We’re all just a bit selfie-obsessed

Just for a moment, close your eyes and think back to the good old days before Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Remember how, when you went on holiday, you would take a day trip to a historical site, climb to the top and take off all your clothes? Or perhaps when you went out for a romantic dinner, photographed your tiger prawns, then drove over to your best friend’s house to show them? No? Nor do I.

Earlier this month, four tourists were arrested for stripping naked at the summit of Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu and now face up to three months in jail. When I read the story over breakfast in a Rome hotel, I was more depressed than shocked. For the last six weeks that I’ve been train-hopping around Europe, my faith in the future of mankind has dwindled so far as to make me wince at the sight of tourists. Where once travel was a passive activity, it has now morphed into an aggressive, competitive sport. It’s no longer enough to slip into a city at night, stroll the streets by day, and leave as quietly as you came. Now you have to make your mark by scratching your name into a wall, airing your genitalia on a holy mountain or banging a padlock onto a bridge. It’s the travelling equivalent of taking a long drawn-out piss all over your neighbour’s front porch.

I first felt revulsion for the trend while walking hand in hand on the Pont des Arts last October. Paris’s bridges form the backbone of the city and are synonymous with romance, popping up in most art and literature. Yet, in 2008, couples began attaching metal padlocks to the Pont des Arts and throwing the keys into the water to symbolize their unbreakable love. Never mind that the keys are probably covered in sludge and littering the riverbed, the thousands of locks conceal the bridge’s original beauty and Parisian authorities have had to remove 45 tonnes of the dirty metal to prevent the bridge from collapsing. Padlocking these historical pieces of art is nothing short of vandalism. And if your relationship needs a padlock to signify its security, then you probably need to reconsider that relationship.

But the madness doesn’t stop there. Last week, I visited Juliet’s balcony at the Casa di Giulietta in Verona. There is no evidence that the Capulet family ever lived there, yet the city dines out on the tale of the star-crossed lovers and the walls in the courtyard below the balcony are covered in handwritten letters to “Juliet” from tourists who use chewing gum to attach their notes. Even Verona’s clock tower has succumbed to the abuse. With a panoramic view of the city’s terracotta rooftops and the river running along the periphery, it’s a spot of peace high above the main piazza. After climbing more than 300 steps, I reached the bell tower, only to find the walls and the grand old bell itself covered in graffiti. Did Olga and Georg really need to scratch their names into its rim? Was Glenda so oblivious to his affections that Marco was compelled to tell her on 8 December 2014 that he “hearted” her and deface the brickwork of the artist who built the façade? Would Fabio declare his love for Betta across a painting in the Louvre? Maybe clip a padlock onto The Thinker’s little finger? If the answer is no, then maybe he should think about why he did it here. As I crossed the Castel Vecchio bridge at night, I climbed onto the brick ledge and shuffled along to gaze at the river bubbling below. It tumbled in the glow of the streetlamps and I had an overwhelming sense of calm as I stroked the clean surfaces and admired the loveliness of the structure. But there it was. Like architecture’s answer to herpes, one nasty little padlock had appeared and it was bound to spread its disease. Verona’s mayor has responded by issuing fines, but it begs the question: where does this compulsion come from?

I fear it is part of the growing desperation to be a part of the story, to be seen and heard having a good time, all the time. It’s not enough to stand before the remnants of the Berlin Wall and absorb the enormity of all it represents; the experience is apparently enhanced by taking a photograph of yourself in front of it to tweet, post on Facebook or hashtag on Instagram. Heaven forbid anyone think you weren’t ever there. The greatest irony is that these people feel their experience is heightened, the immersion greater, when the truth is that the magic of travel eludes them.

A Korean couple sat at a table next to me in Florence filming each other eat. She held her camera under his fork, as he ate his penne rigata and veal ragu, and giggled. He filmed her poised with a forkful of rare steak. For more than one hour, the two of them photographed each other’s tiramisu, napkins and wine glasses, and exchanged no fewer than seven or eight words. I looked around at the restaurant and wondered, would they be able to describe the vintage wine cases lining the walls, faded at the edges? Would they remember the warm smell of fresh rosemary in vases, the murmur of voices and the sound of the first glug from a newly opened bottle of wine? Had they even noticed their table was an old barrel bottom? I’ve always erred on the side of the flâneur, strolling around observing the city. I’m pretty awful at taking photographs and hate carrying a camera, but I sometimes wonder whether my mind’s eye draws in more than any camera ever could. Balzac described flânerie as a science or “gastronomy of the eye”, but I fear that tastes have changed and if we are now a society that has to take naked photos at a historical site to enjoy the experience, then we are all the worse off for it.

