Monday, May 07, 2012

The art of travelling

Fumay sur Meuse - photo taken with pinhole camera

Montaigne loved travelling, albeit only because it gave him the opportunity to ride his horse. Usually he travelled for practical purposes. For his work (he has been a judge); for political missions in order of the king; for visiting friends; because he had something to do in Paris; and who knows for what other reasons. In 1580 Montaigne decided to make a long journey without a special purpose but only for the pleasure of travelling. The travel would last more than one year and five months and it would bring him to Northern France, then to Basel, Augsburg and Munich, to Florence and to Rome, before he was called back to Bordeaux, where he had been appointed mayor. Montaigne did not travel alone but with a company of friends, his youngest brother and servants, although he was “the leader of the gang”. But it had a big influence on his trip, for had he travelled alone, maybe he would have gone to Krakow in Poland, or to Greece, as he wrote in his diary, or to another place far away. But his fellow travellers were against it. This didn’t imply that he passed only well-trodden paths and visited only famous towns, for Montaigne did not look for tourist attractions that everybody knows. As Stefan Zweig writes in his essay on Montaigne: “when a place is very well known, he preferred to avoid it, because other persons, too many of them, had already seen and described it” (from the French edition: Montaigne, PUF, 1982, p. 105). Even more, he also avoided his compatriots abroad, for he knew them already well. No, when Montaigne travelled, he looked for what was different, for what was unknown to him. And he didn’t do it for rejecting it and for experiencing how superior his own way of life was. On the contrary, he was curious to see how other people lived and what their solutions for the daily problems were, hoping that he could learn from them. So, once he regretted that he did not have taken his cook with him, so that he could learn new recipes.
And why not? When I talk with other people about travelling, they often say: “Have you seen this?”, “Have you been there?”, when I tell them that I have recently been to Nancy or Oslo, or have made a tour through Hungary. They name a certain place or church or way of art that is famous there, if not well-known to “everybody” in the world, and are surprised if I say “No”. What kind of traveller am I, I see them thinking, that I failed to go there? That I failed to see what is “really” valuable? And yes, I must admit that I failed to see it and a lot more. But I did not fail to see what they failed to see: odd and ugly places that are really not worth a visit when you need not to be there, places that really are not “worth the detour”, to quote the words of the Michelin guides. Places where daily life takes place but that are just for that reason interesting to visit. And places beautiful in their simplicity and because they are just there, often full of details, which would make them “worth the detour”, if everybody knew about it. However, do not misunderstand me. I do not say that what others visit and like to see is not worth the visit. What I want to say is that there are also other ways of travelling; ways that are as valuable as looking for the sublime (or lying on the beach, to mention another thing). I am working on a photo project, which is photographing towns along a river with the river with a so-called pinhole camera. Once I followed a part of the Meuse, a river that begins in North-eastern France and ends near Rotterdam in the Netherlands. But when you want to make a picture of a town with the river you must be on the opposite bank in most cases, for most towns are only on one side of the river. And this trip brought me to many little but often beautiful towns, known almost only to its inhabitants, like Schayn, Yvoir, Chooz or Fumay. It brought me to places where a normal tourist would never come, like the industrial area of Herstal near Liege, or in the bush across a town the name of which I have forgotten. And I enjoy it.
(Some photos of the photo project can be seen on

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