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The best vacations are not an escape, but a liberation

holidays of the mind
Why travel? This week we have published articles for and against the vogue for visiting foreign places. Our concluding contribuiton argues that it is not where, but how, you travel that really matters.

Back at the start of this decade, when Vincent Van Gogh held his centenary bash, I did my culture-vulture duty and booked timed, dated tickets to the two big shows in Holland. Vincent's graphic works, which I love almost more than than those over-exposed paintings, were installed at a museum deep in woodland near the German border. And very wonderful they proved to be - yet, oddly, not quite so memorable as the free white bicycles. In a nostalgic nod to the Amsterdam hippies of the Sixties, the surrounding country park offers visitors a fleet of unlocked bikes that you can ride for as long and as far as you want.

I can renew my passion for Vincent's engraved boots or blossoms at any time by opening a book. But I'm still looking for another A-list exhibition with a head-clearing spin attached.

The best travel consists of what Labour's own sultans of spin call "going off-message". It involves moments when you discover that, much as you like traipsing round galleries, you can enjoy a wobbly turn through the forest just as much (or vice versa). It means, in effect, having a holiday from yourself - from the bonds of habit and ego that tether people to their roles at home and work.

The paradox is that you can never plan or purchase these bursts of liberation. The actuary who, expensively kitted out, becomes a snowboard hero on the Colorado slopes is just buying into someone else's pricey message. That soul-scrubbing mission to the ashram, or to find your inner child in therapy on a Greek island, will also miss the mark. Unbidden glimpses of another you have precious little to do with cash spent, distance travelled or gurus consulted. The light of revelation can descend in Bognor and Bangkok alike.

Travel firms, of course, try to exploit our frets about the yoke of ego in some pretty crass ways. At its crudest, the new-laddish (and new-lassish) appeal to a fortnight of bed-hopping, with plastered nights under the stars and hungover days baking on the sand, simply sells a mirror-image of nine-to-five drudgery. Turning your safe bourgeois routine upside down for a bit before slinking back to the grind will always disappoint, because you can't (as it were) keep it up for ever. Quick-fix hedonism briefly swaps one off-the-peg lifestyle for another. Its bid for short-term freedom stems from the belief that, elsewhere, we will always be in chains.

Hence the familiar despair of the post-vacation Monday back at work. It's not so much that many people want to binge in a bar or fry on a beach for 365 days every year as that they fear being slotted back into the usual pigeonholes. So, instead of seeking orgy or oblivion as a reward for 50 weeks of numbed conformity, we could use holidays to experiment with ways of being that may last much longer than the duty-free vodka.

Away from home, people feel willing to test-drive alternative versions of themselves. This pilot self is the one that dives down that unmarked alleyway, slips into that intriguing cafe and greets the stranger at your table - the self that risks a bit of surprise and spontaneity. But, if we really wished, we could manage that in the high street as well as the High Andes. "Travel: Bad" claimed John Rentoul on this page on Monday. "Travel: Good" riposted Simon Calder the next day. I would argue that mere bodily movement means nothing at all, but that displacement can trigger the changes that we seek.

If you do want to revamp your sense of identity, how to travel matters more than where. It may even be that intrepid treks in far-flung locations rule out that kind of mental gear-change. Scaling glaciers or dodging crocodiles calls for too much of a vigilant ego to allow for the creative drift that opens new doors in the mind. For that, you need a sense of physical security and a willingness to follow your nose, not your route- map.

I feel freest in busy, fairly prosperous places that don't much care whether I'm around or not. "Escape" to that palm-fringed tropical atoll or that quaint rainforest pueblo, and you not only have to act the part of Mr or Ms Rich Won't-Get-Stung Westerner, forever on the look-out for con-artists or creepy-crawlies. You must also take a starring role in a hundred mortifying little sideshows that dramatise the gulf between the rich and poor worlds. Those ghastly fortress-style resorts in the Caribbean, where the only locals you meet are serving cocktails, merely add insult to injury. If you're happy to carry the misdeeds of the World Bank and the IMF in your suitcase, fine; if not, you may reach a deeper detachment from the cares of home in Berlin than in Bogota.

Two kinds of voyage illustrate the sort of self-extension that even quite humdrum holidays can bring. First is the pilgrimage, once a staple trip for European travellers and still - as the hajj to Mecca - a central pillar of Islam. As any Chaucer-reader knows, Western pilgrims set out for a range of reasons that stretched from the sacred to the sordid - but they all knew that the journey happened as much in the mind as on the ground. Recently, the great pilgrim's path to Santiago de Compostella has came back into vogue. Meanwhile, wholly secular opportunities for small groups to enjoy a spell of change or reflection come dressed up as study trips in search of Pyrenean flora, Cycladic temples or Bulgarian icons.

As for the other sort of inner-directed voyage, you really can try this at home. In France during the 1920s, the Surrealist artists and writers pioneered a form of aimless urban strolling as a boost to their creative inspiration. Wandering around Paris, they hoped that random meetings and sudden insights would open up for them the strange poetry of daily life. Louis Aragon's haunting book Paris Peasant recounts the kind of weird and wonderful encounters that can result from a decision to treat anywhere - and especially your own backyard - as the most exotic spot on earth.

The Surrealists found beauty and mystery in the drabbest city street. In contrast, over-earnest, ego-laden voyagers can experience beautiful and mysterious sites as a cliche or a chore. So drop that guide-book, jump on a bike and remember that much of travel - like much of sex - takes place purely in the head.