When travelling to a city, there tends to be one thing people look forward to most. For some, it’s dining in the restaurants. For others, it’s exploring the museums. For some, the shopping. For me, it’s always the same – simply getting out into the streets and walking.
When Paul and I travel to a city (which tend to make up most of our travels – we love cities), always follow the same daily pattern; we get up, take a look at our travel guides, plan a route for the day, get our camera in hand, and go out and walk. Unless we are going to places with massively long distances between each other, we walk everywhere. Walking around a city is my number one favourite activity while travelling.
When I did a bit of research into the joy of walking around cities I discovered there’s a name for such people – flaneurs. A flaneur is a French word which originated in the 19th century. It describes an urban explorer, someone who spends his or her days walking the city streets, taking in its its sights, sounds and smells. The flaneur is both a participant and an observer. In the original illustrations, the flaneur looks really cool; the drawings show a man (traditionally the description of a flaneur was of a man but since then there’s been writings about women flaneurs too) wearing a top hat, waistcoat and jacket with tails, leaning on his side and gazing into the distance with an expression of preoccupation. The flaneur was traditionally also associated with privilege; as a man of leisure he was free spend as much of his time as he liked to wander with no purpose. Unfortunately, I don’t share this last trait but in the general sense the description applies to me. I am a flaneur.
I love city walking, feeling your feet pound the pavement and being ground level in the nooks and crannies of the street. I love the organic way a city reveals itself as you walk: “this must be the Portuguese quarter,” or “this is where the rich people stay” as the surroundings subtly move from Georgian terraces to tower blocks to kebab shops and back again. I prefer urban walking to walking in the countryside. Country walking is pleasant but it feels like too much of a purpose; you need to put your hiking boots on, drive to a starting point. With city walking you’re off as soon as your feet are out the door. You don’t need to have a final destination and or follow directions. And while mountains and fields are beautiful, I personally prefer streets and buildings.
A factor which has aided my enjoyment of urban walking is my interest in photography. Photography has also resulted in me observing a city more carefully; that character filled face sitting in a doorstop, that witty slogan graffiti, that unexpected glimpse of a famous landmark peeking out in a space between buildings. Every image seen through my eyes is a potential photograph.
Many of my favourite travel memories only happened as a result of ambling through a city. One of them was back in 2008 when we lived in Sydney and on a sunny spring Saturday set out, planning to walk for most of the day. We walked as far as King’s Cross to Oxford Street before we decided to stop for a drink at a bar on the corner which had enticing outdoor tables. As we enjoyed our drinks, basking in the sunshine, an Aussie man at a nearby table struck up a conversation and we got chatting, the talk and the heat causing us to linger longer than usual. The man was then joined by an older man and then it became kind of clear that both men were quite clearly gay; and when I went inside to get another drink (this was hours later, the time had passed by too far too easily and our planned walk through Sydney appeared to be abandoned) and saw the bowl of brightly coloured condoms on the bar, the penny dropped that this was a very gay bar. The two men were then joined by a woman and the drinks flowed and many more hours passed until it became almost midnight and we nearly, very nearly, went along to a gay nightclub with the trio. The only thing that stopped us was a very early start at work the next day. Kind of wish we’d gone though, the memory of going out for a walk and ten hours of drinking later ending up in a gay nightclub would have been worth the hangover.
Another travel memory that happened only as the result of being a flaneur was our recent trip to Tokyo. A day of walking took us to Harmonica Alley, a former WWII black market with low ceilings and narrow alleys filled with the tiniest bars and restaurants you’ve ever seen – most of them only had enough space for two people standing. Paul decided these were too cool to not stop and have a drink in and he picked a tiny little bar that was only big enough to hold me, him, the barman and another lady who stopped by. The cheerful looking barman tried to ask us some questions but after ascertaining he spoke no English and we spoke no Japanese, he got Google translate out on his phone and began conversing via that, the lady customer joining in. We learned the barman was a musician and artist and a plan to stop for one drink resulted in us lingering for several hours listening to the barman’s music and admiring his colourful art which was posted on the walls. When we finally left, the barman took two of his pictures off the walls and gave them to us. They are now hanging in our flat as a reminder of that encounter.
Walking through a city allows you to unearth other perspectives of it you might not find. While walking through not typically walkable Dubai, we stumbled across what appeared to be a Pakistani area made up narrow, almost suburban streets, tiny buildings which were almost shacks, satellite dishes on the low ceiling and laundry leaned up against the outdoor walls of the house to dry. Immediately behind it was the glittering skyline of Dubai, including the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Despite its proximity to the centre of Dubai, it was drastically different.
I’m a flaneur in my home city of Glasgow too. I walk to and from work every day and savour that 35 minute bridge between home and work life. I also go out for long walks at the weekend. Glasgow is a fairly small city and having lived here for most of my life I’ve pretty much covered it, but a new season always provides an opportunity to do another circle round camera in hand: the daffodils, the cherry blossoms, the autumn leaves, snow, or one of those blazing hot summer days when everyone explodes out onto the streets. Sometimes Paul and I like to pick a random place to walk to that will take up most our Saturday, like Paisley, or Bothwell Castle, or a traditional pub in Larkshire that’s supposed to be good. Never mind if it’s mostly flyovers we’re passing or dual carriageways we’re traipsing past, the flaneur values these things as much as trees and mountains.
Walking is a very beneficial hobby to have. The health benefits are well known; it burns calories and reduces risk of a number of diseases and is a form of exercise you can easily incorporate into your daily life. A recent study shows those who live in the most walkable cities have lower blood pressure. Walking clears your mind too. On a practical level, walking saves money on public transport and driving costs. So many people jump into a car on autopilot when they can easily walk. While I know many people love countryside and suburban life, personally I hate the thought of having to get in a car to drive to the nearest shop.
Things you need to be a flaneur; a pedometer to track how many steps you’ve taken and miles you’ve covered (I have an app on my phone). A good pair of shoes. The latter is crucial as I learned to my detriment after a day of walking Berlin in cheap shoes; my feet were screaming so much I seriously doubted I could walk the next few metres to the subway stop. Now when I travel I always wear good quality trainers or, if the weather is hot, Birkenstocks. (I’m glad Birkenstocks have come back into fashion. They support your feet, are comfortable and last for ages. Not an ad for Birkenstock, I just really like them).
I have always thought of myself as someone who particularly enjoyed and appreciated city walking, but from now on I think I’m going to consider myself a flaneur. It sounds a lot more cultured, doesn’t it? If I had all the time in the world I’d spend my days in the city too, a creature of its streets. I’d just be wearing Birkenstocks instead of a top hat.