Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 8, 2011

From a Window Seat

We’ve just returned from a two-week vacation trip. In the next few blogs, I’ll write about some of what we saw and learned. I’ll have to be selective, because if I tried to cover two weeks of stimulating foreign travel in any level of detail, it could take weeks, and no one is interested in reading about everything we did and saw. That’s why there are travel books, travel guides, travel Web sites and, if you’re already a traveler or just interested in other places, you have lots of resources backed by better research than I can provide about any of the places we visited. The Counselor and I have just been talking about this; there’s a big distinction between traveling, taking some photos, reading the guidebook information or the signposts you visited and truly being a reporter, delving into the background of everything. Instead, what I have are observations.

One issue when one travels is, what level of effort are you willing to invest in order to obtain a certain depth of appreciation of any place from a trip? A helpful metaphor is gambling. If you want to play blackjack in a casino, are you satisfied to spend a certain amount of time sitting at the table just playing your hunches until the house (inevitably) takes away all your money, or do you want to hold your own for a certain amount of time, or, perhaps, even play to win — either a small or large amount? Depending on your goal, you will have to invest from a little to a great deal of time (and up-front cash) in order to progress from casual sucker to dominant player. So with travel. For those of us who cannot travel at will for unlimited duration, there is only so much time, and for every hour or day you spend in one locale, you are giving up the chance to go see another place. So we have to choose. We skip over things: travel triage. There is nothing wrong with driving through beautiful countryside and watching through the windows of a car or train or tour bus as the landscape passes. Perhaps you can stop to get out for a few minutes to wait for Ol’ Faithful to erupt or to get a better look at the Washington Monument than you can see from the street, but, eventually, you must move along. If there were a drive-through lane for the Grand Canyon, many people would  opt for that approach, and then rush on to get to Las Vegas by sunset. Been there. Done that. Next? Caesar’s Palace!

On the other hand, there are those for whom the notion of being at the Grand Canyon cannot be contemplated unless it involves a six-day hike down to camp by the river at the bottom of the canyon, hiking further up to the top of the North Rim, then heading back down to camp at the bottom again and then hiking back up to where you started. It’s hard to deny that walking around something, whether a monument or a battlefield or an ancient ruin or modern city is the ultimate way to “experience” a place. Yet, if one were limited to foot travel — let alone those people who cannot for one reason or another physically cover large distances — the amount of the world one could ever see would be severely limited.

On bus #81 in Nice

(Click on any of the photos in this piece to see an enlarged view).

I have always maintained — and this, finally, is my point — that one never truly sees a place until one travels through or across it by bus; and not a touring coach: a local bus route used by the inhabitants. Whether it’s the Scottish highlands or Paris or New Orleans, I think that there is nothing like boarding a bus that goes from wherever you are now to wherever you are going to understand what a place is truly like. (I am including all forms of public transport here, including commuter trains and streetcars and, in a few specialized locales like Venice or Seattle or Bangkok, boats.) You’re moving faster than walking (generally), so you do cover a reasonable amount of distance, and you’re not driving, so your attention isn’t distracted by trying to find the next place to turn left without dying in a grinding crash. Just as important, though, is the fact that you are riding with the people who live in the place. At each stop, you’re in a different neighborhood, and you see people get on and get off, carrying their shopping or coming home from work or maybe going to a social occasion. That sort of contact allows you to consider what it’s truly like for these people to live in a place, and understand at a human level what the pace and tenor of life there might be. What sorts of people are they who live there? What do they do? How do they speak when they’re not just the ticket-taker at the tourist counter or your waiter at the restaurant?

You also have to interact with your surroundings in a different way than if you are driving or on foot. On foot, you have time to study your map and steadily make your way to your next destination, while even on the slowest local bus, you have to quickly develop an awareness of which stops you’re going to pass and where you’ll get off, as well as where you’ll find a stop to get on for the return journey. You get oriented quickly, or you get lost, utterly. For a short time, you ARE a resident of the city. You interact with the bus driver to get your token or pass, and, if you’re uncertain about what will be your stop to get off, you have to ask an intelligent or at least comprehensible question. In other words, you not only see and hear and smell the place, you develop a sense of context that is difficult to acquire if you’re only in a place for a day or a week.

This has even been true for me here in daunting, auto-dominated Los Angeles, which lacks much of a reputation for usable public transportation. There is, however, a vast interlinked network of bus lines operated by Los Angeles and a few dozen of its constituent cities (as well as a slowly expanding light rail system). Riding a bus through areas I’ve already seen from a car, I’ve had time to observe how the city works from a different perspective; there’s leisure from that window seat to see that, oh yeah, these two neighborhoods that I thought of as completely different and distinct are really just a few bus stops apart — farther than one would walk, perhaps, and inconvenient to visit if you have to drive, park, drive and park again but, by bus, easy.

The admirable writer and insightful observer of Los Angeles, D. J. Waldie, does not drive, and there is no doubt that his deep and scholarly grasp of the metropolis is informed not only by his vast reading, but his lifetime of learning the city from a seat on a bus.

