Years and years ago, I was on a train heading to Rothenburg to update the ultimate medieval town in Germany for my guidebook. I knew the town well and was anticipating a happy homecoming. The cute lanes would be filled with my readers, who cheered me on. I loved going to Rothenburg.
As I was preparing for a connection, I realized the train I was on was heading for Prague. I started comparing the value of spending the next three days in Rothenburg versus doing a groundbreaking research stint in Prague shortly after the end of the Cold War. I stayed on that train and didn't get off until I reached the Golden City of a Hundred Spires. What followed was one of the most exciting and rewarding weeks of guidebook research I can remember.
When I think back on that trip, I'm reminded of the value of tossing the schedule once in a while and living in the moment. There's nothing more liberating than stepping onto a platform, realizing the train on track 6 is going to Hamburg and the train on track 7 is Copenhagen-bound…and you're free to go where the spirit moves you. Or to be tired of the rain in Munich, hop on a train, and a couple hours later be on the other side of the Alps in hot and sunny Italy.
Europe's relatively small size and excellent rail network makes spur-of-the-moment decisions easy. Except for a few popular train routes, you can generally decide where you want to go and get a ticket that day. Once, while working in Cologne, I was feeling really fried. I needed to convalesce, so I hopped on a train. Two hours later, I was in the sleepy Cinderella village of Beilstein, sipping white wine on the tranquil terrace of a hotel, watching happy boats mosey down Germany's Mosel River.
With no agenda, you can blow like the wind freely through Europe. I've made some of my best discoveries by not planning and simply talking to people. Long ago, while traveling in Switzerland, I met two American girls who were studying in Florence. I asked them their favorite place in Italy, and they told me about the Cinque Terre. Curious, I headed south and discovered this humble stretch of Mediterranean coastline. I fell in love and have returned almost every year since. (In fact, similar discoveries that year provided the foundation for my first guidebook, Europe Through the Back Door.)
Just as skiing moguls is more fun when you bend your knees, travel is more fun when you go with the bumps. Make an art out of taking the unexpected in stride, and turn mishaps into adventures: A train strike in France can leave you stranded and angry in Marseille — or it can give you a chance to get to know one of the great cities of the Mediterranean. It depends on your attitude.
I was in Venice when a volcano in Iceland erupted several years ago — grounding most European flights. The city was filled with travelers who were stuck. Some were anxious and upset, and others were resigned to the situation. In my view, being in Venice with Europe's airports shut down is like the art/cuisine/history equivalent of being snowed in at the cabin. I enjoyed reminding the Americans I met that if they made the most of this opportunity, in five years they'd remember the eruption as the reason they had such a great experience in Venice.
Even when everything is going according to plan, don't be afraid to stray from the schedule when opportunities present themselves. If there's a festival in town, join the celebration. If you see locals playing backgammon in a Turkish coffee shop, stop and challenge one to a game.
A few years ago, I was busy filming in the Croatian hill town of Motovun. As I strolled across a square, I heard a men's a cappella choir practicing. After snooping around, I went up a flight of stairs and stared at a closed door separating me from their heavenly singing. I gently pushed the door open just a crack. It was a traditional klapa group consisting of a dozen men sitting in a half-circle with their backs to me. Standing before them was the group's director, a woman with springy hair who looked like a mad, young, female Beethoven. She saw me and ran to the door. At first I thought she was about to shoo me away. But a warm smile came to her face and she invited me in. She pulled up a chair for me, and I was treated to what amounted to a private concert — and a lifelong memory.
Serendipity and a willingness to be spontaneous can add up to the best travels.