finding how to Travel Solo

She had her hand on her bag ready to go through passport control on her own.  With no idea what had delayed her friend, it was a choice of waiting and missing the flight, or going it alone and working things out.  Her friend made it, just …. but that decision to go anyway answered a question that had been playing on her mind for a while.  Would she be brave enough to travel alone?

The answer, to her genuine surprise, was unquestionably yes!

To a 50-something solo female first-timer, Florence seemed challenge enough for now.  A couple of hours flight (so not so far away that she couldn’t be “found” if she got into trouble, she reasoned), good weather (nothing worse than sitting alone in a hotel room if it was pouring), lovely people (she’d never met an un-friendly Italian), familiar cuisine (like a comfort blanket while she addressed the “eating on my own while trying not to look like I’ve been stood up” scenario)… and long on her bucket list.

Flying alone for the first time, the first thing she noticed, was that …. she was on her own! Tourists tend to travel in groups.  Excited huddles of giggly female travellers sharing “must-do’s” and “have I packed’s”, couples in their own couple-y world,  families trying to keep errant toddlers under control …. and her. It might just have been that flight, that day, but it felt as though everyone was staring at her”alone-ness”, as if she had a big arrow pointing down at her in the bustling departure lounge saying “she has no friends”.  She topped up her lipstick and tapped out a message on her phone …. signs to all concerned that she was being met at the other end by her Italian lover.  That would explain it, naturally.

Of course, in reality, no one was concerned at all about the pale slightly fidgety middle-aged woman sitting near the departure gate, passport clutched tightly in hand, ready for the off. Or that she’d checked three times during the wait that her currency and travel documents were still where they were … last time she’d checked.  Or that her hand never left the handle of her cabin luggage (can’t be too careful). Or that the message she was tapping out to her Italian lover … was actually a post on social media because she had to share her excitement with someone! Or that the seat next to her was … empty.  No one cared.  Absolutely no one cared.

And it was while she sat there getting used to the idea that, to anyone else, she was just another passenger waiting for her flight … that she finally got it!  Solo travel means that the only person you have to worry about is … yourself! You can do what you like, when you like, if you like, how you like – and no one gives a damn. How liberating is that!

So, just for the hell of it, she checked her travel documents, again …. and queued for the departure gate.  The butterflies in her stomach did an extra somersault.  Not nerves any more, but excitement. She boarded the plane, head held high, with a confidence that said to all those giggly girls, couple-y couples and frantic families, “look at me, not care in the world, I’m going it alone and I’m fine, I’m really fine!”

They actually didn’t care of course … but neither did she.

She was on her way …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

finding Crete

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What better for a broken heart than the kind of love that would never let her down … the love of her oldest and dearest friend. Where better for a broken heart than the kind of place that would breathe life and warmth back into her fragile, battered soul.

And so, a month after he’d left, she and said oldest and dearest friend, stepped off a morning flight into the blistering heat that is Crete in late Summer.

It felt as though the tiny family-run hotel just east of Rethymno, had been sent to take her in and mend her.  Somehow, on a Greek island saturated with tourists at peak season, they had managed to find a oasis of calm. Right next to the beach, she could, within minutes of leaving her room, feel the fine warm sand between her toes and breathe in the salty air.  It was perfect.

They fell into the island’s welcoming embrace, whiling away their days under the bluest skies, discovered that Greek salad tastes three times as wonderful when you are actually there, that sometimes it’s fine to seek out foreign lands and in the end do nothing at all, and that red wine and lazy sun-kissed days can soothe a restless mind to sleep. She talked and cried out her hurt while her friend listened, then listened some more, like good friends do.

In the end,  she could talk and cry no more. She would rise early every day to sit at water’s edge.  The tears she’d determined she would not cry for him, fell in rivers onto the sand as she searched for him where the sea met the sky … he was not there, and finally, as Crete’s magic worked its Aegean charm,  she felt her heart starting to let him go.

finding The Algarve

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“The more places you see and the more people you meet,
The greater your curiosity grows.
The greater your curiosity, the more you will wander.
The more you wander, the greater the wonder.”

(from “Rise Up & Salute The Sun”, Suzy Kassem)

Travel means different things to different people.

For many, it is the opportunity to rest and unwind in sunnier climes, without stepping too far out of comfort zone, somewhere that is a home from home, which is what package holidaying first gave us in the 70s, and what owning a property abroad offers us today.

For others, travel is the opportunity to explore, challenge and discover … and whilst they would probably veer towards the later, none of us would pass on the offer to spend some time luxuriating in a beautiful apartment in Portugal’s Algarve.

