Everyone, from philosophers to exchange brokers, agrees: to travel is an art, although the idea of traveling as an exercise in inspiration and contemplation has lost, if not its strength, at least much of its original color. Conformists would call it a sign of the times; elitists, the end of days. The fact is that the simple act of traveling has become an increasingly uncomfortable experience; the procedures, the transportation, the accommodation, the gentrification, the pulverization and repetition of the same forms, formulas, and brands. The system is set up to get all your money in the worst possible way, offering the most unpalatable food, the most despicable outfits, souvenirs made in China, and ready-made plans and tours that show the cookie-cutter side of a city. At the same time, locals have been increasingly seeking tourist-free hideaways in their own territory, out of the grasping reach of travel guides, travel packages and, of course, much-dreaded bloggers.
Yes, the world is crowded, and Paris and London, New York and Rome, are all packed with people who bear little resemblance to the folks from the old photographs on the walls of the bistros and hanging in the second-hand bookshops of the most visited cities in the world – the spots where thinkers, bohemians, and painters once gathered. Different times, different characters. Today we have bloggers, Instagrammers, full excursions; you have people overflowing, spilling out of the Metro, pouring out of seemingly every corner. There’s just not enough room, and being just another face in the maddening crowd can be a genuinely claustrophobic experience.
The good news is that there is an escape plan. Like true herd animals, humans travel altogether during the worst season, all heading in the same direction, packing the same hotels and restaurants. The reasons behind this herd mentality are clear. After all, what use is it to burn some serious cash on that blah blah blah wine, if everyone else isn’t seeing you blow that cash on that wine? They have to go in groups, they have to be in the same place, take the same photo, share the same opinions on everything, buy the same clothes and go back home, in the same city, to meet up again and remember the same opinions, dress in the same outfits and make plans to go back, in the same group, to the same city. That’s the way humanity goes, having unlearnt the difference between being a tourist and being a traveler (there is one, and it is brutal).
What a relief, though, that not everything and not everyone are hostage to predatory tourism. There are still places in the Atlas that have not yet featured in the Instagram stories of those who only travel to be seen, looking at everything through the screen of a smartphone. There are still places where people photograph with the eyes, capturing images with the soul, and thanking. That’s what these places offer for those who arrive with an open heart and a closed app. The payback? Surroundings that invite you to a sensorial journey that’s impossible to be registered or measured by a post. The exact dimension of the experience can only be felt by those who embark in the contemplative spirit and shared by the blessed few who seek to resuscitate the spirit of traveling à l’ancienne.
Let’s go to Iran to discover that the American propaganda regarding the country is, at the very least, deceitful. Besides being ultra safe, eternal Persia is extremely rich in its history, proud of its culture. The only extremism is in the receptiveness, for there isn’t a nation in the Middle East more welcoming and generous than Iran. Say yes with your eyes closed to all invitations to come home for a cup of coffee. Those are the places where you will learn everything you always wanted to know about the real situation in this much-maligned nation. (Just remember to only listen and never give an opinion. After all, it’s not your problem). Making friends in Iran is easy, you just smile and sit back and wait for the hottest – really, hottest – tips on what to do and where to go. Tehran, Isfahan, Yazd, and Shiraz, with a more than necessary stop in ancient Persepolis, which resisted time and the wind — and also Alexander the Great, and a place that to this day reveals a little of what was the tremendous architectonic dream imagined by Dario and continued by Xerxes. It’s nothing short of breath-taking.
We move on to Ethiopia, land of Jah, the Rasta messiah, and Lalibela, the city set in a moonscape that’s home to a dozen churches hewn from rocks. Hurry to visit before the new trendy spiritualized ones show up. The wellness crew that (still) believes in Osho and in finding the light after a week-long yogi immersion in Rishikesh is sure to arrive en masse after all having read the Condé Nast Traveller referring to Ethiopia as the “new Machu Picchu”.
Moving southward across the African continent, we reach Rwanda — which borders on perennial safari destinations Tanzania and Kenya — and which enters the world map as a candidate for the gold star in experiential tourism. After decades immersed in civil war and financial crisis, the country has woken up to the world and shows its assets, which include political stability and security, as well as the reforestation of national parks such as Akagera and Gishwati. The gorillas are back! What’s more, visitors engage with the local community in activities like harvesting, environmental protection, typical dances or social actions, besides helping veterinarians care for the animals.
Tired of the hype around Santiago de Compostela, the global nomadic pilgrim has found, in the Far East, another spiritual walk to pay for his sins with cardio. Shikoku Island houses the rarely explored 88 Temple Pilgrimage – which, as the name suggests, is an odyssey by foot through nearly a hundred Shinto and Buddhist monasteries with stops and beautiful Zen gardens, forests inhabited byBambis and, of course, Japanese wanderers dressed as if they are were strutting Rei Kawakubo’s latest catwalk.
The mysteries of Mongolia are revealing themselves to the crowd that has checked the most exotic, and why not erotic, places on the planet off their bucket list. They’ve touched down in the land of Genghis Khan’s land for a taste of the nomadic life and the isolated existence of a people who didn’t see the future coming and are sending a message that the past is still present in their lives. It’s not for everyone, not in the least because the trip will never cost under 5.000 euros, and also because getting there is flying torture, with a stop in Istanbul’s airport (the travelers’ Tower of Babel and Noah’s Ark, all rolled up into one). Mongolia shows its sharpest claws in October, when the Golden Eagle Festival — the eagle hunters’ meeting — takes place. Think of horses with manes à Gisele Bündchen trotting down the earth’s most virgin steppes and devastatingly gorgeous birds of prey floating on air – much to the delight of travelers’ who carry around analog cameras, with real film requiring, gasp, developing! Oh, how vintage!
And to wrap it up, Azerbaijan (WARNING: the video is kitsch), the former Soviet republic that has become the new darling of the art world. Its capital on the banks of the Caspian sea, Baku, has been reborn a sound wave of youngsters from all over Europe as well asTurkey, praising the city as the “NewBerlin” of the new millennium. The city’s fairly bubbling with exhibits, biennial fairs, art openings, collectives, individuals and, the icing on the cake, a serious candidacy 2025's World’s Fair. Putin certainly has something to be red in the face about… Check in!