Getting Lost

by Gray Cargill on April 3, 2013

Post image for Getting Lost

When I travel, it’s usually for a week or less at a time, because that’s all the time I can get off from my day job. So I try to be efficient and maximize my time. I create an itinerary for each day of my trip—where I’ll go, what I’ll do, and when. I usually try to cluster activities around the same general location if I can, to eliminate wasted time backtracking.

My biggest nemesis when it comes to sticking to my agenda is getting lost. I swear to God I must spend anywhere from half a day to a full day getting lost in a new city before I finally get my bearings. It’s frustrating, aggravating, and disorienting. I can feel the precious minutes of my all-too-brief vacation slipping away from me the longer I’m lost.

Street in Rome

Believe me, it’s not for the lack of maps and directions. I am anal-retentive about carrying maps and notes and directions on me. But I confess, I am a bit directionally-challenged. It’s especially bad when I travel to European cities, with their maze-like streets and alleys.

Part of the problem is that on my first day, I’ve just arrived from my redeye flight, having been awake for 20 hours or so (because I can’t sleep on planes), bleary-eyed and groggy. I can’t check into my hotel until the afternoon, so I’m forced to wander a city where I don’t speak or read the language very well with a barely-functioning brain.

Is it any wonder I get lost for the better part of a day?

On my first day in Paris I managed to find the metro at Place Republic and the correct train line to get to Notre Dame. Beyond that, there was quite a lot of wandering back and forth to find the cathedral, then the Latin Quarter, and then my way back to the metro I’d arrived on. At one point, a young Asian woman with an American accent stopped me and asked me for directions to Notre Dame.

Notre Dame, Paris

I looked around to point her in the right direction, but I couldn’t spot the cathedral over the rooftops where we were standing. I was mortified when I realized I couldn’t even remember which direction it was in. I had just been there less than 20 minutes before! Oh the shame.

On my way back to my hotel, a young French woman approached me in the Metro to ask me for my help figuring out her route. She spoke no English, and I didn’t speak enough French to tell her “Oh honey, you are asking the wrong person for directions.” When we realized we couldn’t communicate verbally, we looked at each other, shrugged, and began poring over the map together anyway.

She told me the name of the attraction where she was going (I can’t recall which one it was now), and I drew along the metro line that I thought she needed to take with my finger. “Take line 4,” I told her. She repeated “Four?” “Oui,” I said. She thanked me with a smile and left.

As she walked away, I thought: I really hope I didn’t just send her into some terrible neighborhood.

 Paris Metro entrance

Despite how frustrating it is for the Type A planner in me, even I have to admit, good things can come from getting lost. In Barcelona, I planned to visit the Picasso Museum and the City History Museum on the same day. It seemed pretty straightforward: Just head down Via Laietana, turn left onto Carrer de la Princesa and then right onto Carrer de Montcada for the Picasso Museum. Then go straight across Laietana to the City History Museum.

On my first pass down Via Laietana I missed the turnoff to Princesa and walked all the way to Port Vell. I had to double back. Once I found Carrer de la Princesa, I did the same thing, missing the turnoff to the Picasso Museum and instead hitting the end of the road. Augh!

But there was this beautiful building across the street, and I thought “Well, as long as I’m here, I might as well go see what it is.” It turned out to be the Zoological Museum. I saw lots of families with young kids going into the park next to it. It looked like maybe there was some sort of festival going on. It was free, so I wandered in to check it out.

Barcelona Zoological Museum


It was kind of cool to see how families in Barcelona spend a Saturday in the summertime (a lot like Vermonters, as it turns out). I wish I’d known at the time that this was just the tip of the iceberg–just a small portion of Parc de la Ciutadella, a huge park area with more museums, a lake, and a zoo. (Next time, Barcelona!) After I’d wandered around a bit amongst them, I returned to my original mission and eventually found the Picasso Museum–down what seemed more like an alley to me than an actual street. No wonder I kept walking past it!

