The speed of slow travel

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The website of the Italian train system is http://www.trenitalia.com/. Be sure to click “tutti i treni” if you don’t want to purchase a ticket of one of their fast trains

In 2000 Pauline Kenny created what appears to be the first website dedicated to slow travel (www.slowtrav.com). It was apparently Kenny who coined the term “slow travel”, which she subsequently trademarked and then later sold to Internet Brands before moving to England.

Pauline was on to something important long before the rest of us. Her other claim to fame is the fact that she is one of those fortunate few persons who have managed to transform a passion into a livelihood. Check out the archive section of her current Europe-based site, which contains interesting short pieces dealing with Kenny’s own travel experiences.

In order to trademark “slow travel” Kenny faced the need to define a rather amorphous concept, two little words that, when joined together, evoke both longing and hope among travelers looking for new experiences, connections, maybe even a new way of being.  Kenny defined slow travel as

… a way of slowing down your vacation by staying in vacation rentals, spending one week in a place and seeing what is near you. This gives you the time in one place to experience it in more depth.”

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Lecce, Italy

Here Kenny is presenting a general approach to travel, not offering a travel blueprint. An approach that, once adopted, may well create the context for discovering or experiencing things of value that a traveler might never have been exposed to, or never benefited from if he or she were on a tight point-to-point schedule. Indeed, it’s a bit of travel philosophy, one that predicates that less can be more.

Kenny’s definition is by no means synthetic, but it gives a fairly clear idea of what she had in mind. The problem is, the people who gravitated to the kind of travel Kenny was advocating weren’t ducklings following mama duck to the pond. Nearly all were individualists intent on doing things “their way”. Before long, new definitions of slow travel had begun sprouting.

One new formulation of Slow Travel focused on the speed of transport. In this way of thinking, planes are bad, trains are better, and bikes, ferries and donkeys better still.

In a page entitled “What is Slow Travel“, Kenny cites a piece by the journalist Jay Walljaspar who, in his piece in Alternet (Air travel is killing the planet), pointed to a troubling trend in North America travel: people flying to distant points for long weekends. Walljaspar noted that flying less often and staying longer would be a perfectly plausible way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He also cited Mark Ellingham, creator the Rough Guide series of guidebooks, as saying that “Travelling slower gives you a sense of place … Trains give you the chance to talk to people, to see a landscape unfold.”

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If you plan ahead, you can load your bike onto the train

I think there is a risk here of being overly negative about air travel and too glowingly positive about train travel. Indeed, I think it would be a mistake to over-idealize train travel, at last here in central Italy where I have lived for the past eight years. Let me explain.

I spent my first year in Italy as a student in 1969-1970. Back then, long before the arrival of the so-called “low cost” airlines, public ground transportation in Italy really was excellent. Trains were certainly the best and least costly way to for tourists to see the country.

The serviceability of Italian trains in 1970 had an economic basis. Due to the “Italian miracle” many Italian families had by the end of the 1960s managed to purchase a washing machine—the first sign of coming affluence. However, relatively few families had managed to purchase their first car. Moreover, the cars being purchased by members of the ever expanding middle class in that period were generally too small to transport an entire family and unsuitable for long distances. As a result,  most Italians in 1970 still depended on trains (sometimes buses) to visit family members in nearby cities, go the beach or go on vacation.

There were no high-speed trains in 1970. A train designated “rapido” was likely to be quite slow, in fact, for it was destined to stop at every town big enough to boast a train station. However, there were lots of trains in circulation, and you could get nearly everywhere you wanted to go. If you missed one train you could be sure that another before too long, especially if you were willing to alter your itinerary.

Nowadays there are fewer trains circulating and fewer train stations. When a train is cancelled with no explanation 60 min prior to its scheduled departure, you may well need to wait many hours for the next train. Many trains on the tracks today are dismal. At times they are dirty, lack air conditioning, a workable public address system, or a functioning bathroom on board. Part of the problem could be remedied, I think, if Trenitalia ensured that everyone who rides their trains purchased a ticket. When I travel on trains in central Italy I am asked to display my ticket on approximately 1 out of 3 trips.

