The Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, best known for his fairy tales, once said, “To travel is to live.”
In the 19th century when he was writing, travel was a rare opportunity reserved for only the most adventurous and well-heeled. Andersen came from humble beginnings but the popularity of his books made him able to travel, and travel he did throughout Europe, the Near East and Africa. His experiences helped him to create tales that touched people of various cultures as well as ages.
Travel can be exhausting, frustrating and inconvenient. Then there is the financial commitment that can put leisure travel out of reach for many. And yet, if it can be managed, there is nothing that will enrich the soul more than seeing and learning about new places. There is an Asian proverb that goes something like this, “Better to see something once than hear about it a thousand times.”
My formal education in world history was never great, and life experiences time and again have taught me how little I know about the rest of the world. Travel has helped immensely to fill in the gaps and similarly, it has sparked my curiosity to learn more.
So here are some of the things I learned on a recent trip to the Mediterranean region of Europe.
The Catalans, those who live in northeastern Spain where Barcelona is the largest city, speak a different language from the rest of the nation and many want to create their own independent country.
Croatia is a spectacularly beautiful place with towns that date to Roman times. Cities nearly destroyed in the Bosnian war of the 1980s are now rebuilding thanks largely to tourist dollars.
Pompeii is known as the town frozen in time when the volcano Vesuvius erupted near Naples, Italy, in the first century A.D., burying it in ash and molten rock. At the same time, there was another lesser-known town, Herculaneum, closer to the sea that succumbed to superheated mud, killing the some 4,000 residents in a matter of seconds and preserving elaborate tiled floors and frescoes. Its existence was discovered in 1707, several years before a surveyor learned of the location of Pompeii.
In Corfu, Greece, we were part of the Oct. 28 celebration that marks the day in 1940 when Greek leaders told Mussolini they had no intention of being overtaken by Italy as World War II began. This resistance, which eventually cost some 400,000 Greek lives, was one more nail in Hitler’s coffin. We had the pleasure of enjoying lunch at a sidewalk cafe as marching bands passed by and families picnicked near the sea.
Venice, we learned, was established on swampland by Roman citizens who took refuge when Attila the Hun invaded the mainland in the 5th century A.D. These innovative people learned to adapt to their new situation and built their city into a major trading location between Europe and the Far East. The famous St. Mark’s Square is named for the patron saint whose bones were smuggled out of Egypt to add legitimacy to their brand of Roman Catholicism.
Uniformly, what I learned about the places we visited is that the residents are intensely proud of their county and eager to share it with visitors. Almost everywhere, English is understood and spoken easily. The accents may be unfamiliar but it is good to remember that to them, we have accents, too.
For those schooled in ancient history, none of this may be new. But being there, seeing where people have lived, overcome adversity and thrived over the centuries was enlightening. Nearly everywhere we went we heard of the hardships — the wars, the despotic leaders who killed indiscriminately, the plagues that decimated the population and the natural disasters, including earthquakes, floods and the like.
Then there was the evidence of what the poet Robert Burns called man’s inhumanity to man. The enslavement of groups of people seen as of lesser value, the wars that eliminated populations in the name of God, the caste system that relegated certain people by heritage to a meager existence. Some things don’t change.
And yet, people go on; they farm the land, build cities, nurture families. They create examples of beautiful art, produce music and literary works that last through the centuries. They preserve places of great beauty and believe in a future that is better than today.
Travel to foreign lands is an exhilarating experience. It reinforces the magnificence of the human race and the commonality of our existence. It would be well to follow the advice of Confucius: “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”
Kathy Silverberg is former publisher of the Herald-Tribune’s southern editions. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @kdsilver.