Header image courtesy of Photoholgic (via Unsplash)
As the world ground to a halt under the clutches of the coronavirus pandemic, people have been left to the devices of their own thoughts to contemplate all that was being taken for granted. Even more pressing was the need to reconsider sectors that were thrown into shutdown mode, with the tourism industry being one of the hardest hit.
Human resilience persevered, and alternative modes to taking our usual trips took shape. Retreats were swapped out for staycations. Airbnbs and hotels began to offer more long-term stays for those seeking to evacuate from crowded cities to less densely packed locations. Disruptions to trade meant stocking up our pantries with local varieties instead of imports. Many of these solutions have been lauded as “novel” ingenuities to our predicament, but as a matter of fact, it can be said that we are in actuality slowly moving towards a worldwide campaign that has already been two decades in the making. Many characteristics of travel during coronavirus times point us to cittaslow tourism.
Verdant vineyards are cascading towards the edges of the earth, birdsong is ringing loudly through the area, and the sun is at its height in the sky. Framing the scene is a pair of stone arches on the terrace balcony of a centuries-old townhome in Greve-in-Chianti, Tuscany, a quaint Italian town that birthed the phenomenon of cittaslow.
Literally translating to “slow cities,” the movement propagates sustainable and mindful tourism. As a direct offshoot of the slow food concept, cittaslow embraces the values of slow-living within the context of travel. It was first introduced in 1999 via the collaborative efforts between the mayors of Italian towns—Orvieto, Postiano, Bra, and Greve-in-Chianti—establishing an official association of municipalities who were willing to participate.
Cittaslow comes amidst overarching goals that incorporate great consideration for the quality of life for local residents as well, an aspect often missed in conventional ventures into tourism development. Members of this growing international network consider progress—as a motivation—inseparable from equity and engagement with the community. Rather than aspiring to become a world-class finance and technology hub or adhering to commercial ambitions, cittaslow reframes progress as a return to simplicity. In its introductory brochure, it proclaims to be a reactionary “vaccine” against the ills of “turbo-charged speculative and unsustainable development.”
As a membership-based organisation, regional councils and groups have to apply for certification. Cittaslow presents 72 objectives under the areas of environmental policies, infrastructure, quality of life, agriculture, hospitality training, social cohesion, as well as partnerships with other associations, that members must introduce into their policies. Once proven eligible by way of self-assessment, participants pay an annual fee and pledge to ensure that they are able to stand by the proposed standards of conviviality and conservation.
Successful candidates are segregated into one of three different categories—Cittaslow Town (places with a population under 50,000), Cittaslow Supporter (places with a population over 50,000), or Cittaslow Friend (individuals, families, and groups). So far, most members of the association are based in Western and Northern Europe, and several countries in Latin America and Asia have joined more recently.
Programmes fall under a broad variety of themes, with projects ranging from art showcases, flea markets, craft classes, and performances all the way to recycling plans. You could be starting out your day learning how to cook a traditional breakfast with a community-led session, then end up cycling past rows of flowerbeds grown by local schoolchildren as part of your late afternoon exploration. A cittaslow itinerary means to have no itinerary.
Ostensibly, cittaslow could be seen as a counteraction to over-tourism and homogenised globalisation. A major benefit of cittaslow-style travel is the chance to become privy to local life and to form an authentic connection to very real places and very real people. Protecting culture is beneficial to sparking opportunities for engagement beyond a performative or superficial scope. No more making flashy spectacles of cultural curiosities in a bid to profit off of tour groups and oblivious foreigners. For the locals, it cultivates the need for preservation and to pass down customs and rich heritage to future generations to cherish. A localisation of tourism allows distinct practices and cultures to thrive. From a visitor’s point of view, it is much more refreshing to come into contact with deeply significant and one-of-a-kind journeys that cannot be found anywhere else.
Montefalco in Umbria serves as a prime case. It banned cars in the town centre and imposed stringent regulations on any sort of structural alteration (no matter how minuscule) in the name of conserving the postcard-perfect set-up of the town. Fines are doled out if you paint over your window boxes, and there is not a single supermarket in sight.
The dampened conveniences are substituted for by families from the neighbourhood, who happily frequent the local butchers and dust off their sun-worn wooden doors. It seems the gains of a tranquil lifestyle are much greater than the snazzy comforts most could not imagine existing without. For a slow city to bring its gears to a leisurely trudge, the local community has to be willing to cooperate as well.
Think of your journey as a blank page. Resist the urge to hit all the must-see sites simply for a social media story. Cittaslow is the opposite of a hectic collecting of checkpoints on a rigid list of conquests. Take a look at these pointers for some inspiration, but don’t fret if you end up choosing none of these options.
Transit: By cutting out air travel as an option, many of those who venture out to cittaslow destinations can travel by bike, on a road trip, or even by train. Consider the transit process as an experience rather than as a liminal nuisance between point A to point B—this will also help to add another layer to your trip as a whole. Slow it down and connect with the landscape around you as you let your eyes graze across the sights.
Accommodation: Instead of staying at an impersonal hotel, opt for a local homestay. Even better if your hosts are present, as they can provide you with insider secrets to the neighbourhood that you will not find in a typical guidebook. You may even wind up with an invitation to local gatherings that are not normally open to newcomers.
Eating: Delighting in gastronomy does not have to be expensive and fancy. By opting for regionally produced or traditional specialities, you can expand your palate and sample combinations of ingredients you would never have thought to do so. If your temporary home is equipped with sufficient and safe-to-use facilities, you could even try cooking an easy meal. Why not take inspiration from the local vendors?
Activities: Give yourself the freedom to relax, reflect, or explore without bounds. The “slow” is concerned with reminding you to be mindful rather than dictating the literal speed or passage of time you dedicate to your journey.
Souvenirs: Like a loveable guest, it is always best to show gratitude to your host in the form of giving back. When shopping, see if you can opt for small or independent local businesses. You can think of how your spending can give back to the community that has welcomed you into its sphere.
All in all, there is no singular one-size-fits-all rulebook for slow travelling. The potential is there, so long as you keep your mind open and adaptable. Something unexpectedly amazing could be waiting just around the corner of every street or alley. Opting for the more sustainable choice is another factor at the heart of the movement, meaning it is important for you to consider the environmental impacts of your activities as well.
There are also many possibilities for this model of slowness to be integrated into city living. Although on paper, the initiative is geared towards smaller places with a smaller population, the cittaslow attitude can be applied to the lives and conduct of urbanites as well. It may seem like a tired prompt at this point, but becoming a tourist in your own city, when practised in tandem with the principles of cittaslow travel, can draw out some new perspectives. Start from your immediate circle, and maybe you will find the unexpected among what you think you already know.
No matter where you are, the fundamental philosophy of cittaslow can apply. Take your time to wander aimlessly. Relax and let your natural sense of pace and rhythm guide you. Immerse yourself and connect with permanent residents and fixtures. By acting as if you are right at home, you will encounter so many things that may have slipped through the cracks of your attention otherwise.
Above all, take a moment to yourself to absorb all that lies right in front of you. So many of us find ourselves caught up in trying to stage the most perfect shot that can be used to rake in the numbers on Instagram or for showing off to our home-bound friends, viewing our surroundings through a removed lens—both literal and metaphorical— and letting it slip through our minds before moving on to the next attraction.
Of course, it’s always wonderful to have something perceptible or tangible as a vessel through which we can look back to our travel experiences, but even more surreal is the intangible yet permanent memory of being wholeheartedly there, imprinted into every fibre of our being, always.