Does the Romance of Travel still exist?
It’s the trip I’ll never forget. I was 21 years old, a university student in Montreal. My mother worked and lived in Lusaka, Zambia. That year she invited me to spend Christmas holidays with her.
I flew Montreal – Paris on December 21, 1989 with Air France. I remember the date well because it was the same day as the Lockerbie bombing: the day the Pan Am flight from Frankfurt to Detroit was blown up mid-air over Lockerbie Scotland. I remember landing in Paris and seeing everyone glued watching the news on the airport tv sets.
From Paris to Lusaka I was booked to fly UTA. UTA was an exotic airline, they went to all kinds of strange places that the major airlines didn’t cover. This particular flight for example stopped in Libreville (Gabon), Brazzaville (Congo), Lusaka, with the final destination being Lilongwe (Malawi). It was a huge plane, a 747-300, and I remember how odd it seemed to be landing in Libreville with its single runway and small terminal building. An hour and a half after that first pitstop we made a quick stop in Brazzaville before continuing on to Lusaka for the 3rd (and my final) stop.
I remember loving the flight, I had a window seat and was amazed by the red African earth below and the strange cloud formations that seem so particular to Africa. The airlines treated you well back then. The food was fantastic, I remember being served filet mignon and all the wine I could drink. When breakfast came around we had croissants and eggs. I was a student at the time and for me this was the height of luxury.
Flying was something I always looked forward to and I often didn’t sleep the night before. It always excited me. I loved airports, they always felt so “international”. I’d see the stewardesses and I’d try to figure out where they were from based on their uniforms and complexions. Airports didn’t seem so stressful back then and I remember well-dressed, civil people who smelled good* (I don’t think people farted in those days). I like to think that people dressed up and put on cologne when preparing of those international flights.
* Don’t get me started those inflight magazines with perfumed pages. They were for me the epitome of class and sophistication.
I did a lot of travelling when I was younger: living in Africa when I was a child, moving around Canada in my early teens, having my first independent trip to Europe when I was 17 (with my childhood friend Laurent), and then re-discovering Africa with my mother in my late teens and early twenties. All of these experiences contributed to my love of travel.
Do I still love travel? Yes and No.
I now hate the airport experiences. I can’t stand the lines, the pushy people, the (at times) nasty security personnel (I can’t blame them too much though considering the people they have to deal with).
I still love parts of the flying experience. If I can have a quiet spot at the window with a normal person next to me I’m happy. I can look out the window all day. But I can never get over the “new normal” of people: people who use your headrest to pull themselves up from their seat, or who put their feet up on your armrest, or the alpha-male who sits next to you trying to claim all the leg space (“look at me with my big balls. I need to space out my legs because my balls are soooo big”). When the plane lands I’m always amazed by the people who fight to be the first out of their seat to get their luggage. Haven’t they figured out by now that it takes at least 10 minutes before the jet bridge is connected to the plane, the plane door is open, the first class passengers are let out, and the 30 rows in front of you can get out of their rows?*
* Sorry, the new normal is that you don’t let people in front of you get out of your rows. It’s a competitive sport and you have to edge in there and cut them off before they can get out…
And what happened to the beautiful, good-smelling people? Now people fart. They don’t care anymore. And then you also get people wearing flip-flops and/or tank tops….which means lots of smelly feet and armpits. People are disgusting.
That’s the new reality of flying.
And then there’s the new reality on the ground. Never has the earth had so many people visiting the same places. And those people are the same people you sat next to on the plane.
Anyway, I was talking about the Romance of travel.
When I say romance of travel I’m thinking of those moments when you’re in bliss, when you just go “wow, I so happy to be here in this moment to experience this. This is why I travel. I wouldn’t trade this for anything in the whole frigin world”. It’s the moments that you fall in love (again) with travel, or maybe that first time when you fell in love with it.
It can be a place, an experience, or people you meet.
A few of our recent “Bliss” moments:
– Taking “El Chepe” from Chihuahua to the Pacific Coast of Mexico a few years ago. An incredible experience meeting interesting people, seeing beautiful geography, and the closest thing that’s ever come close to a “luxury train experience” (but on the cheap). On one of the days I stopped in Divisadero and, alone, hiked to the top of a cliff and sat there looking out over the Copper Canyon. There was not a single human being in sight. I’ll never forget that moment.
– Lissette and I in South Africa’s Western Cape, driving through the desert and across the Swartberg Pass. Incredible landscapes, few people, and the feeling of freedom having your own wheels.
– Again in South Africa, a weekend through the vineyards of Stellenbosch, driving from winery to winery. While South Africa is not unknown by tourists, we never felt that there were too many tourists (nor were they the discount airline bunch you see all over Europe). South Africa remains the best-quality-for-money experience we’ve had anywhere. Combine it with incredible natural beauty and friendly people…I’ll never forget it.
