As you may have noticed, I’m a big fan of quirky travel adventures. To me, there's nothing more exhilarating than taking a step into the unknown – even if it’s simply poking my nose into some unexplored corner of the city I’ve lived in for more than a decade. I recently stumbled across a kindred spirit in French journalist Joël Henry, who in 1990 launched the Laboratory of Experimental Tourism and a brief but vivid fad for crazy travel experiments.
The idea was born of idle musings over lunch on a barge-restaurant called “Why Not?” By the time the cheese platter was passed around, Henry and his friends had redefined travel as a sort of game in which it's the creativity of the journey and not the destination that counts. His concept, which eventually formed the basis a Lonely Planet book, embraces anything from spending a day in an airport without going anywhere (something I’ve done all too often against my will and have no desire to repeat) to buying your city’s Monopoly game and letting rolls of the dice send you to visit various sites, including utility companies and jail.
When asked about his most meaningful journey, Henry talks about what he calls "cecitourism," which is traveling blindfolded with a trusted guide. “I visited Luxembourg this way, guided by my wife Maïa during 24 hours. I was blind when I got into the city and blind when I left it. So the only things I know of it are its noises, smells and what Maïa described to me. But incredibly I keep a very clear and precise [image] of it.”
Yikes – 24 hours in the dark? I don’t think so. But I did enjoy my brief blindfolded experience in the Betty Ott Talking Garden for the Blind in Cleveland’s Rockefeller Park. Happening upon the place on day, I asked Rich to keep an eye on me as I tied a scarf over my eyes and fumbled my way through the raised plant beds — a fascinating twenty minutes. With that under my belt, I am prepared to consider the Blindfold Tour of Prague’s Krivoklat Castle, in which you’re escorted through the castle with eyes covered, feeling the walls and absorbing the atmosphere; you then remove the blindfold and do it all again so you can compare your visual impressions with your imagination. That could be fun, but I still draw the line at California’s dine-in-the-dark Opaque restaurants. “The table,” wrote one food critic, “is a minefield of messy disasters (yes, my hand went into the butter) … But it certainly makes a good yarn to tell your friends later.” Sadly, you won’t be able to take a single selfie.
Another of Henry’s favorites is “erotourism,” a romantic adventure in which a couple travels separately to a foreign city and then tries to find each other. Having done this with his wife on five occasions, Henry says, “Each time we were convinced that this time, we wouldn’t find each other, and each time we did.” Given my truly terrible sense of direction, I can only imagine how long it would take me to hook up with Rich in a foreign city. Months at least; possibly decades.
But the great thing about travel experiments is that you get to design them to suit yourself. Mark Butler decided to travel through Japan wearing a horse head costume to test local etiquette. George Mahood journeyed the length of England penniless and nearly naked to appraise the kindness of strangers. Sasha and Ludo Jambrich created a honeymoon experiment that included hitchhiking — in their wedding attire — to free accommodations in multiple countries. Rich thought this was brilliant, and I can only thank my lucky stars he didn't hear about this until after we were married.
Even without the hitchhiking honeymoon, we've done our share of travel experiments. The longest was our three-month train trip, designed to determine whether a couple of sexagenarians could still have the kind of grand travel adventures we’d enjoyed in our youth — only with less sleeping on the ground and better wine. Two weeks ago we tried luggage-free travel and liked it so much we’re planning to do more. But travel experiments don’t need to be seriously challenging; most of ours are simple activities, such as hopping on a bus in a strange European city and riding to the end or jumping off in a neighborhood that looks interesting (and reasonably safe). We've also based trips on favorite books (Tales of the Alhambra), authors (Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco) and legends (Rennes-le-Château).
For us, every travel experiment concludes with a what-have-we-learned session, usually held over a glass of wine in a congenial café. Because the point of these experiments – the point of all journeys, really – is to discover something new about the world and about ourselves. “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God,” says Kurt Vonnegut. And who could resist an offer like that?
Have you ever tried a travel experiment? Do you have one in mind for the future?
