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‘But why do they need you to go there?’ asked a friend when we told them we were off to Andalusia for work.

It was a fair question, and one I guess many people think when they hear what part of our job involves. Why send a couple who, in this case anyway, aren’t familiar with an area to research it, record walking route notes across it, and sound out travel arrangements, especially when there are local contacts who know said area extensively?

Being travel guinea pigs

Looking out over the Sierra de Aracena.

The debate about whether visiting travel writers are better placed than writers based in a location when it comes to sharing useful information with visitors is a long-running one. There are pros and cons with both. But this is different. As well as producing a Slow Travel guidebook, we write walking route directions and provide other trip specific information. There’s a skill to this. It must be written in a way that is consistent with guides for other destinations. The locally based experts we occasionally deal with usually aren’t writers, often English isn’t their first language, and they aren’t au fait with what the house style is. They might have the knowledge, but not the experience or skills in turning that knowledge into a useable guide. We do. We also have years of experience of route-finding. Finding your way across an unfamiliar land in a specified and short time period while recording the journey in sufficient detail so others can follow involves a certain level of expertise.

Finding our way through the forest, Sierra de Aracena

Finding our way through the forest.

Added to that, there’s also the key factor of understanding and appreciating the differing abilities of people using the guides we create. Walking routes vary enormously when it comes to difficulty levels. That might be stating the obvious, but the perception of difficulty changes depending on the destination. In the Canary Islands, walking guides would tell us of the problems they encountered with visitors who insisted they could walk 20km a day who didn’t appreciate the challenges of hiking on islands that had sprung up from the sea. I remember one experienced visiting walker having to take two days rest to recover after walking 21km on Tenerife. In the Logar Valley in Slovenia, locals described walks with 1000m ascents as ‘easy.’ To them they were easy because they’d grown up skipping across the hills. To visitors, these routes were challenging. On our recent trip, a detour to a mirador (viewing point) involved ascending 100m over 500m. It’s hardly piton and climbing rope territory, but neither does it fall into lower grade hiking, which is what the routes were supposed to be. Yet it was classed as being relatively easy by our local contact. So, even when routes are mostly meticulously planned before we touch down in an area, there’s constant evaluation and adjustment once we’re in the field.

Logar Valley, Slovenia

Nope, climbing those slopes is not easy walking.

There’s a sense of discovery in mapping out walking routes, many of which are unique because they’re designed for a specific purpose, usually linking small rural hotels. In a week of walking in a stunningly beautiful and lush part of Andalusia, we encountered hardly any other walkers. Apart from a couple from Barcelona, those we did were locals.

Getting around in general can also be a challenge. On a press/blog trip over a decade ago, I experienced a Damascene moment. We were sitting on a coach getting ferried about from attraction to attraction, hotel to hotel, restaurant to restaurant. It suddenly occurred to me it wasn’t much different from coach excursions we’d taken on the various package holidays we’d been on when we were younger. Enjoyable, and with some fabulous experiences, but we were shepherded around, following someone else’s agenda. It wasn’t the way I wanted to have travel experiences. I thought about this recently while sitting on a bus with no air conditioning as we headed west from Seville on a sweltering day hoping the bus’s destination matched ours. The reason for the uncertainty was the departures board in Plaza de Armas bus station doesn’t scroll. It only displays a limited number of listings, so some departures don’t appear until after their departure time has passed. Luckily, we figured this out and checked with officials and passengers until we were reasonably sure the bus we boarded was the correct one (the destination on the bus didn’t match the one on our ticket).

is this a train station, Slovenia

I wasn’t convinced this was a train station in Slovenia.

An added complication was our ticket suggested a direct bus, the driver insisted a change was necessary, which it was, in a small town where there were two buses with the required destination, one which bypassed the town we wanted and one which didn’t. It’s times like these where my OCD comes in handy, double and treble checking information. Even then, it was still a relief when the bus eventually stopped at the off-the-beaten-track town we were staying in. Being able to speak Spanish helped immensely. It would be far more problematic for those who didn’t. It is just another consideration, which is why the guides we are commissioned to write are designed to ease the way for those who use them.

Travelling this way is addictive. It’s unpredictable and often seat of the pants stuff, and the memories it creates are priceless. It’s the way many travellers do it, and why the ‘herded around’ style press trip doesn’t work for me. There’s a real thrill in being travel guinea pigs, an exhilarating sense of achievement at the end of a trip when we have the requisite detailed information to create something that will introduce travellers to a destination that has blown us away.

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Jack Montgomery

Jack is an author, travel writer, photographer, and a Slow Travel consultant who has been writing professionally for twenty years. Follow Jack on Facebook for information about his writing, travel tips, photographs, and tales of life in a tiny rural village in Somerset.

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Welcome to my Canvas

Some of the items on this site won’t be to everyone’s liking, I get that. Basically this is my place, my wee studio to mess around in – experimenting with words and thoughts. I’ll be chuffed if you enjoy it, but if you don’t, c’est la vie. As a friend used to tell me “it would be a boring life if we all thought the same.”

Jack Montgomery
A wine press,
On a farm at the end of the dirt track,
The Setúbal Peninsula,