Without a Map – Two Ways to Travel
May 12, 2016 • Travel
You have just arrived in a new place, a different country far across the globe, where everything feels strange. The sights, sounds, language, dress, architecture, and even the smells seem foreign to you. You step off the plane, train or bus that brought you here, and you start walking. You don’t particularly have a destination in mind, nor do you really have an itinerary. You are just here, now.As you wander, you will begin to experience this place for the first time. You will stop for refreshment, struggling to interpret a menu or sign, and end up getting something completely different than you thought you were ordering. But in the process you will enjoy a taste of something you will never forget, something you will find yourself repeatedly telling friends back home about, working hard to describe the intensity of flavor, the surprising experience.You will walk down the narrow streets and alleys of this place, sometimes inadvertently in circles, but along the way will see things you might have otherwise missed: the school children in uniform hurrying down the path towards lunch, an elderly woman arguing with the fish monger to get a better piece, a young pianist in a small chapel practicing for an upcoming holy celebration, and an artist working on the most lovely painting of the mist that shrouds the tree-lined streets of this neighborhood early in the morning.As the day wears on, you will find yourself sitting down for a meal, and will appreciate the kindness of a stranger who points to something on the menu and smiles, the patience of the waitress who waits to take your order while you struggle with a few words of her language, and the honesty of the cashier who hands you back half of the money you have given him because you miscalculated the currency exchange.Later in the day, as you grow weary from the jet lag and your feet feel heavy, you will start looking for a place to stay for the night and begin to worry a bit that the limited hotels in this area might already be full. And then you will notice a small B&B sign and knock tentatively on the door.When the owner opens it, your breath will be taken away as you glimpse the tiny but pristine inner courtyard garden of her property where she will serve you a glass of the local wine and some unusual cheese tonight, and the best coffee you can remember in the morning.During your brief stay here, you two will share very few words, both of your native tongues getting in the way of any meaningful conversation, but it will be what goes unsaid that will stay with you: the extra blanket she brings to your room knowing it will be chilly at night, the three postcards of the town she leaves on your pillow to remind you of this special place, the delicate chocolates she places next to your morning coffee, and the small sandwich wrapped in butcher’s paper that she hands you after breakfast to take with you on your travels.As you smile and wave good bye to her, you will continue your journey, without a destination in mind, without any set plan, and without a map.
I land at Fiumucino and walk briskly through the airport with my carry-on bag, moving efficiently through immigration and customs, and out into the terminal. I turn right and walk down to the ATM machine that I know is there – and know sometimes doesn’t work – and then circle back to the left to grab a pastry to tide me over before exiting the terminal and hailing a cab. Albergo Santa Chiara, per favore, vicino al Pantheon. Sai dov’è?
Upon arrival at the hotel, I quickly check in and toss my bags in the room without unpacking, and I then am quickly out of the hotel and into the city. Turning right, I walk a short block to Sant’ Eustacchio for a quick espresso macchiato, and then continue past the carabinieri, dodging the traffic to cross Corso il Rinascimento, before slipping into Piazza Navona with the throngs of tourists. I don’t stay long here, I know better, and I move further south to wander through Campo dei Fiori. But I am not fooled by the stalls of colored pasta and flavored oils sold here, even though I see hordes of tourists lining up to buy them.Instead, I continue my walk by looping around towards Testaccio, as I really prefer spending time in the market where the locals shop. Inside I find the freshest fish, the best produce, and really great looking meat and cheese. Too bad I am in a hotel, or I would be stocking up for dinner.Spontaneously, I decide to take a longer walk to see the Trevi Fountain. I’m not planning to throw a coin in – I already know I will be back – but I can’t wait to see its clean white stone, sparkling in the sunshine after the recent fountain cleaning. I zig zag through the narrow pedestrian streets that run from the Piazza Colona to the fountain, trying to avoid the trinket vendors and dodging the large German tour groups.Since I am already so close to the Spanish Steps, I decide I will keep walking north. My destination, however, is not this touristy piazza, but rather the tiny path you can take up behind the Trinità dei Monti church that leads sharply up and into the Borghese Gardens behind the Hotel de Russie courtyard. There is a little section of the park here where I like to rest and catch a second wind, and I stay awhile before starting the long walk back to my hotel.As I’m making my way south again, I realized I’m famished, so I head to a pizzeria that I love in this neighborhood for some lunch. It’s full of mostly Romans, very few tourists, and I have a Greco di Tufo white wine with my pizza – not a Chardonnay like the Americans seated next to me.My pace is slower with a full stomach, and I wander more leisurely in the late afternoon sun, down the tiny Via dei Coronari, where I know there are some shops I like to browse in. These aren’t the glitzy shops of the Via Condotti, or the trinket shops that line the touristy piazzas, but rather just Roman stores that sell everything from art to shoes to gelato. I greet the shopkeepers as is traditional in Italy, and am grateful I am fluent enough in Italian to converse comfortably, and I actually find a couple of things to buy.When I’m finished shopping, I carry my bags back to my hotel, passing through my favorite space in this city, Piazza della Rotunda near the Pantheon. It’s only 6:00, yet the tables are full, and I know these are tourists because it’s far too early for Romans to be enjoying dinner. I continue past the Pantheon, resist the urge to stop for a glass of wine on the rooftop of the Minerva Hotel, and instead return to my hotel and up to my room.I have done all of this, traversed Rome for a full day, stopping at all of my favorite places and spaces, without a map.
Traveling in a new place without a map can be hard, unsettling, stressful, and scary at times. But it can also provide you with some of the most memorable travel experiences – ones that often don’t present themselves to those on a planned tour with scheduled stops. I’ve had my share of these experiences during my many years of traveling, and I’m not likely to forget they any time soon.Homemade wine in a country house in Umbria. Discovering castelvetrano olives while waiting out a thunder storm in Capri. A four-hour lunch on a beach in Spain with friends. Winding up at the annual wine festival in Mendoza quite by accident. A spontaneous weekend in Paris. My first taste of a true Belgian waffle. Barrel tasting wines in Argentina and finding out the winemaker shares your birthday. Navigating the night market in Beijing. Enjoying the super schnitzel in Cesky Krumlov. Wandering the streets of London on my own in the misty rain. Sunday lunch in a tiny town in Normandy where nobody spoke English. Navigating the hills in northern Tuscany without any map to find my ancestral home.
I could not have planned any of these experiences, yet they are some of my strongest travel memories.On the other hand, the polar opposite experience is the familiarity that comes with returning to a place year after year. It may sneak up on you, like it did for me in Rome: on one of my trips I realized I had left the hotel without a map, but that it really didn’t matter. I suddenly realized that I knew how to get around without it. But it’s so much more than just navigating your way around. Returning to a favorite place allows you to learn a little more each time, about the people, the food, the customs, the language, and more. Slowly but surely you transition from tourist to traveler, from foreigner to friend.I go to Rome often, yet I no longer queue at the Vatican or the Forum. I have been many times and taken my share of guests through these landmark sites, and it’s a relief not to burden my schedule with these tours now. Instead, I can make time to meet a colleague for coffee to talk about what’s changing in the food markets of Rome. I can meet a friend for dinner at a place we both love. I can roam about taking photographs of small, hidden treasures that I might have missed on my first trips here when I was so busy shooting the famous monuments like St. Peter’s or the Coliseum.
These two travel experiences couldn’t be more different – in the first example the traveler feels completely foreign and in the second, completely at home. In my experience, the two share only this: they are the very best way to travel. Without a map.