My best travel experiences have been when I decided to stay in one place for a long time. I have traveled and lived in Iran, Nicaragua, Mexico, France, Italy, England, Spain and Portugal. Each of those experiences consisted of staying in a city or village for more than 2 weeks and in Iran for 3 months.
Staying grounded allows for plenty of opportunities to immerse yourself in the local culture and connect with the people who live there, rather than rushing from one tourist destination to another in a frenzied whirlwind. A travel experience focused on speed is not only tiring, but you miss the richness of immersing yourself in the culture, history and landscape of your new surroundings.
A few years ago, while staying in Paris for a week and visiting the Louvre, I was amazed to see people running from gallery to gallery filming the artwork with their video cameras. What can a person inhale when running as if in a car?
Staying in a place allows you to get to know more about the people who live there, including their food, traditions, music, heritage and daily rhythms of life. There is time to relax, people watch and stroll around, taking in the sounds, smells and sights around you. The longer you stay, the more you start to feel part of the place you are.
Here are my five favorite reasons to spend time in one place.
1. It’s more relaxing
When we stayed for 3 weeks in Spello, a village in Umbria, Italy, we had a lot of free time to explore our surroundings. Most mornings we would go to a favorite cafe for a delicious pastry and strong Italian coffee and sit and watch the morning activity around us. Sometimes we chatted with the waiters or a couple sitting next to us. We watched as people went about their daily lives, a shop assistant sweeping her front porch, a man with a cane walking in the river, a girl carrying flowers on a bicycle. If it was a weekday, we could see children carrying bags to school.
When we traveled to Portugal, we stayed in the medieval town of Obido. Some days we walked for miles on dirt roads outside the castle walls, admiring the surrounding wildflowers and vineyards. Staying in Obidos for 8 days gave us enough time to explore the city and wander the narrow cobbled streets and take day trips to historical monuments or places of interest, such as Sintra, Nazare and Tomar. Instead of rushing from hotel to hotel trying to squeeze in all the sights, pick a few to explore. You can always tell yourself, “there will be another time.”
2. There is more time to learn the language
When my husband and I stayed in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and Granada, Nicaragua, I signed up for Spanish classes. It gave some structure to my days. I enjoyed walking to class every morning and the more I practiced the language, the more I could interact with the local people.
In Granada I took private lessons with a lovely young woman. We studied together in a class and then she would take me to different parts of the city to shop or just explore. She would only speak to me in Spanish. This was a great incentive to use the language. At the open market, I would point to things and ask them to identify them in Spanish. This was a perfect practical way to learn the language. One day while exploring, we came across a children’s parade. Students were dressed in colorful skirts and tops and musicians played a lively tune.
During the 3 months I lived in Iran, I studied Farsi. Learning a language where the writing and sounds were so different from my own was incredibly challenging, but it was so satisfying to go to the bakery or yogurt shop, ask for what I needed, and be understood.
3. You can find hidden gems
Near the town of Barga in Tuscany, where we stayed on a farm for a month, we discovered a monument that most tourists don’t know about. One morning, we climbed a nearby hill to get a better view of the village. There we found a monument dedicated to 1st Lt. John R. Fox, an African-American soldier who had sacrificed himself along with eight other soldiers in World War II to save the Italian villagers and his fellow soldiers.
Later, we learned that on December 2, 1944, his division had clashed with the Austrians who were surrounding the small village of Sommocolonia and had burned buildings housing wounded American soldiers. Lieutenant Fox was a forward observer on the second floor of a house and, at one point in the ongoing battle, he was surrounded by Austrian forces. He then ordered a volley of mortars and artillery on his position. His friend was stunned when Fox asked on a radio to continue with the fire. In the end, he died along with 100 enemy soldiers and was not recognized for his brave efforts until 1982.
I don’t think we would have found this place if we were just on a day trip to see the city. During our month-long stay, we found other places of interest and beauty, such as the nearby picturesque train station and the spectacular Grotta del Vento, where weathering agents have worked on the limestone cliffs to create magnificent natural sculptures.
Hidden gems do not have to be diamond quality. They can be as simple as looking into a hidden garden while walking along a castle wall or finding a local restaurant with regional food. When we were walking in the Garfagnana region of Italy, the restaurant served the same excellent food that the Italian family that ran the place was having for lunch.
4. It’s a better way to connect with locals and their daily lives
When you decide to unpack your suitcase and hang your clothes in a closet, you begin to make the place your home. This can happen when you stay at a Vrbo or Airbnb. Unlike a hotel, you will most likely have a kitchen and a living room. This means you will be able to buy groceries, which I believe is another benefit of staying in one place. It also allows you to view your surroundings at different times of the day.
When we stayed in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, a Provençal town in France, we shopped for produce at a weekly farmers market and got to know some of the vendors who brought the local fruits, cheeses and produce. We loved walking home along the Sorgue River, where we often said “hello” to residents walking their dogs or a couple sitting on a bench overlooking the old wooden waterwheels.
In Granada, Nicaragua, we met some expats who helped us find a local who was willing to do our laundry for a small fee. In Lisbon, the local pharmacist, Catarina, was extremely knowledgeable about the Portuguese healthcare system when I needed a doctor.
When you stay in a city, as opposed to traveling through it, you do what you do at home and thus make more connections. You buy groceries, you might need stamps at the post office, and you might get a haircut. It’s a great way to bond with the villagers.
5. There is less hassle with transportation and schedules
While living in Barga, we decided to take the train to Lucca. Later in our stay, we boarded the train to Florence. This meant getting information about train timetables, buying tickets, finding out what to expect after boarding, arriving at the station and finding your way. This can be stressful and requires some patience, especially in a foreign language.
If you’re in a big city with a metro system, like Paris or Lisbon, you should learn how the system works—how much a ticket costs, how to use it, and where to get on and off to get to your destination.
When we were in Lisbon and tried to use the metro, it took us about 20 minutes to figure out where to put the euros and which screens to touch for round trip tickets.
Renting a car also has its own learning curve. In Portugal, for example, rental cars are mostly manual transmissions and this requires some adjustment if you usually drive an automatic. Next is familiarity with the road rules for the country – speed limits, road signs, how to use roundabouts, toll administration and exiting and entering motorways. For example, on and off ramps in Portugal are few and far between.
All of these transportation issues take time, but deciding to slow down and maybe just choose a mode of transportation or two can reduce the hassle. When you stand still, you’ll probably walk more and, in doing so, absorb more details of where you are.
I am a retired individual who enjoys adventure and thrives on travel; however, these days, I prefer my new experiences to be closer to a place I’m temporarily calling home.