Getting around by public transportation as a budget minded, independent traveler can be non-linear and inefficient; this is why I love it.
The phrase “you can only get there by car” activates my travel machismo and sends me straight to the internet, since I know there must be a way. An email to a tourist information center, several queries on travel web forums, and a few sweaty rounds with google translate later—-I’ve got it! I’ve found a way, but, well, it’s kind of awkward. What would be a 45 minutes car trip becomes a 20 minute train ride, followed by a 2 1/2 hour layover, followed by a 35 minutes on a bus.
That layover, travel friends, is when you meet your interstitial city. The interstitial city is one you explore purely because of travel variables. (I often structure planned layovers on purpose, to check out a work of art on the way from one overnight stop to another, but that’s another thing entirely). By definition, you have low expectations for a interstitial city, and low expectations are part of the fun.
You will also be low on time, which adds to the challenge. Let’s say you only have 15 minutes. That 15 minutes could be spent dashing across the train station to a bakery, with another dash to the bathroom. 30 minutes? Now you can get a little farther. Given a 30 – 45 minute window, HOB and I will go on a walk, triangulating our upcoming transit departure point with a visual landmark, strictly admonishing each other “We’re only going as far as that red building and no further.” We’ll keep the bus stop/train station in site, set a time limit, and then we’re off like Lewis and Clark into the great unknown. (Invariably one of us will talk the other into going just a wee bit farther, past that “end of the world” red building, and before we know it we’re going over our time limit and have to rush back in a panic, arguing all the way about whose dumb idea that was.)
More time? Research in advance. Print a Wikipedia page for the town and bring it with you. Visit the tourist office’s website before your trip (even the most boring towns will probably have a web presence for tourists). Print out a Google Map with walking directions to what passes for the town’s main site: town hall, cathedral, ruins. Even if the site is bland, you’ll have a destination for your walk.
Tracking down food is one of the best ways to spend your interstitial city layover. Many towns will have specialty product. Burst into the nearest deli or bakery and beg the staff to point the way to their famous cookie, cheese, mustard or whatever. I’ve found this always draws in bystanders, who stand around, nodding in approval, that we have the good sense to try their well-regarded salami or what have you. If at all feasible, eat that specialty food in front of the bystanders and make conversation about it—see? Now you’ve made interstitial friends in your interstitial city.
The holy grail of an interstitial city is an outdoor market. In your pre-trip googling, try to find out the dates and times of the local farmer market. Does your layover coincide? Magic! Visiting a market immerses you in the local culture, and more importantly, loads you up with delectable picnic supplies. See a line of people in front of a vendor with a steam tray? Then run over and get in line yourself. When you’re waiting for your train while bus scooping chunks of hot potatoes crusted with garlic into your greedy mouth (or whatever delicacy they were dishing out) you’ll be glad you did.
Sometimes the best part of an interstitial city is just being there. With no sights you have to see, somehow, you start seeing everything. I’ve peeked into a hair salon in Northern Italy, eavesdropped on a toddler’s conversation in central France, felt sorry for a gasping fish in the plastic bag of a woman shopping in Transylvania. I felt jealous about all the solar panels in Bavaria. I inhaled second hand smoke and bought surprisingly refreshing mineral water in Bosnia.
Most of all, I feel relaxed during the layovers, free from quest for the next life-changing travel experience. Gela, a town in Southern, Sicily, is one of my most memorable interstitial cities. In the middle of a particularly awkward transit route, we were plunked down in this rather unglamorous industrial town. We’d planned to treck over to Gela’s reputable archeological museum, but after arriving we thought, another archeological museum?—meh—and went out for pizza instead. Betcha didn’t know there was bad pizza in Sicily, did you? Well this pizza was a horror show, topped with tinned peas that clearly had been hanging out in a jumbo can in the pizzeria’s refrigerator for many a long, hot Sicilian day. Stomachs churning, we looked about for distraction, and found storefront after storefront of internet gaming. Near the station, mostly to use the cafe’s bathroom, we bought bitter espresso and voided our upset guts into a none-to-clean lidless toilet. Several elderly, chain smoking and endearingly friendly guys broke away from their internet slots to walk around with us, helping us find first the bus ticket office, and then the proprietor of the ticket office who had closed up shop in order to partake of a smoke and lottery ticket scratching break. The escort of still more old men was required to find our “bus”, which turned out to be a van, where we were the only riders. Throughout our trip through Sicily, we gaped in admiration at one overwhelming UNESCO World Heritage designated site after another, but our layover in Gela remains on the most memorable times of our trip.
Sometimes you have to say screw it to travel efficiency, put off the site seeing for an hour or two, and find life (and maybe bad pizza) instead.
Fellow independent travelers, how do you spend your time in an interstitial city?