All of us in recent weeks have seen holiday travel plans disrupted or stalled. Not of the greatest importance in the current scale of things, of course. But doubtless many of us have allowed ourselves – possibly over a cool glass of wine – to daydream about future opportunities to escape, to go abroad once more. But where will we want to go when we can travel again, and how will we get there? Will we simply pack our bags and go where we have been before or will we become more adventurous? Maybe now is a good time to think about what we really want from our future holidays, what purpose they have for us, and whether older kinds of holidaying may seem more attractive once we are finally let off our current leashes.
Nearly twenty years ago Alain De Botton wrote a book entitled The Art of Travel and among other interesting dimensions of travel he touches on themes of “departure”, “motives” and “return”. I find those categories suggestive, especially at this time. For departure is about anticipation as much as about airport lounges and boarding planes. At present it is only anticipation that can be savoured. The prospect of visiting an area of a country entirely new to us. The chance to explore first online or in travel books; to get beneath the surface a bit. And what of our motives? After holing up for a while, we may be newly curious or just hanker for the reassuringly familiar. We may pine for what is comfortable or want to challenge ourselves by seeking byways more than highways. And will we return to where we have been before or spurn the familiar?
Months of social distancing will probably continue in some diluted form or have ongoing effects anyway, even if only psychological ones. Gradually we will (and should for the sake of our country’s economy) slip back into old ways, but not immediately. I suspect that country calm will attract more of us than cities or sandy beaches – even if they are likely to be less crowded than before. Many will incline to seek out houses to rent in rural enclaves or deep in the countryside in nearby European countries. Hotels we know and trust will still attract us but the untested lodging in an unfamiliar place possibly will not. Maybe the depths of Scandinavia will suggest cool cleanliness and clean air and seem a more pleasing prospect for a while than the crush of humanity in the Mediterranean summer heat. Maybe we will just want to head for the hills wherever they can be found.
That said, how will we get to wherever we choose to go? Given its cocooning effect, the family car may become the option of choice. Or perhaps the train will come into its own for longer journeys, with sleeping cars or couchettes especially enticing with meals delivered discreetly from the dining car (the writer Robert Byron said travelling on the pre-war Blue Train was “happiness untrammelled”). As for the fitter or more sturdy among us, hiking in small groups or cycling may find favour. Sailing clubs and boat-owners might see new entrepreneurial opportunities to coax landlubbers out to sea. And will the caravan become chic?
What all this might suggest is a reversion to an older kind of travel and holidaying. A liking for what the Soviet Union used to refer to as the “near-abroad”. The attractions of the slow lane rather than the fast. Deauville rather than Dubrovnik, Saxony rather than Sardinia, the Faroes more than Faro. We may for a short while revert to patterns of travel not unlike those enjoyed in years gone by our parents or grandparents. Like them we may seek out friends and relatives and impose ourselves on them for long weekends. And “Baedeker” and “Murray” may again become guidebooks of choice; they really are still very good indeed and for far more than nostalgia. My “Murray” on Switzerland, first penned in the 19th century, enchants and tempts me still and was frequently consulted when I lived there only a few years ago. And Baedeker had high standards: “Hotels”, one edition stated, “which cannot be accurately characterised without exposing the editor to the risk of legal proceedings are left unmentioned”. Quite right, too.
The writer and biographer of Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Sykes, surmised that the English (his word, not mine) impulse to travel had a complicated relationship to a collective memory of living on the outskirts of the Roman Empire. He thought we liked to escape from ourselves in domestic diversions and games but that the best way to escape from our historical sense of isolation was by travel. By the second half of this year we will have had enough of “domestic diversions” and, sitting as we now do on the outskirts of the European Union, we may, like our grandparents or parents after the Great Depression or the Second World War, crave to get into our cars and seek out the quiet pleasures of ambling through the countryside in the “near-abroad” and stopping every now and again to eat and drink (remember the last time you went out to do so?) and to read and reflect. I sense we will want to “get away” but to do so in more old-fashioned ways and to reassuringly unfashionable places.
And at the end of our journeys to wherever and by whatever means, we will come back to our domestic lives. That return is also part of the pleasure of travel, the reacquaintance with the familiar. As T S Eliot said:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time”