Slow travel versus junk-food journeys

My mate Justin is going for a walk. Quite a long one. He's going to tie up his boots in Granada, in the south of Spain, then wander over to Seville, before making a right and heading up to the northern coast - a mere 1200 kilometres away. It'll take him, he reckons, about three months.

He'll be following a well-worn trail because this is a traditional Christian pilgrimage he's undertaking, a trek to the cathedral in the city of Santiago de Compostela to visit the remains of the apostle James. That would explain things - except Justin's a non-believer.

"I don't like to talk about it too much," he admitted the other day. "People either think I'm mad, or really religious, or ... no, mostly mad, actually."

Justin's doing the walk alone but he won't be short of company. Tens of thousands of fellow wanderers will make similar journeys to the Spanish city this year - some driven by religious fervour; others, like Justin, just for the sheer hell of it. The non-believers are increasing in number. They're not trying to appease a god or pay their respects or even please their grandmothers - they're just looking for a chance to slow things down a bit. No planes, no taxis, no bus stations, no timetables, no hassles. Just miles and miles of open pathways and a few spare months in which to tramp them.

To me, it sounds like a pretty strenuous way to spend a holiday. I like a nice stroll as much as anyone - but 1200 kilometres? With a backpack on? In the Spanish summer? Ouch.

I like a nice stroll as much as anyone - but 1200 kilometres?

Mad as they might be, Justin and his fellow trekkers are actually trendsetters, forging a path for a movement called "slow travel".

It's a spin-off of the "slow food" idea hatched in Italy back in the 1980s. Food fanatics, tired of the hamburger-and-fries approach to eating being embraced by the McStarbucks set, decided to go back to the good old days and take hours and hours to prepare and eat their meals, joyfully lingering over lunches that became dinners. It spawned an entire "slow movement", of which travel is just a small part. It encourages travellers to look at not just where they go, but how they travel there and how long they stay when they arrive. It's about slowing the process: take your time, get to know people, learn a country's history, take it all in.

The antithesis of slow travel - the junk food, if you will - is definitely the organised tour. Like a trip to Maccas, it's relatively safe: you know exactly what you're going to get, with no surprises. (Also, everyone claims to hate them but has invariably done it at least once in their lives).

Justin's three-month walk is the travel equivalent of a day-long lunch; however, you don't have to be a mad trekker to embrace slow travel.


I've got another friend who has a month of holidays coming up so, rather than take the traditional see-as-much-of-Europe-as-is-humanly-possible-in-an-alcohol-soaked-blur holiday, he's rented an apartment in Barcelona. Four weeks. In the one spot. That's slow travel.

Sounds interesting, however, it's not something I've ever embraced.

See, I'm stuck in that twitchy middle ground between gens X and Y - I have a weird urge to see everything, do everything before it's too late. I'm not sure what "too late" means but it certainly doesn't equal sitting in one place for a month, or travelling long distances on foot. Some would call it FOMO - Fear of Missing Out. I don't want to come home and find something awesome happened somewhere else and I wasn't there to see it.

I'm not saying I want junk-food travel. In fact - if you'll allow me to suck this food metaphor completely dry - I'd call my style "tapas travel". I want to have little tastes of everything, rather than gamble on one dish and hope I love it.

I spent a three-month stretch in Africa a few years ago, which I could have dedicated to delving deep into a particular community, maybe doing some volunteer work while really getting to know a place. Instead, FOMO running wild, I whipped through 10 countries.

And I don't regret it.

Similarly, while I love Barcelona, I wouldn't want to spend a month hanging there when the rest of Europe is ripe for exploring - a mere Eurail pass away. I wouldn't want to give up the chance to see Berlin or Krakow or Prague or Budapest, just for the knowledge that I could visit La Sagrada Familia a few more times.

It's a personal preference but I don't think slow travel is for me, not just yet. These boots weren't made for walking. Long lunches, on the other hand, are just fine.