pm
  6. Great post Andy, I could totally identify with your opinion. I probably feel exactly the same way about travel..

    September 18, 2010 at 6:16 pm
  7. I totally get your point of often have to specify it on my own blog: I do not like museums or art galleries, most of the time. This is why I haven’t spent a lot of time in cities (that and the fact that I rarely have two consecutive days off), because I spend all my time there strolling around, snapping architecture, tasting the local deli.

    I think everyone travels at a different pace. For some, it has to be a checked-list kind of travel, for others, a simple stroll, while others would rather stay there long enough to work a little bit.

    It’s sad that we have to justify ourselves for travelling the way we do. Spending less time in a place doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate it or worse, that we haven’t really seen it. One friend of mine even told me that I couldn’t say I’ve been to Brussels as I only spent one day there. What kind of an answer is that ?!

    Great post!

    September 18, 2010 at 9:50 pm
  8. I can see how slow travel would be boring if you travel with someone else that also likes to keep moving, but when traveling solo it is nice to hunker down at one place sometimes. You get to make relationships with people in the city this way instead of randomly meeting people and never seeing them again.

    September 18, 2010 at 9:57 pm
  9. I think we have exactly the same travel philosophy; my wife and I spend our days exactly as you.

    However, we love slow travel. We want to spend months in each location if possible. We like to join a gym, find a nice apartment with a decent kitchen and generally just want a steady routine. We can walk around a city for weeks without going to any sightseeing spots. We love to eat, drink and people watch. The occasional live band is also a bonus.

    September 18, 2010 at 10:02 pm
  10. I thought I was the only person who felt this way!

    My general travel style is not having a schedule/agenda that’s written in stone. And while I’ve been to plenty of world famous cities, I’m more interested in getting a feeling of what life is like there than in seeing the famous sites. Like I go to New York once a year to visit friends, but still haven’t been to the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty etc. And the time I spent in Rio was rock climbing and hanging out in Santa Teresa. That said, I’ve also gone out of mind with cabin fever when I stayed at a rural homestead project in Chiapas. It’s nice to have downtime when your normal life is busy, but 48 hours is about the most time I can spend hanging out doing nothing/reading/taking naps. One exception to the rule – I did two years in the Caribbean (US Peace Corps) and have lived near Lake Tahoe (CA/NV). Sitting around on a beach drinking beer and enjoying nice weather always manages to be relaxing but not boring.

    I generally avoid having a fixed schedule/agenda and list of “must see X or do X” when I’m traveling, but I’m also an incredibly restless personality. Sometimes it’s nice to just relax and take in a place, but I’ve personally found that’s only been enjoyable when my normal schedule has been incredibly packed or hectic. Otherwise, 48 hours tops and I start getting cabin fever.

    September 18, 2010 at 11:49 pm
  11. poppy #

    Yes, its all about HOW you travel. I have lived and worked in Indonesia for a while-my favourite place being Yogyakarta in Central Java, famous for its proximity to Borobodur Buddist temple.
    It makes me laugh to hear tourists talking about all the places they have ‘DONE’ – somewhat arrogant attitude and seems only to refer to how many places in the ‘Lonely Planet’ they have ‘ticked off’ Which is another thing which makes me laugh – the people I’ve seen so glued to their ‘travel bible’ that they ignore any of the knowledgable locals trying to help them.
    i.e. arriving in Yogyakarta at night in peak season with no accommodation and them having the cheek to tell helpful locals they only want to go to the place recommended in the Lonely Planet and must have hot water, AC etc etc …. get real, ditch the book and engage is my advice to them!

    September 19, 2010 at 2:03 am
  12. Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful comments and discussion. I guess the common thread running through the comments is the distinction between ‘slow travel’, which more of a philosophy of how we observe/engage with the world around us as we move (and stop awhile) and travelling slowly. This is a distinction that I didn’t appreciate when crafting this post.
    It’s reassuring to read that so many people have been through similar lines of thought, and agree with the general sentiment that every has their own style of travel and that each is as valid as the next.
    One of the real determining factors in how slowly we do move is of course the time we have. For those (and this includes a couple of contributors here) who are living a nomadic life, time is viewed differently from those of us who may snatch a week here and a month there.
    Thanks again to all for sharing your thoughts.

    September 19, 2010 at 7:50 am
  13. Really enjoyed reading the article Andy and also the thought-provoking comments that it’s triggered. As you know, I support the Slow Movement as part of the philospohy of Quirky Travel, encourage others to take their time to really appreciate their surroundings and enjoy simply absorbing the atmosphere and ambiance of the places I visit. (People often come to the Lake District, Cumbria to ‘bag’ the mountains or tick off Wordsworth’s grave on their list of literary hotspots!)