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In place of a welcome sign, the tiny French village of Rennes-le-Château has posted a stern warning against digging, and in case you don’t get the point, they’ve locked the cemetery gates. The residents – all 100 of them – are fed up with people disturbing the tombs of their dear departed, and who can blame them? If you’re thinking the village priest might help protect the sanctity of the churchyard, think again. It was the village priest who started it all, spending moonlit nights excavating the graveyard with the assistance of his young housekeeper (or, according to many, his “housekeeper” wink wink, nudge nudge). But that’s just the beginning of the weird tales about Rennes-le-Château, a place with more inexplicable events and occult mysteries than the Bermuda Triangle.
I had gotten about this far in reading the story when I announced to Rich, “I’ve found the destination for our luggage-free trip.” In preparation for the recent travel experiment in which we journeyed for six days carrying nothing beyond a few essentials tucked into our pockets, I’d been researching dozens of delightful French towns within easy train distance of our Seville home. But none offered the dizzying mix of history, mystery, and sheer lunacy that characterized this tiny village in the Languedoc mountains.
The legends go back two thousand years, but it was the inexplicable activities of the Victorian priest François Bérenger Saunière that brought the village to the attention of the modern world. A young, penniless priest assigned to the ancient village church of St. Mary Magdalene in 1885, he raised a few francs and began much-needed repairs, during which he discovered … something. To this day we don’t know what, but it translated into a lot of cash in Saunière’s pockets; he spent the equivalent of at least several million dollars on lavish parties, Paris fashions for the housekeeper, and curious building projects.
Where did all this money come from? Buried treasure and blackmail material remain the hot favorite theories. Some say he found proof that Mary Magdalene was really married to Jesus, that Jesus didn’t die on the cross but was buried in Rennes-le-Château, that the Merovingian kings were descendent from Jesus and Mary Magdalene, that the last known Merovingian king died leaving a secret heir, that the Knights Templar were still protecting the bloodline… If it’s starting to sound familiar, thank Dan Brown, who drew heavily on these tales for the plot of The DaVinci Code. Of course, it gets more outlandish from there, with links to various biblical characters, the Temple of Solomon, the Visigoths, the gnostic Christians known as Cathars, the Nazis, the French resistance, the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, and of course, aliens from outer space.
Saunière allegedly embedded clues and coded messages in the flamboyant yet peculiar renovations he made to the church, and as soon as we arrived in the village, Rich and I made a beeline to check them out. We read the controversial inscription over the door, which says in Latin “This Is a Terrible Place.” We saw the holy water font supported by a grimacing demon, said to be a replica of the one that guarded Solomon’s Temple on the Holy Mount in Jerusalem. The temple was destroyed in 587 BC, yet some contend a portion of its riches made their way into the hands of crusaders from southern France, who buried their treasure in or near Rennes-le-Château.
Another oddity was the pair of figures flanking the altar: the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph who, contrary to church tradition, are both shown simultaneously holding figures of baby Jesus. Some claim this is a reference to Jesus having a twin brother, possibly the famous “doubting” Thomas, whose name means “twin.” There are those who say it was Jesus’ twin who was crucified in his stead, although it’s hard to square that theory with the historical Thomas, who was documented preaching in Asia until 72 AD. Of course, if you’re willing to factor in alien abductions and flying unicorns, these trifling logistical issues can easily be explained away.
As you may have noticed, I’m not entirely convinced of anything about this story except that one Victorian priest came into a great deal of money under questionable circumstances. But I loved stumbling upon the juicy, old mystery. As much fun as it is to solve a puzzle, sometimes encountering one that’s deeply baffling is equally satisfying. It reminds us that the world is a much bigger place than we can ever imagine and that our understanding of it – yes, even in the age of Google and Wikipedia – is still in its infancy. Our job is not to map out every corner of the universe but to learn to enjoy the ride, even in the dark and bumpy places when we’re not quite sure where the road is taking us.
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“Bags? We have no bags.” Each time I said it, I stood back to enjoy watching the stunned disbelief bloom on the face of our host at the hotel or B&B. This would invariably be followed by a hard stare at the floor beside my feet to see if this absurd story was an attempted hoodwinking or just some new form of American lunacy.
I admit the idea seemed pretty strange – insane, even – the first time my husband brought it up twenty years ago. “Why would we ever want to travel without luggage?” I asked. Until then, I’d always considered him a sane sort of fellow.
