It could have been the neat rows of rust, mustard, burnt orange, and lemon buildings with their green shutters and red tiled rooftops. I know it didn’t have anything to do with Pisa’s famously Leaning Tower, which I don’t think was visible from the train. In fact, 12 years later I don’t recall exactly what we’d glimpsed that inspired us to abandon our plans and glance at each other in that seconds-long “Shall we?” look that only couples who’ve been together forever recognize. But I remember the look and the moment – quickly grabbing our backpacks and hurrying off the train, as it was about to leave – as clear as if it was yesterday, because it was at that moment that I truly appreciated the beauty of spontaneity in travel.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been spontaneous. My childhood in Sydney was something of a spontaneously-lived life, my parents continuously surprising us with last-minute travel, hastily organized weekends away, unplanned visits to see friends, spur-of-the-moment day trips and Sunday drives, and a one-year caravanning trip around Australia that turned into five. Because every time they had an idea to go some place, if they loved it they simply stayed.
Terence and I were spontaneous when we lived in Sydney together too. We rarely planned in advance and often did things at short notice, from going away for wine weekends with friends to flying to Melbourne on a Friday night. When we did our first six-week backpacking trip around Mexico, we created a loose itinerary but didn’t book anything more than the first night’s accommodation. We took detours along the way. Our first move overseas to the UAE virtually happened overnight. When the job offer came, we found Abu Dhabi on a map, and were packing and leaving Australia a week later.
When we jumped off the train that day in Pisa, it was our first summer in Europe. We were doing an eight-week trip with an ambitious plan to see places we’d always dreamt of seeing in Italy, Spain and Portugal: Venice, Rome, Florence, Naples, Genoa, Barcelona, Madrid, San Sebastian, Andalusia, and Lisbon. In those days Italy was expensive and Spain and Portugal were dirt cheap, so we’d only scheduled ten days for Italy. Conscious of having so little time, we’d decided to skip Pisa and save it for a future trip. After all, it would be teeming with tourists in summer. Or so we thought.
It was late afternoon in Pisa, very few passengers got off that train, and there was none of the bustle of railway stations in Venice and Rome, which surprised us for a major Italian tourist destination. (Of course you should never judge a town from the area around a train station, but we didn’t know that back then.) From the train, Pisa looked peaceful – something that instantly made it appealing. As we planned to leave by midday the next day, we found a hotel near the station, dumped our bags, got some restaurant tips, and set off to explore.
Pisa was lovely. It was laidback and low-key compared to the other Italian cities we’d been. A picturesque river ran through it – the Arno – that added to its sense of calm and cooled down the centre at night. I remember balmy breezes we hadn’t felt in other cities that had been stifling in the summer heat. We barely saw a foreign tourist. There were young Italians kicking back on the dimly lit cobblestone streets. Pisa, we would learn, was a university town. And there were plenty of couples strolling the streets hand-in-hand, the males occasionally dressed in military uniform, making for a romantic picture. Pisa it turned out was also near an army base.
The city was as rich in history as any other Italian city, with medieval arcades and an abundance of centuries-old buildings with splendid façades. There were countless Gothic and Romanesque churches and chapels, their walls covered with exquisite art, their courtyards revealing pretty cloisters. Imposing palazzi, including a Medici palace, boasted beautifully decorated exteriors and grand staircases. Then there were the historic buildings of one of Italy’s oldest universities, and the beautiful Botanic gardens, one of the world’s oldest. Of course we didn’t have time to see any of that, but it didn’t matter. It was satisfying enough to soak up the history as we ambled the streets. As we knew little about Pisa other than it had a leaning tower and had done little research, it was all a revelation.
The masses of tourists we’d expected? I don’t know about now, but back then few actually stayed overnight. They arrived on tour buses, took silly photos of themselves appearing to prop up the wonky tower, bought postcards, then got on their tour buses and left again, heading to Florence or Genoa or wherever else their ‘Highlights of Italy’ tour took them. They were long gone by the time we arrived that afternoon. It wasn’t until the next morning when we visited the tower and cathedral and saw dozens of buses and swarms of tourists that we found the Pisa we’d expected to find.
