In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, American author Rebecca Solnit writes that walking is “a mode of making the world as well as being in it.” I have just spent ten days driving and walking through Eastern Europe. I started in Budapest, stopped in Zagreb, a plain city whose Communist-era buildings are scarred with graffiti, and headed south. In all, I visited Hungary, Croatia, a sliver of Bosnia on the way to Montenegro and, briefly, Slovenia.
[The wreckage of war, south of Zagreb, Croatia.]
Did I “make” the world? I can’t say, but I was very much in it. One windy afternoon, I walked along the wall that bounds the stari grad, or old city, of Dubrovnik. I could see the old city, the cobblestone streets polished by pedestrians, its alleys and squares, and I could see the new city spreading around it like ink spilled from a jar. The Adriatic’s foaming waves hit the shore. A few days later, we drove north through a suburb where the houses are still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Croatian War of Independence. Sometimes I walked for hours through the nooks and crannies of a village, sometimes I walked only briefly before driving on. I was in a world I had read about in the news but never seemed quite real. In that sense, I suppose this wandering was a way of making the world.
It is not only the mode of travel but the length that defines the experience. It was only after day seven, when my daily routine was set and I saw one foreign landscape after another–the rock cliffs along the Adriatic, the green mountains of Montenegro, the full moon viewed from a boat on the sea–that I began to disconnect from life back in London. Sometime after we reached Dubrovnik, a kind of upscale Disney World version of an ancient city, another traveller asked, confused, “What day is it?” First world problems, I suppose. But that time was critical. You are gone long enough to relax, to ease into new daily routines, to open yourself to the new places you visit.
And the 28-degree days full of sun and fresh air didn’t hurt.
[The path ahead. A ramble through Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia.]
When I returned, after meeting strangers, peering up at ancient buildings, taking photos, and walking, I found myself looking around my neighbourhood with fresh eyes. I wasn’t shoe gazing, as most of us typically do as we walk the well-worn paths of our lives. I was looking up.
NB: To hear about the other side of Croatia, read Lauren Collins’ entertaining story on YDB (Young Drunk Brits) on spring break in The New Yorker's “Journeys" issue.