Despite its name translating literally to “Moorish Town”, there is very little in terms of history in Vilamoura – in fact it didn’t exist until about 30 years ago,  when a Portuguese banker saw an opportunity to redevelop the local harbour into an opulent marina complex of harbourside restaurants and bars, with avenues of pristine holiday homes around exquisitely manicured golf course. Today it is an expat and summer tourist heaven … a man-made escape from reality.  Nothing wrong with that, and to escape from reality with him, just for a while, was like living a dream.

But it is not Portugal ….

There is a road that runs from Faro airport to Lagos, a main artery running along Portugal’s southernmost coastline. Take any turning to the left, towards the sea, to find communities like Vilamoura, white-washed villas surrounded by opulent green.

Take any turning to the right, to find a land baked to a parched, dry crisp in the Mediterranean heat … mile upon mile of wild and rugged barrenness.  All roads wind up through Serra de Monchique, a rolling mountain range offering breathtaking views towards the Algarve and west to the Atlantic and Cape St Vincent.  Careworn villages scatter alongside dusty tracks, stark reminders of the fact that Portugal is one of the poorest countries in Western Europe.  Up and up, winding towards Monchique, an irresistible and charming hamlet, cooler in climate and cooler in vibe than it’s coastal neighbours. They wandered the seemingly deserted streets looking for shade in the midday heat, enchanted by its faded tile-clad buildings and seduced by the heady aroma of the surrounding eucalyptus groves. It felt real … and it took her breath away.

Two faces of the Portugal … one saying “look how beautiful you’ve made me”, and the other, “I already am.”

finding Vienna

 

 

 

“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”
(Saint Augustine)

The thing about the travel bug is that once you’ve caught it, it becomes a life condition.

He had always teased her that she did not have a list of places she wanted to see. Now that list was so long, she wondered where to start. He had introduced her to places Arabic, and pre-packaged Mediterranean was familiar territory from family holidays. Northern Europe, however, remained uncharted territory. The fashion was for the likes of Budapest, Prague – she was not about to follow the fashion.  So, in Spring 2015, Vienna it was …

She imagined a sophisticated city of imperial palaces, classical music, hearty food, snow and mountains – it was all those things … without the snow and the mountains, for Vienna sits on a plateau to the west of The Danube, the surrounding hills covered not by snow, but vineyards and dense undulating woodland.

A love of the arts, which drew her and her girlfriend together when they worked side-by-side in publishing in the 80’s, became the focus of their trip. So there could only be one place to start. Within hours of unpacking, they entered the magnificent doors of Vienna State Opera for the evening performance. Climbing the vast marble grand staircase to take their seats high in the auditorium, they marvelled at the well-heeled Viennese ensconced in their tiered boxes, classical music running through their veins. Spellbound by Schwanensee (Swan Lake) performed under glittering chandeliers.  Such a privilege to be there.

Vienna oozes the arts through its every pore. Klimt’s “The Kiss” at The Belvedere, took her breathe away … much reproduced on greetings cards, nothing could take away the magic of seeing the real thing. And with immaculate timing, Vienna’s naughty boy, Egon Schiele, had just opened at The Leopold.

A city of imperial palaces – the magnificent complex of buildings that form The Hofburg, Vienna’s former Imperial Palace – the obvious place to start to dip into Austria’s history, with a guided tour of the state apartments, room after room of porcelain and gilded candelabra, and a special exhibition about Sisi, Princess Elisabeth of Bavaria, and wife of Frank Joseph I.  Then to the south, the stunning Schloss Schonbrunn, former summer residence of the Habsburgs – reminiscent of Versailles with its grand mirrored rococo ballroom and formal gardens, laid out in the reign of Empress Maria Theresa.

Vienna, city of cake and chocolate – Demel tearooms, the heady sweetness of chocolate hitting the taste buds,  Sachertorte and a cup of tea sitting at the bar in it’s dark mahogany interior.  And city of a cuisine which exceeded any preconceptions. At Figlmuller, famous for its schnitzel large enough to fill the plate.  Rich beef goulash at Weibel’s Wirthaus and the faded romantic “Kleine’s Cafe”, sitting in the kind of cobbled square so reminiscent of WWII movies, where the Gestapo screech to a halt on a side-cared motorbike.  Tucked into a corner of this tiny cafe, with its smoke-yellowed walls, eavesdropping lovers in earnest conversation, their first taste of apfelstrudel. And Cafe Pruckel to mingle with the locals, drink late evening coffee, listen to piano recitals and mingle with the locals.

This was the life she imagined …. a culturally rich life.  Her appetite satiated, for now …. she was living that life ….. and she had only just begun.