People who commute by train to work in central Italy are often quite unhappy about prevailing conditions and have formed a range of advocacy groups to promote better service. Alas, relief doesn’t seem to be on the horizon, so people make do as best they can.

I’m not sure when Mark Ellingham last visited Italy. Like him, I can remember chatting with people during long train trips during my student days in Italy (1969-1970). However, the sad fact is that not many people chat on the train anymore. At least not on the short-distance trains I take in central Italy. People seem generally to be in a bad mood. And this, I think, is due to overcrowding on the Italian train system and the generally poor services that are currently being offered.

The train stations that remain open often lack a human presence, ticket windows having been gradually replaced by ticket vending machines over the past 6 years or so.

Thirsty? It’s been years since train stations have had drinking fountains. Ridership is down because of curtailed services and increased ticket prices. As a result, the bars (cafes) in many train stations have closed, so it’s always advisable to buy a bottle of water and reading material before boarding a train.

The train station in Grosetto, Italy

Free toilets are also a thing of the past. You can expect to pay from 0.70 to 1.00 Euro to use a public bathroom. If you can find one that is open and functioning, that is.

I can think of one station in particular where the bathroom crisis is acute. A sign on the bathroom door announces (in Italian only) “In order to maintain a high level of hygiene, you must ask for a key at the station bar.” But the station bar closed over three years ago, and so there is no way to gain entry to the bathroom! (If this happens to you, do what the Italians do. Pee in the bushes.)

Yes, I know this post is turning into a rant. So in fairness let me add that there are some really marvelous trains to be found here in Italy. One example is the Freccia Bianca you can take up the cost from Rome to La Spezia in order to visit the Cinque Terre. The fast trains (Freccia Rossa) connecting Naples-Rome-Florence-Venice are excellent, although pricey.

Also in fairness, train service in Italy is still far better than in the United States. Many Americans have never experienced train travel and so might want to travel by train in Italy just for the romance of it. But it would be a mistake, in my view, to plan a whole vacation based on train travel between a large number of destinations.

If you are sold on trains, and can’t do without, allow yourself ample time for the unexpected, and take something to eat, drink, and read with you. Don’t be surprised in your fellow passengers are not Italian or aren’t warmly enthusiastic about chatting. Chances are they are going to or returning from work.

It you plan to travel long distances in Italy, for example visiting both Venice and Sicily in a single trip, by all means consider flying one leg. Also, consider taking local buses instead of trains. They cost far less than the trains, and will take you nearly everywhere you’d like to go if only you can learn how to use the schedules. You’ll see more of the countryside than you would from a train because you’ll be sitting higher up.

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About Jim Flege

Jim Flege carried out research on phonetic aspects of second-language acquisition and bilingualism at an American university. He moved to Italy after retiring and lives with his Italian wife and their Jack Russell terrier in a small town in central Italy. Jim currently serves as the European Director of the Travel Learning Network, an organization provides educational and cultural immersion programs in Europe. You can reach Jim directly by writing to: director (at) www.travlearning (dot) net
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2 Responses to The speed of slow travel

  1. I still believe in Slow Travel (the SlowTrav definition of staying in vacation rentals to let you slow down and experience local life) and I still travel that way. The definition of Slow Travel meaning traveling by train (or not-plane) seems to have developed in the UK around the same time I was making up my definition in the US. It was a popular topic a few years ago, but seems to have dropped away lately. I am no longer involved with the slowtrav.com website, but the community is active and bringing in new people all the time. Best wishes with your blog/website and I look forward to reading your posts.

    • avatar Administrator says:

      Nice to hear from you Pauline. You were indeed a trailblazer, and I greatly appreciate your contribution. Topics of interest come and go in the travel sector, even in the educational travel sector, but the key issues remain in my opinion. Good travels to you.

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