Had we not have jumped off the train the day before, we wouldn’t have seen the Pisa I’ve since been dreaming of returning to – and that’s the beauty of spontaneity in travel. The delight comes with going somewhere you never planned and doing something you never intended. You have few or no expectations to be dashed, less chance of disappointment, and more opportunities to discover something delightfully unexpected.
Spontaneous experiences are the stuff of strong memories – those vivid recollections you’ll reminisce about for years to come, long after you stop travelling.
Last week we spontaneously decided to extend our one-month visit to Vietnam, submitting our passports for a three-month visa extension. We’d spent a week in Hanoi, six days in Sapa, a week in Halong Bay, and another week in Hanoi. We were hooked. Hanoi is a city that had always intrigued us, however, we knew much more about its history, in the context of the history of Vietnam, than we did about its present. And it’s Hanoi’s everyday life, its rituals and rhythms, that we’re really enjoying discovering.
When we first arrived, I had to stay in and do some writing while Terence went out to take photos. When he returned he told me excitedly, cold cans of Bia Hà Nội in his hands, “You’re going to love it here! Hanoi has everything we love about Asian cities!” And it does. I don’t know what we expected, but somehow we didn’t expect this, and it’s all been a delicious surprise. We mostly came for the food, but there’s so much more to Hanoi to discover and like. Sure, it’s a city that can be crazy and chaotic in the worst sense – Hanoi could do with a few million less motorbikes, and I could do without the insane driving, clearly Asia’s worst – but the pros far outweigh the cons.
So we postponed our travels south to Hue, Hoi, Dalat, and Saigon, and our early 2013 plans (summer by the beach in Cambodia, our new home), and we rented an apartment for a month, and here we are spending Christmas in Hanoi. We have a scary amount of work to get through, but we are loving being here, and what makes it exciting is it’s something we never planned.
Spontaneity in travel is so underrated these days and rarely encouraged because travel sites make money out of travel planning, inspiring you to go somewhere then stay on the site and click through and book your flights, car hire and hotels. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just fine, especially if you’re travelling with kids or elderly relatives, or you’re short on time. We often have to travel on tight schedules. But if you have the time, try to allow room for spontaneity too.
Of course, when we jumped off that train in Pisa, there had been a brief conversation moments before: “Maybe we should see Pisa after all?” We were confident we could be spontaneous. We were on a tight budget – but we had money coming in soon. We had time – we were just five days into an eight-week trip. And we had flexibility – we hadn’t booked hotels in advance. The only thing we really lost was the cost of the train ticket to our next destination. But what we gained from that night in Pisa was priceless.
HOW TO PLAN FOR SPONTANEITY
* Be prepared – make sure you have plenty of pages in your passport and it’s not about to expire. Choose a longer visa option if you can afford it. If there’s little difference between the cost of a one-month tourist visa and three-day transit visa, choose the month even if you think you’ll only stay a few days.
* Be flexible – buy air tickets with as much flexibility as you can afford and no fees if you want to change dates. Avoid tight itineraries that allow little room for change. Don’t book accommodation too far in advance or if you have to make bookings directly with hotels so you can change dates easily with a quick email or call.
* Be able to get online – carry an iPhone and buy a local SIM card as soon as you arrive at your destination (we try to buy them at the airport). This means the moment something excites you, you can quickly look up info on the place and revise your plans on the spot.
* Bookmark the best travel sites – if a town or scenery excites you so much you spontaneously get off your train (or bus or ferry), sit down and find accommodation online. There’s no greater buzz-kill than wasting hours wandering around aimlessly with luggage looking for a hotel room. Find something fast, dump your things and get out and explore. We like sites like Trivago (there are plenty of others) because you can compare prices and find cheap hotels on most booking sites – Expedia, lastminute.com, Booking.com, HotelClub etc – and click through and book.
* Change your transport plans – once you’ve sorted accommodation, sort out onward transport plans if you need to so you don’t stress and can relax. You may not have lost the remainder of that train journey and may be able to use it. Re-book any flights you had for the next day. But if you don’t have ongoing transport plans, don’t make any just yet. See how you like the place first.
* Head to the tourist office – if you don’t have an iPhone or mobile device, make a beeline for the tourist office for a hotel list (many also offer booking services) and a map. If you’re really short on time, ask for tips as to what you should do in the time available.
Do you travel spontaneously? Are you a fan of flexible travel or are you an enthusiastic planner? Any tips to share with our readers?