Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
The concept of ‘slowness’ in travel writing is best understood in its relation to ‘slow travel’, a branch of the increasingly popular ‘slow’ movement. The slow food movement was initiated in 1986 by the Italian activist Carlo Petrini in opposition to the opening of a McDonald's by the Spanish Steps in Rome. It celebrates localism, regional products, time spent with fellow humans and ecological concerns. For slow travellers these values translate as abjuring the jet engine; paying attention to one's immediate environment rather than to tourist attractions; obtaining local produce from local producers rather than from globalized outlets. Slow travel, then, is not just about reducing speed, it is about doing less harm to the planet, to communities and – by extension – to those encountered on the journey.
Taken literally the term ‘slow travel’ could take us back to the earliest travel narratives. Reliance on sail power rather than steam for the nautical voyager might have meant weeks in static observation awaiting the right kind of wind. Pilgrimages – pagan, medieval, Christian or Islamic – were undertaken on foot. Even the Grand Tour was measured in years rather than weeks, although it assumed a perspective of social superiority, a level of capital accumulation and the practice of extracting art and artefacts from their local environments that is antithetical to the politics of the slow movement. Perhaps the pedestrian tours of the nineteenth century provide the earliest examples of the values we now associate with slow travel: avoiding the display of wealth or rank, accepting hospitality locally where it is offered and actively contemplating the minutiae of the landscape free from the prophylactics of speed, screen or elevation (see pedestrianism). Translated to the present day, this might manifest as travel by foot, bus, barge or ferry; slow train possibly (especially if one is engaging with local travellers) or even car, if highways are ignored in favour of back roads. The implied traveller here, of course, is Western and affluent. The ‘sacrifice’ of air travel or high-speed railways could only be a culturally relative choice.
Unlike the slow food movement and participating slow cities, slow travel is not an institution with membership, policy statements and criteria for certification. It does, however, have a manifesto by travel writer Nicky Gardner, which was published in the online magazine Hidden Europe in 2009.