March 31, 2014

Traveling: With Reservations ... or Not?

In Without Reservations, Alice Steinbach wrote “I have no agenda, here I can fall into whatever rhythm presents itself."

Sometime during my early 50s, I  decided that if I couldn't travel, I could at least become an extraordinarily well-read armchair traveler. Couldn't travel? You know, the usual suspects: no time, when time no money, but most often neither time nor money.  Having always been a reader, armchair travel was a satisfying, achievable goal. Before too long I focused (not at all exclusively) on women travelling, and discovered Alice Steinbach. A journalist at the Baltimore Sun, her two books are totally engaging and enjoyable. Perhaps, if the reader is in the proper frame of mind as I was, inspirational even.

So, as I pondered this post, the second about the process of planning a tour, I took her book off the shelf, then googled Steinbach, hoping to discover something written more recently. Sadly, the news I found was that she had died two years ago, in March 2012. I thought she was younger than me, though I have no idea why, and was surprised to learn that she was 78.  Older or younger, I am at an age when death no longer surprises. It is a shame that there are no more of her books to discover, and I whole-heartedly recommend both Without Reservations and Educating Alice.

Travel. Planning a bike tour. The question at hand is: without, or with, reservations?  In a recent post I mentioned that Paris-Nice could be a challenging theme for my 2014 tour, and likely fun. The mileage, even incorporating some sideways explorations and col (mountain pass) chasing, is workable if I am able to arrange enough days away from my life here. Questions quickly arise: camp, or chambres d'hôte, hotels? If not camping, reserve rooms, or travel day by day? Those two answers determine a great deal about the experience of any trip.

With reservations: the risk of misjudging difficulty, and either of too short days, arriving early in the day at my destination with miles and miles of riding left in my legs ... or forced into grueling slogs, possibly in miserable weather, with too much climbing. The probability of needing to move on just when getting to know a place.

On the other hand, without reservations: the risk of missing out on wonderful people at delightful table d'hotes that are full, needing instead to stay at characterless, often more expensive lodging. If camping, arriving at a campground to find it closed. Odd in France, we think, but the risk when camping of arriving in villages with neither restaurants nor food stores at the end of the ride, going to sleep and beginning the next day hungry.

The freedom promised by traveling without reservations is so very alluring. Particularly enjoy an area? Stay longer to explore. Meet engaging people with great ideas? Remain a while longer to visit. A fabulous concert, by a favorite band, or art exhibit, or festival coming up? Don't leave quite yet. A different, more beautiful route recommended? Just take it.

But equally, there is something compelling, focused and perhaps energetic about a route, an itinerary, a here to there. Moving along purposefully with a goal. One place to another. I admit to being more than a little goal oriented. Meaningfully or not, it gives purpose and direction to the structure of my days. I like not having to decide each day what to do, but rather staying with the program. Something about having a fixed schedule, knowing where I will be sleeping, seems to open the space in my head to more completely immerse myself into the day itself. There are always surprises, unexpected events, minor route alterations along the way.

No reservations. That footloose, no expectations, not over-planned aspect has great appeal. I mean, that's what travel is really about, isn't it? At least that's what a lot of travelers say. No deadlines, no expectations, no itinerary. Perhaps a romantic appeal.

But I'm me. I do have something of an agenda, a general route, travel by bike. I do have to make a plane back to my life here, and that plane will have a very specific, non-negotiable departure date. My family, coworkers and friends here deserve and expect to have me back on time. But the French trains, you suggest, couldn't you always catch up on your schedule by using them?

True enough. I am remembering my 2009 trip with my husband, when we thought just that. My French was truly, truly minimal and terrible. But enough to call ahead, day by day, to make room reservations based on a rough schedule. I learned that so very many places were full. I learned the phrase, "Desolée madame, nous sommes complet" by heart.

I promise, lodgings in rural areas that would be described as inexpensive, charming, historic, and clean as a whistle, fill up way ahead of time.Most particularly  those serving dinner. My mental image is so clear: it was 2012, after a 45-mile, mountainous  ride and a shower, sitting  on the patio, chatting with a couple from Paris, enjoying a glass of wine and the view. Seeing riders on loaded bikes inquire at the front desk, leave, stop again, inquire across the street at the only other hotel. Then leave town and continue along the road presumably to the next town, about 15 miles away. I appreciated my reservation.

In 2010, remembering our 2009 experience with limited lodging availability, I took a tent and sleeping bag, solo, planning to enjoy the freedom of camping.  Inexpensive lodging pretty much guaranteed. The opportunity to meet like-minded people in campgrounds. That might be true in August. Or July. What I often found in early June was closed or empty campgrounds. On the other hand, that same trip there was  the night my campground was located on a farm (there is a program in France of camping on farms) where there were perhaps 25 sites. Three of those sites were occupied: mine, the German couple who invited me for dinner and the couple from Perpignan who invited me to breakfast. It was such fun.

Thirty-some years ago, a dear friend said to me "Suze, you are the only person I know who thinks it's fun to walk uphill carrying heavy objects." That about backpacking in the northern Rockies. Now, thirty-some years later, I don't think it's fun at all riding uphill, carrying heavy panniers, to high cols in the rain, fog, or worse snow. If my booked reservations are in that high town, or over that pass, I will have to slog through it. The flexibility then that comes with no reservations can be game-changing. Snow, fog, heavy rain in the high Alps in late September or October? No reservations? Don't climb that pass, ride around, follow more closely a typical Paris-Nice race route, which of course doesn't traverse the high Alps. That race is in March, the roads are snowy.

2014. More miles this time than the last two trips. Some possible high altitudes in the Alps. Perhaps later in the season. The question remains ... with, or without, reservations?

How do you tour?