I had just as much trouble trying to find the City History Museum. I couldn’t believe it. On my map, it looked like it was right off Laietana. I should have been looking right at it. But somehow, I could not seem to find it.

In the Barri Gotic district of Barcelona

I wandered all over the place, down side streets and alleys, and across plazas. I must have covered every square inch of the Barri Gotic neighborhood. I’d been walking all day, and I was exhausted. Just when I was about ready to admit defeat and give up entirely, I stumbled across it quite by accident.

It was worth the struggle. During the journey, I ran across a (peaceful) demonstration in a little plaza, some cute little shops in quiet alleyways, and a busker—a woman playing guitar in the street—all things I would have missed if it had been easy to get from the Picasso Museum to the City History Museum. And I’m glad I didn’t give up. The City History Museum was my favorite museum in Spain.

City History Museum

It’s true: You do often encounter people or sights that you wouldn’t have if you had gone straight from point A to point B. It also helps you get the lay of the land better for future reference. But there’s more to it for me.

You know that saying “Anything worth having is worth fighting for”? That’s been the story of my life, and it has continued on into my travel life. Sometimes, it’s such a struggle to find what I’m looking for in a strange city that when I do, I want to do a fist-pump. I met the challenge and overcame it! It’s my Rocky moment.

Getting perpetually lost during my travels has been a learning experience for a control freak like me. What I’ve learned (the hard way) is that getting lost isn’t always a bad thing. I just need to remind myself not to get stressed out about it. I think I should start building a few hours of “getting lost” time into my future travel itineraries. God knows I’ll need it.

Shannon J June 17, 2013 at 2:50 am

I usually love getting lost in a new place. Especially a place like Venice or Paris. You never know what you will find!

Gray Cargill June 17, 2013 at 6:18 am

True. I hear Venice, especially, is a great place to get lost.

Sabina May 4, 2013 at 10:16 am

I agree – getting lost on your travels is a good thing. True, you might miss out on something you’d planned to see or get to spend less time seeing your planned sights, but the otherwise hidden things that you find while lost can be a lot more memorable and exciting than what lies on the path most traveled.

Gray May 4, 2013 at 10:53 am

It can be, Sabina, for sure. Still hard for a control freak like me to get used to letting go, but I’m getting there. 🙂

Nienke April 25, 2013 at 5:02 am

Haha, too funny. I totally do the same sometimes. And what is better to get lost and find other amazing things? I remember going with a friend to Venice as a teenager and we hadn’t prepared the trip at all. Walked and Walked for hours, ending up on this amazing square. We felt so proud finding that ‘ourselves’. It turned out to be the world-famous San Marco square, of course, but we didn’t care. We had explored ourselves and felt like great adventurers.

Gray April 25, 2013 at 6:49 am

LOL, great story, Nienke. That sounds like something I might do. 🙂 But from what I understand, it’s pretty easy to get lost in Venice, so I wouldn’t feel bad about that at all.

Tracy Antonioli April 13, 2013 at 9:13 am

I love this! I especially love your realization that yes, getting lost IS a good thing (what beautiful photos of your time spent ‘lost’ in Barcelona!)

I think a lot of the frustration from lost-ness comes from limited time (or exhaustion or hunger, all of which tend to hit me at once). If you had a month instead of a week to explore a new city, being lost would be a good thing. But who has a month? Certainly not me!

The way I’ve dealt with this–and the way I’ve managed to ensure I still love traveling–is to plan less. I NEVER thought I’d say/type that, but it is true–if you don’t have a destination, it isn’t possible to get lost. I’ve found the joy in wandering.

Gray April 13, 2013 at 11:25 am

Yes, Tracy, you nailed it: I wouldn’t mind getting lost so much if I knew I had plenty of time in a place. It’s that lack of time to see and do everything I want to that stresses me out.

Richard Crest April 11, 2013 at 1:29 am

There are so many places worth it to visit in Europe. I agree that getting lost is always part of traveling since your not in you own country but thru that you will be able to find a way on your own to get back.

Gray April 11, 2013 at 6:12 am

Thankfully, I usually do. Thanks for your comment Richard.

