Where to go on holiday – and why?

Greece Travel Destination
© Getty 

Going travelling is one of the most exciting pastimes of all. It’s up there with love in terms of the happiness it can bring – though, unlike love, it is generally assumed to be a straightforward process entailing no big theoretical or philosophical issues. To follow the travel pages of magazines, the chief hurdles seem to centre around how to identify good hotels, find things to do after dark and learn the whereabouts of small and authentic restaurants.

But to derive the true benefit of travel, we need to go deeper. We need to make sure that the outer journey aligns with, and reinforces, the inner one. Without anything mystical or woolly being meant by this, all of us are involved on what we can term ‘an inner journey’: an innate dynamic that exists within us to evolve constantly towards a better version of ourselves, to mature towards certain qualities of character that we admire but don’t as yet reliably possess. We may – for example – be on a journey towards greater patience or wisdom, forgiveness or curiosity, playfulness or sensuality.

Before going anywhere near an airport, we should get clearer in our minds where we are on this inner journey and then think very carefully about how we could match the inner destination with a place in the world that would assist us in appropriating it more successfully.

Every location in the outer world contains echoes of qualities that could support some inner journey. From a purely material perspective, these are 200-million-year-old stones in America’s Utah desert:

Utah, Moab, Arches National Park, Delicate Arch
© UIG/Getty

But looked at psychologically, the scene is something else entirely. As an inner destination, it is an emblem of perspective, an aide to a move away from a preoccupation with the petty and the small-minded towards a terrain of greater calm and resilience.

Or, to take another example, this villa exists in the real world, just near Rio de Janeiro. It is a place in the geographical realm:

Niemeyer At 'Casa Das Canoas'
© Time & Life Pictures/Getty

But, it is also somewhere in psychological space. It is a location that speaks of a harmony with nature and of an ease with physical sensuality. This outer destination would be a place to head to if one was, inside, at risk of being disconnected from one’s bodily self; if one needed to be reminded of one’s skin, of the wind, of certain kinds of exposure, even danger, and of sex.

Unfortunately, we generally don’t quite know where we need to go on our inner journey towards psychological evolution – and rush out to destinations that have been foisted on us by the travel industry or some accident of logistics. We say – somewhat casually – that we’d love to see a desert – but we’re often not clear why desert scenes ‘move’ us. Yet to be moved by an image of a destination is, in essence, to recognise a congruence between a place in the world and a destination on our inner map. There is something in the scene we see outside that our inner eye knows we need inside.

Getting ready for a journey should involve working out what the next stages on our inner journey should be – and then taking these rather unformed, destination-free needs to a travel agent in order to find places in the world that could support them. We might also sit with postcards of possible locations and ask ourselves, from a psychological point of view, the only question that matters: ‘What is there here that I might be craving inside?’

Venice: Places To Visit
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An outer answer to an inner puzzle: what is there in the outer world that satisfies something in my inner world?

Currently travel agents see themselves as responsible merely for making it easier to go to where you already know you want to go (or suggesting destinations on the basis of price or last-minute availability). But their calling is at heart much more substantial. The travel agent’s true purpose is as yet unexplored: it should be their job to interrogate where you are on your inner journey and then try to match these needs with places around the globe that can support the evolution you are being unconsciously pulled towards: Travel as therapy.

The idea isn’t new. In Western Europe, the people who have thought most deeply about travel have been the Catholics – through their tradition of pilgrimage. In the Middle Ages, the heyday of pilgrimages, before travelling anywhere, one was expected to make a visit to a priest and submit oneself to a close examination of mind and body. The problem might be a tickly cough or a painful kidney stone, a compulsion to steal or a cycle of unacceptable thoughts about one’s sister-in-law, troubles to which the priest, like a doctor, would respond by formulating a prescription, except that in this case, it would be one drawn from the pages of an atlas rather than from those of a medical dictionary.

Pilgrims who travel to Canterbury (13th century)
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It was Catholicism’s belief that the globe was divided into regions of greater or lesser holiness, determined by the strength of their connections with a deity, and that this holiness had an exceptional power to cure us of diseases, everything from a cancerous liver to a melancholic mind. The places containing the highest and most effective doses of holiness were those where Christ and his family had lived and died, but there were in addition considerable degrees of sanctity to be found in the footsteps of the apostles, as well as in any buildings housing their relics or those of the saints of the church.

