My favourite weekend activity is to go for a long walk through the city, admiring Amsterdam’s beautiful architecture, looking in shop windows and, best of all, walking down new streets I’ve never walked down before.
In fact, this kind of wandering is my favourite activity to do anywhere. I’ve travelled a fair bit now, though I’d hesitate to call myself a seasoned traveller, but I’ve travelled enough that I’ve come to feel wary of the things you’re supposed to do when you visit a place.
Last weekend I went to Barcelona for a hen do (my hen do, in fact). It was very far from being a typical hen do. There were just three of us, including me, and we didn’t drink very much. Mostly we talked and ate and wandered and talked and ate some more. We walked around the city, going down whichever road or alley took our fancy. I didn’t see any of the Gaudi buildings or gardens (though I saw the Sagrada Familia from a distance). Perhaps I should have made the effort to see the sites, but I don’t feel like I missed out. I feel like I took a refreshing draught of the city, without the espresso shot of busy tourist spots and hefty entrance fees.
A younger, less travelled version of me might have felt that fear of missing out, but I’ve come to feel that so many places are like theme parks now. Not just in the sense that you have to pay a lot of money to enter the “amusements” and queue for a long time. But also in the sense that everything is laid out for you on a neat map and all you have to do is follow the paths and signs, whilst ticking off experiences.
I remember years ago listening to Jonathan Ross’s radio show on a Saturday morning (a regular teenage-years tradition) and him telling a story about visiting Alton Towers, a theme park in the midlands of England. He and his family tried to take a short cut through some woods, instead of following the appointed paths, and ended up getting horribly lost. For some reason, of the many (often hung over) hours I spent listening to Jonathan Ross on the radio, that story has stayed in my mind. Perhaps because of the absurdity of getting lost in a theme park. I can imagine getting lost in Alton Tower’s nearby neighbour the Peak District National Park, but not a theme park, where everything is paved and sign posted ad they give you brightly coloured, absurdist maps. As a school kid I visited Alton Towers – they let school kids roam freely there.
Last summer my partner was living in San Francisco and I flew out there to visit him for a week. He planned for us to drive up to Yosemite National Park in the evening when I arrived. Unfortunately, his plan was flummoxed by striking air traffic controllers in France, so my flight was delayed by five hours. I got in around 11pm and we decided to make the drive up to Yosemite anyway. When we drove back to San Francisco two days later and saw just how steep the drop was from the winding, narrow roads we’d driven along that first night, I was glad I hadn’t known in the dark. We finally made camp around 3am and were woken up six hours later when the heat of the sun on our tent became unbearable.
That first day we were too exhausted for anything too strenuous so we decided to go and visit the Giant Sequoias. There are just three groves of these behemoth trees in Yosemite. We went to the Tuolumne Grove and followed a short route that took us down to and round the grove. The paths were well worn and along the way informational nodes told us about the history of the area. Of course, the Giant Sequoias were impressive, but I couldn’t help feeling like they were on display, like exhibits in a museum. I suppose they are. They only grow in a small area of California, there are just 68 groves of Giant Sequoias, and it is the only species in its genus. It feels like a species on the edge and yet I get the feeling that they will still be here long after we’re gone and our museums have turned to dust.
My thoughts drifted to less philosophical places once we drove down to the valley – the central hub of Yosemite. The road through the valley is lined with car parks, shops, cafes and accommodation, and more car parks. There were a lot of cars, buses and people and there wasn’t much chance of getting lost with so many signs pointing the way.
Not that we could claim to be any superior to the millions of other tourists that visit the park each year. We didn’t go backpacking in the wilderness, where you have to pack your food and toothpaste in a bear-proof container. We drove to Yosemite, stopped at the appointed viewing stations for stunning views, followed the signs, went on a few walks and checked it off the to do list. It was an amazingly beautiful place. But I couldn’t get over the feeling that we hadn’t really visited a nature area. It felt as though someone had orchestrated the attractions – a mountain here, a waterfall there, some Sequoias over there.
I had the same feeling earlier this year when I visited Iceland. Before visiting a new place we usually buy a guide book and take a cursory look at the Top Ten Things to Do lists. We only had one full day in Iceland (it was a stopover en route to the US) and all the Top Ten Things to Do involved paying a tour company a silly amount of money and sitting on a bus with other tourists to visit a lagoon or a glacier or a waterfall. I’m sure they would have been spectacular, but I enjoyed our day of wandering round Reykjavik.
We had breakfast at a bakery (whilst it was still dark outside because it didn’t get light until 11) and then walked, in the snow and -8°C out to Gotta Lighthouse, on the end of the peninsular Reykjavik is built on. The sun never got very high in the sky so the light was the golden light of sundown. When we got back into the centre of the city we had lunch at the first place we found – warming vegetable soup, hot chocolate and carrot cake. After lunch we wandering until we came to a frozen pond, and then we kept on wander, right across the pond. We walked up a hill and got a view out over the whole town before heading back to our warm, cosy apartment. Later on that night we went out to the sea front to try and see the northern lights. We might have had more success if we’d coughed up for the Northern Lights Tour, but I think I enjoyed standing out there on the cold sea front, just the two of us, far more. And we almost convinced ourselves we could see something in the sky, almost.
All the world’s a theme park – but there are still delights and surprises to be found if you toss away the guide book and follow your nose.