Last time I was in Europe (ten years ago), my traveling philosophy was quite different than my current one. I was like most college juniors on a study abroad adventure: I wanted to see as much as possible. Just about every city I visited whizzed by me, as my travel mates and I rushed about to make sure we saw every medieval cathedral, art museum, castle, and/or sculpture garden our guide books told us to see.
Probably the most extreme case was my race to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa on a one-hour train layover. I just had to cross the famous architectural blunder off my list. Now, I don’t actually remember the tower all that much. Instead, my hurried trot through the busy streets while schlepping my heavy pack and my anxious worry over missing my train connection stand out more prominently in my memory. (Fortunately, I did successfully see the tower and make it back to the train station in time.)
Interestingly, most of the sightseeing I did while studying abroad are my hazier memories of that experience. Sure, I could flip through the hundreds of pictures I took to refresh my memory; but, in reality, the photo album I had carefully pasted together has taken up a long-term residence in the bottom of a box that I never unpack. Instead, my most vivid and fondest memories were the experiences I had actually living in Freiburg.
These days, the idea of running around a new city (or from city to city) trying to see every sight listed in Lonely Planet seems very unappealing. I much prefer to linger in one place and get to know it in a more genuine way.
Recently, I learned there is actually a term for this kind of travel philosophy: slow travel. Not surprisingly, this concept is part of the whole “slow” movement (e.g., slow food).
In a sense, slow travel is about mindful travel. In “A manifesto for slow travel,” the editor of the the travel magazine hidden europe explains, “Slow travel is about making conscious choices. It is about deceleration rather than speed…And slow travel also reshapes our relationship with places, encouraging and allowing us to engage more intimately with the communities through which we travel.”
The Huffington Post‘s Omer Rosen wrote a consciously generalizing plea to globe-gallivanting college students to settle down and sit still, which I wish I could have read ten years ago (although, I wonder if the appeal of slow comes with age). He essentially places hither-and-thither traveling under the umbrella of consumerism–it’s more like crossing a place off your shopping list than actually experiencing it.
Through the narrative of my recent day trip to Dachau, I’ll offer my take on some of the basics of the slow travel philosophy.
1. Do not travel with a definitive agenda.
I toured Dachau with no real agenda other than to follow my impulse. For example, my impulse told me to buy a delicious-looking piece of raspberry chocolate cake and eat it sitting in the sunshine, even though it was before lunchtime. It also told me to wander along the footpath that ran parallel to the town’s river just to see where it went.
2. Move slowly.
In other words, walk (or bike) as much as you can. My day in Dachau was a “spazieren gehen” sort of day. It helped that the town has a fabulous network of walking paths conveniently labeled with signs to help you steer yourself around. I ended the day with a solid set of blisters–it was the seasonal debut of my flip-flops, which tend to always punish me for banishing them to the closet for months.
3. Experience everyday, local life.
This can mean many things. Suggestions I’ve seen include taking a cooking class from a local chef, learning some phrases in the local language, and volunteering with a local organization. Since I was only in Dachau for the day, I count my walk around the main city cemetery as my everyday life experience.
While walking around a cemetery might sound like a morbid activity, German cemeteries can actually be beautiful and peaceful places. Some of the ones I’ve seen are more like forests with grave sites as underbrush. This cemetery was one such cemetery. Its graves were incredibly well cared for; nearly all of them were neatly landscaped and adorned with fresh flowers. Burning candles even stood watch at some of them. And I witnessed a couple dozen people carefully tending their loved ones’ resting places. Perhaps it was the sunshine, or the flowers, or my general mood, but I felt very moved by the experience.
4. Do what you really want to do, not what you think you should do (or what the guide book tells you to do).
You might have heard of Dachau because of the darkest part of its history: it hosted a former Nazi concentration camp. While this association taints its name, the town is otherwise very charming.
I actually chose not to go to the concentration camp. Among my reasons, the day was ridiculously gorgeous and I decided I’d rather enjoy the beauty of the world. (Also, for context, I have previously visited another concentration camp, Buchenwald; and as German major in undergrad, I quite-intensely studied the Holocaust and Germany’s coming-to-terms-with-it. So I wasn’t feeling a lack of exposure to that history.)
However, this is not to say you should totally ignore your guide book. If you really want to see a certain sight, do it. But only if you really want to.
I ended up visiting a sight mentioned in Dachau’s tourist brochure that was not what I really wanted to do, but what felt I should do: the city history museum. When I wandered into the small museum to check out how much it cost, the reception area was empty. Upon realizing my presence, a women walked in from outside, where she was gardening, and gave me a very friendly greeting. After asking her the entrance cost, I felt guilty saying “no thanks” and bought a ticket. I think I might have been one of the few, if only, museum visitors that day.
The museum was not a waste of time. I saw some interesting Bavarian artifacts, and the exhibits offered good language practice, since they were in German. It was just not what I really wanted to do, which brings me to…
5. Revisit a place that makes you happy.
What I had really wanted to do was revisit the garden of Dachau’s palace. I had already meandered through it that morning (I had eaten my cake at the palace’s cafe, which overlooks the garden), and I found it so beautiful that, once I had done everything else I felt like doing, I wanted to return to it. So, after I finished with the museum, I did.
The garden was bursting with tulips and other flowers and bordered by pink-blooming trees. Since it sits atop a hill, it offers an amazing view of the Bavarian landscape, which the day’s clear sky made even more spectacular. Munich’s cityscape poked out in the distance, and the Alps loomed in the horizon (I think they might have been under the influence of the Foehn, a warm wind that makes the Alps look larger than usual).
For about an hour, I sat on a bench under one of the blooming trees with my notebook and my thoughts, alternately writing and gazing over the landscape. I was fully content.
6. Be a resident of your destination, not just a visitor.
At its core, slow travel is about becoming a temporary resident of your destination, not just a tourist. The slow traveler learns how the locals live, does what the locals do, and savors the time it takes to get acquainted with the place and the culture.
So, as I plod along in building a connection with Munich and the rest of Bavaria, with no departure date in sight, I guess you could call me an extreme slow traveler.
A few resources to read slowly…
“The Art of Slow Travel,” from the Independent Traveler
Slow Travel Europe delves into a deeper explanation of slow travel and provides other relevant links
Another take on slow travel by a grassroots organization dedicated to all things slow
Berlin has its own slow travel website…I wonder if I should start a Munich satellite site?
The World Institute of Slowness offers info on other things to do slowly