Lisa @chickybus April 9, 2013 at 11:13 pm

Thanks for writing this, Gray. It made me feel much better. I, too, get lost a lot when I travel, and it drives me crazy. I hate when it happens somewhere that’s really hot. Makes it worse.

I have another problem, by the way, which occurs when I’m traveling with another person (which isn’t all that often). If they have a good sense of direction, then I don’t pay attention. I just follow them. And then, if I’m not with them, I really get lost. They find it hard to believe if I tell them.

Gray April 10, 2013 at 5:15 am

I’m the same way, Lisa! And I agree, the heat does make it worse. I’ve actually had heat exhaustion before and so I’m really paranoid about wandering around outside too long when it’s hot.

Erik April 8, 2013 at 8:54 pm

Great post!

I’m planning on getting lost in a few cities on my upcoming trip to Europe. I remember getting lost in Venice back in 1998, it was one of the greatest memories of that trip.

Gray April 8, 2013 at 9:24 pm

“Planning on getting lost,” eh, Erik? I can see your itinerary now: “Day 2: Get up. Eat Breakfast. Get lost.” 🙂 From what I hear, getting lost in Venice is unavoidable, but oh, so worth it.

Jenna Vandnberg April 7, 2013 at 10:52 pm

I hate research and always think I know better than my GPS…so I am always lost! I need to be more like your control-freak/time maximizing self. Good luck getting lost in the future though:)

Gray April 8, 2013 at 6:58 am

Well, sometimes we DO know better than our GPSes, Jenna. I’ll never forget the time I was trying to get out of Montreal and my GPS kept trying to send me back into the city. As long as you’re having fun getting lost, I guess that’s all that matters!

Sarah P | Travelling Is My Passion April 6, 2013 at 6:37 am

“Getting perpetually lost during my travels has been a learning experience for a control freak like me.”

This completely resonated with me! I’m an obsessive planner and I hate getting side-tracked too, though I am the first to admit that some of my best travel memories were made when I wasn’t in control and yielded to the whims of the city or my travel companions! BUT I feel you – it’s hard when we like to plan and have so little time!

I often wonder if I’ll be more open to “getting lost” and going with the flow if I had an infinite amount of time to travel in a city – but I have a feeling if I had all the time in the world, I may just go the other extreme of taking it too slow and never making it to all the key sights! Knowing me, I’d probably just vegetate at home and plan for the next holiday!

Anyway, I really came by to say – wonderful blog! I love that you decided to travel solo and not get sidetracked by the fact that no one wants to go with me! I find your courage inspiring and it affirms my own decision to travel solo for the first time this July (: Thank you for sharing!

Gray April 6, 2013 at 9:59 am

So glad to hear from you, Sarah, thanks for stopping by! I, too, often wonder if my attitude about getting lost would change if I had all the time in the world to travel. I suspect it would. Good luck o your first solo trip! You may find it addicting. 🙂

Jeff @ GoTravelzing April 3, 2013 at 9:30 pm

Getting lost is part of traveling…especially in Europe where they have a crazy numbering system. I do get lost sometimes but usually I have a pretty good idea of where I am. For some reason all the other tourist think I know what I am doing and ask me for directions. I am surprised that I usually know what to tell them.

My new strategy to know more about where I am going is to explore the area using Google street view.

Gray April 4, 2013 at 8:11 pm

Oh my God, I love Google street view! And I truly don’t use it nearly enough. But you’re right, Jeff, it gives you a very good idea of what to look for once you’re there on the ground.

Marcia April 3, 2013 at 12:03 pm

Sometimes it’s fun just to take a trip with few directions and just discover. Years ago when my son was a baby, we took a trip like this. We headed the horse (car) in a Westerly direction and took off. It’s still a memorable trip we reminisce about. Don’t like getting so lost though, that it might put me in a dangerous part of a city. 🙁

Gray April 3, 2013 at 12:28 pm

My grandfather was a big one for just hopping in the car and driving “wherever”, Marcia. I always worried that we wouldn’t get back to civilization before I had to use the bathroom. LOL. Getting so lost that you wind up in a dangerous neighborhood is definitely not fun, agreed.

