In Le Puy-en-Velay, a town in the spectacular Puy-de-Dôme region of France’s Massif Central, we filled up the little Renault and started to think about finding somewhere to stay. Far away from modern and permissive Paris, and long before Booking.com and Google Maps, we soon got a stern wake-up call when the lady running the little gîte we found wouldn’t let us stay over because we weren’t married.
This slice of rural reality is one of the moments that make up a patchwork of happy memories that, in my mind, is shot by Dennis Hopper at his Easy Rider best. As with the movie, it’s the light I remember most. That French summer we just followed our noses. We rented the Renault from a shady character in the 9th arrondissement of Paris and just pointed our noses south. We had no plan, just a date by which to return and a whole country to explore.
By planning to go nowhere, we went absolutely everywhere. We eschewed the autoroutes and took the slower routes nationales. We took every little side road, followed every green sign for every interesting grotto, every viewpoint, historical curiosity, and unheralded chateau between Paris and Montpellier. In Nîmes, we tramped around the Roman ruins, and on the way we slept in some delightful and disgusting places. And the food — well, we just ate what we found, and what we found was a world away from France’s haute cuisine as imagined by those who don’t know it, but rather excellent local fare steeped in very local traditions. Usually, astonishingly fresh produce was at its heart.
It was one of the best holidays I ever took — I was unencumbered by children and had suitably low standards, as befitted my financial means as a man in his mid-20s. It has stayed with me as a brilliant way to see somewhere.These days, when we travel, there is a great deal more planning. When you’re travelling with four kids, one of whom is still little, you need to be sure that everybody will have something to eat, a wash, and a place to sleep. This does, inevitably, take the adventure out of our family adventures, but you can take a well-planned trip for leisure or work and still benefit from an unplanned mindset.
For years, I’ve been speeding past the green sign on the N1 that indicates where the Sand River Convention was signed between the British Empire and the “Boers north of the Vaal River” in 1852, which acknowledged the freedom of the Boers so long as they did not practise slavery. Then, one day, returning to Cape Town from a family holiday in the Kruger Park, I just pulled in. It’s an unprepossessing spot, but I’m glad I did, because pondering historical British treachery and the treatment of Black people in the Boer republics hadn’t been on my agenda for that day.
A year later, after happening across another green sign, I visited the memorial to the SA War concentration camp at Bethulie, which was as sobering as you might imagine. Last year, I spent a week in Oslo. I was there for work, so my schedule was planned carefully in advance and my diary was pretty crammed for the week of my stay. However, one of the days was a Sunday, and I carefully packed my diary with absolutely nothing at all, apart from one thing — I booked to see A Midnight Sun’s Dream, the Norwegian National Ballet’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed on the roof of the city’s iconic opera house. For me, a fan of ballet, this was just unmissable.
But the rest of the day was a carefully curated expanse of nothing. I hopped on the electric ferry and found a restaurant on an island in the Oslo fjord called Gressholmen Kro, serving simple Oslo café fare in a gorgeous location, with plenty of space for a post-prandial stroll. Later that day I was disappointed to find that the Viking Museum was closed, but the Nobel Peace Centre was open instead, and I loved wandering the streets, exploring the cathedral and the city hall, and taking the tram to visit a colleague on the far side of the small city. For dinner I ate at a place called Skur 33 which, weirdly, turned out to be one of the best Italian restaurants I’d ever eaten at outside of Italy. That night, I had a drink on the roof of the Munch Museum after spending hours immersed in the genius of the country’s most famous artist. I went to bed exhausted, having walked more than 12km.
Now, who knows what I would have done if I’d planned my day. If, as is tempting, I’d asked Google what to do in Oslo, I wonder in all honesty if I’d have had such an arbitrarily wonderful and quirky day. This way of travelling can be applied to a two-week break, a weekend or even an afternoon. The lesson I learnt all those years ago in the middle of France is that, even now, as an adult with highly restrictive responsibilities, failing to plan is sometimes the best plan you’ll ever make — even if it’s just for lunch.
• Alexander Parker is editor-in-chief of Business Day, Business Live, and BDTV
• From the May edition of Wanted, 2023.