what I learned while traveling solo

Last year, after a week of work in Turin, Italy, I embarked on my first true solo travel adventure. It wasn’t my first time on my own. I’ve road tripped across the U.S. and camped solo before — well, actually, I had my cat with me both times. But my time in Europe was my first time with no one but me, myself and I in a foreign place for an extended period of time.

I didn’t have much of a plan. I knew I’d start in Italy, end in France and visit a friend in Austria along the way. Between hopping on a train in Turin and boarding my flight home in Paris, I learned a few lessons about traveling solo — ones I’ll keep and carry with me on future adventures. Perhaps you will, too.

Manarola Train Station
The train station on my first evening in Manarola, Italy.

It’s okay to get lost.
On my way to my hostel in Manarola, Italy, I accidentally walked the wrong way. Instead of taking the smooth, paved — albeit winding — road, I found myself climbing up flights of very steep stairs in between colorful houses. I stopped often to take in the clean, narrow pathways and laundry hanging from windows and also to catch my breath. It was so picturesque, but with my down jacket, boots and ginormous pack on, I wasn’t quite prepared for the warm weather or the path I’d chosen. But getting “lost” or rather choosing the road less traveled wasn’t the end of the world.

I eventually found my hostel and, in the process, passed a quaint restaurant nestled into the hillside. It was removed from the town below, which meant it had a beautiful view of Manarola, the vineyards and the water. Feeling as though I’d stumbled upon a gem, I retraced my steps for dinner later that evening.

The restaurant, Trattoria dal Billy, was peaceful and quiet, and the people working there were friendly; they took great care of me. It was a dining experience unlike any I’d had before.

The host, who was wearing a Tweedle Dum hat — a detail I can’t help but chuckle at — seated me at a table for two overlooking Manarola and the Ligurian Sea. He then motioned for me to follow him and took me into the tiny kitchen to meet the three chefs. They smiled and greeted me, and since they were prepping food, the one stuck out his elbow for me to “shake elbows” with him.

The host cracked a few jokes; we all laughed. I thanked the chefs and went back to my table, which was just outside the kitchen on a small balcony.

I ordered some white wine and enjoyed it with bread and my book while I listened to the chefs and the sounds of the kitchen. My dinner — fresh sea bass with roasted potatoes, tomatoes and olives — was so simple and so delicious. Coupled with the people and the atmosphere, it made for an unforgettable experience, my favorite meal of the trip.

After dinner, my waiter gave me limoncino, and as I sipped it, I read my book and enjoyed the still, quiet scene. The candle burning on my table. The cool, coastal air. Sometimes when you get lost, you find the best way.

You have no one to plan on and no one to please but yourself.
On my second day in Cinque Terre, as I was hiking from Volastra to Corniglia, I had an epiphany. I was 100% going at my own pace with everything I did; I didn’t have to run anything by anyone. In that moment, I was smiling, laughing and head over heels in love with the freedom solo travel allows.

Morning trek from Volastra to Corniglia.

Stomp in the puddles.
In Venice, I took a water bus to Murano and spent a few hours exploring the island known for its glass. It’d been raining for more than a day, and the canals were flooding up onto the sidewalks everywhere I turned. For a while, I tried to hop over or cleverly find a path around the flooded areas.

The game was up when I reached a corner where the entire sidewalk was submerged and water lapped at the edge of the building. I surveyed the area and, seeing no dry route, started tiptoeing through the water, trying to keep my feet as dry as possible. My efforts were useless. As I rounded the corner and felt my tennis shoes and socks grow saturated and squishy, I gave in to the moment and started laughing, mostly at myself and the ridiculousness of the situation.

Traveling solo or with a group, it’s important to find humor in the little things you cannot control.

Spark conversation with the people around you.
Get to know the locals and your fellow travelers. The storyteller in me loves connecting with other people. We’re all on a mission, and I love listening to and learning about other people’s journeys. There’s something beautiful and magical in sharing stories, in sharing pieces of ourselves.

In Manarola, I met travelers from Canada, the U.S., France and New Zealand. One woman was taking her mother’s ashes to the place where her father was buried during World War II.

