We travel the world for pleasure, business or to meet family and friends, and mostly, we let ourselves be transported by planes, trains, cars and whatever means are appropriate. But, if we stop for a moment and think about the origin of the word 'travel' we will realize that we often neglect the most natural means of transport - our feet.
'Travel' derives from the Old French word 'travail' which means work. This in turn apparently goes back to the Latin word 'tripalium' which was a three-legged sort of whip used by the Romans to drive slaves. Being on the move was work, walking miles and miles to get from A to B, getting dirty and sweaty in the process.
No modern-day traveler is required to submit himself to torture, but a little bit of 'travail' by exploring our destinations on foot, as opposed to hopping on a tour bus and letting yourself be guided to pre-selected destinations, goes a long way to increasing the pleasure of travel. We travel to satisfy our curiosity and to discover the real side of the country of our choice. If we don't put in a bit of legwork we will miss out on all of the following:
Meeting the locals
You have arrived at your destination and the first thing you do is get your bearings.
Plan in hand and shunning a guided tour, I made my way to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. As inevitably happens, the map always looks different than the reality and I decided to ask directions of an elegant lady on the street. We fell into a conversation. If you are looking for something really typical of Santiago, she said, you should visit the statue of the 3 Marias, our local heroines.
She continued to explain that said Marias had been three sisters who, during the times of Franco, had suffered serious hardship. Bound on pulling themselves out of misery, they began to design and sew their own clothes and, every day at the dot of 3pm, set out on a walk around the city center, modeling their clothes and, as they had a lot of wit and a sharp tongue, flirting with the students and providing entertainment for an entire city during dreary times. After their death, a statue was erected in their honor and Galician poets even dedicated poems to them.
No guidebook mentions this story, which I would not have discovered without taking to the street.
Beating the traffic
Have you ever thought how many taxis, buses and minibuses are needed to ferry tourists around and what that does to the environment? Take to your feet and you use the 'greenest' means of transport possible and, more often than not, you arrive faster than anybody on four wheels.
Our cruise ship had just docked in Charlotte Amalie, the capital of the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. I saw that the town center was approximately 2 miles away and decided to walk along the ocean front up to the 99 steps which I wanted to visit. My fellow passengers were not inclined to follow my example and headed for the buses and taxis. Two miles, one gentleman huffed, you can't walk that!! No? I thought to myself. Watch me.
Charlotte Amalie is a small town and the roads are not equipped to accommodate the sudden influx of thousands and thousands of cruise ship passengers, all arriving at once and all headed for the same direction. Result: they got stuck in a traffic jam and looked slightly miffed when I overtook them on foot, happily waving at some very long faces. Moreover, I arrived at the 99 steps and the World Amber Museum well ahead of the crowd and had the place to myself.
Exercise while seeing the sights
There is yet another benefit to exploring on foot. Just think that even one hour of walking at a leisurely pace burns 38 calories at a body weight of 150 lbs. That allows for a little extra treat without fear of putting on the dreaded holiday pounds and beats a treadmill any day.
Avoiding the tourist crowds
Tourist guides and hotel staff will recommend restaurants full of other travelers, but I prefer to go and take a look at where the locals assuage their hunger.
I was richly rewarded for this in Kusadasi, a lovely Turkish port town on the Aegean Sea. Discarding the more elegant places, I opted for a small, half-open place called Toro where I saw a lot of Turkish businessmen having their lunch. It had long communal tables and benches and an open hot and cold buffet where you just pointed at what you wanted. Or you could ask for fish and then sit down by the waterfront and watch fisherman pulling out what you were about to eat a few minutes later. The lamb shanks I had were so tender that I didn't need a knife and a rich fruit platter came as free desert. The total bill was a lot cheaper than anywhere else, because if not, the locals would have protested.
The real joy of travel is to come upon sites which aren't mentioned anywhere and that's only possible if you deviate from the beaten path - on foot.
Another stop of my cruise was Tortola and its tiny capital Road Town. Meandering along Main Street, I happened upon a folklore museum which was the smallest museum I have ever seen - just one room and easy to miss. I was the only visitor and the curator told me a lot of local stories, which taught me a more about the island life and mentality than any guide book could have.
Seeing nature up close and personal
Taking to your feet allows you to enjoy tropical flora and fauna at close quarters. A botanical garden is fine, but a 'jungle walk' on your own is a much better adventure.
Again in St. Thomas, I saw the Skyride, a cable car going up and down Flag Hill to Paradise Point. I admit, I took it up, but when I discovered a path leading down, I decided to follow it. My first companion was a bright red butterfly which settled on my shoulder and stayed with me all the way. I saw colorful birds and lizards scuttling out of the way and enjoyed wonderful views of the island and the ocean peeking through the trees. Best of all, I was all alone.
Feeling like you belong
In my eyes, that's the best of all. Anybody moving in a group or climbing out of a tourist bus is instantly tagged as a tourist and treated as such. Walking the streets on your own gives you a real feel for the place and - at least for a while - you belong.
Photos by (top to bottom): silverlinedwinnebago, Frederic Poirot, Martin Dougiamas, Tim Dorr, lecercle, h.koppdelane, chdxx