The lead up to departure

In the space of two weeks, I have left my beloved job, moved house twice, and condensed my life into a 60-litre rucksack. I knew that planning for a 10-month trip around the world was going to require patience, resilience, and balls of steel, but what I never anticipated was that attempting to coordinate 80 train journeys with visa bureaucracy, border restrictions and below-zero temperatures would reveal less about what lay ahead, and more about what I was leaving behind.

Every morning, until the day of departure, I updated my to-do list which, somehow, grew at least five items overnight: walking shoes, Kindle cover, cancel phone tariff, travel insurance, new retainer. But soon a different list began to grow in my head: spend time with mum and dad, visit Kelly and Violet, stay at Ham Yard Hotel, enjoy a last BLT sandwich at Brioche. And it was that latter list that eventually overrode all my other stresses until they ceased to exist. The evening before I left, I found myself on a sunny bench outside London’s National Theatre with a glass of prosecco in one hand and Violet, my friend Kelly’s three-month-old baby, in the other. I was supposed to be buying a pair of walking shoes and the shop was about to close, but I’d shelved the trip to meet them on the Southbank. Kelly had Violet in early February but I’d been too “busy” to organize a time to see them. Only I wasn’t busy, I just had skewed priorities. I could always buy a pair of shoes en route, but I couldn’t give Violet a big cuddle or see her smirk at her mum. Two days earlier, I was toasting a family friend and his new wife at their wedding in Norfolk. They had decided to celebrate 21 years together by getting married and I had initially told them I couldn’t travel up because I had to collect last-minute tickets from Riga to Moscow and there was no other appointment available. But when I saw Tony appear in a top hat and tails and twirl Lizzie onto the dancefloor, I knew that attending their wedding had been the right thing to do, even if it meant having to have my tickets FedEx-ed abroad.

Then there came the seemingly frivolous things. I love bacon. Not that streaky nonsense that Americans call bacon, the rigid strips of crisped fat that snap in two, but the thick-cut baby-pink rashers of smoky meat, curled at the edges and trimmed with rind. My Saturday mornings aren’t complete without a couple of slices snuggled between hunks of white bread and slathered with ketchup, and on my last trip, I really missed the home comfort. So I took myself off to Brioche, my local café in West Hampstead and ordered the cinnamon toast with bacon and maple syrup—twice if I’m honest—just to make sure the taste and smell were safe in my memory bank.

Having rented out my home to a young Polish couple for the next year, I was essentially homeless for my last week in London and had to rely on the kindness of friends and the scum of the King’s Cross Travelodge for a bed until I checked into the Ham Yard Hotel for my last night. The newest edition to the Firmdale group of hotels owned by husband and wife team Tim and Kit Kemp, Ham Yard is carefully slotted into a square just behind Piccadilly Circus, and you would never know it was there if you weren’t looking for it. I’ve long been a fan of the Firmdale group, largely because they’re at once so utterly barmy and beautiful—much like London. From the Union Jack flapping above the entrances to the stripped-bare wooden floors, blast of colours and fabrics and lighting and action, the Kemps’ properties are the hotel equivalent of a mad British family, odd and delightful, but always warm and welcoming. After my last stay at the Haymarket Hotel, I foraged around the pillows to see that they were from The Best Bed Linen in the World, and bought some for my own bed. Ham Yard is even more outlandish than its siblings: the reception is strung with a giant cat’s cradle of multi-coloured wool, the orangery is lit with a tangled bunch of at least 15 different lampshades, and the cosy, colourful library has a tiny Queen Elizabeth in a jar—complete with tiny handbag. After dinner, I lay in the huge bath watching Britain’s Got Talent and drinking a cup of tea. Ham Yard isn’t exactly subtle in reminding you where you are. Not to say it’s like a UKIP rally, but they like their flags and British bulldogs and the Archer room, a navy-blue private dining room with swirly chairs has LONDON emblazoned across the wall and a phone box painting by the mirror. It’s quite comic at the best of times, but that night it just felt reaffirming. At breakfast, I went for my last real Full English and although this terrifying patriotism may be misconstrued as that English reluctance to let go of the familiar and venture into foreign territory, it was my way of taking a good long look around before I left it all behind. The next day I bought my walking shoes at 12.15pm before meeting my friends and family at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel bar at 12.30pm to board the first train to Paris. And they were none the wiser.

50 Best Travel Websites

Last week The Independent listed us in their 50 Best Travel Websites http://ind.pn/mJ0Qsj and as a result we’ve had lots of emails about booking trips to India and in particular, trains! Feel free to get in touch and we will see what we can do, and in the interim more train reviews will be added soon.

Happy travels!