On the train from Venice to Salzburg, I shared a carriage with three Austrian students. They were all headed home for a long weekend. After two got off the train in a city in the Alps, I started chatting with the third. I asked him if he spoke English. “A little,” he said. I told him I spoke a little German, too, but hadn’t understood a word of the conversation he’d had with his friends. He smiled knowingly, said he wasn’t surprised and told me how diverse the German language is.

He grew up in a region of Austria different from the one he was attending school in, and when he first went to school, he said no one understood him. That’s how different the dialects are! He told me about what he was studying; I told him where I was from, a bit about where I worked, what I’d been doing in Turin and where I was traveling in Europe.

In talking with him, I learned a bit about him, the German language and Austrian culture. I like to think the learning went both ways, that it was an exchange. Conversation, despite differences in language, breaks down barriers and allows us to connect, and really, isn’t that what travel’s all about? Connection.

At my hostel in Paris, I shared a room with three sisters from Mexico City, and after just two nights, I felt as though they’d become my new friends. There was something that felt familiar about them. They were just starting their travels in Europe, and mine were coming to a close. At the end of each day, I loved chatting with them, hearing about their Paris adventures and telling them about mine.

In Paris, I also got to know Isha, a young girl from India who was going to college in India, studying abroad in Lyon, France, and in Paris with friends for the weekend. We met on a SANDEMANs walking tour Thursday morning and then took another tour together that evening in Montmartre.

After the Montmartre tour, we got dinner together. We talked about our families. Isha told me about her brother; I told her about my sister. She told me about her studies and life in India; I shared a bit about my childhood and life in various parts of the U.S. Once we’d finished dinner, we took the Metro to see the Eiffel Tower. Had it not been for Isha, I wouldn’t have known the Eiffel Tower twinkles every hour on the hour after dark. It was a beautiful, misty evening, and as we waited for the top of the hour, we even saw a man propose to his girlfriend.

While I enjoy the solitude and freedom solo travel allows, it’s also fun to share moments and stories with other people, especially locals and fellow travelers.

Listen to the locals.
Throughout my trip, I enjoyed a lot of good food. Marmalade croissants and gelato in Italy, a warm pretzel pastry filled with cream and covered in chocolate in Salzburg and macarons and crepes in Paris are a few that come to mind.

When looking for places to eat, listen to the locals. More often than not, their recommendations won’t let you down. This proved true on my last night in Paris.

After dinner that evening, I went to a creperie in Montmartre Onno, my tour guide the night before, had pointed out. He recommended it because the chef makes the crepes fresh right in front of you.

This creperie was a stall, maybe 5-feet-deep by 3-feet-wide, in between two restaurants. It was part of the building, not an extension or external booth. I ordered a Nutella and banana crepe and watched the chef work his magic. Food truly is an art.

He rolled my crepe out, cooked and flipped it; peeled the banana and sliced it right on top of the crepe on the griddle; added the Nutella; then folded the whole thing, stuffed it into a little pocket and handed it to me. All from a little, little creperie.

Creperie in Paris

On my last evening in Paris, the final evening of my solo adventure, I sat on a bench in Montmartre and enjoyed the best crepe I’ve ever had. A tiny moment I’ll never forget. And had it not been for Onno’s recommendation, I may not have noticed that creperie or given it a chance.

Listen to the locals. They know the area and often give good advice.

Walk or bike whenever you can.
When you walk, bike or generally spend time outside a car, bus or any enclosed vehicle, you experience a place in a different way. You’re able to feel a place, breathe it in, see things you wouldn’t otherwise see. You tend to notice the details.

In Vienna, I rented a bike from Vienna Explorer and cruised around the city. While the bike tours had just ended for the year the week prior, the shop was still renting bikes for another week. The Australian gal in the shop — yes Australian, not Austrian — was friendly and helpful. She set me up with a bike, highlighted a route around Vienna on a map for me and circled two attractions I’d researched and wanted to visit.

She gave me a helmet, bike lock and lime-green city bike with a basket in the back and sent me on my way — even pointing out a shop for gloves down the street, should my hands get too cold.

Renting a bike was by far the best decision I made during my time in Vienna. I saw many of the main historical buildings often covered on tours; took in bold, vibrant murals and graffiti along the Danube; spent some time photographing the funky Hundertwasserhaus and cruised through several parks.

