Over the last few hundred years there has been a subtle shift in how we think about travel. Dante's journey through the three realms of the dead can be read as an intriguing piece of travel writing. Homer's Odyssey is an equally fabulous travel narrative. Yet travel has somehow slipped out of fashion. True, we fly hither and thither, but travel is rarely valued for its own sake. Instead it is recast as a minor inconvenience that somehow intervenes between our point of departure and our intended destination. The pleasure of the journey is eclipsed by anticipation of arrival. To get there fast is better than to travel slow.
Yet where would travel be without all those slow journeys of yesteryear? Adventures like Patrick Leigh Fermor's long walk across Europe, Isabelle Eberhardt's remarkable wanderings through the Maghreb or Freya Stark's travels with a donkey through an Arabian winter.
Donkeys, it seems, are an indispensable asset to the would-be slow traveller. They are reportedly faster than a camel (if Freya Stark is to be believed), yet markedly slower than planes, trains and buses. If Robert Louis Stevenson managed perfectly okay travelling through the Cévennes area of France with a donkey, why don't we all eschew trains and take donkeys?
We have lost our sense of time. We believe that we can add meaning to life by making things go faster. We have an idea that life is short — and that we must go faster to fit everything in. But life is long. The problem is that we don’t know how to spend our time wisely.
(Carlo Petrini, Founder of the Slow Food Movement, September 2008)
Modernity comes at a cost. Even in the mid-nineteenth century, the French travel writer Théophile Gautier was bemoaning how tiresome travel was becoming. Being tossed from side to side in a stagecoach, he averred, was not real travel at all. "You might as well stay at home," he wrote in Voyage en Espagne (1843). Two centuries later, millions of folk every day are packed like sardines into fragile aluminium tubes which then shoot through the sky at slightly less than the speed of sound - and all in the name of travel.
So perhaps it is time that we rediscovered our donkeys. Or at the very least considered the merits of slow travel.