Travel and the sense of time – with Baedeker in Italy

When we travel, something happens with our sense of time.

We can travel fast, and stay for a long time when we get to where we’re heading. We can choose to travel slow, but stay only for a short time at the goal for our journey. My last slow/fast journey was to Ghent, and I travelled for two and a half days to spend an afternoon in Belgium. Yet, the experiences of that afternoon and evening were so dense and manifold (curry! shopping! mustard! coffee! workshop! thunder! tram! dinner! nightwalk!) that it felt like several days. I have often found that only a few days in a far-away place make the sense of here and now so accentuated that time ceases to exist, or exists more intensely than ever, like a lamp that does not go out, or like an eye that never closes.

Yet, at the very moment of travelling, during the very movement of travelling, time ceases to exist too, but in a different way. As soon as a journey starts, we enter into a certain mode, be it when we pass the security control at the airport, or board a train, bus or boat. We are on our way, and that means that we are put on hold, the world stops while our vehicle keeps moving, the sceneries are whirling by outside the window in a frozen moment that constantly repeats itself and renews itself, but we can never stop this paradoxically changing still-life until the train stops, the airplane touches ground and the world stops moving as we take our first steps into a new world. And then we are the movers. The clock starts ticking again, and the present starts to produce ”now”, ”now”, ”now”. Here we are. The arrival. Now.

We have to succumb to the circumstances of travelling, since it is so restricting. You cannot get up from your flight chair, at least not too often. There’s not much space in a train either, especially when it is fully-booked and crammed with luggage. A detour now and then to the restaurant wagon, to the toilet, but basically spending a considerable amount of time sitting still in a blue chair staring at the back of the next blue chair where someone sits staring into the next blue chair. This requires immense patience, and our weapons are either amusements in the form of imagination, books and internet, or simply dull endurance. Many use a journey as relaxation, sleeping or just vegetating away in a half-awake state, waiting, abiding. Long-haul flights call for casual, even pyjama-like clothing. But travelling can also be perfect for working. Finally finishing that conference paper on the flight there, because suddenly, in that gap of non-existing time, you can (and must) do it. Noone knocks on your office door; they might call, but at least they can’t reach you by e-mail unless you happen to have access to wifi.

Travelling even mixes the elements up. You are in mid-air, perhaps even above water. You are on the ground, but sweeping forth like the airy wind. You must cross a channel or a strait on the watery waves. In case of lightning, you are safe whether in a car, a train or a plane. The rain can’t touch you, but some jet streams may shake your balance high above the earthly clouds. The altitude confuses your taste buds and makes you more sensitive to alcohol. The gentle rocking of the train or the boat makes you dizzy or nauseous. No wonder we lose our sense of time completely.

What about the time at our destination, then? Caught in the now, now, now of the sometimes successful, sometimes less lucky fulfilment of our aims, be it leisure or duty. How are we going to handle time during our stay, to make it last as long as possible and to make the most out of the hours we’ve got, without overdoing ourselves or getting caught up by Stress, the frightful vengeance goddess flying even faster than the Fama or the Erinnyes of antiquity.


In fact, as usual when it comes to travelling, our reliable Baedeker guidebook has the recipy for us. In the editions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it is clearly specified how much time the traveller will need in order to experience the chosen land or city in an adequate way. In the guide to Italy, Rome is the indisputable queen with as much as two weeks recommended as an absolute minimum for the stay. The other cities on the route to Rome (because at this point of time, you had to travel on the ground and thus widen your scope for intermediate stops) are worthy of a little sightseeing, too, but not by far as much. Poor Pisa gets half a day, Florence at least a couple of days.

The idea of travelling slowly through Italy is, of course, a product of the Grand Tour-era, though on a much smaller scale than the season- or year-long journeys of the 17th and 18th centuries. And the one thing that stands out in the Baedeker schedule compared with the practice of today is Naples. Because the journey did not end in Rome, if you thought that you were done there. No, after Rome, you were supposed to continue to Naples, and to stay there for ten whole days. So when Rome tourists today may do a day trip to see Pompeii, the Baedeker traveller still had to enact the Grand Naples Tour. Here, after the seriousness of the Rome visit – as literary historian Chloe Chard has described it – with demanding history lessons and challenging art masterpieces, in Naples one would simply give in to the senses, to the beauty of nature, to the dolce-far-niente of the locals, to the intoxicating wine, to the ripe fruits, and to the raw force of nature on the top of mount Vesuvius. And of course, there were art collections and archaeological museums to tick off in Naples, too.

Vesuvius seen from the ferry to Capri. There is just no way to describe this sight, less so to depict it. It is larger than anything, larger than life.

I am thinking about all this while on my way to Capri and San Michele, the Swedish cultural institute in the villa formerly owned by the eccentric doctor Axel Munthe. The villa is nowadays included in the sights to see at the short day-trips to the island that most visitors choose, probably because Capri is one of the most expensive locations in Italy. In the 1926 Baedeker, Villa San Michele was not yet a tourist attraction (Munthe published his ”The Story of San Michele” in 1929, which immediately gained great success and contributed to a boom of Capri tourism). Baedeker recommends two days for seeing Capri; the many Roman remains, for example from the time of emperor Tiberius, get little attention – instead, what to see in Capri is nature itself. The Baedeker delivers a star to three sights in total: the Grotta Azzurra, of course; the view over the Faraglioni rocks from Punta Tragara (with café), and the view from Monte Solaro, the highest peak on the island. At the visit to the Grotta Azzurra, a fisher boy is said to readily take a bath in the water for a small coin in order to show the phenomenon that bodies, out of optical magic, get all mermaid-silvery beneath the water; otherwise, Baedeker informs, you can try it with your own arm.

Capri from a distance. Monte Solaro is the highest peak to the right; the Blue Grotto is at sea level far right.

Capri from a distance. Monte Solaro is the highest peak to the right; the Blue Grotto is at sea level far right.

On my last visit to Capri, I did not see the Grotta Azzurra, partly from my fear of claustrophobia (the height of the entrance to the cave is only one meter above water level) and partly from a temporary anti-guidebook-mood – this time, however, I am determined to see it, as well as the views from Monte Solaro and Punta Tragara. To be a tourist is to have duties. And I am interested in seeing whether there still is a fisher boy diving for money, as ninety years ago, or of I will have to put my own arm into the water.




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