Charley and I have been traveling in Europe for almost 20 years, most of our trips with our daughter Kelly, who’s now 16. Some of our very best memories have involved simple, unexpected experiences we didn’t plan, especially interactions with local people.Once in the Cotswolds, we were admiring a stately home and the owner came outside with her dog. Five minutes into the conversation, she invited us in to show us the house… a tour that ended up lasting two hours. On Lake Como on our second day in Italy, we met two grandparents out for lunch with their granddaughter (right). We spoke no Italian and they spoke no English, but they took us to the pizzeria they owned in a nearby town to meet the rest of their family. In June 2008 we hiked for two weeks in the Cevennes mountains in a very isolated part of France. We met so many friendly people along the trail, almost all of them French. We especially remember one night when about 25 of us stayed at the same small inn, enjoying a wonderful dinner served family-style at two long tables. I could share many more examples of personal connections that have added so much to our travel experiences.
Perhaps you’re like us, looking for a deeper European experience beyond sightseeing. How can you increase the likelihood of such unexpected moments? How do you get to know local people when you’re traveling? Here are our suggestions:
- Travel more slowly and stay longer in fewer places. Settle in and become a temporary member of the community.
- Spend time in smaller towns and villages—not just busy cities and popular sites that attract most tourists. Experience the rhythms of daily life.
- Stay in authentic, locally-owned accommodations—small hotels, B&Bs or rentals—where you can develop relationships with the owner, staff and neighbors.
- Reach out to meet others. Visit the same cafe, grocery store, or bakery every day and get to know the waiter, owner or regular patrons. Relax on a park bench, enjoy a sporting event, go on a hike, attend a church service or musical event. Go places and pursue activities that will bring you in contact with non-tourists.
- Be flexible. Don’t fill your days with sightseeing. Allow for spontaneity and simple pleasures.
- Savor local cuisine and eat where locals eat. Order the “daily special” and enjoy the local wine. Shop at outdoor markets and small food shops. Visit wineries, olive mills or farms, and buy their products.
- Learn some of the language and use it, even when people can speak English, especially the key terms of politeness. Use sign language and a smile.
- Learn about local history, culture and customs before your trip. Ask locals questions to learn more about the history and tradition of their area.
- Dress and behave thoughtfully based on cultural norms and expectations. Always show respect, courtesy and appreciation.
Small-group trips like our European Experiences weeks and trips hosted by other members of Slow Travel Tours provide excellent opportunities to make personal connections in local communities. Because we base in areas we know well, our trips feel very much like traveling with friends… not what some people think when they hear the word “tour.” We stay in one place for a week, usually a small town or village, where our local friends welcome our groups enthusiastically. Our trips are slow and our groups are small, so we can be flexible with plenty of unstructured time for personal discoveries.
Whether you travel independently or with a small group, I encourage you to enrich your trip by reaching out to get to know local people. I’m sure these unplanned personal connections will be the most memorable experiences of your travels too.
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Kathy and Charley Wood lead The Luberon Experience, a week-long “slow tour” in the most beautiful area of Provence, France. Their popular trips are offered five weeks a year, in May and September. They also now lead two or three trips a year to other special places in Europe. In 2010 they’re leading European Experiences trips in the Salzkammergut area of Austria and the Cotswolds in England.
Kathy and Charley have been traveling in Europe for almost 20 years and love sharing their special places in Europe with others travelers. Read more about Kathy and Charley here.