Slow Travel, Issue 14

A traghetto — locals stand and the tourists sit.

We love to travel. We don’t go to the most adventurous places but we really get to know the cities and areas that we visit. Over the last several years, we have lived in and around Montepulciano for over ten weeks and I no longer need GPS or a map to navigate most of Tuscany and Umbria. We have lived in Venice for a month and now I can read a Donna Leone mystery novel and picture the San Stae vaporetto stop. We stand-up in the traghetti and eat in the back streets of the Cannaregio as the locals do. If only there were no cruise ships or day trippers that erode its physical existence and contribute nothing to the Venetian economy. We have spent well over a month in Florence and can make our way around all of that city (not just its historic centre) as if we had lived there all our lives. We know Paris well.  We use the Metro and bus system effectively and when the occasion calls for it, we can be as amusingly arrogant as  some of the natives, and we eat well at the bouillons for €40 for two with wine. We have made our way through the south of France and the Italian Riviera – one country has far better toilets than the other — and we have been to the hinterland town of Apricale – really another wonder of the world. Vienna has been a revelation — a wonderfully livable city with history and culture. I hope to spend more time there and to  get to know all of Austria better. 

We love London, it has so much history and so much « present ». We take the tube, double-deckers, the Overground , and we walk.  My cousin who has lived there all her life thinks we may have visited areas of the city that she hasn’t. I have taken my grandson to two Premiership games in heritage venues – Craven Cottage by the Thames in ritzy Chelsea and Selhurst Park in the much less ritzy Croydon. We always take for the home team even if we don’t really care who wins, but it is fun to sing along with the home side – London Calling in Fulham and the ‘60’s  Dave Clark 5 hit, Glad all Over, while watching Crystal Palace. We have spent eight weeks in London over the past two years but it should have been ten. This year’s trip was Coronavirus-shortened by two weeks.

Holyrood Park, Edinburg – the largest urban park in Europe 

There have been many other shorter trips but we can’t claim to know Bruges, Antwerp, or Ghent as well as the Tuscan countryside. We really loved Torino but only spent two days there. However,  we did spend two weeks in Alba during the white truffle season where I continued the development of my weakness for Barolo and we ate at the restaurant in Bra that is the home  to the Slow Food Movement. We have a soft spot for Amsterdam and for the Netherlands. Our trip to Scotland was too short and we want to get back to its breathtakingly beautiful countryside and to spend a little more time around Dundee where I was born. We would like to spend six weeks in Sicily in February and March and the Scandinavian countries have been on our wish list for too long. I want to visit Australia where I have family and Japan intrigues me. 

There are so many places to re-visit and new places to see but I am not sure what it will take to make us confident enough to travel again. Will we be able to get health insurance that will cover the Coronavirus? Maybe it wouldn’t be available for trips to the USA but it could become an insurable risk for European countries, Australia, and New Zealand. Could those countries that need tourism  guarantee pandemic care for the types of visitors that they want to attract? Will we be able to return home if there are Covid-19 flareups? Venice, Florence, and Paris must be magnificent without the hordes from the cruise ships and the tour buses and the bumbling, rumbling throngs following the tour guides through narrow streets and museums. It would be nice to be able travel there without trepidation. 

In 130 countries around the world, over 100,000 wayfarers are walking in the footsteps of an idea that was born right here in 1986. The Slow Food and Terra Madre network is accompanying them on a journey towards a single horizon: the pleasure of good, clean, and fair food for all. 

From the wall of the Slow Food headquarters in Bra, Italy

I have never understood the one-day tourism and the collection of destinations promoted by cruise lines and tour operators. It isn’t good enough for me just to be able to say: “I’ve been there!” I like to be able to get into the rhythm of the city or village we are visiting. I like leisurely days in museums, mingling in the cafés, buying food in the markets, and even going to the grocery stores. I enjoy getting to know the locals and becoming a regular at cafes and bars. There are little rewards that come with this kind of travel. When living in Montepulciano I would go to Bar Enoteca Piazza dele Herbe everyday and almost always had a doppio  macchiato. I went there with my son and daughter two years later and I was mistakenly finding service a little inattentive. Mistakenly as the owner / barista was making my coffee and when he brought it to me,  he greeted me by name and then asked what the others wanted. You don’t get that kind of experience when you are  somewhere for a day and then back on the cruise ship or on a bus to another location in the evening. I long to start the planning for another long, immersive trip.

Many European cities are using the current sanitary crisis to review tourism policy. Venice, Amsterdam, and other coastal cities are considering severely limiting or banning cruise ships completely. Numerous studies demonstrate that the cruise business is bad for the local economy. In any case, it may be some time before many will want to climb back on huge, floating petri dishes. I think it will be a long time for “five country / ten city tours, all  in fourteen days” to regain popularity. UNESCO site collection that is so popular with tourists  from the far east will take a long time to restart. As much as I don’t like the idea of cruising from one port to another for quick day visits, the thought of checking into a new hotel almost every night is even more of a nightmare.  

Grand Tourists were primarily interested in visiting cities that were considered major centres of culture at the time, so Paris, Rome, and Venice were not to be missed. Florence and Naples were also popular destinations but were regarded as more optional than the aforementioned cities.The average Grand Tourist traveled from city to city, usually spending weeks in smaller cities and up to several months in the three major ones.

I am hopeful that we will soon be back on the road. In the meantime wash your hands, practice social distancing, wear a mask in enclosed public spaces, hydrate, and exercise. 

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