“Freedom,” Rich said. “Mobility. Imagine getting on a plane or train carrying nothing but a toothbrush and a passport!”
“That toothbrush isn’t going to do you much good without toothpaste,” I pointed out. From every standpoint – hygiene, comfort, fashion – the whole idea was ludicrous. And I said so, every time it came up, for the next two decades.
And yet last week I found myself – of my own free will – boarding a train from Spain to France with no luggage whatsoever, not even a purse or daypack, just a few small essentials tucked into my pockets. My resistance had crumbled several months earlier, when I’d read about a travel experiment in which a woman spent three weeks on the road without a suitcase. “But she did take a purse to hold her electronics and toiletries and such,” I said to Rich as I skimmed the article. That didn’t sound nearly as radical as the nothing-but-a-toothbrush scenario. And then I found myself blurting out, “OK. I’ll do it. But only for a weekend!”
Rich was overjoyed and instantly began nailing down details before I could change my mind. “Where shall we go? How about southern France?”
It was a logical choice, as we live in Seville, Spain, and could easily get there by train, our preferred form of travel. We eventually chose a romantic village in the Languedoc mountains as our ultimate destination, then discovered that due to exceedingly awkward railway connections, getting there and back would take six days. That’s when I got serious about figuring out what I absolutely needed to survive on the road.
On the day of our departure, I walked out my front door dressed in durable, fast-drying garments and a 17-pocket vest stuffed with necessities: wallet, camera, Kindle with recharging cord and adapter, soap, deodorant, moisturizer, sunscreen, toothbrush, toothpaste, one of those little wire brushes for flossing my teeth, tissues, moist towelettes, prescription medicines, comb, mascara, lipstick, notebook, pen, and a sheet of French travel phrases. First on the list was “Nous avons pas de bagages. Oui, je suis sérieux. Pourquoi? C'est compliqué.” (We have no luggage. Yes, I’m serious. Why? It’s complicated.)
I had scoured the shops of Seville to find the tiniest tube of sunscreen, a child-size folding toothbrush, the flattest packet of moist towelettes. And still my vest was so bulky I was afraid I was going to be arrested on suspicion of being a suicide bomber. Instead, of course, everyone simply assumed I was chunky. My outermost layer was a light jacket with big pockets into which I’d stuffed a silk scarf and two extra pairs of socks. Rich’s packing was far more minimalist, although he allowed himself the luxury of an iPad (which fit into the roomiest pocket of his travel jacket) for navigation and entertainment.
Our friends seemed deeply worried about the trip’s hygiene challenges, but those were easily managed. We washed our underwear and my shirt every night in the bathroom sink; if they were still a trifle damp in the morning, we finished them off with the hair dryer. Other garments were laundered, but less frequently, or in the case of my socks and Rich’s t-shirt, replaced along the way. All in all, we felt we maintained a reasonably civilized standard of cleanliness.
Dressing in the same clothes every day didn’t faze me, as I’d worn uniforms to school throughout my childhood. What I really missed was my pajamas. We went to bed au natural, which was fine for sleeping but a bit chilly for sitting up to read or watch a movie on the iPad. One night, discovering the bed was too soft for prolonged upright postures, we wound up seated on pillows on the floor, wrapped in bath towels, taking turns holding up the iPad in our hands to finish the film. It was, literally and figuratively, a low point.
Forecasts called for warm to mildly cool weather everywhere on our route, and I’d assumed there would always be someplace to buy an “I (heart) France” sweatshirt if I got desperate. But in the remoter mountain villages, where the temperatures dropped sharply at night, none of the quaint little shops offered anything more substantial than a t-shirt. Note to self: when traveling luggage-free, stick to cities and larger towns where discount stores abound.
These small inconveniences were more than offset by the liberation I felt being freed from the fuss and bother of manhandling baggage. Every time we walked through a railway station, I felt a rush of delight that I was not one of the gasping travelers laboring mightily to haul around gargantuan suitcases. In our lodgings, I was undaunted by even the most torturous old staircases, negotiating the crooked steps and low overhangs with the lighthearted ease of the unencumbered. Getting around was simpler, easier and – I had to admit it – more fun. Why had we waited so long? Obviously it wouldn’t be practical for every journey, but I was already considering when and how to organize future no-baggage adventures.
