Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2021
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Go with the slow

These classics make the case for throwing away your guidebook

It’s fashionable these days to compare travellers with tourists.

Travellers take it slow, they meander, they have no special agenda, they let what happens happen.

Tourists, on the other hand, are all about drafting an itinerary and completing a bucket list, ticking off one item after another. The Eiffel Tower: check. The Colosseum: check. The Parthenon: check.

The traveller rises at 10am and, after a leisurely café crème over the morning papers, lounges the rest of the day away in the Jardin du Luxembourg while reading Proust, now and then pausing to jot down a piquant observation, or to while away an hour refining a pen and ink sketch of the leaves of a plane tree.

Come evening, the tourist speeds back to the hotel to change for dinner at one famous restaurant or another. Maxim’s: check.

The traveller saunters over to a café and contemplates dinner over a glass or two of local wine. At 11pm, as traveller sits down in some backstreet resto to a plate of artichauts, the first of what will be six or seven courses, the tourist slips between the sheets to rest up for tomorrow’s onslaught.

Easy does it?

I’ve travelled slow and I’ve travelled fast, and I’d like to say that slow is better —but I can’t. Truth is, each serves a different purpose.

The traveller visits Europe every couple of years over the course of a decade or two and never sees the sights a tourist covers in five days. A traveller is like a Vancouverite who’s never been photographed next to the Gastown steam clock; a Torontonian who’s never been to the top of the CN Tower; a Montrealer who’s never seen the wall of crutches at Saint Joseph’s Oratory.

If I have three days in Rome or Rangoon, I’m a tourist. If I have 10 days in Tuscany or southern Turkey, I’m a traveller.

Before 1832, the tourist didn’t exist. In that year, Baedeker published the first travel guidebook. Railways and steamships meant that for the first time it was possible for the middle class to travel to places that had been the preserve of the aristocracy. They were more than up for the challenge.

In the ensuing years, hundreds of guidebooks were churned out. Like a craze with legs, they just keep on coming.

To me, of greater interest are books for travellers by authors better known for their works of literature. Here’s a list of some of my slow-travel favourites:

Tales of the Alhambra: a Series of Tales and Sketches of the Moors and Spaniards by Washington Irving (1832)
An utterly charming peek inside the Granada palace where Irving lived for a time.

The Voyage of the Beagle (1839) by Charles Darwin
One of the most important works of the 19th century. Darwin was 22 when he set out. The trip took five years. His vision changed the way we see the world.

American Notes (1842) by Charles Dickens
Except for the city of Boston, Dickens was not impressed with what he saw. He liked Canada even less.

The Path to Rome (1902) by Hilaire Belloc
Belloc is somewhat out of fashion, but he shouldn’t be as you’ll discover when you read this account of a stroll he took at the turn of the century from Paris to Rome.

On a Chinese Screen (1922) by W. Somerset Maugham
China between the wars — an odd and interesting place — as the fine short story writer experienced it. China bound? Pick it up, you’ll be informed and entertained.

Out of Africa (1938) by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen)
It begins, “I had a farm in Africa,” and just keeps getting better. Read the book before you see the movie — if you haven’t done both already.

Prospero's Cell: A Guide to the Landscape and Manners of the Island of Corcyra (1945) by Lawrence Durrell
After WWII, the Durrell mother packs up her three kids and moves to Corfu. Two of her offspring write books about it. Must be read with brother Gerald's hilarious My Family and Other Animals. Two such different takes on the same place.

Seven Years in Tibet (1952) by Heinrich Harrer
The classic on Tibet before everything fell apart. A must read for the sheer pleasure of it.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958) by Eric Newby
Afghanistan wasn’t always a war zone — at least not, in the way it has come to be. Truly one of the funniest travel books ever.

Venice (1960) by James Morris
Formerly known as James Morris, Jan Morris has written a truckload of travel books and any one of them — like her most famous Venice — is worth reading.

A Moveable Feast (1964; published posthumously) by Ernest Hemingway
Probably the macho American author’s most charming book. It recounts his first few years in Paris with his wife Hadley as he struggled to write and they struggled to stay together after he became famous. The writing lasted, the marriage didn’t. It’ll make you long to be in French capital in the early ‘20s.

Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour (1972) by Gustave Flaubert
The author of Madame Bovary cannot be ignored. A delightful romp penned by Francis Steegmuller using the travel notes and letters Flaubert gathered on a tour when he was 28. Don’t visit Egypt without it.

The Great Railway Bazaar (1975) by Paul Theroux
Theroux is the author of many travel books. This one is considered the best.

In Patagonia (1977) and The Songlines (1987) by Bruce Chatwin
Chatwin (1940 to 1989) remains one of the most celebrated of this century’s travel writers, possibly because he died so young.

Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone (1987) by Mary Morris
I have a lot of time for anything Ms. Morris writes and this one’s a doozie.

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (1999) by Bill Bryson
A funny, funny man and this book is one of his funniest. If you’re ever tempted to conquer the famous trail, read this first.

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything, Across Italy, India and Indonesia (2006) by Elizabeth Gilbert
Read the book, which sold 10 million copies; see the movie with Julia Roberts, if you dare.

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