Have you ever felt out of control of your own travels, pulled from town to town and sight to sight by some unseen force, meeting only other tourists, seeing only what you’re “supposed” to see? You’re not the only one; I’ve been there and it is brutal. It would seem easy to blame our modern fast-paced world for the dizzying pace of travel today.
And then you read A Room With A View, a novel written 100 years ago.
If you will not think me rude, we residents sometimes pity you poor tourists not a little—handed about like a parcel of goods from Venice to Florence, from Florence to Rome, living herded together in pensions or hotels, quite unconscious of anything that is outside Baedeker, their one anxiety to get ‘done’ or ‘through’ and go on somewhere else. The result is, they mix up towns, rivers, palaces in one inextricable whirl.
Even with all of our new technology, travel hasn’t changed much in the last century, it would seem.
During my most recent re-reading of A Room With A View (I almost have it memorized), I realized with a shock that it has had more influence on me than I realized. As it turns out, my entire travel ethos comes from the opening chapters.
Here are five modern travel tips pulled straight from A Room With A View and into my own life of travel.
Lesson 1: Throw Out The Guidebook
A Room With A View opens in Florence at the beginning of the 20th Century. Our heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, has just arrived in the city as a tourist, chaperoned by her severe aunt Charlotte.
On her first day in Florence, Lucy is taken out into the city by the ever-so-original Miss Lavish. When Lucy tries to consult her guidebook for directions, Miss Lavish snatches it out of her hands.
I will take you by a dear dirty back way, Miss Honeychurch, and if you bring me luck, we shall have an adventure.
The pair quickly become lost, winding through filthy alleyways where most tourists fear to tread. They are uncomfortable, dirty, and a little scared.
Though Lucy doesn’t realize it at the time, she is getting her first taste of adventure travel.
Whenever I get to a new city, my favorite activity is to wander around without a guidebook, twisting around dear dirty back ways, seeing where normal people live, and waiting for adventure to come.
Lesson 2: Travel is Not Just Museums and Churches
On our first trip to Europe, Stephen and I dutifully sought out every church and museum listed in the Lonely Planet. After a hundred or so of these must-see spots, we realized that neither of us is all that interested in religious architecture or fine art.
The traveller who has gone to Italy to study the tactile values of Giotto, or the corruption of the Papacy, may return remembering nothing but the blue sky and the men and women who live under it.
I hardly remember the churches, temples, and wats we have visited on our trips, but I distinctly remember:
- The boisterous voices of the men we met when we stumbled into a hidden deli in the backstreets of Rome
- The laughter of the women I bathed with at a local’s bathhouse in a tiny town in Morocco
- The man who invited us into his home for coffee one Christmas day in a tiny town on the Greek coast
- The young ladies in a small town in China, who had never met a foreigner before, yet spoke perfect English
No matter if you’re an introvert (like me) or an outgoing people-person, it’s not the museums and churches you remember when you travel – it’s the smiles, the laughter, and the blue sky above.
Lesson 3: Say Yes!
On their arrival in Florence, Lucy and Charlotte are disappointed to discover that the rooms they had been promised, with a view of the Arno river, have not manifested. Instead, their rooms have no view and a peculiar stench.
Yet, when a kindly stranger offers to give them his rooms, which do have a view, they immediately decline. The two women cannot imagine that the man is merely making a kind offer; he must want something in return.
So you think I ought to have accepted their offer? You feel I have been narrow-minded and suspicious?
We Westerners are still narrow-minded and suspicious when we travel. I blame the guidebooks. They teach us to always be on the lookout for scammers, thieves, and evil-doers of all stripes. In consequence, we walk through the world saying “no, no, no” to every opportunity that arises.
It took me a long time and a lot of travel to discover that most offers are just a way for people to connect with their fellow human beings. Most people just want to say “hello” and to make you feel welcome in their country.
When we travel, Stephen and I still don’t let our guards down completely. Instead we use our spidey senses, attempt to throw off our Western suspiciousness, and say “yes!” more often than “no”.
Lesson 4: Open Your Senses
A smell! a true Florentine smell! Every city, let me teach you, has its own smell.
This is another line from the inimitable Miss Lavish, and how right she is. If you travel a lot, one place can start to look much like the last, destinations can become a blur of sameness.
Unless, that is, you attune and open all of your senses, allowing the atmosphere of a place to seep deep inside your soul.
That might sound cheesy, but it’s the only way I can think to explain it.
Listen to the church bells, the birds singing, the car horns blaring, and the people shouting. Really see the beautiful buildings, tiny children playing, and the garbage piled in the gutters. Inhale the scents of exotic flowers, coffee roasting, and the open sewer baking in the hot sun. Taste the wonderful fresh bread, the spicy noodles, and that weird salty dessert or a bitter medicinal tea. Run your fingers along rough ancient walls and smooth slabs of cold marble.
Opening your senses will allow the true feeling of a place to enter into your very being. Eventually, you’ll discover that every place has its own atmosphere. Bangkok will never again be confused with Kuala Lumpur and Ljubljana will be as distinct from Riga and Tallinn and Helsinki as each of your five senses are from the others.
Lesson 5: Break the Rules
Against all advice from her well-meaning guardians, Lucy goes for a walk in Florence as evening approaches.
Nothing ever happens to me.
As she takes her first steps into truly independent travel, she is feeling dull, as though nothing has ever happened to her, and nothing could possibly ever happen.
How could it, when Lucy always sticks to the rules and does what she is told?
But, having broken the rules, she is rewarded with an experience she will never forget. First, she witnesses a man being stabbed in the square and is then, she is rescued by the handsome George Emerson.
She had complained of dullness, and lo! one man was stabbed, and another held her in his arms.
And that is the true start of her adventure.
When I travel, I like to break the rules a little. You don’t have to take a major risk to invite adventure into your life. Turn left when the book says to turn right, venture outside of the tourist zones, eat at a restaurant without reading the reviews… tiny things can make a trip so much more exciting.
It doesn’t take a grand plan or a lot of money to have an adventure – just a small deviation from what’s expected. If you follow the script in the guidebook, you only need to flip the page to know what your future holds.
But even a tiny deviation can open you up to entirely unexpected and exciting situations. Who knows, it may even lead you to find love.
Unfortunately, the Pensione Bertolini is long gone but you can still stay in the highly-rated Hotel degli Orafi where scenes inside the room without a view in the movie were shot.