“Rich, you were right about going luggage-free. Next time you come up with some hair-brained idea, I promise not to fight it.”
“Ready to try nude travel?”
“Hmmm. Let me get back to you on that in 2035.”
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I still can’t believe Rich got me to agree to this crazy travel experiment.
“Remind me again why it will be fun to travel without any luggage whatsoever,” I said recently.
“The freedom to move through the world unencumbered,” he replied, growing a little starry-eyed. “To get on a train with nothing but a toothbrush and a passport…”
For twenty years Rich has been bringing up this idea, and for twenty years I’ve refused even to consider it. But then last May a friend sent us an article by poet Clara Benson, who traveled for three weeks through eight countries and 3500 miles without luggage — in the company of Jeff, a guy she barely knew. Reading Clara’s article, I realized that luggage-free travel didn’t actually require hitting the road with nothing but a toothbrush and a passport. Clara carried toiletries, an iPad mini, and other bits and pieces in a handbag; Jeff stuffed his pockets with necessities. Additional research confirmed it’s possible to undertake such journeys without abandoning all standards of hygiene and decent grooming. When veteran travel journalist Rolf Potts went around the world in the No-Bags Challenge, his multi-pocket jacket held a spare t-shirt, socks, and underwear along with soap and other sundries. In a video shot on the road he says, “I take two showers a day.” Like me, Rolf refuses to degenerate into abject squalor simply for the sake of a travel experiment.
“OK,” I finally said to Rich. “I’ll travel luggage-free. But just for one weekend!”
Rich was delirious with joy. “Where shall we go? We’ll travel by train, of course, and we should cross an international border. How about southern France? You pick the place — somewhere that would be fun to write about on your blog.”
And that’s where I got into real trouble. Because after sifting through various options with heaps of charm, great food, and easy access, I stumbled across one that sounded way more fun to write about: Rennes-le-Chateau. Ever heard of it? I hadn’t either, but as it turns out, this tiny village has more mysteries and secrets per square meter than anywhere else on earth except possibly the Bermuda Triangle. It’s got everything: buried treasure, occult conspiracies, secret codes embedded in ancient parchments, weirdly demonic church art, mysterious tombs, the Knights Templar, the last of the Merovingian dynasty — yes, those guys, the French royal family some claim were descended from Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. Sound familiar? Yep, this is where Dan Brown got his ideas for The DaVinci Code. Do I believe any of this? Does it matter? Clearly it’s a real ripsnorter of a tale, and I can’t wait to burrow into it further.
"Getting there won’t be easy,” Rich said, frowning as he tapped on the iPad. “Or quick.” Transporting ourselves to this remote mountain village in one of the most sparsely populated areas of France requires a complicated series of trains with sporadic schedules and awkward connections, and at the end we’ll have to go the last five kilometers on foot. “Now aren’t you glad you aren’t bringing any luggage?” Rich demanded triumphantly. All in all, we expect the round trip to take five or six days.
So I’ve had to figure out how to survive for longer than I’d planned with minimal possessions. Thanks to modern science, everything I’m wearing, except for my jacket and shoes, can be washed and dried overnight. If/when I can no longer bear the sight of the old t-shirt I’m starting out in, I’ll replace it along the way. My 17-pocket vest will hold cash, travel documents, a small notebook and pen, my Kindle, my camera, and very basic toiletries. I have agreed to let Rich use my toothpaste and sunscreen. In return, he’s agreed to carry his iPad (which fits into a pocket in his jacket) so we can navigate using his vast collection of apps.
When I mentioned our plans to Spanish friends, one said, “Oh yes, your trip without clothing.” Wait, what? I turned to Rich. “Are we traveling nude and you forgot to tell me?” He hastily reassured me that it was a mistranslation of our intentions. But I could see a speculative gleam in his eye.
So there you have it. We embark in a few days. Don’t look for a post next week but be sure to tune in on October 16 for a full update, with photos. I’ll be the one wearing grubby trousers and the “I (heart) Rennes-le-Chateau” t-shirt. Or possibly nothing at all.
Which brings me back to my original question: Are we nuts?
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape and where to go to find fun, adventure, and great food in this quirky, engaging city.
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