Out with checklist tourism, or the manic race in pursuit of the Instagrammable: Slow travel is real travel. An art to rediscover.
Switching off is perhaps chief among the many things I am not very good at.
I am rarely to be found more than a few centimetres from a device or screen. Yet there remains one place where I am out of reach of others, and where digital distraction lies beyond my own grasp: on my bicycle.
On my bike, I have no choice but to look up and take in what I am passing, be it a verdant slice of English countryside or a vertiginous Alpine pass. Without distraction, my senses are opened to sights, sounds and smells: cut grass, poppy fields, the sizzling wild rosemary I passed outside the Spanish city of Girona recently on a hot summer’s day.
Moreover, the reliability of smooth asphalt or a mellow dirt track allows my mind to explore new or neglected avenues – or to go nowhere at all. There have been occasions on my bike when I realise I have no recollection of the preceding kilometres; time can pass almost unnoticed in a blissful blur of rhythm and rolling.
The bicycle is arguably the greatest conveyance for what has become known as “slow travel”, a soul-enriching way to explore emotion, connection and culture as much as a route or destination. Out with checklist tourism, or the modern, manic race to jet off in pursuit of the instant gratification of the Instagrammable. In with the road less travelled, at a pace that permits a more thoughtful engagement with people and place.
The popularity of slow travel may be one of the few positive legacies of the Coronavirus pandemic. Restrictions on aviation and other means of getting around forced us all to rethink what it means to travel, and what we might want to get out of it. It prompted a move to the local, the meaningful – the slow. Crowds became not just a claustrophobic blot on the bucket lister’s map, but an existential threat.
Backpacking, bikepacking, trekking, wild swimming, sailing, ski touring, cooking – demand has soared for travel and exploration that leaves room for thought and connection, from the banal to the profound.
Trains, too, have become agents of slow travel, just as they were before the age of low-cost aviation. Planes, for all their glorious convenience, are temporary human storage solutions. They strip away a sense of place and our most basic social instincts, too often turning travel into a soulless test of endurance. Trains, meanwhile, draw the eye outwards and – to a much greater degree – towards other people. I have had more conversations with strangers on single train journeys than I have during a lifetime in the clouds.
The slow travel ethos is not just about getting somewhere, but drawing out the joy and humanity of a destination. It’s about wandering aimlessly through city streets, lingering in town squares and bars and seeking the company of locals. While travelling in the Caucasus mountains of Georgia earlier this year, I walked into a cafe in a small town with the simple intention of buying a coffee. I walked out half an hour later after a conversation with the owner and her friend. The spontaneous encounter gave me a buzz that long outlasted that of the caffeine I had consumed.
But it is the bicycle, I would argue, that rolls along as the greatest totem for slow travel – at an optimal speed that offers a sense of adventure while denying the rider none of the richness of his surroundings. On a bike, I have seen things that the speed and confines of a motorised conveyance would have rendered as a blur. I have forged friendships all over the world, from those that now span decades to others that have lasted only as long as a single ride. On solo rides, I've made life decisions, written passages in my head, and reflected usefully on emotional troubles. I have preserved a space in which to switch off.
Above all else, I have learned and refined the art of slow travel.