Alain de Botton on why we travel

The most fulfilling places to visit are those that connect us with what we are really searching for

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In the Middle Ages, Catholicism had the odd-sounding idea that every ailment of the mind or body could be cured by going off on a long journey to touch a part of the body of a long-dead saint. The church had to hand a dictionary of pilgrimage destinations, which in every case matched problems with solutions. For example, if you were having trouble breast feeding, France alone offered mothers a choice of 46 pilgrimages to sanctuaries of Mary’s Holy Breast Milk (“Had the Virgin been a cow,” observed the 16th-century Protestant John Calvin unkindly, “she scarcely could not have produced such a quantity”).

Believers with a painful molar were advised to travel to Rome to the Basilica of San Lorenzo, where they would touch the arm bones of Saint Apollonia, the patron saint of teeth, or to find pieces of her jaw in the Jesuit church at Antwerp or her toes at disparate sites around Cologne. Unhappily married women were directed to travel to Umbria to touch the shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia, patron saint of marital problems (and lost causes), while people who worried excessively about lightning could gain relief by travelling to the Jesuit Church in Bad Münstereifel in Germany and laying hands on the relics of Saint Donatus, believed to offer help against fires and explosions of all kinds.

Though most of us no longer believe in the divine power of journeys to cure toothache or gall stones, we can still hang on to the idea that certain parts of the world possess a power to address complaints of our psyches and bring about some sort of change in us in a way that wouldn’t be possible if we just remained in our bedrooms. There are places that, by virtue of their remoteness, vastness, climate, chaotic energy, haunting melancholy or sheer difference from our homelands can exert a capacity to salve the wounded parts of us.

We might agree with this at a general level but we still lack a tradition of approaching travel from a properly therapeutic perspective and so of analysing landscapes according to their inner benefits. We’re badly served here by the travel industry, which cuts the world up into material categories almost entirely unattuned to the needs of our inner selves or, to put it more grandly, our souls. The industry lays before us options such as “outdoor fun”, “family adventure”, “culture weekends” or “island hideaways” — but leaves it unexplored quite what the point of these destinations might be when considered from the point of view of our psyches.

We need to be clearer in our minds about what we’re searching for inside and what the outer world could conceivably deliver for us. In the future, we would ideally be more conscious travellers — aware that we were on a search for places that could deliver psychological virtues such as “calm” or “perspective”. A visitor to Monument Valley in Utah wouldn’t just be in it for a bit of undefined “adventure”, something to enjoy and then gradually forget about two weeks later; travelling to the place would be an occasion fundamentally to reorient the personality. It would be the call-to-arms to become a different person; a 5,000-mile, £3,000 secular pilgrimage properly anchored around a stage of profound character development.

For now, we lack atlases of such destinations with which to treat ourselves. But here is a small selection of outer journeys that could assist us with our inner journeys:

Where: Pefkos Beach, Rhodes

Why: to combat anxiety

Hotel East 21, Tokyo (2012)

You haven’t come to Rhodes to explore the medieval old town or the ancient temple of Apollo. You’ve not been drawn by a longing to try the local delicacy of chickpea fritters and unsalted ewe’s-milk cheese. Your more sophisticated acquaintances would think it trivial. You’ve come here for just one thing: to get some sun.

On the beach, here, there are recliners under big straw sunshades on the beach. The water is warm. The heat envelops you and seems to ease the knotted muscles in your left shoulder. Every day, the sky is perfectly blue and unclouded. From your hotel balcony, you look out on to an arid, scrubby hill; you love the sight of the baked and cracked earth because it speaks of week after week of hot, dry weather.

For months you have been craving sunshine. Through the impossibly long winter and wintry spring you have been swaddling yourself in layers of garments. You eat for comfort. You’re always wanting scones or pies or big helpings of apple crumble. And it shows — somewhere under the habitual jumpers and coats.

Sunshine isn’t merely “nice”. It has a profound role in our lives. It is an agent of moral qualities: of generosity, courage, the appreciation of the present moment, confidence . . . When the world seems bountiful, material accumulation looks less impressive. When there is easy living, competition loses its edge. When it is so hot, there is no point trying to read — or even think too much. One is merely in the present. These are corrective attitudes. Too much of them and they turn against themselves.

You have come to lie on the beach at Pefkos not because you are light minded or indolent. But precisely because you have become so dutiful, serious, hard working, disconnected from your body, over-cerebral and cautious. It is a deeply noble search for wisdom and balance (which are the ideal goals of art and civilisation) that has led you here — to the world of sun cream, dark glasses, recliners and cocktails by the pool.

Where: Pumping station, Isla Mayor, Seville

Why: to take our own interests seriously

There are many guide books suggesting what you might do when you get to Seville. But they all pretty much agree that you must go both to the Plaza de España, built for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929, and then to the Alcázar — a beautiful Moorish fort that subsequently became a royal palace. All visitors to Seville are also strongly advised to see the monument to Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, located on the Plaza de América.

