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The Tricky Art Of Navigation.

People find their way around best in open spaces. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Our ancestors spent years and years wandering the open plains of Africa and Eurasia. We’ve inherited from them an onboard navigation system of surprising sophistication. We call it a ‘sense of direction’.

Only it tends to rely on fixed points of reference, a visible horizon and the sometimes unreliable workings of the human memory. Finding your way around a large and unfamiliar city, where the first two or these can be unreliable and the third distracted by other things, is never easy. Getting lost in a foreign city is a sure way to spoil your vacation. Here are some tips to make sure it doesn’t happen!

  • Get a good map of the city center, or the area you’re going to be exploring. If you can, go for some thing of at least 1:25000 scale. A 1:10000 is usually better. Good guidebooks usually contain map sections. Probably the best are the internationally-available Dorling Kindersley city guides. As well as being a mine of fantastic information, these books are sturdy, attractive and surprisingly resistant to the elements. They’re not as thick and unwieldy as some guides, and the maps they contain are invariably excellent. Try to avoid having to rely on the maps in ‘pocket’ guidebooks. They may be easy to carry around, but they usually don’t carry sufficient detail to help with anything but the most general exploration. Individual sheet maps can be good, but unfolding them or turning them over in strong winds or pouring rain can present problems!
  • Have a good study of your map before you leave home. All cities have a basic ‘shape’ that shouldn’t take long to commit to memory. Having a pretty reasonable outline map inside your head will save a lot of stopping and starting on your city tour.
  • This may sound obvious, but it’s worth repeating. When you look at the map, stop walking. The number of lost tourists one sees bumping into lampposts and walking out into traffic while engrossed in map reading is startling.
  • If you’re from the US, remember that ‘old world’ city streets don’t have the regularity of the ones back home – neither are they conveniently numbered as they are in many US cities. Take London, for example. The very oldest part of that city was built by the Romans on the north bank of the River Thames. Still referred to locally as ‘the City’, it’s now the heart of London’s financial district, housing the Bank of England and many other institutions. The Romans built it on a sensible grid plan, which, with a few deviations, is still more or less traceable. But as London expanded it swallowed up surrounding villages on both sides of the river – Fulham, Clapham, Westminster and so. These places were built higgledy-piggledy by their inhabitants, and that randomness is reflected in the jumble of London’s streets today. It’s one of the easiest cities in the world to get lost in. So study the map in advance, and try to explore one area at a time.
  • Consider taking a compass. This may sound ridiculous – you’re hardly heading for Antarctica, after all. But a small compass can make your life so much easier. You can buy small ones the size of a coin that you can keep in your pocket. Getting the map the right way around with a compass take a matter of seconds. Trying to work out which way is north without one can be surprisingly difficult – unless you feel like climbing to the top of the nearest tree or tall building to work it out from the position of the sun in the sky! If you do take a compass, remember to keep it separate from anything else that’s magnetic. If it gets repolarized you could find yourself heading in exactly the opposite of your intended direction of travel. And when you use it make sure you’re not standing near railings or any other significant iron structure that could alter the reading.
  • If you get stuck, ask for help! In a major capital city many people are used to dealing with lost tourists. If you’re happy to learn a few words of the local language you’ll find that the phrase for “where is…please?” is very useful in tandem with hand signals.

In short, finding your way around shouldn’t be difficult or stressful if you do a little planning and undertake your exploration adequately equipped. In fact, the very business of getting around is all part of the fun itself, and can be great practice for kids. Just remember to keep an eye on where they’re taking you, or you’ll go past every candy store and MacDonald’s in town!

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