– Lissette will tell you that surprises along the way are what motivate her to see more. Seeing places like Split, Lviv, and Olomouc – a few of the places that we both fell in love with over the last few years. We’ve been travelling full-time now for 5 years and it’s discovering unexpected places that keep her interested in discovering more.
– The people we’ve met along the way. Lissette will always remember people we’ve met and conversations we’ve had. It can be an extra special Airbnb owner, the girl at the gym she bonded with, or the guy who started a conversation with her at the airport. We may never meet these people again but these are people from all over the world that she never would have met if we hadn’t decided to travel the world.
It’s these moments that keep the romance of travel alive. I started off this post with the flight story – for me the physical travel was always part and parcel of the whole travel experience. I remember, on one of those flights returning from Africa, when a stewardess came up to me and asked me if I wanted to switch seats. I ended up having a row to myself on the top deck of a 747. I’ll never forget that.
Those moments are fewer in between now. They rarely ever happen when flying and I find that they happen less when arriving at your destination as well. There are many places in the world that have to be seen. Venice for example. But with all the tourists visiting the same places, can you still find those blissful moments?*
* I mentioned higher up how we loved Split. But Split June to August is a whole different place. We would have hated Split if we had discovered it in summer.
Sometimes I wonder if I’ve become jaded. But I don’t think so…I think if you compare the average travel experience today vs 20 years ago you’ll find reasons to think that the travel experience is just not what it used to be. Case in point, my return to Ko Phi Phi in 2008 – an extreme comparison but an indication of how things have changed.
Related: Why “Off the beaten path” places are sometimes the best places to Visit
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But the above is not to say that we’ve lost the romance of travel. We still have those moments that inspire us for more. It’s just harder to find now. We know, for example, that the iconic, popular places don’t do it for us. I mentioned Venice up top. While many places are worth seeing, I think inspirational places and moments are harder to come by just because of all the other tourists seeking the same experiences in the same places.
I also think that as a traveller you have to target specific experiences and do them a certain way. And, without sounding like a snob, if you want more than the mass tourist experience you either have to pay for a higher end experience, do something that majority don’t, or go places not reached by mass tourism.
So, some Travel Inspiration ideas that we’re thinking of?
– Lissette finds the idea of train travel romantic. We’ve done a lot of train travel but very little of it has been romantic. She still dreams of that “romantic train ride”. A few of the world’s most romantic train rides (turn your sound down if you click on that).
– A bike journey. Something I’ve had in mind for a long time. Many years ago I did a 7 day organized bike journey of Quebec’s Gaspe peninsula with Velo Quebec. I’d like to do something similar…but this time somewhere in Europe.
– Russia. We’ve been curious for a while.
Would love to see Moscow and St. Petersburg No longer, Putin changed all that.
– We’ve always put off India. We’re intrigued by it (especially Rajasthan) but it’s a destination that makes us nervous. But after our tour in Georgia and Armenia we’ve rethought it and are thinking of one day taking a 10 to 14 day tour (either private or group tour). I think it’s one of those destinations where you save yourself a lot of hassle doing it the tour route.
Related: Postcards from Around the World
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I think those of us who travel a lot or maybe are a tad bit older can completely relate to your post, Frank. I loved it. I giggled my way through it.
When I was a kid my older sister was a flight attendant for PanAm. She wore a pink suit with a pillbox hat as her uniform. It was considered a glamorous job back then. What she loathed about it though were the restrictions, the weekly weighs in, etc. Yes. She had to step on a scale every week. She quit flying when PanAm went under. Two sides of the looking glass, right? I loathe everything there is about flying, so it’s a moot point for me.
Abi and I have found, as I’m sure you have as well, that traveling off-season is the answer. It isn’t always possible because life dictates, but when it works, it’s fabulous. Several years ago we spent 3 weeks in Paris in January. When Abi first suggested it I thought he was crazy, but it was incredible. No crowds. We walked in to everywhere and did everything we wanted. Someone above mentioned Versailles. We had an incredible day in Versailles and at the Palace sauntered through every room. No crowds whatsoever. We also went to Fontainebleau. We almost had the Palace to ourselves. It snowed, in Paris, during those 3 weeks and you want to talk romantic?!
I think the other piece of the puzzle, at least for me, is I don’t travel where I know I’d be way too far out of my comfort zone. I’m not going to push myself to travel to a particular destination just to buy the t-shirt so-to-speak. There ain’t nothin romantic about that.
Interesting point about the internet making travel front and center. I suppose those of us who write travel blogs are a piece of that puzzle. For what it’s worth though, I hate Instagram and Twitter. 🙂
Thanks Patti. You should get your sister to write a guest post on the blog, would love to read about some of her adventures as a flight attendant.