Though in theory, God’s medicinal assistance was offered to all believers wherever they happened to be, even at home, in practice the church held that certain intense doses of divine favour were only available in situ.

There were so many places on the pilgrimage map of Europe: believers with a painful tooth were advised to travel to Rome to the Basilica of San Lorenzo, where they would touch the arm bones of St. Apollonia, the patron saint of teeth or, if such a trip were awkward, they might go and find pieces of her jaw in the Jesuit church at Antwerp, some of her hair at St. Augustine’s in Brussels or her toes at disparate sites around Cologne. Unhappily married women were directed to travel to Umbria to touch the shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia, patron saint of marital problems. Soldiers looking to embolden themselves before a battle could commune with the bones of Sainte Foy in a gold-plated reliquary in the abbey-church in Conques in south-west France – while people who worried excessively about lightning could gain relief by travelling to the Jesuit Church in Bad Muenstereifel in Germany and laying hands on the relics of Saint Donatus, believed to offer help against fires and explosions of all kinds.

Pilgrims in the Saint James¥ Way (a medieval pilgrim route stretching from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain)
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Though we no longer believe in the divine power of journeys to cure toothache or gall stones, though most of the problems motivating pilgrimages are now more appropriately addressed by a visit to a clinic, we must still hang on to the idea that certain parts of the world possess a power to address complaints of our psyches and can effect change with a force that would be unavailable to us if we remained at home. There are places that, by virtue of their remoteness, vastness, climate, chaotic energy, haunting melancholy or sheer difference from our homelands can exert a capacity to salve the wounded parts of us. These sites, valuable rather than holy, help us to recover perspective, reorder our ambitions, quell our paranoias and remind us of the interest and obliging unexpectedness of life.

Though we intuit this at a general level, we lack, as yet, a tradition of approaching travel from a properly therapeutic perspective and so of analysing landscapes according to their benefits to our souls. We need to draw up atlases of destinations which can help us to connect the outer journey with the inner one.

At present, we set off neither fully knowing what is wrong with us, nor precisely understanding how our chosen destination could help us – and consequently, too often yawn in front of ancient ruins and return with suppressed, shameful feelings of lassitude and bewilderment.

In the therapeutic travel agencies of the future, someone oppressed by a strong super ego and preoccupied by cleanliness and routine, might be advised to visit French Guiana and participate in the communal dance of the Dionysian, sexually-charged carnival king Vaval, whereas a squabbling couple, both of them younger siblings, could be awed into mutual respect through a well-curated encounter with the glacial landscape of the Norwegian island of Ringvassøya. The list of possible destinations would be as varied as our complaints, there might be prescriptions for ‘pilgrimages’ to the blueberry plantations outside of Malaga and the nuclear power station at Dungeness, to the headquarters of Airbus in Toulouse and to one’s mother’s childhood home in the German town of Wolfenbüttel.

British Government Signs A Deal For New Nuclear Power Plant
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Framed more therapeutically, we’d have a greater sense of what we had come to see by going to the desert or the suburbs of Rio, the canals of Venice or a spot off the M25. We’d be more conscious travellers – on search for distillations of psychological virtues, qualities like ‘calm’ or ‘perspective,’ ‘sensuality’ or ‘rigour’. To embed the lessons of our journeys, we might follow pilgrims in keeping diaries and striving to evolve our characters in the light of the places we had been to. For example, the visitor to Monument Valley wouldn’t just be in it for a bit of a laugh, something to enjoy and then forget two weeks later, travelling to the place would be an occasion fundamentally to reorient their personality. It would be the call-to-arms to become a different person, an 8,000 mile, £3,000 journey that would be properly anchored around a profound piece of character development.

The travel industry should not be allowed to escape the underlying seriousness of the area of life it has been assigned to oversee. We need always to aim for locations in the outer world that can push us towards where we need to go within. We need to relearn how to use travel as a way of maturing and developing in the long-term rather than merely being momentarily entertained and tanned.

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