I used to think travel was about places. I wanted to see crashing waterfalls and surging mountains and coastlines where cobalt ocean waves run up against sandy, inviting beaches. I wanted to visit quaint villages and heaving metropolises and every tourist icon ever to adorn a fridge magnet or postcard. Additionally, I assumed - I don’t know where it came from - that the further from home I ventured, the more beautiful/interesting/memorable the places would be.
It didn’t take long to realise this is too superficial.
Travel is about so much more than just the place. Every place is composed of the people who live there; what food do they eat? What songs do the street-buskers sing? How do they celebrate the weekend? What scares and excites them?
Similarly, it is not enough to merely see a place. What does it sound like? How does it smell? Above all, what does it make you feel?
And even when you consider all this, you still only experience a fleeting snapshot in time. Much of the mystery of a place remains shrouded in the history of its past and its dreams for the future.
This is where slow travel comes in.
The popularity of slow travel has been gathering momentum for several years but the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the travel industry so radically that it now virtually necessitates it. Even aside from Covid-19 there are a host of other reasons to embrace slow travel, like the fact it leaves a smaller environmental footprint than more traditional travels or that it distributes economic benefits across a wider area and to communities that really need support or that it is healthier and less stressful to slow down and not follow strict deadlines of planes, trains and buses. For the sake of brevity, this article can only mention such benefits in passing but that’s okay, because Macs Adventure believes that 2021 is going to be The Year of Slow Travel simply because it allows for a richer, more impactful experience.
Just like in photography where getting the perfect exposure requires a longer shutter speed and a steady hand, in travel the best exposure (or experience) often involves travelling slower and staying longer. The walking holiday stands defiantly at the more sluggish end of this spectrum.
The scenery unfolds at 3 miles an hour to a soundtrack of heavy footfall and gentle breathing. As you walk you can’t help but collect jigsaw-puzzle pieces of information which gradually assemble to build a bigger picture of a region, complete with all its subtle variations and nuances. This is particularly striking on longer walks such as the Tour du Mont Blanc where walkers encircle the mountain massif and traverse France, Italy and Switzerland and gallop through seven separate valleys. Drop me at any one spot along the trail and it will appear indistinguishable from everywhere else, but ask me to walk the trail and I will soon notice profound changes. Each country interacts with the mountain differently, each valley is an ecosystem distinct to all those before.
Similarly, England’s Coast to Coast footpath navigates three National Parks, each unique for its differing geology, flora, fauna, and local ways of life right down to building materials and farming practices.
But you don’t have to embark on a huge cross-country trip to notice these varying shades of an area; in a week ambling through the vineyards of Piedmont, I relished sitting down to a glass of wine and marvelling at how differently it tasted to those produced in neighbouring villages. A knowledgeable waiter or waitress was always happy to solve the mystery, pointing to the sunny, south-facing slope, gentle bubbling stream or dense hazelnut forest as the answer. Each of these seemingly-trivial factors influenced the microclimate enough to alter the wine even to my untrained tastebuds. It may seem insignificant, but this detail creates the texture of a region, and for the inquisitive mind of a traveller there is something delightfully rewarding about noticing that which you would miss if you weren’t walking.
The very act of walking allows time to ruminate on your surroundings. This reflective quality encourages a vital and often-overlooked part of travel; that of processing the experiences and interactions. It is processing the experiences that gives travel such meaning and purpose. This of course recognises that travel isn’t purely something you witness as an unattached observer but something that changes you profoundly. As well as making external discoveries about the world, you also journey internally learning who you are and ‘borrowing’ those parts of a culture you enjoy.
You might be thinking walking is too slow. Previously I’ve thought so myself, but during lockdown, I found my world especially shrunken for I was stuck on a one-kilometre island in Norway. I feared I would soon get bored but over the next five months I walked countless laps of the island and still discovered something new – a flower, a rock, a photographic angle - on every venture. In fact, counter-intuitively, the slower I travel the more questions remain unanswered.
Perhaps best of all, slow travel is a mindset as much as an action which means you needn’t stray far from your doorstep for an adventure. Just ask Al Humphreys who planned the most boring walk he could imagine - walking a lap of the M25 London ring road aiming to keep 50-100 metres from the motorway – and it turned out to be a wonderful adventure. Even somewhere you know intimately looks different on foot. Even somewhere you have walked before will have changed since you were last there. And you will have changed too. My own revelation came while walking Hadrian’s Wall; it felt like an ordinary pleasant hike but when I considered, with astonishment, that two millennia ago this was the frontier of a vast Empire stretching beyond Rome and Istanbul, the significance of my hike was entirely transformed even though nothing had changed but my mindset.
So embrace your curiosity, ask questions and spot similarities and differences. Feel the place. Feel it as it is now, as it was in the past and as it hopes to be in the future. Because 2021 is going to be the Year of Slow Travel and all you have to decide is what adventure you want to discover! You can find a slow adventure of your own on the Macs Adventure Website or contact the team to discuss your next adventure.