Undoubtedly, my favorite part of the day was my final adventure in and through the Prater, a Viennese amusement park.

As the day wore on, I was starting to think I wouldn’t visit the Prater, which was on the other side of the Danube, but I’m so glad I did. And having a bike made getting there that much easier.

The rides and booths within the amusement park seemed to be closed for the winter, but the park itself was still open and accessible to the public. The emptiness, or rather stillness, of the park made it feel abandoned, almost as though it’d been abandoned after World War II — which is definitely not the case. That’s just how it felt to me.

There’s a road lined with trees that runs alongside the Prater. I cruised down that road, taking in the Prater on one side and a series of parks on the other. The fall colors were marvelous, and I savored the freedom of riding on smooth pavement on an endless road — seriously, it looked as though the road would never end — alongside other people who were walking, running and riding bikes. It was crowded but not too crowded. That space was a breath of fresh air, an escape within the city.

I was around other people but completely on my own. The world moves at an interesting pace when you’re taking it in on your own time.

Biking through the Prater in Vienna.

I’m so glad I spent the 14 EUR on a bike that day. Had I been exploring Vienna on foot, I likely wouldn’t have visited the Prater. My bike ride allowed me to reach places I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

A book makes a great travel companion.
Get lost in places, get lost in a good book.

I packed one book, carried it just about everywhere with me, read it sparingly — you don’t want to spend your entire trip reading — and finished it just as my trip was coming to a close.

I absolutely loved every moment I sat down somewhere, ordered food or a drink and dove into my book.

What’s more, this particular book started to feel like a part of me and a part of my trip as I ventured on. A book is a good companion, a good way to have “someone” to turn to when you’re on your own.

You don’t always need a plan.
When I booked my Airbnb in Vienna, I didn’t pay close attention to the location. I thought I had, but once I got off the train in Vienna and looked at a map, I realized I hadn’t. I ended up removed from the center of the city but found my way and ended up enjoying my mistake.

I got the bus system down, relished my tiny studio apartment with a skylight and ended up breaking free of the touristy areas. I was truly living among the locals and navigating on my own. My Airbnb felt like my own home, and after a day of adventuring, I wound up liking the “commute” home.

That said, sometimes it pays to plan.
Sometimes a miscommunication or mishap with plans turns out fine. Other times, you wind up kicking yourself in the butt. When I went to plan my trip from Vienna to Paris, I did just that.

I naively planned to take the train from Vienna to Paris. Until I arrived in Vienna and went to the ticket office at the train station, I didn’t realize a) how expensive it’d be and b) how long the journey from Vienna to Paris was. I assumed that since both were relatively major cities, it’d be easy to get between the two. Boy, was I was wrong.

I looked at the train options, then looked at the plane options and ended up booking a flight from Vienna to Paris. It gave me a little more time in Vienna and cost about the same as a train ticket, but it was expensive — more expensive than anticipated.

But knowing I needed to end my trip in Paris because I was flying back to the States from there, I sucked it up, bought the ticket and put the expense behind me. No use allowing that mistake to cloud the rest of my trip. It’s definitely something I learned from.

Sometimes it pays, quite literally, to plan.

Capture the moments that move you, but don’t capture it all.
I wrote a little, and sometimes a lot, every day. I took notes on where I was, what I’d done, how it made me feel and included little stories and anecdotes from the day.

Sometimes, your words and your perspective can capture so much more than a photo — an emotion, a smell, the temperature, texture, taste and so much more. You can capture whole encounters and experiences. I love that about writing, and when I look back on my writing, I’m reminded of moments and details I’d otherwise forgotten.

My journals also help me see the ways in which an adventure has shifted who I am — the way I think about, see and experience the world and even myself.

A healthy blend of writing and visuals is good, so take photos and videos when inspiration strikes. But don’t overdo it.

Enjoy the moment through your own eyes. You’ll never remember the experiences you had if you’re always looking through your camera’s lens or face down in your notebook.

More than anything, take pride in traveling alone.
Be strong, be confident, be safe and savor the freedom.

The start of my solo adventure in Manarola, Italy.

March 31, 2016

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s