The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.” -G.K. Chesterton
I’m not big on reading travel books.
This may shock those who know me to be an extensive planner — I booked hotels and flights for our 5-city European tour within a week of deciding to go there, each after carefully studying reviews, prices, and maps. But in terms of what to actually see in a city, I usually leave it to the day before — if that.
Part of my reasoning has to do with a sense of urgency; while I’m not a procrastinator, I’m more motivated to make decisions with a destination in reach. Yet there’s a different reason, particularly when traveling overseas, that I don’t plan a lot.
I’d rather wander.
For the most part, this attitude started in Venice. My mom and my 1-month stay in Italy proved overwhelming to coordinate, and with cities like Rome and Florence in the mix, I didn’t research Venice much. “It’s a small, compact city,” fellow travelers told me; “you only need a day or two and you can get to everything by walking.” Translation: planning not needed. It worked out great. My mom and I spent hours meandering through the city, taking time to glance down every quaint street and canal, all while hitting up the major attractions — some on purpose, some not.
The rest of our trip proceeded similarly. With lots of time on trains, I’d read up on a city just before arriving, creating a sort of checklist in my head. But I let our wandering take us on our own path, getting to the attractions when we got there. I took a similar approach upon my visit to Europe this past winter, my goal in each of the smaller German and French destinations, to get the overall feel of the city.
This trip, with it’s historic metropolises, proved a little different. My aunt who had just recently returned from Istanbul, told me she could spend 10 days there and still not see it all; so I jumped at my hotel concierge’s offer to plan our 3-day stay. In Vienna, my stepmom and I scheduled several excursions — the symphony, the zoo, the palace, the horse show. We still found time to do some of our own wandering, but the trip took on more structure than previous ones.
The thing about nearly every European city is, there’s a river. And the major buildings, attractions, etc. usually reside somewhere along it. Which is why when my stepmom and I got to it, I said “let’s just keep walking.” For seven hours, we let our feet and eyes guide us. We marveled at the architecture of the famous parliament buildings; we went across and back each of the five different bridges, all with their unique set of supports and suspensions. At Margaret Island, on the far end, I worried about going too far — we had a long journey back. But a few steps into the fall-color paradise of fountains, bikes, and picnics, I abandoned that notion in favor of just enjoying the sunshine and surroundings. Another two miles — oh well.
We took a route away from the river on the way back and ended up strolling through some of Budapest’s major parks, Heroes Square, City Park with it’s numerous open space and restaurants. These places evoked a distinct vibe for me, young, vibrant, cultured… a little different than other European cities I’d visited. After a final stroll through the major shopping center (and a souvenir purchase), we found our way back to our hotel.
The following day, we did make a visit to one famous Budapest attraction — thermal baths. Five giant outdoor pools (plus 10 indoor) provide shower-like temperatures to laze around, and, if you’re like us, ease your aching leg muscles. After our time in the baths, my stepmom and I treated ourselves to a massage. Laying there, in the middle of Europe, in the middle of a big, beautiful city, in the middle of a spa… I couldn’t imagine feeling more at ease.
Yet I’d felt the same the same way the day before.
You’d think a trip geared towards sight-seeing would prove taxing, yet just like my other trips overseas, this one calmed me. Maybe it’s the historic nature of the cities — a story around every corner; maybe it’s the fellow travelers, each on their own adventure; maybe it’s just being away from work. Whatever the reason, when I travel, I live in the moment, enjoying every sight, smell, and sound. For an over-analyzer/worrier by nature, it’s a refreshing feeling.
I took a class called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction a few months back, and on the first night, the instructor asked us where we felt the most relaxed. I’d never really considered it before, but the answer easily came to mind: “when I travel.” The pictures in my head at that moment — riding on the train, wandering down a street — reminded me to live my everyday life how I travel, letting things unfold as they will, not looking for anything in particular.
This trip reminded me to do that even more.
Our dinner the last night in Budapest was one of the best of our 15-day stay, and I enjoyed some extra time afterwards to sit back and digest my Hungarian beef stew. Glancing around at the other patrons enjoying their own after-dinner conversation and coffee, I was reminded of my first dinner in Europe, where the sever didn’t bring our check right away. “They expect you to sit around and relax a little, my best friend told me, “a meal is an experience over here.”
Just as everything in life should be.