|"What do you do in a strange town
to get to know the place?" So asked an editor, saying that it would make
a useful article for the magazine. The thought made me panic.
It was not panic at being in a new town, I'm a travel junkie, I seek out opportunities to be somewhere I haven't been before. I love the challenge of getting to know it, and the great feeling that comes when I finally get an understanding that goes deeper than a superficial gloss. But to tell somebody else what to do get to that point - that's what caused my panic.
My methods very likely won't be any good for anyone else, unless you like junk food and teapots. Unless you're me, what I do won't likely work for you.
So I began by doing what any self-sufficient writer would do: research. In other words I asked somebody else; in fact I asked three other people. Many of the specifics of what they do may not be right for anyone else either, but the principles on which they operate and their attitudes are instructive.
27 years ago, George Butterfield, his wife Martha Robinson-Butterfield, and his brother-in-law Sidney Robinson founded the travel company Butterfield and Robinson. Since then George has probably been to more cities than Marco Polo.
"I spend three minutes or less in my hotel room and then get out onto the streets." "Wherever I'm living becomes the new 'Centre of the Universe' and all points radiate from there." "Sometimes I'll walk in circles that get larger and larger, with the hotel as the centre of the circle."
George has a strong sense of direction and needs to determine North, East, South and West before the rest of the map can fall in place. "I don't know how else you do it. As soon as I know North and South I can place the streets in a global context." Having got the picture that he goes straight to the details: "I look for the people places, markets, main streets ... In Toronto I would see Yonge Street before I would go the Royal Ontario Museum."
"In Buenos Aires, my last new city, I just got a local guide book at the hotel, a sort of What's On, and checked out the major sites. First I went to the people places, the streets, the markets."
Last summer George and Martha bicycled the ancient pilgrimage route from Paris to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. "When we got there we just sat in the main square for a long time before doing anything. We weren't even in a hurry to get to our hotel. We just sat and absorbed what was around us."
Ask George about food and his aggressively curious attitude changes 180 degrees. He sits back and smiles with satisfaction as if he's just finished a great meal. "Food is really big for me.", he says, obviously thinking of some memorable meals. "It's an event! Especially on your own, you want to feel comfortable."
But how do you find that great place to dine? "Never take a hotel recommendation, I don't trust them." In Europe George might refer to the Red Michelin guide, or just go by intuition. Or take a risk: "About 50% of the time I miss completely, but sometimes you make some amazing discoveries [that you would never find without taking a chance]." And don't be afraid to fold up and go: "I never have a problem in leaving a place after sitting down if I don't like the feel of it."
How about a preliminary bus tour just to get to know the city before going wandering on his own? "Never!" protests George, rising out of the calm that thinking of great meals has put him in. "I hate the notion of a group tour." (Butterfield & Robinson sends thousands of people to Europe on walking and biking trips every year.) "My whole business is built on getting people to travel together and finding a way that they can do that independently."
What's it like to run a travel company and help people get the sort of experience that excites George Butterfield? I didn't ask him that question, but I did get the answer when I asked him if he was ever concerned about getting lost while wandering a strange town: "I always take the hotel card with the address on it, [the prospect of getting lost] doesn't make me panic. I kind of like to get confused and then sit down and sort it out. It's a lot like business, nobody likes disasters, but the mini-crises are kind of fun."
Olga van Kranendonk travels differently than George Butterfield. As a musician in Tafelmusic, Canada's premier baroque orchestra, much of the travelling she does is on carefully-organized orchestra tours. Days are filled with rehearsals, travelling, and of course, performances. But it would be a shame to be in the great destinations that Tafelmusic visits and not to see something other than the inside of a rehearsal hall.
Even if there's only two hours in the day to spare Olga tries to see something of the place. "I get a map from the hotel and just go." "It helps to have a goal, a walk along the river, or a recommended restaurant." "I often go with a group, two or three people at most, from the orchestra, but I now like going alone too. I used to be nervous eating alone, but I like it now."
Olga recommends limiting and defining your goals for a city, especially if your time is also limited. "In Japan, we had almost no free time. [A member of the orchestra] decided that she would see only gardens, and in the two chances we had to get out, she saw two Japanese gardens - not much, but better than the hotel."
"And I talk to everybody: the people working at the hall where we perform, people at receptions, people on the street. Most people enjoy taking you by the hand."
"One thing I enjoy is finding my own little routine, like 'my café' where I have coffee in the morning, so that I create a tiny corner of familiarity in the world. That's a way to enjoy a city. And I'm weird this way: if I find I restaurant that I like, then I'll just go there all the time."
And how do you find that restaurant? "You just walk around and you read all the menus."
Olga claims that the most important thing is to get a "feel" for the place. And how does one do that? "OK, I'm not even sure this is an answer," says Olga, "but I just enjoy how different things are. Even the stones that people built their houses out of. Like in Ascona (sp?) on Lago Maggiore in Switzerland, it's just paradise there, it's so beautiful, the streets in the centre of the city are made of stone and then they go straight up into the walls of the houses."