    However, I think I have probably come to this love of ‘slower/quirky’ travel over the years. When I was younger I loved zooming from place to place, like you collecting exotic stamps in far-flung places and ticking off destinations on the big map in my bedroom!

    The great thing is that there’s a way of travelling to suit each one of us and each trip brings its own diversity of experience and enjoyment. Thanks for sharing your thoughts :-)

    September 19, 2010 at 7:08 pm
  14. pam #

    I’m a HUGE fan of slow travel, as it’s faddishly called these days, but also, I’m kind of lazy and I like to sit in cafes eating cookies and eavesdropping. That said, I just want to give a hallelujah to you for this because, hello, let me say what’s already been said: There is no right way to travel.

    Buzzing all over the place in a really active state works for YOU. And you found someone to travel with who likes that too. And that is excellent.

    September 19, 2010 at 7:55 pm
  15. Ah, now Zoë, you’ve given the perfect example of the problem of defining slow travel. If someone told me I was going to spend several weeks in the Lakes I would be delighted. I would not tire of exploring different lakes and fells, clambering up to tarns and along ridges and absorbing the stunning landscapes. I might not be slow (would work hard each day to earn that cream tea, pub meal and pint) but would relish the chance to see the Lake District in depth. But then as someone said more articulately than I managed, perhaps we’re talking about ‘deep travel’ rather than ‘slow travel’. Thanks again for the great discussion.

    September 19, 2010 at 8:55 pm
  16. Yup. As Pam says there, there’s no right way or wrong way. (Surely the only wrong way is not doing any of them).

    The term “slow travel” seems to be one of those pieces of string nobody knows the length of. And that’s why it’s useful – because it’s so ill-defined that people disagree, and have to grapple with the subject matter to pitch or alter their own definition.

    (Let’s hear it for woolly definitions. They get people riled).

    Me? I’ll happily do any kind of travel once. But the thrill of a non-British culture is what calls me abroad, and the more time I spend somewhere abroad, the more non-British it feels – as the language unlocks itself, as my palate changes to fit the local cuisine, as I start to understand the history and politics. Challenging my ignorance, and getting a better grasp of everything I don’t yet know. And that means ideally living somewhere, not just travelling through it. That’s my “slow” / “deep” / “cultural” travel preference.

    Oh, and most of the time, I can’t *stand* museums. Too often, it’s just Stuff Worship. I travel to get away from Stuff Worship. I want to meet people, not Things.

    (*Mike listens to the sound of a thousand press-trip bridges being burnt before he’s crossed them*.)

    September 19, 2010 at 9:01 pm
  17. Wooly definitions, ha! And what about all these broadsheet travel buzzwords while we’re at it – ‘Staycation’, alright, fair dinkum, but Traincation? Much as I love the concept naturally, that moniker just ain’t working.

    On museums (speaking as someone who until recently used to work in cultural heritage) I agree with Mike and have to admit (slightly sheepishly) that aside from the odd quirky one as mentioned above, they’re often the last refuge on a wet afternoon after hotel check out. I generally prefer going to ones closer to home. I heartily recommend Kelvingrove in Glasgow for anyone wandering my way. Up there with the British Museum in my book. (Says he, hastily re-building those press trip bridges!)

    September 19, 2010 at 9:22 pm
  18. “I must admit to getting most excited about our visits to the least populated places.” I like this bit a lot. When I go to a place for the first time, I tend to be put off when I see a lot of people. It’s selfish I know, but it takes away the atmosphere for taking in and reflecting on the place.

    September 21, 2010 at 4:28 am
  19. Genie #

    I love the open, quiet places that restoreth my soul, but I also love to sit on the sidewalk and people-watch — the more people the better. I agree that ‘slow travel’ simply means taking the time to check out all — and I mean ALL — the nooks and crannies of a city. Towns have fewer crannies to nose out, but they also have people who are more open to ‘hi there! How’sit goin?’. If I had time (and money) I’d spend some in every town I could find on the map until I’d sucked up everything and felt I knew it . . . and then move on. Unfortunately, no one pays me to write about what I see, only what widgets I assemble. So sometimes I do visit shortcuts, i.e. museums, to get a feel for what the locals are proud of. Otherwise, it’s a cuppa and a croissant and watch the human parade.

    September 22, 2010 at 4:48 pm
  20. Genie #

    By the way, thanks for the wonderful post — again! You make a place come alive, not by description but by thought and ponder.

    September 22, 2010 at 4:50 pm
  21. Thank you for the kind words Genie :-) You put it very well- we have to find a balance between having all the time in the world to sit forever and chat to anyone and everyone, and the reality of the time we have to travel before we need to return home and earn money, and set our travel speed accordingly. Cuppa and croissant is always a good way to spend time!

    September 27, 2010 at 2:36 pm
  22. travel is travel at the end of the day. i think its very 21st century to make these kinds of distinctions.

    January 20, 2011 at 4:41 pm


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