Marlys April 3, 2013 at 11:47 am

You should avoid the medieval parts of the South of France, then. Their alleyways are so narrow and all look alike, so easy to get lost. It’s not bad getting lost when going around the city, but if you have a train to catch to leave the city, that’s a problem. Almost happened to us once. Luckily, there were people in the streets to ask.

Gray April 3, 2013 at 12:23 pm

I’m not surprised about the medieval cities, Marlys. Yes, I agree, it’s especially stressful when you’re in a hurry to get somewhere. I tried not to wander off the beaten path in Avignon, because I had to catch a bus back to my cruise ship. It would have been a huge problem if I had gotten lost and missed the bus!

Vivian April 3, 2013 at 11:42 am

This post was right on as I also do not like the feeling of getting lost. But, then again, the things you may get to see because of it are added bonuses to our adventures. I ran into the Sorbonne when getting lost looking for the Cluny Museum in Paris recently and then felt so proud of myself when I actually found the Cluny soon after. But, one night after watching the Eiffel Tower light up, I got turned around on some back streets, in the dark, returning to my hotel. Taxis wouldn’t stop for me, either, until I had walked for quite awhile and found a busy boulevard. That was a less than safe excursion, especially being night blind! Best to get lost in broad daylight…

Gray April 3, 2013 at 12:26 pm

Yes, you know that feeling of triumph when you finally find what you’re looking for, Vivian! Being also nightblind, I can relate to your story about getting turned around on dark streets at night. That’s the scariest part.

Lori April 3, 2013 at 11:40 am

I managed to actually go in a small circle – 15 minutes lost – in Paris until finding a subway station that, on map, seemed to be close – just a left and then a right. I discovered the next day that in reality another station was closer – in fact just to the left from my hotel.

I admit I like to discover the city, sometimes wondering around. I remember that in Vienna we just took the tram and took a trip to see the city.

But I don’t like it when I don’t find immediately the street I am interested in. I like to go where I want, when I want, and “get lost” when I plan and have time for that (as I mentioned I do include some time to just take walks…) 🙂

Gray April 3, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Oh God, Lori, going in circles is the worst! So maddening! I just had that happen to me in a museum in San Antonio, no less. I think if you have plenty of time and no set agenda, then wandering at will can be pleasant. It’s when you do have an agenda and get lost that it becomes frustrating.

Lori April 3, 2013 at 4:43 pm

Exactly. I like to wander when I choose to, not when I’m forced… I also hate to see then that I have to hurry up or spend less time in a museum or other place I chose to visit – or not to get in time somewhere – see a specific monument/place at a specific time…

To many travels without unwanted wanders!

Gray April 3, 2013 at 6:21 pm

Yes. If we could all travel slowly for as long as we want, we wouldn’t have to worry about these things, would we? Oh well, someday….

Kate Convissor April 3, 2013 at 9:57 am

I HATE getting lost, and I’ve done everything but implant a GPS in my head to avoid it. Still, for a non-hunter-gatherer female, it’s inevitable. For my next long trip, like you, I’m telling myself to relax and enjoy the ride. Getting lost is part of it.

Gray April 3, 2013 at 11:40 am

It does seem inevitable, Kate. I think getting used to it is the only solution.

RobRob April 3, 2013 at 7:53 am

The glory of getting lost! I loved this post. Though I’m generally pretty good with navigation, I enjoy wandering around new places, exploring what’s between points A and B, and learning a little about the area and its people. I do often learn later that I’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg, but am thankful to have seen that much. However, I share your frustration at being lost; I think everybody does! It’s hard at that moment to appreciate the chance discoveries, but it sounds like you had some great ones!

Gray April 3, 2013 at 12:10 pm

RobRob – I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who gets frustrated in the moment, while I’m lost. It’s usually just in retrospect that I can see the value.

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