In Olga's experience, a positive attitude and a good mood seem to be better than a street map. "One of my favourite encounters was in Regensburg, a beautiful medieval town in Germany that wasn't bombed at all. It was spring time, it was market day, I was walking through the streets, whistling. This old man who was wearing lederhosen, one of those Austrian caps, the whole bit, he looked at me, he smiled and stopped, and he shook his finger at me and said 'Flauten is verboten in Regensburg.' - he was great!"
Unlike Olga, Kildare Dobbs has never travelled as a cellist in a baroque orchestra, but he has travelled in almost every other manner that is humanly possible. Kildare was born in India, raised in Ireland, served the colonial government in East Africa, and moved to Canada in 1952. He is one of Canada's best-known travel writers. His latest book, Ribbon of Highway is about his bus trips across this country.
Kildare told me that he has no method of getting to know his way around an unfamiliar city, and went on to give me several. "I start walking. With a map if I can get one, if not, then without one. I walk and I remember how I got there so that I can get back."
Unlike George Butterfield, Kildare has no qualms about starting with an organized tour, a "windshield tour" as he calls them, just to get the lay of the land.
"Or I'll sit on a public bus and go all the way to the end of the line. I have the feeling that I'm bound to traverse something or other." This technique worked for Rome, Zurich and Glasgow.
How about the "major attractions", the cathedrals, the temples, etc? "And the law courts", adds Kildare, "in the lower courts you get to see all the street life, all the crime at least." Even when he doesn't speak the language Kildare claims that the courts give a unique insight into the workings of the culture. "I've never been to an execution", he adds wistfully, apparently sure that this would be a great way to get the feeling of a place.
Another method Kildare uses is to "follow a theme". "In Zurich I went everywhere James Joyce had been. I dined where Joyce had a table and I visited his grave." In Rome, Kildare is among the many who have made the pilgrimage to Keats' grave at the Protestant Cemetery.
As for finding a good restaurant, "I say 'Where's a good restaurant?' That's a good way to start. I can say that in a few languages. And follow your nose, if it smells good, it probably is."
Like everyone I asked, Kildare stresses the importance of going on foot. "To possess any place, you have to walk around it."
For me, having a goal is important, but what the goal is and whether or not you reach it is not so important. If that sounds like a definition of existentialism, well that's OK too. How you travel is probably a reading of how you live the rest of your life. In addition to an existential attitude I have also had some successes with junk food and teapots.
A decent teapot was my quest in Hong Kong, the only one I found that I really wanted had a $600 price tag (Canadian money), but looking through the tea shops on the back streets of Hong Kong got me places I'm very glad to have seen.
I also have this thing for junk food. I guess that's OK to confess now that Bill Clinton has come clean about his eating habits. In Japan the diet seems to consist of infinite varieties of rice, seaweed and fish. The junk food, except for a few Western items and some dried peas coated in hot horseradish, is also variations of rice, seaweed and fish. If they want to make it really exciting they add a touch of sugar. I didn't need any junk food, but I got a great image of Japan by looking through aisles full of varieties of crispy rice in pretty packages decorated with cartoon characters.
Sometimes I can't bear to have the quest end. I first went to Athens more than 20 years ago, mostly to be on the Acropolis, but once I got there I didn't want to finish the journey by just walking up to the Sacred Rock. I delayed, I restrained myself. I wandered around central Athens, looking at the Acropolis from all angles, and getting to know the old and new city around it.
I finally did go up, and have gone up again and again over the years, but now I go to learn more about the architecture, the esoteric reasons for the precise proportions of the place, why there are no straight lines anywhere in the Parthenon, that sort of thing. My quest for the Acropolis has gone onto another plane.
It seems the most difficult part of getting out and getting to know a city is beginning the exercise: taking that first step outside the Hilton coffee shop into the great unknown. I nag and motivate myself with the thought that soon I will be at home and wishing that I had the opportunity to ride a Bangkok bus, go to the sixth floor of Harrod's, walk through the rice field, or look at the view from the next château.
The best aid to discovery is your own attitude. Mine won't fit you, and George's, Olga's or Kildare's don't fit me without some alteration.
I think I got my attitude from Mr. Zirinis, an elderly Greek man I met in Brindisi on my first unescorted overseas trip. He took me aside and gave me some unasked for advice. He said "Never, especially when you're travelling to a place you don't know, never ask 'why', just ask 'why not' that's all." I was young, but not so young I wasn't familiar with the word cliché, but I was polite about it.
A month or so later, in Cairo I was sitting in a café in the market in Cairo when a group of young men whom I had spoken with the previous evening came along, dressed much better than they had been the last time I saw them. After a few words they shyly asked me if I would like to go with them to a wedding.
My internal voice was asking "Why?" and preparing to decline the invitation, but it was beaten down by Mr. Zirinis' "Why not?" Half an hour later I found myself, sitting next to the bride at a traditional wedding celebration deep in the labyrinth of Cairo back streets. The evening was more memorable even than the pyramids, and I certainly have more of a feeling for Cairo than anyone who spent that night in a $300 hotel room.
When I got back to Athens I tried to look up Mr. Zirinis and tell him how his words had guided me to a great experience, but he had died. The attitude he imparted to me has helped me to get to know a lot of cities, it's been the best travel guide I've ever had.