Also hate Instagram. Everything about it including the stupid girls posing in red dresses and high heels on the top of a mountain. Too much fake in travel these days.
Hi Frank, I just arrived in Sofia yesterday and was so happy to have few tourist around me as I walked the city center today. I didn’t venture into places, other than Sv Alexander Kevsky Cathedral – I had one of those romantic travel moments marveling at the structure. I totally understand why you guys liked it here.
That’s so great to hear.
Sofia has been one of our surprises this year. We didn’t expect much but really quite enjoyed it. Make sure to go Rakia tasting 🙂
And then I assume you’re going to Plovdiv?
Frank, great post and I also love all the above comments. Travelling has became so affordable that it is now for the masses, everyone can travel…a good thing, but unfortunately that means that it does not feel so special, unique, romantic. Many of the iconic places, which I have longed to visit have lost their appeal a little bit. These places have been photographed and Instagram (ed) to death. Visiting certain places is like overcoming an assault course…with selfie sticks becoming quite lethal. I started travelling in 1987…how different things were then. No internet, no apps, no mobile phones…no selfie sticks etc. It really felt like stepping into the unknown…an adventure. I have always loved travelling, the love has not faded or became jaded yet, I hope it never will. But I prefer more off the beaten track places…although there are still many iconic places I would like to visit. For the past month I have been exploring Norway, above the Arctic Circle, it really does feel quite remote here. No mass tourism this far North yet 🙂 I like some of the strategies offered by Dee (above). We just have to keep on travelling and learning to travel differently with a lot more careful planning.
Another great comment. I’ve seen the changes just in the last 5 years of travelling Gilda. Back in 2014 we had people taking selfies but it was for themselves or Facebook…now we have this instagram craze where everyone is a wannabe model. You’re saying what Andy said above – travelling was unknown, an adventure. So I guess what we’re all saying makes sense – go to off the beaten track places where any instagrammers have been chewed up by the local wildlife 🙂
I saw your post on Norway. When is day day and night night when the sun is out 24 hours a day? I just can’t grasp the concept…and I see you guys in winter coats in early August…
What a brilliant post Frank. I started travelling in 1999 and I have to say, travel was more exciting and ‘romantic’ when I started. Once you’ve done a fair bit of it, I guess it’s fair to expect that the gloss comes off travelling, but there’s no denying that the experience is not what it used to be.
For me it seems soooo obvious that so many more people are travelling that weren’t back 20 years ago. That’s from everywhere, but compounded by the fact that countries have opened up in that time and their citizens are now able to travel the world. Sheer numbers turns things like going to the Louvre into the biggest nightmare imaginable. The airport experience these days is just horrific. Airlines I believe are less and less likely to run unprofitable legs, and fewer flights per passenger are available. I remember flying out to Bangkok in 1999 from Melbourne with a plane less than half full. That just doesnt happen today. Most flights are close to or often over capacity (and someone gets bumped).
The internet is great but also has the ability to ruin travel. You now get a real sense of a hotel before you leave home with photos and reviews. There is little unknown. Of course, my travel tastes have altered dramatically and I dont want to sleep in a room with 19 others. I want a nice hotel room where it wasnt really on the radar 20 years ago. In fact, I generally just wanted the cheapest place I could find.
With so many blogs (none as awesome as yours ;)) and more particularly social media posts, again there’s less UNKNOWN out there. People instagram everything. Which also means – selfies left right and centre. I want to take good photos when I’m travelling. But almost none of those photos do I have to work out a perfect pose because I personally prefer not to be in them. But it seems for 9/10 travellers that is not the case.
Anyhoo…. your post has touched a nerve. Good work!
Great comment Andy.
The internet has really helped travel. I remember the time when we’d show up somewhere in Europe and would line up at the tourist office (usually at a train station or airport) and they would call around to local hotels/hostels to see if a room was available. Depending on that you’d have to take the subway halfway across the city with a map and telephone #. Looking back in was laughable wasn’t it? But the negative side it is just as you say. When I go somewhere I try NOT to plan or to look at photos on the internet…it just ruins it for me. And then they give you these maps with all the instagram spots marked X on the map so you can take the same damn photo as everyone else. It all takes anything spontaneous out of travel. You are so right – there’s less unknown out there and that takes the excitement out of the equation.
As far as plane travel I also totally agree.
Thanks for the great comment.
Hi Frank, you hit the nail on the head about air travel. Used to love it and had the same “international” aura as you described. I got dressed in my finest in 1972 on my first transatlantic. Yes, people next to you on a flights can be outright disgusting and inconsiderate, I had plenty of such experiences. However, those unique travel experiences in between make up for it because these are the ones most memorable…I agree with your view. I am glad the comment from Dee above that she liked my country Romania, can’t argue with that (for me). p.s. I just too traveled to Georgia with a group and was thrilled about the beauty of the country. Just hated the dogs! you are right that Georgia should be seen with a group and I am planning to visit the Batumi region (in the south) sometime soon. Please convey to Lissette that like her, I love traveling by trains, my childhood fascination. I missed my dream for the “Orient express”.