Such lists are inadvertent but powerful agents of snobbery. The guide book is today’s equivalent of Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage, which a smart person might have consulted in 1805 to identify who was worth visiting in Hampshire. Snobbery exploits a natural frailty of our nature: an insecurity about deciding what matters to us, and an accompanying meek assumption that whatever is important or valuable must already have been discovered by others and have achieved widespread prestige.

We shouldn’t feel unusually stupid about this. But as we travel, inside of us, we may register a lot of latent interests that aren’t mentioned in any tourist offices, yet that we might profitably take time to explore, if only we could overcome “guidebook guilt”. We might, for example, deep inside be far more curious about how local supermarkets operate than in the legacy of Cervantes. Or imagine if in our hearts what we’re really struck by in Seville is the sheer dryness of the landscape and the challenges of pumping water into the city and its surrounding villages.

Hydro engineering never appears in any guidebook, it just doesn’t fit assumptions about what deserves prestige (though in the 18th century, no visit to a city was complete without a tour of the waterworks). However, what pleasure we might experience if we courageously took a day off from the tyranny of museums and monuments and headed south, on the A8053, to the village of Isla Mayor — in order to visit the stunning nearby Salina Grande pumping station.

The pumping station is on no must-see list. But the gargantuan stark structure is a key part of a major irrigation system that has turned former marshland into rice fields. It hums modestly yet powerfully. The station is moving in its lack of pride: it works mutely, unknown, through the night, across the parched summer days, making sure the groves will survive the arid months, guaranteeing that those tourists will have enough water for their showers when they return from the dusty Plaza de España.

All of us have equivalents. Things we care about that aren’t mentioned anywhere. Part of growing up, and learning to travel well, means daring to take our own interests a bit more seriously.

Where: Eastown Theatre, Detroit

Why: to remind us things change fast

It would be extremely unusual these days to find a travel agent that recommends a sojourn in Detroit as the ideal vacation. The city is, after all, in decline. There are neighbourhoods full of derelict homes, shattered theatres and ruined office buildings that were thriving only a few decades ago. However, the idea of going there is far from unreasonable. It has long been fashionable to visit ruins — but only of a very special kind. Announcing that you are going on holiday to see what remains of ancient Ephesus, near Izmir on Turkey’s Aegean coast, will raise no eyebrows.

Okura Act City Hotel Hamamatsu, Hamamatsu, Shizuoka, Japan 2013

We understand that contemplating the beautiful remains of Ephesus’s library of Celsus can put one in touch with the instability of all human achievement. In its day, the library must have seemed indestructible. Now we know what can happen to the finest long-term ambitions and the melancholy, bracing truth — hopefully — hits home. We become, in our own lives, more conscious that time is fleeting, that we must not count on the future, that we cannot count on endless good fortune. But time dulls the power of the message. The idea that a civilisation lasted a mere 700 years before collapsing is not — if one is honest — a terribly disturbing thought. The thought that Piccadilly Circus might have only another 500 years to go, or that by 2714, Tate Modern will be buried under sand, does not freeze the soul or force a radical reassessment of life.

That’s why one should head for West Oakman Boulevard or East English Village to contemplate contemporary ruins. Less than 10 years ago, these places were filled with hope and life; couples excitedly choosing paint for the nursery; people planting trees and upgrading their heating system; looking forward to the future. You should perhaps attend an auction at which a house that would be greatly prized if it was located in Putney or Morningside is sold for $1,000. It has, in effect, no financial value. It has fallen off the edge of the economic universe.

The point of such travel is not to make us downcast. It is, rather, to make us attend to the fragility of life. We do not know what five years will bring. The classical remains in Turkey elegantly preach a lesson about history. Detroit offers a crash course in short-term error.

Where: corner shop, Yokohama

Why: to overcome our inhibitions

When you first went into the corner shop just off the main Motomachi shopping street to buy a prepaid mobile card, it was difficult. You pointed at your phone but Mr Nishimura couldn’t understand you at all. You felt an idiot. Like the time at school you were supposed to make a speech and your mind went blank. Over the years, at home, you have learned how to avoid many of the situations that you find so awkward (though other people appear to manage them without the slightest concern). When something feels alien, your instinct is to retreat. You’d never ask a stranger for directions in the street; the idea of going up to a group of people you don’t know at a party is terrifying.

But now you are beginning to tire of the downside of this survival tactic: the too-high price it extracts. In Japan everything is, to you, foreign. You are so far from being inconspicuous, it’s a joke. Shyness is in a way no longer even an option. So you go back to the shop. You make use of the ATM (which has an English-language option). You buy some wasabi-flavoured crisps and give the man a big smile. He grins back. You are learning how to do something: you’re learning to overcome, not just work round, your shyness.

Today you bought a packet of Chocobi mini star-shaped chocolate biscuits. You made a joke about the rain. Mr Nishimura beamed at you. It’s a deep corrective. You are strengthening a capacity you need in the rest of your life.

This is an edited extract from Alain de Botton’s ‘The New Art of Travel’, published in association with Airbnb. It is available from £12.99 at penguin.co.uk/airbnb

Photographs: Kunihiko Katsumata

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