The first rule of travel, part two

Our correspondant expands on rule number one, “you never can do it all,” in this ongoing series

Photo: alice / Flickr The palace and bell tower of the Bargello in Florence, as seen from the terrace of the Hotel Medici. So what if you can only ever see a small portion of what’s out there? Tiny slices of excellence are still excellent.

Photo: alice / Flickr
The palace and bell tower of the Bargello in Florence, as seen from the terrace of the Hotel Medici. So what if you can only ever see a small portion of what’s out there? Tiny slices of excellence are still excellent.

Donald V. Mehus
New York

A visit to the great and vast art museum of Paris, the Louvre, marked the finale of the beginning of my recent NAW article on the first of several “Rules of Travel.” The rule—and the Louvre, what an appropriate place to introduce this rule—is “You never can do it all!” One wonders how thoroughly even the director and the curators of this celebrated institution have studied—or even seen—this huge cornucopia of its art treasures and historic artifacts, extending world-wide from time immemorial to the present day.

These rules, as we will see as the series progresses and as experience has shown, appear to be applicable for all tourists at all times at all places. These “rules,” I gradually discovered while cris-crossing Europe and America many different times in many different circumstances.

The rules, as I found, greatly enhanced my travels, enabling me more readily to take better advantage of the pleasures, both expected and unexpected, that came my way. At the same time I could better take in stride any problems (and they sure come along unbidden on one’s travels) that pop up along the route. Other tourists with whom I have shared the rules seemed to profit from them as well, and I am happy to pass these tips along to our readers as well.

The First Rule of Travel
The very first rule, which I am sure any tourist can confirm from experience, is that no matter how much you study and plan ahead, as stated above, is that “You never can do it all!” So it’s best to just relax, don’t overdo it, and enjoy what you can do.

“The Big Three of the Louvre”
Before we leave the Louvre, let us recap “The Big Three” of this mighty institution. It seems every tourist has somehow learned that above all these must be seen, even if you miss any the other treasures there.

They are: 1) Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa portrait, dominating a huge painting gallery; 2) the statue of Winged Victory (Victoire de Samothrace), standing in winged, headless majesty atop a broad flight of stairs; and 3) the serene, armless statue of the classic Venus di Milo. By all means, be sure to ferret these out, even though they are housed in widely separated parts of the huge edifice. Otherwise you’re bound to regret your loss!

When visiting the Louvre that day, I had actually planned to travel south that afternoon by train, but I found the Louvre so arresting that I spent the rest of the day there, and then the evening strolling along and dining on the grandest of all city thoroughfares, the Champs-Elysees. So even if I put that train trip south on hold, there can definitely be advantages in not trying to do it all!

The Other Side of the Coin
There is, however, another side of the coin, so to speak. Sometime ago, for example, when I was studying at the University of Oslo, two of my cousins from Seattle, Alma and Kenneth Meisnest, came over for a visit to the Old Country. Knowing Oslo quite well by then, I outlined, at their suggestion, a comprehensive itinerary of the Norwegian capital that I thought could keep the couple busy for several days at least.

The Highlights of Oslo
The suggested tour opened with the central part of Oslo: National Theater with the statues of the great Norwegian dramatists out front; the Old University of Oslo across the main thoroughfare of Karl Johans Gate; the Royal Palace nearby up the hill; Stortinget (Parliament) facing the National Theater; the Cathedral; Rådhus (City Hall); Akershus on Oslofjord; et al.

And so out to Bygdøy with its museums and historic ships—original Viking ships unearthed from their centuries-old burial sites; Thor Heyerdahl’s ocean-going craft, Kon-Tiki; the polar ship Fram; the Folkemuseum featuring traditional Norwegian buildings, furniture, handiwork, and implements. And so back to Frogner Park with its Vigeland sculptures, and on up to Holmenkollen and the Olympic ski jump, and more.

When we met the next evening, I learned to my surprise that my cousins had taken in a great deal, in a single day, of the itinerary I had outlined! How was that possible? Their secret? They had hired a car and driver, and he had taken them to many of the major sights of the Norwegian capital!

Obviously, Alma and Kenneth hadn’t been able to see many of the sights with any degree of thoroughness, but at least they did get a good overview of the city. And with whatever time they still had at their disposal, they could go back and revisit certain places with greater care. Excellent idea.

