How I discovered the joy of returning to the same destination every year
"Discovery doesn’t have to be about the new," says Nick Trend. "It can be about getting to know somewhere properly..."
Travel is, traditionally, all about the new. About exploration and discovery. About ticking off destinations we haven’t visited before.
Sure, many people enjoy the familiarity of returning to the same part of Cornwall, or booking into the same hotel in Mallorca year after year. But surely that is different. That is about going on holiday and relaxing, not so much about travel. Nothing compares, you might think, with the magic of a first impression when you arrive in a new place.
I witnessed it vicariously this week. I was in Venice with a colleague who had never been there before. It was genuinely moving to see him take in the view across St Mark’s Square for the first time, absorb those sudden vistas from a stepped bridge or narrow fondamenta and wonder at the faded, water-lapped magnificence all around.
At the end of the day he sat at the back of the No 2 water bus, gazing out at the miraculous facades which hem the Grand Canal. To say he was lost in rapture would be a romantic overstatement, but he certainly didn’t want to be distracted by small talk.
For all that, the cult of the new is also the curse of the tourist. It condemns us to being forever strangers in foreign lands. We may enjoy the thrill of a first encounter, but we only ever skate the surface. We spend as much time wrestling with maps, guidebooks, phones and cameras as we do actually sightseeing.
Which is why, for me, returning to places I’ve loved has become as important as seeking out new destinations. Venice is a city I’m lucky enough to have come to know well over many years. I’ll never be able to recapture the experience of my colleague, but my visit reminded me how rewarding it is to go back.
Discovery doesn’t have to be about the new. It can be about getting to know somewhere properly, about making sense of the history and culture of a place. It is also, of course, a chance to visit some of the smaller (and less crowded) attractions which most tourists never see.
My day in Venice was a flying visit, focusing on the paintings of the Renaissance artist Giovanni Bellini ahead of a major exhibition at the National Gallery in London next month.
Five hundred years ago, Bellini was the most sought-after artist in the city, and some of his works are still in the churches they were made for. I had seen them before on previous visits, but to come again and see them – and Venice – in such a focused way threw a new light on the city and a key moment in its past. These quiet, contemplative altarpieces were among the most valued images in a city which was such a dominant, aggressive trading centre then at the height of its power.
I’ve had similar discoveries when revisiting other destinations. In Rome last month I saw two remarkable archaeological sights – the Baths of Caracalla and the Domus Aurea (Golden House). They attract only a handful of tourists compared with the big draws, yet I would rate the baths as exciting and dramatic as the Colosseum, and the Domus more impressive than the greatest villas and houses in Pompeii.
In Paris last year, I finally got around to visiting two of the smaller museums that have been on my list for years – the musées Jacquemart-André and Nissim de Camondo. Both are “hotels particuliers” – grand town houses – which display the remarkable collections of paintings and furniture amassed by their former owners during the Belle Époque. So not only do you see fabulous art, but you get a sense of the lifestyle of the Paris elite when the city was at its cultural peak.
So, while my colleague reminded me of the thrill to be had from a first visit to a destination, I’ve decided that I am getting more and more enjoyment from the feeling that places are becoming less foreign and more familiar.
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