The Pinacoteca suffers of a common local failing: what is Sienese, and particularly painting, is good. Not so; not all of it is worth scrupulous examining except by experts or certain tourists who like to check off title and painter in catalogues without necessarily looking at the paintings. Its repetitions are difficult to handle, particularly by the conscientious traveler who feels guilty if he doesn't see everything in a museum . . . on the other hand, moving slowly and looking closely, if one has the time, temperament and interest for it, reveal significant differences: the repetition becomes less insistent and begins to fade, the small masterpiece in a hidden corner reveals itself.
-- Kate Simon,
"Italy: The Places In Between."
Traveling intelligently -- to visit a place and come to know it, as if you had lived there a long time -- is something of a learned skill. You may acquire it by trial and error, but a surer way is to heed the advice of seasoned travelers, such as Kate Simon.
For much of her life, Simon has felt the restlessness of the born traveler, always looking ahead to some place she has not yet seen. Her journeys have produced countless articles and books such as "Kate Simon's Paris," "Kate Simon's London," "Mexico: Places and Pleasures" and "Italy: The Places In Between."
She is a sensitive observer of art and architecture, but also of the commonplace. She delights in learning, for example, what kind of sandwiches the family in the seat across the aisle of her train is eating. In an interview with Washington Post staff writer James T. Yenckel, she describes how she goes about getting to know a new place. It is a lesson in the benefits of traveling with an open and inquiring mind. Like Simon, you may -- as she puts it -- become "besotted" by some special place you chance upon.
Q A book reviewer once called you the "grande dame of travel writers." What it your definition is a travel writer?
A A travel writer is a person with enormous curiosity and profound built-in restlessness -- and a capacity for being enormously attached to places that are home which are not home. Or one who is searching, searching, searching for that place which may feel like home.
Also, a good travel writer is, I think, somebody who has done reading, studying, whatever you like, in enough fields to be well informed -- a well-informed amateur in many areas: art, archeology, sociology, city planning. Anything that hits the eye and ear should be enhanced by some information gathered prior to this one particular voyage.
There are other attributes, but these, I think, are the essential ones. And a confidence to express opinions which may not be popular, either on the side of the good or the side of the bad -- an independence of thought, let's say.
Q When you are writing your travel books, what sort of information -- what guidance -- are you trying to bring to your readers?
A I'm bringing, if I can, the most vivid, lively portrait -- word music -- of a place. How it feels, how it looks, how one reacts to it or should react to it.
Q How much traveling have you done? Are you well traveled?
A I'm not as well traveled as I'd like. I'm never as well traveled as I'd like. But compared to most people, I'm fairly well traveled. I lived abroad for 10 or 12 years.
A I lived in England, and for a long concentration in London. I lived in many cities in Italy with a long, long period in Rome. I lived a lot at various times and in various places in Mexico. I spent a year in Paris.
Q These years have produced books each time.
A Each time. Each book was a kind of a graduate course of study in each city or country.
Q You spoke recently at a Smithsonian Associates program about Italy and "the places in between." Why the places in between?
A What I found very interesting, and not enough people knew, were the small Italian cities, which are easier to encompass and very often more indigenously Italian. Like Puglia, which many Italians don't go to or know. Or the little abbey towns.
Q Many people are content to go to the beach, the same beach, every year, and other people rarely repeat themselves. Why are you a traveler? What's in your background that made you restless?
A Oh, I think I began to be a travel writer as an immigrant child who had to learn a lot of new ways, new words, new people.
Q Where were you born?
A In Warsaw. It was a long trip to New York. And I learned, and because I wished to, I observed a great deal. And memorized a great deal.And that, I think, is the beginning of a possible travel writer. And a restlessness. I would stand on the edge of the street on the corner, inspecting people and eavesdropping on people. All those things that a travel writer does.
Q Once you advised your readers to "relax -- know what you like and let the rest go . . . If you're tired of Etruscan tombs, skip the museum and have an ice cream in the nearest cafe, where you can watch today walk by." That seems such sensible advice.
A And not too many people take it.
Q Do you take it?
A Oh, I take it. I'm very lucky. My trips were subsidized by publishers. And they were combinations of trips and living in. So that I had the advantage of making choices like that.
I do think that, generally, people ought to go better informed, because a place is meaningless very often unless you know who was there and what happened to it. Like in Puglia, you meet the great Frederick II, who was king of the Two Sicilies, which included Puglia, and he traveled with a zoo, with a library. And this was 1225. And a harem.
Q How do you prepare for a trip?
A Not with a harem. I read a good deal. I read history, but not to a degree that is paralyzing. I read about the people who were important in the area. Like, which was the family that produced a town or village or the art of a town or village.For instance, Urbino has a fabulous castle that was built by a very enlightened Renaissance prince. This gives me a solid knowledge of the rocks on which this place stands. I read about the art I might expect to see.
Q What are you looking for when you travel? What sparks your interest?
A I'm looking for new worlds, a life I haven't known before. They might be enchanting little surprises like the fact that the Etruscans made awfully good, small, delicate false teeth long before we were able to cope with the problem. To go to the small meseum in London and see, actually see, the Domesday Book. To go to a small museum in Paris and see the documents that were written in the blood of the revolution.
Q You enjoy traveling. You have fun traveling.
A I have fun. I have a great deal of fun. I like sitting in trains listening to people -- and buses.
Q I prefer that to renting a car and driving, because I get among the people.
A You get much more out of trains and buses, and particularly if you know the language. And even if you don't, you see what the sandwiches are and what wine is consumed and how much, and the establishment of friendships, the social intercourse.
Q Are you a sightseer?