The Plus Side
Now, as much as you may regret not being able to see all you’d like, there is at least one distinct advantage to this. You will have an excellent excuse for returning another time to the particular place. It may sound a little less self-indulgent if you explain that you have to return to a particular site in order to catch something important that you missed before, rather than if you say you’re going back to a favorite city just because you like it. If your friends won’t buy that, at least it’s a nice rationalization for yourself.

One person I know had been to Rome a number of times, and somehow just couldn’t manage to visit the wonderful Capitoline Museum, the repository of classic Roman antiquities, including the poignant sculpture of The Dying Gaul overlooking the ancient Foro Romano. The second time, alas, the museum was closed. The third time he was waylaid by a group of interesting tourists who had other plans that he could not resist. And so it went. Don’t know if he ever did get to the Capitoline, but he sure had a good time trying! You live and learn.

To See or Not to See
I think the great value of Rule Number One really sank in when I met a group of congenial English tourists one time in Florence, a magnificent year-round tourist center for every art aficionado. On my first swing around Europe, I was always racing madly about, trying to take in everything of importance possible in each city I visited. A noble ideal, perhaps, but the pursuit is hopeless. (On subsequent visits to Europe, I compensated by spending a great deal of my time sitting at sidewalk cafes, watching the world go by me, letting them do all the running around for a change! A word to the wise.)

On this particular occasion while in Florence, I took a bus one afternoon up to Fiesole, the beautiful Tuscan town, perched high up on the hills overlooking the fountain of the Renaissance. The picturesque Fiesole is the site of Bocaccio’s masterful hundred-story collection entitled The Decameron. (The first story is particularly remarkable. Do read this, if nothing else in the book!)

Located in Fiesole are several noteworthy sights: the church, a Roman theater, a museum. While contemplating the ruins of the theater, I chanced to mention to a fellow tourist that I planned to visit the museum next. “Oh, that’s closed,” she said. “Good!” I replied firmly, rather surprised at how relieved I felt to be able, in good conscience, to cross that off my to-do list. (I was tired that day, anyway.)

“I see that you’re getting that way, too,” my new friend laughed. Yes, you can only do just so much. So it’s best to take it easy at times.

The Right Idea
The group I met the next day in Florence, four English men and women, had an even more leisurely approach to sightseeing. They would take their time wandering about a church or a gallery, then every couple hours of so sit down at a cafe for refreshments and discuss their next foray.

But one of the girls, Cynthia, hadn’t quite yet got the hang of it yet. She had planned to attend a concert that evening in the Boboli Gardens of the Pitti Palace (the great sister art gallery to Florence’s magnificent Uffizi) across the Arno River via the historic shop-lined Ponte Vecchio. As twilight—and concert time—approached that fine summer evening, we happened to be far from the site of the concert. In fact, we were at Piazza Michelangelo, with its splendid view across the Arno of the fabled city of Florence, or as the Italians more mellifluously call it, Firenze. Somewhat annoyed, Cynthia asked, “Oh, what time is it now? Where’s the bus stop? When does it leave? I can’t be late to the concert!”

“Oh, No, That’s All Wrong!”
Her friend and traveling companion, Sarah, who was perhaps a bit too dramatic at times, drew herself up in full dignity and intoned, in a manner reminiscent of the celebrated operatic soprano Maria Callas in the person of Clytemnestra announcing the fall of Troy three thousand years ago: “Oh, no, Cynthia, that’s all wrong! You’re on vacation. You don’t ask what time it is, where we are, when the bus leaves. Oh, no, that’s all wrong!” After a slight struggle, poor Cynthia caved in, and later on we all had a delightful supper together. But no concert.

All in all, I found the group I had joined in Florence did manage to cover much ground in a relaxed sort of way—and had a great time doing so. If they couldn’t take in everything they would like to have done, yet they still did thoroughly enjoy what they did do. This genial English group seemed to instinctively understand, to appreciate, and to casually act upon the very first rule of travel, “You Never Can Do It All!”

The second rule of travel, a complement of Rule No. 1 and no less important, I think, as well as other rules, all equally applicable no matter where one is, will be discussed later in forthcoming installments of “The Rules of Travel.”

In the meantime, best wishes for a good trip, and bon voyage!

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 5, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.