In March 1986, protests broke out against the opening of Rome’s first McDonald’s in the historic Piazza di Spagna – home of the Spanish Steps.
“We don’t want fast food, we want slow food!” the protesters shouted, offering passersby free bowls of homemade pasta.
Three years later, Carlo Petrini, the journalist who organised the protest, and activists from 15 other countries co-signed the Slow Food Manifesto – a reaction to the cult of speed in the food business that called for a retreat from the food court to the farm gate.
“Let us rediscover the flavours and savours of regional cooking,” the manifesto prescribed.
Twenty years later, the editor of Hidden Europe, a little-known German travel magazine, wrote a new manifesto encompassing the same values. A Manifesto for Slow Travel decried the way “millions of folk every day are packed like sardines into fragile aluminium tubes which then shoot through the sky at slightly less than the speed of sound”.
It called for deceleration to make the journey “a moment to relax rather than a stressful interlude imposed between home and destination”.
It encouraged readers to “reshape our relationship with places” and “engage more intimately with the communities” they travel through.
Slow travel, the manifesto said, “re-engineers time, transforming it into a commodity of abundance rather than scarcity”.
Petrini put it like this: “We have an idea that life is short – and that we must go fast to fit everything in. But life is long. The problem is that we don’t know how to spend our time wisely.”
A state of mind
Petrini and the cosigners of the Slow Food Manifesto proved prophetic in their vision. Today, hundreds of millions of people around the world adhere to its mantra. A Manifesto for Slow Travel has also gone mainstream. But unlike slow food, slow travel is hard to define.
Slow travel is not a product or service you can buy or sell, nor is it limited to a geographic place or industry. If we cut it to the bone, slow travel is a state of mind. You might already be slow travelling and not even know about it.
Slow travel is about choosing experiences over a jam-packed itinerary of sights. It’s about travelling with a loose schedule or no schedule at all to recapture the pleasure of the journey.
It’s about connecting with local communities and places in the spirit of Ibn Battuta, the legendary 14th-century Moroccan explorer and legal scholar who spent 30 years on the road, including six as a sitting judge in New Delhi.
Slow travel draws parallels to ecotourism in that its adherents tend to be conscious of their impact on the natural environment. The carbon footprint of slow travel should be low or lower than the alternatives, like exploring the inner lagoon at Bora Bora solo on a kayak instead of with a group in a glass-bottomed motorboat.
Sweden’s flygskam or ‘flight-shame’ movement might be the buzz term for travel this year but it’s just another manifestation of the wider slow-travel movement. Flygskam’s 17-year-old poster girl Greta Thunberg spent 10 days travelling around Europe by rail earlier this year to bring attention to the fact that train travel generates less than one-sixth of the carbon emissions of air travel.
According to a survey by the World Wildlife Fund, two million Swedes – roughly 20 per cent of the population – have done long-distance rail journeys in the past 12 months for the very same reason.
But there are other reasons to choose trains over planes. Passenger jets and their sheer speed destroy our connection with the landscape. Rail travel restores it, especially routes that venture through topographically challenging terrain, like the Kandy to Ella train in the tea plantations of Sri Lanka.
Even at night, train travel can be a thing of romance and nostalgia. One of my favourite travel memories was falling asleep to the clickety-clack of train wheels passing over gaps in the rail during an overnight journey from Bangkok to the Laotian border.
There are no hard and fast rules for slow travel. If you eat a mush-burger at a McDonald’s restaurant in Rome, well, that obviously isn’t slow travel. But if you make a pilgrimage to the world’s oldest still-operating McDonald’s restaurant – an archetypal 1950s roadside burger shack in Downey, Los Angeles, you’re engaging in one the key tenets of the slow travel: Absorbing the quirky details that make a place unique.
If you’re one of dozens of tourists following a guide with a lanyard around Gallipoli memorial in Turkey as part of a nine-day bus tour of Turkey, well that’s definitely not slow travel.
One of my most disappointing travel experiences occurred when I was roped into such a tour. I was enjoying a moment of reflection alongside the grave of a fallen Australian soldier at Gallipoli when the bus driver blasted his air horn and made me run to board before the door closed.
There are, however, plenty of organised tours that promote slow tourism – even at popular and hectic travel destinations such as Bali.
There, Will Meyrick, a Scottish chef who has lived on the island since 2006, teaches authentic Balinese cooking at Canggu Cooking Retreat, a small bed and breakfast with chooks, ducks and an organic vegetable and herb garden in the backyard. Students blend an array of spices the old-fashioned way, with a mortar and pestle, because it releases more of the spices’ essential oils.
After that, Meyrick takes budding chefs on a bicycle tour that visits a local market and a few warungs – small family-run eateries in locals’ kitchens or living rooms.
“I could have built a 100-room hotel on the block and made a lot of money. But I wanted to create something different to the cafes where all the hipsters go to buy the same avocado on toast they can get anywhere in Australia,” Meyrick says.
“I wanted to give tourists a taste of authentic living in Bali – a home away from home where you can walk around the garden, see the rice fields and wake up in the morning to the sound of roosters crowing.”
Now that’s slow travel.