A Not violently. I am a moderate sightseer. In other words, I know that there are sights that I don't really care passionately about, and I let them go because there's so much else to see. I would rather, for instance, spend less time in the shopping malls of, let's say, Rome and look for the very peculiar, very aggressive Farnese Square on the Aventine. Or the rococo Piazza Sant'Ignazio, which is a set of buildings arranged in a rather feminine fashion as if it were a design of ribbons.
Q How do you spend a day when you are not actually researching?
A One of my favorite ways -- when I hit London, which I didn't know well -- was to get on top of any bus that came my way, with some coins in my pocket, and maybe a bar of chocolate, and ride and make notes on what corner or alley had a particular attraction.
Now that's another attribute of a travel writer -- a nose, a sense, an instinct for what might be a rewarding place. And then I would go back the next day to that corner or alley and walk it. I do the same in Paris. Then, of course, there comes a time when you have had enough notes for awhile, and you sit and write them.
Q Do you travel alone?
A Very often. Sometimes I'll travel with a friend, but most of my work has been alone in the sense that I'm undisturbed with my impressions and my senses. You have to have the temperament for it. It is not easy. For one thing, I had the advantage when I was doing this series of books for 10 or 12 years of cultivating friendships, so that I could come back to friends. It was not like I was entirely solitary.
But one of the ways of not feeling too much alone is to be enamored of a place, to be so excited about it, so pleased with it, so curious about what else it might have that you don't have the time or the emotion for loneliness.
Q What place or places have you been enamored of?
A I became enamored of, oh, a number of Italian towns, small Italian towns. In Puglia, there's a group of them that has a sort of Italian Gilbert and Sullivan patter names: Bitetto, Bitonto. Maybe it was just the names that charmed me, but they all had, being on the Adriatic, a slightly Byzantine quality, still an eastern quality that was extraordinary. I'm also very, very fond of a small city near Palermo -- Cefalu. I am besotted by Siena. I always go back.
Q Why? What is it about Siena?
A Siena has a remarkable perfection. There is nothing in Siena that jars -- the height, or mood or grace -- with anything else. The curves of the streets go with the curves of the buildings. The cathedral is the same height as the Palazzo Pubblico, for instance. This was done deliberately, I believe. I also am very fond of the early art, of which Siena has so very much.The Lorenzetti period. And the Simone Martini paintings.
Q Apparently many Americans who considered going abroad this year have changed their minds because of terrorist incidents. Are you scheduling a trip abroad? Are you apprehensive?
A I'm going to Brazil at some point; I've never been to South America. And then, somewhat later, I'm going to cross on the Elizabeth [QEII] to London and fly back. Oh, and I'm going to California. California seems like such a mild trip.
Q Do you feel apprehensive about going to Europe?
A A little, but not enough to stop me. I would be, I think, rather stupid not to feel a little apprehensive. But I consider it closing my life off or foreclosing an important part of my life off by being paralyzed with fear. And that's true of people traveling. The airports still are crowded. Tourism must have dropped in a good number of places, but it still goes on.
Q Is it easier to travel these days than it was 20 years ago.?
A Harder. It's less comfortable. There are more seats [on planes] and less space. There are fewer porters. The services are a little more nervous and harried than they used to be. The quality of, let's say, gentility in the services has faded. Not too bad, but there is a difference.
Q What languages do you speak?
A I speak Spanish. I speak Italian. When I'm in France, it takes a little while until the French comes back. They all come back, after the osmosis of the air, and the people and the voices.
Q Many Americans come back remembering a country only by its hotels and its restaurants. What kind of hotels do you stay in?
A I stay in reasonably modest hotels, but they musn't be too modest. I require a bath and a degree of cleanliness and some work space or a desk. I don't really ask too much, because what I really need is a bed and a bath and a cup of coffee in the morning. I find for me that it is an unnecessary expenditure, unless by some luck I get it as a gift, to live in a luxury hotel. It doesn't mean enough to me to have a spendid lobby. What am I going to do with a splendid lobby but look at it?
Q As a travel writer yourself, what travel writers do you read?
A I read the old ones. Herodotus. I enjoy reading Bernal Diaz, who wrote "The Conquest" ["The True History of the Conquest of New Spain"]. What I very much enjoy reading are the accounts of people who were travel writers only on the side. Like missionaries. Like Stanley looking for Livingstone. Their prime occupation was not travel writing, but some amazing stuff came out of it. And I like reading the accounts of the Victorian ladies who somehow didn't like their lives and traveled but, I don't on what means, to live in felt tents and eat yak meat.
Q Have you done that kind of traveling?
A I haven't done that. I've had some interesting, rough times in Mexico. But not yak meat.
Q Are you an adventurous traveler? Would you go some place where you don't know how you are going to get out?
A It depends. I would not plunge into a jungle forest on the Surinam River. But if it's a question of a new town or a walk with people in some unknown territory -- or with a friend on a horse. I'm not altogether foolhardy. I would either have reasonably intelligent companionship or have a very good idea of where I'm going and where I'll come out.
Q Have you ever felt frightened on any of your trips?
A I think somewhere in Mexico, in the hills. It was on a Saturday night in a small town, and there was a great deal of drinking. I was with another woman, and the atmosphere were a little menacing. But that was our fault. We shouldn't have wandered into the cantina area on a Saturday night hearing the sounds we heard, knowing what we might encounter.
Q Where have you been that you would most enjoy returning to?
A Strangely enough, I always enjoy returning to New York. I live in New York. It's a tremendous old attachment. It's like being married to somebody very unsatisfactory whom you would never think of leaving. It has faults, faults, faults, but I love it.
Q Where have you not been that you would like to go?
A I would like to go to parts of Asia that I don't know -- to see more of Thailand, possibly. I've never been to Burma. I've never been to Tibet. I would like very much to go to Australia and New Zealand. In other words, I'd like to go wherever I haven't been.