What could be more picturesque than those lavender fields and bastides—the medieval fortified villages hugging hilltops— of Provence? Cezanne and Van Gogh marveled at the luminous light and the ever-changing purples, vermillion, and ochres. Provence is the stuff of travelers’ dreams, of memoirs of rejuvenation and inspiration.
But on a recent trip through the south of France I started to ask myself—what makes a place “charming”? And why do we seek those places when we travel?
It’s easier to say what charming isn’t: a shopping mall, an industrial park, a highway cloverleaf. Those places serve other purposes than to enchant. It isn’t place that makes you want to rush through and wish you were somewhere else, averting your eyes till you get to the charming place you went on a trip for.
A charming place is, by definition, pleasing to the eye, perhaps through color or landscape or architecture or the welcoming buzz of a village shop. A mountaintop, a vast alpine lake may be awe-inspiring, magnificent, but we wouldn’t call them “charming”. Charming, by contrast, suggests the work of a human hand that seduces us and draws us in.
“I know it when I see it” and I imagine that experience is different for every person. And perhaps sometimes our expectations of a place shape our perception of it—though expectations can just as easily lead to disappointment. And not every traveler is even looking for charm on their travels. Apparently, some people prefer the fake Rome and Paris in Las Vegas to the real ones. And I don’t ignore how my own prejudices of privilege inform my perceptions.
Every traveler seeks her own balance of the new and the familiar when leaving home. Only a few of the most intrepid travelers are likely enjoy a place in which they are unmoored from all that is known. I imagine that while many people travel to see something new, the unfamiliarity must be within bounds so as not to be unsettling. And then the unfamiliarity is soothed by places that are lovely and welcoming with a promise of authenticity.
The south of France is one place among many that offers that balance. Old places seem more likely to have these qualities than new ones. They’ve acquired the patina of age, the allure of a slightly crumbling stone wall that shows the mason’s craft, or a church in which thousands have prayed for centuries. Charming places have a human scale and are as yet unspoiled by the ravages of commerce. The passage of time allows a comfortable coexistence of the natural world and the human world to emerge.
Seeking authenticity in traveling is slippery. It’s hard, as a tourist, to know whether places are real or are set-pieces for the curious traveler. We know that real people in real places all over the world have to shop in supermarkets and malls and big box stores—and yet, as a traveler, I want to take a break from all of that for a while.
I think back on places that have charmed me in my travels, allowed me some unexpected pleasures, or some, as with Provence, that I had anticipated. The floating gardens of Xochimilco, the fragile ecosystem of Mexico City, with its brilliantly painted trajineras, the long wooden boats festooned with flowers which float along the canals.
Faded wooden fishermen’s homes on stilts in Castro, on the island of Chiloe, Chile.
The over-the-top colors of Guatape, Colombia,
the way the town of Cefalú in Sicily seems to hover over the Tyrrhenian Sea,
a hand-wrought guesthouse in Albania.
Since the first time I went to Barcelona, in 1982, or perhaps it dates from the year I spent in Jerusalem in the 1970s, I have been utterly charmed the narrow streets of ancient cities, with their winding passages, stairs that call you to detour upward, markets bursting with wares, grand churches and mosques, buildings still haunted with the remnants of lost communities.
I am still looking to explore and experience that sense of discovery (even if I’m the millionth tourist to have done so!)
What do you look for when you travel? I invite you to comment!