There is the kind of travel that allows you to check major and important sights off your list. Then there is the kind of travel that gives you a deep and lasting sense of a place. The journey that spawns a memory you can’t and don’t want to shake off. The one that casts light on a shadow you may not even know existed. If we are lucky, we get to combine the two.
In my decades of travel, a rule has emerged that unfailingly aids the richness of my discoveries. To truly get to know a place, you need to do three things - buy food at the local farmer’s market, chat up the neighborhood bartender, and visit a graveyard.
The farmer’s market will serve you not just food but a slice of people’s lives - what they eat, how they pick it, how important food is for them. One of the sharpest pangs of envy I’ve ever experienced in my life was when I watched a fishmonger in Annecy expertly chop a stunningly beautiful piece of fresh salmon that was clearly going to adorn the plate of the elegant old lady who procured it in the form of salmon tartare. The farmer’s markets of Europe in particular will elevate your understanding of local, seasonal and fresh to an entirely new level - one you may sometimes wish you hadn’t acquired as it may make you sad you can’t have that kind of gastronomic decadence every day of your life.
The neighborhood bartender has the potential to be a source of unrivaled expertise. He or she, especially if they take a liking to you, will tip you off about the best and secluded beaches, the non-touristy restaurants and what to order, or what the local’s choice for an after dinner drink is. On one occasion, an excellent Chicago bartender with a keen eye for networking quickly figured out my background and introduced me to my neighbor and solo diner at the bar, resulting in a most spirited conversation about the validity of the GMAT between my MBA admissions self and a Kellogg MBA professor.
But the pearl in any wanderlust crown is, without a doubt, the graveyard. Nothing gives you a sense of the history of a place with all its heartaches and dignity the way walking among tombstones does. On a recent trip to Bermuda, I spent hours at the Royal Naval Cemetery. Look at the picture below - the name of the steward of HMS Terror is wiped out by time and the elements. But all you have to do is read “Departed this life Sept. the 26th 1860, Aged 27 Years, Erected by his Messmates” and you can just imagine the story of the young man, the sense of loss, the fear of the power of the indifferent and merciless seas.
Try it next time, if you haven’t already. Ask a farmer for a taste of his best cheese. Let a bartender pour you a glass of her favorite vintage. Glide your hand across the moss of a tombstone and try to make out the name. You may be surprised. In fact, I know you will be.