Walking is an integral part of traveling. Even if you’re on a tour bus or a cycling tour, you will still do your share of walking, let alone if you are a true backpacker or a pilgrim of some sort.
For those of us who live at home in suburbs, or rural areas, with cars the main means of transport, staying in the middle of the ‘old town’ of a European city and walking everywhere is a pleasant novelty.
I grew up in a hilly area and find there is something I dislike and even distrust about flat country. I want to be able to get a view out over the countryside (maybe it’s some throwback military instinct to look out for enemies from high places). However I have to admit that flat places make for easier, although ultimately less rewarding, walking.
Wandering is a special sub-set of travel walking. At home when I walk I don’t often just take a meandering path and wait to see what kind of people, places or events I can stumble across – when you’re at home you don’t tend to want to just wander until you happen to come across a hairdresser, supermarket or train station – but when I travel I often wander. Of course you can do research and plan out your route ahead of time, or you can take the more risky route of the wander. The wander may mean you miss meeting times, see dud ‘attractions’ – and fail to see major ones – or that you suddenly find yourself in a ‘seedy’ part of town. But you may also meet helpful random strangers, discover surprising sites and be forced to use your initiative and problem solving skills to get yourself out of a situation.
I’m a fan of the fantasy genre novels that involve some kind of quest where a motley band of would-be heroes must walk together across varying terrain to save a friend, confront an enemy or find a treasure that will prove their royal pedigree or fulfill their destiny. In The Legend of the Seeker, the TV adaption of Terry Goodkind’s novels, The Seeker travels with his Confessor and Magician: they flee enemies, save innocents and seek treasures that they believe will confirm their own roles and help tip the scales in favour of good. These heroes don’t exactly wander, but all the action of their stories comes from the people & places they encounter on their travels.
Growing up we were partial to the TV series Monkey (1978-1980) and avidly followed the questing but wandering Monkey, Sandy, Pigsie & Tribitaka (Monkey did have the advantage of being able to call his cloud and travel that way at times. As kids we used to practice trying to call the cloud – but sadly failed).
Bruges has a great (flat) old city in which to wander. You can wander along paths by the water ways, over bridges and always come across museums, churches, fabulous doors, a lolly shop, somewhere you can drink cherry bear and random happenings, such as art installations. While wandering a few years back I came across a Polish group of friends who thought I was a local and asked me for directions. We ended up having an informative discussion about Ghent and they showed me some videos (while standing in the pathway). Luckily for them I was also able to give them directions. Unfortunately I’m yet to make it Ghent, but it was a nice random interaction and I was travelling alone at that point, so the people contact was welcome.
Once on the Japanese island of Ojika I ended up going for a long day’s wander along roads, past rice fields, and came across the shrine to a very round stone in a hole by the sea. I also came upon a lone rural vending machine at the crossroads of the rice fields and accidentally ordered a daytime G&T in a can due to a language misunderstanding.
I also (probably ill-advisedly) took a road down to a supposedly nice beach. The route turned out to be quite long and steep and not all that scenic and as I laboured back up a local woman stopped her car and offered me a lift to the top. I’m not a usual hitchhiker but she seemed genuine so I gratefully accepted a ride. Had I not been meandering, I may not have exposed myself to the need for the kindness of random strangers (who thankfully weren’t also random serial killers).
When we travel with a very fixed itinerary, our expectations of what we’ll see and do each day are high. Inevitably attractions sometimes disappoint and we can’t fit in all we wanted to do and getting lost frustrated us as we miss our goal (the opening hours of a museum or cafe). When you wander l, experiences tend to come to you as a bonus, whatever you discover, and you come across things you may have otherwise missed. Of course you can also encounter bad situations (and there are countries and places where you would definitely not be advised to wander), but a wander in a relatively safe space with your wits about you can be spontaneous and special. As many of us live highly scheduled lives, I heartily recommend engaging in some travel wanders.