You’re sweet Sara, you always mention Lissette in your comments. She sends you her greetings, maybe one day we’ll have the opportunity to meet again.
About Georgia and the dogs: it’s funny that Yerevan has practically no stray dogs while Tbilisi has tons. I wonder why..
Always love when people agree with me 🙂
Great post. I still love air travel…once on the plane. I agree with the air travel rookies not knowing basic etiquette and that airlines have forgotten how to have decent, basic customer service, unless you pay for the upgrade.
I think the romance of travel can only be obtained by remember the good parts and ignoring the rest. It’s hard to do sometimes, but I am willing not to see something in order to have a personal experience visiting something relatively untouched: an out of the way place; a local small town. My wife and I have found beaches where we camped out for a day and never saw another person. We’ve visited historical sites that we stumbled upon by just turning onto a road that had a cryptic sign that most people overlooked. Those are the moments that make the trouble worth it.
When our kids were young, they would ask why we had to drive through this area or go through this long line…my response because it is in the way. We always found something memorable.
Thank you Randy, great comment, thank you for taking the time.
You know what? You are right about remembering the good parts. I’d say it’s also good to remember the worst parts because when we look bad they’re often the best travel stories. It’s the mediocre parts that are the worst…because they’re not worth remembering any which way which basically means they were a waste of time and money. That’s the way I look at it 🙂
You are also absolutely right about being able to see out of the way places…which is why it’s great to have your own set of wheels. It’s something we are going to do more of going forward.
Hey Frank, I agree with you. If I know it will have tourists (like Barcelona or Paris), I give it a miss except to change trains etc. For myself I tend to just pick a dot on the map and go, never quite knowing what to expect. Sometimes I’ll jump off a bus and check that little town or place out. Everywhere I go it’s usually the people or that “something” which is special.
More often than not the place or journey is okay, but there are those times when stuff gets really dicey and the adventure happens. A few times I was glad I survived and learned from the situation.
I know you don’t follow the crowds Ted and that you like to just wing it. That’s great. I used to do the same when I had my solo adventures.
I’m just writing to say that I generally agree that with the volume of tourists, cruise ships ruining cities near ports and discount airlines flooding European cities with hen and stag parties every weekend, there are many places to simply avoid. Beautiful places spoiled by hordes of badly behaved people. My personal list includes London, Capri, Venice, Rome, and I was just in Bourton on Water, a small golden Cotswold Village , with bus loads of Chinese. Oxford and the Cotswolds are now a mob scene.
So, how do you find the “real” places where you can find “authentic” local experiences? I’m trying to work that out, and would appreciate knowing others’ Ideas. Mine are: 1.avoid port cities. Barcelona, Lisbon, Venice, Rome, Dublin are simply overrun when the ships are in. We went into Venice last August about 5 pm and were able to stroll through an area close to the bus station, and even have a quiet meal outdoors. If you visit, go very early or after 5 pm.
2. Avoid the major cities that are on tourist itineraries and “cultural” or foodie” tours. Paris, Tuscany, Florence, Versailles are truly overrun. Instead, go to Bordeaux, Umbria or
another less known region. Try Fontainebleu or Amboise instead of Versailles.
3. Rent a car. Most Chinese don’t rent cars, so if you go to a regional center and then rent a car, you’ll still find the “real” France, like the caves and villages in the Ardeche.
4. Travel in the former Eastern European countries. They now offer most European amenities, great museums, and the people are salt of the earth. We enjoyed Krakow, loved Slovenia, and Romania’s a historically fascinating country, especially the painted churches near Suceava. Avoid Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, but go to the UNESCO world heritage sites there—Teutonic fortified churches and beautiful villages. Very few foreign tourists, and lovely, inexpensive walkable towns.
Great comment Dee, you’ve obviously given it more analysis than I have.
We’ve spent most of our time in Central/Eastern Europe and you are so right. Croatia is an exception (tons of Korean tour groups) and Krakow and Prague quite touristy. But otherwise it’s not TOO touristy and there are many places that really don’t get too many tourists at all. We’re in Ukraine right now for the next 3 months – just love it here and it’s an escape from the tourists that invade Europe this time of year (there are tourists here but really it’s a drop in the bucket compared to other places).
All your other points excellent. Agree fully.
Thanks for having taken the time to comment.
Ps Yes, avoid Bran Castle. Go to Peles – it’s incredible, one of our favorite European castles.