A few months ago the New York Times decided to recruit a journalist for one year, exactly 12 months, to travel the world and provide a report of their travels and destinations every single week. That’s 52 places in 52 weeks. The idea was to create a dream itinerary and to travel for one year, without pause. Writing and observing, pretty well every day of the year. A fascinating challenge for the right person. A person with no responsibilities, a person able to leave home and work consistently, regardless of location. A person that is independent, flexible and truly nomadic. Now that’s a tall order!
I started to think about travel and the idea of a one year journey. I love being on the road, I always have done. It started when I was a little girl and I’d read the travel adverts in the Sunday newspapers, early in the morning, whilst the rest of the house slumbered. I’d dream of being on safari in Kenya, gazing out across the savannah, glimpsing herds of wildebeest at the very edge of the horizon. At school I was interested in archaeology and couldn’t wait to explore the excavations at Knossos, Crete. I dreamed of working at the site with my trowel and sieve, dressed of course in full Indiana Jones style khaki. Aged seventeen I went on a family holiday to Crete and whilst my parents dozed in the sweltering heat of a July afternoon, my sister and I rode scooters to Knossos, where I was able to leap around the ruins like a demented ferret, imagining myself as Ariadne being chased by the minotaur.
Travel and my reaction to ‘foreign’ environments was, and still is, a curious blend of my own perception and my rich and profound imagination. Just before university I got a job near Venice, where I worked as a tour guide for the summer season. I was introduced to the history, architecture and culture of the Veneto region. I learned about Palladio, Titian and Canaletto. I also encountered the exceptional travel writing of Jan Morris, whose book about Venice, published in the early 1960s was an elegy to the beauty and vibrancy of ‘La Serenissima’. I read Hemingway too, ‘A Farewell to Arms’ and ‘Across the River and into the Trees’. Both books described with elegance and emotion the writer’s experiences in Italy during and after both World Wars. As a young man Hemingway volunteered as an ambulance driver, he worked on the front, rescuing wounded soldiers from the battlefield. He spent his leave in Venice, drinking in Harry’s Bar or shooting ducks on the lagoon. His descriptions of duck hunting in the mid-winter, on a frozen lagoon, where ice had to be smashed by the blade of a well-aimed oar, have stayed with me and even now, can induce a shudder that emanates from the depths of my soul.
Our memories enrich our experiences over time. A combination of new places, different landscapes and alternative ways of thinking, create a diverse and fascinating tapestry to discover and explore. Experiences do not have to be positive, they can be disturbing, annoying and unsettling. However, it is really important, in my opinion, that travel experiences provoke an emotion, an understanding, some empathy, in the heart of the visitor. It is vital to set aside trivial concerns, to enable the individual to fully experience a new and different environment. For example, on a recent trip to Marrakech, I observed numerous sheep, live sheep, strapped to the back of trucks, being led on ropes or even trussed in sacking. A shop-keeper explained to me that it was the Muslim festival of Eid and that the animals were being transported to family homes, where they would be slaughtered and eaten over the holiday period. Eid is an important religious festival, and just like the western habit of eating turkey at Christmas time, the celebration of Eid involves a family feast with the sacrifice of a sheep or goat as part of the tradition. The meat from the sacrificed animal is typically divided into thirds, a third is kept to consume, a third is given as gifts to family and friends, the remaining third is given to the poor and needy.
A true traveller must set aside their own individual values and respect and observe the habits and traditions of the people and places that they are visiting. Writing in the 1930s Freya Stark, British travel writer, spent several nights in the fortress city of Raqqa, Syria. She described it as a lawless and frightening place where she felt obliged to sleep, for much of the night, with one eye open. Years later Raqqa became the desert stronghold for the Islamic extremist group calling themselves Daesh (ISIS). As the French would say ‘plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’.
My own approach to travel has always been to aim for maximum flexibility. To choose a place, a city, a region and to visit that area with very little pre-planning, in terms of itinerary. This enables me to experience and to absorb the new destination without imposing a framework on my visit. I often read novels about a city before visiting. For example, the small city of Ferrara, Italy captured my attention years ago when I came across a beautiful book called ‘The Garden of the Finzi Contini’, by Giorgio Bassani about a small group of young people growing up in the 1930s, in the days when Mussolini was flexing his muscle and the rights and liberties of Jews were being curtailed. This small group of friends met to play tennis on warm sunny afternoons. When they were excluded from the local tennis club because they were Jewish, they began to meet at the private home of the Finzi Contini family, who lived in a large house, with a tennis court. The novel begins with a wonderful description of a theatrical marble tomb in the Jewish Cemetery of Ferrara. I was inspired to visit the town and the cemetery as a result of this book. In fact I’ve visited on numerous occasions since. For me that cemetery and the stories and lives of the people buried there offer a treasure trove of stories and emotions, waiting patiently to be tapped.
In terms of the New York Times challenge of 52 destinations in 52 weeks, my approach to this would be to develop themes. For example I’d start with a series of journeys that would highlight the diversity of a region. It would be interesting to start such a journey in Cairo, Egypt and to travel to the coast to Alexandria and to Port Said, Suez Canal. From there I’d head north across the Sinai and into Israel and Jordan. Lebanon has been on my wish list for years so I’d incorporate the city of Beirut and the beautiful hills and valleys of Bekaa. I’d want to include Syria but I don’t know how possible that is at the moment. Certainly Turkey would be included with visits to Anatolia and Cappadocia, followed by at least a week in Istanbul. Istanbul is an extraordinary city, really two cities, half in Europe and half in Asia with both continents represented in this sprawling, incredible metropolis. My travel companion for Istanbul would have to be Orhan Pamuk’s fabulous biography of the city, called straight-forwardly ‘Istanbul’.
The challenge on such a one year adventure would be maintaining momentum and discipling myself to observe and record my thoughts in a lucid and compassionate manner. The minute that fatigue and cynicism set in, my ability to chronicle the journey objectively would be lost. It occurs to me that an alternative approach might be to put together a volume of articles from travel writers globally, to reflect the very best description and observation from all continents. Whilst such a compilation is a much less glamorous assignment, the end result would be potentially richer, and more thought provoking. I’d love to know how this idea progresses and who is selected for this truly life-changing journey.
- Freya Stark, British traveller, journeyed throughout the Middle East, Iran and Iraq in the 1920s & 1930s. I wrote about her in this article: Freya Stark – and Asolo, Italy
- Giorgio Bassani’s novel ‘The Garden of the Finzi Contini’ inspired me to visit and write about Ferrara. Ferrara and Giorgio Bassani
- I welcome comments and discussion: firstname.lastname@example.org
About the author – Janet Simmonds (nee Panagakis) is a British-born tour guide, writer and company director. Her company offers exceptional and unique travel itineraries in Italy, France, Swiss Alps, British Isles. Born in Liverpool with a slightly Greek grand-father and a very Greek great grand-father she has a special affinity with the history, culture and art of the Mediterranean, especially Italy. Trained as a Geographer and Art Historian at the Universities of Oxford and Manchester, Janet has spent most of her adult life running specialist travel companies and travelling extensively. Several times a year she leads small groups to different parts of Europe. Most recently to Venice and the Veneto, Sicily and Basilicata and Puglia. She writes about her travels and observations.