How to travel, now there is a difficult question. Having just returned from our one “vacation” while we’re here in France (yes, I know, it’s all pretty much like a vacation…), I think I’ve figured out a favorite way (for me), and that is what I am calling “incidental travel.” It’s where you don’t do “great things,” but instead, make lots of small discoveries. Of course, variety is key, so I like to mix in some “great things” and some “no things” days as well. But here’s a general outline of how it works.
My favorite thing to do is to pick a destination that’s not too far, and get there in an interesting way. The destination can be anything, but is usually something small and minor like a store, a weekly market, a festival, a scenic overlook, a statue, a village. Just a spark that you heard something interesting about. That spark functions as the excuse to go somewhere new and see what you find along the way. It’s the journey and creativity you bring to it, not the destination. You don’t know what you’ll find, there is no itinerary, but getting there is part of the fun, so maybe take the bus, take the scenic route, bike, walk.
Our first two weekends in Grenoble we simply had a general destination in mind (one day a “sports forum” in a northeastern suburb where they had different activity booths for the day, the other an 11th century church in a southwestern village) then we took the bus or the tram as close and we could, and walked and explored.
One key thing we figured out is that every bus stop has a map. This knowledge would have saved me the day I got lost coming home. So my rule about always carrying a map turns out to not be so important. I still use my map from time to time, but in a pinch, you can just find a bus stop and get oriented immediately.
So on our first suburban excursion we used dead reckoning and found a nice historic path through the suburbs, lost the path, checked in at bus stops, and continued to meander. Along the way, we found a school book sale, a rock climbing demonstration, a basketball hoop the children enjoyed climbing (after which we started looking for OP-COs or “other potentially climbable objects"), a merry-go-round, and, the ultimate destination, a demonstration of various athletic activities including props we could try from the circus school. Rees learned how to walk on a ball and both Rees and I were able to spin plates on the top of sticks. You just never know.
It was its own sort of geography lesson too and we now know there are walking paths, playgrounds, commercial centers, and parks scattered all around (with maps at every bus stop!). Each has its own sort of unique activity.
The next weekend we headed out to a small village with an 11th century church. We found a fun skatepark (Rees had his roller blades on) near the tram stop, miniature golf, a climbing wall, an old dovecote (where I banged my head and once again bled all over the place in dramatic fashion, but luckily, another feature of this area are the numerous water fountains/pumps where I could wash up), and the church and cemetery in the old, central part of the village. We smelled delicious Sunday lunches being grilled in outdoor ovens. I started taking pictures of Gallic Rooster statues. The church had interesting icons and symbolism about water. There is always something.
For our trip to southern France, we took a similar approach. After visiting a few towns and few abbeys, we wanted something different. Each town is great and all, but it’s so predictable to walk around though lovely winding, cobbled streets, find a luncheon spot, see the market square, the church, etc. etc. Abbeys are gorgeous and historic, but also predictable in many ways. So we did the beach and collected some stones and shells, and that was nice too. We were craving more open spaces and noticed some symbols on the map for menhirs and dolmens---symbolic rock structures created by Neolithic peoples---and that’s when we started menhir and dolmen hunting and that’s when I remembered the joys of incidental travel. (This is much of the appeal of geocaching as well, an activity my Aunt excels at.)
Along the way we found many interesting villages and sites and many a backroad that we never would have ventured down. It’s the small place you find for lunch, the sweet donkeys in a corral, the feeling of connection to people from thousands of years ago, the lay of the land, the garage sale or farm stand or medieval ruin that you unexpectedly come across. Expectations are low and pleasures are many. It’s perfect.