I don’t always take my own advice, of course. I’ve taken plenty of all-driving trips. Here in the vast spaces of the U.S., especially, it’s what’s needed if one is going to cover a thousand miles of the western desert or vast national parks and still be able to zip around the towns once one arrives. The same is sometimes true abroad; we’d never have gone from Urbino to Bologna then Ravenna and back to Urbino in a day waiting for buses or trains. The same for our Umbrian hill town itinerary: getting to and walking around three or four towns each day required a car to move from town to town on our own schedule. And, had we taken a bus from Florence to Sienna all those years ago instead of driving, we would not have been discouraged by the utter lack of a single parking space anywhere in the town that caused us to keep driving, discovering, without knowing where we were going, the fantastic little hill town of Cortona a couple of years before Frances Mayes’ “Under the Tuscan Sun” forever fixed it on every tour group itinerary.

Waiting for a train, Italy

But this year, no car at all: buses and trains (and, in Venice for a day, one boat trip but mostly shoe leather). Our Italian towns for this trip — Verona, Venice, Treviso and Bordighera — are all walkable (they were, after all, built before motorized travel), even if you have only a day and set out on foot from the train station once you arrive. Taking up residence in little Villefranche-Sur-Mer near Nice on the French coast, we took advantage of the excellent local bus service: one Euro to travel the extent of the system in one direction, no matter how many transfers you make within 75 minutes. We became regulars on the bus line into central Nice, ten minutes or so away. We made an hour-long excursion up into the Provencal hill country to the ancient town of Vence. Price? One Euro. Ten minutes in the opposite direction, east, put us out on Cap Ferrat, and from there we walked to the Rothschilds’ Villa Ephrusse, down to the port of Saint Jean and then the beautiful oceanside walk around the peninsula. Then we caught the bus back to Villefranche. Round trip, two Euros apiece.

(In Venice, a few days before, our local bus had been a bit different.)

IMG_6341 Venice gondola Brad Nixon

Taking this trip in “high season” meant the popular places we visited were crammed full with tourists — sometimes to a dismaying degree — all of them compact towns with narrow streets built before the advent of the automobile, so our approach avoided having to navigate impossibly complex and crowded traffic; we didn’t have to park; and we avoided certain death either for ourselves or an unspecified number of Vespa drivers. The parking in front of our apartment in Villefranche, for example, would have required, first, figuring out how to get to the top of the one-way street (30 degree downhill slant) in the medieval street plan, then finding an open spot between two other cars, then lifting the car up and wedging it in the pace with the two right wheels on the sidewalk. It was much easier to walk to and from the bus stop.

I took some photos from the windows of trains and buses. Here’s one.

St Paul-de-Vence Brad Nixon 6984

This is the ancient town of St. Paul de Vence, north of Nice. It’s not much of a photo, as travel photos go. Had we been driving, we could’ve pulled off the road and snapped the same photo — probably have gotten a better shot of the place. Most of the photos I shot out of bus windows are not nearly as picturesque as this. They show ordinary towns in Italy and France: just everyday scenes that are what the ordinary world looks like when you venture a few hundred yards away from the local Roman arena or Renaissance palace. But, in our minds, these views provide context: we also have the experience of seeing the people who were waiting at the stops, or some idea of what it would really be like living there on any ordinary day. It’s an experience worth having.

There is, granted, the matter of learning to read the timetables.

If you already live in a city and use public transportation every day, it’s probably not difficult, other than the language difference. Studying the timetables and planning a route — understanding that context of where the bus route goes relative to where you want to go is like that price of becoming an expert gambler: you have to learn the system to some degree if you are to succeed. You will find, it is true, in bus terminals and train stations, individuals whose job would appear to be to assist you in purchasing your ticket. That, at least, is the implied promise of the fact that they are sitting at a window marked “informazione” or “information.”  They may, indeed, have informazione to impart, but it must be for travelers whose Italian and French is more advanced than mine, but it was not true for me.

Trains departing an Italian station ordered by time

There was much better assistance to be had by appealing to our fellow riders, who were, of course, experts themselves, since they’re regular users of the system. And people did help us out, sometimes going considerably out of their way to explain where to connect to the number 400 bus, or where to get off for that out-of-the-way museum. They were on our side because, after all, for that day, we were one of them. Grazie, Signora. Merci, Monsieur. Buon viaggio. Au revoir.

© Brad Nixon 2011, 2017

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Responses

  1. It is good to have you back, Brad.

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  2. Love it! Great to have you back. 😀

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  3. You have convinced me on the public transport option; thanks for the spot-on report. And, you have unfairly slighted yourself on the photo of St. Paul de Vence. Very clear for something shot through a bus window.

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  4. “Travel triage” is a great term. Recommend the Frommer’s people pick it up immediately for a new set of guide books!

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  5. And from a graphics guy perspective the image with the various timetables is nicely done . . . 🙂
    Tom

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  6. Great article, Brad. Thoroughly enjoyable, as it reminded me of the times Daisy and I took buses on trips through France. You have very good insights, most of which I am sure I was unaware of at the time of our travels. There’s always so much to see and learn when you travel. Sometimes, it’s good to reflect on what you really experienced. Good work.

    Like


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