‘The journey not the arrival matters,’ wrote T.S.Eliot. Certainly the nature of the journey and the anticipation of the trip to come are part of travelling well, but for me the destination most definitely matters too. How disappointing it is to look forward to travelling to a new place and find it’s not as you imagined; or to return to a place you’ve been before and liked to find it changed for the worse. As I start my preparations to set off tomorrow for a short break in Bologna, I’m very much hoping for both an easy journey and a good arrival. It’s somewhere I’ve wanted to go for a long time and almost a mandatory destination for this Italophile and food lover.
‘A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent of arriving,’ said the Ancient China philosopher and poet, Lao Tzu. Reputed to be the founder of Taoism, you can see where he’s coming from. The philosophy of Taoism emphasises a need for us to live with the natural flow of life and living. The more we rush through life, the more we try to force things in the direction we feel we need or want to go, the less opportunity there is for things to just happen as they should. And sometimes when you just hold back and take your time, the most extraordinary things can happen. However, I think travelling requires a certain amount of planning – especially if you’re visiting somewhere new, as I am tomorrow, and there are a number of things I’d like to do and see. My flight doesn’t get in until 6.00pm so – with the hotel’s help – I’ve booked a restaurant to eat at rather than find I’m having to look for somewhere at the last minute after travelling for a few hours. I’ve also booked a table for lunch at Osteria Francescana in Modena on Wednesday on the basis that if I hadn’t booked well in advance, I wouldn’t have got a table at this renowned but very small restaurant. Some planning will avoid disappointment. I’ve bought the Blue Guide Italy Food Companion so that I understand menus; the names of food dishes don’t always translate literally. If I’m going to holiday in the Italian capital of food and gastronomy, I really want to make the best choices.
But fixed plans aren’t really my thing so while I see a certain amount of planning as beneficial to my overall enjoyment of visiting a new place, I like to wander too with no particular destination in mind: I don’t like to have every hour of the day mapped out; I most certainly want time to just sit in a cafe and watch the local world go by. It’s useful to have an idea of what you’d like to see and do but often just taking off in one direction – a map to hand perhaps so you don’t get lost – means, I think, you take the time to really look around you. When too focused on a destination, you tend to rush on and not look properly at everything you pass. In his book A Philosophy of Walking, philosopher Frederic Gros talks of the freedom of walking: ‘there is a suspensive freedom that comes by walking, even a simple short stroll: throwing off the burden of cares, forgetting business for a time’. He also writes, ‘walking is not a sport’, it’s not about keeping score or competition. And a holiday shouldn’t be about that either: take time to relax and enjoy the new surroundings. ‘One’s destination is never a place,’ wrote Henry Miller, ‘but a new way of seeing things.’ So do take time to look.
It’s good sometimes to just be spontaneous. In fact my coming trip was an act of spontaneity: I was reading a Saturday’s Independent a few weeks ago over morning coffee and saw their regular 48 Hours in … travel section was about Bologna. I’ve always wanted to go to Bologna, I thought, and before the day was out my flight was booked. A bit of research led me to book a room at Hotel Porta San Mamolo who so far have been really kind and helpful. Part of the reason for booking it was their garden: I thought a garden to relax in would be nice. Unfortunately the weather forecast doesn’t look great so I may have to spontaneously change that chill-out plan and do something else. But that’s why it’s good to not be too fixed on ideas of what you want to do and hope for: sometimes life doesn’t play and the less fixed you are in your plans, the more able you will be to accept the unavoidable or unexpected.
I like to explore new places – like Bologna – but I also like to go back to places I know well and like a lot, like Venice, Rome or to visit my friends Linda and George in Spain. ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not of seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes,’ wrote Proust. And I find that however many times I visit somewhere there are always new things to find, new people to meet, new experiences to enjoy. Thus, I don’t think you have to travel the world to travel well, but you do have to travel with an open mind, open eyes and an open heart. And to travel has become part of my soul and what I love to do and thus the words of Mark Twain – with which I shall end – ring so true to me:
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour. Catch a trade wind in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.