finding Lisbon

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Latterly known as the new Barcelona, she stepped from arrivals into Lisbon’s midday heat with eager anticipation, and as her taxi wound its way down into its sprawling suburbs, she wondered if it could possibly live up to that kind of reputation.

Choosing Airbnb was a deliberate attempt to be less of a tourist and more of a local, so home was a tiny apartment in a residential area just east of the Lisbon’s oldest district of Alfama, right on top of a hill.

The hills!  She had been warned about the hills, but these were some serious upward climbs!

Though hills, of course, mean stunning vistas. See from above, Lisbon’s faded beauty is picture postcard, terracotta roofs on careworn tile-clad buildings tumbling towards the sparkling Tagus, famous for sending intrepid explorers out into the big blue. The waterfront, to the east, already redeveloped and achingly cool. Centre stage, the long dining tables in Mercado da Ribeira, the converted food market now revitalised by Time Out, the place to lunch. A noisy, buzzing, anything-you-fancy eating experience, sitting in the middle of the historic food stalls, where market traders have sold local produce since the late 1800s.

Nevertheless, thank goodness for the trams. The famous number 28, clattering through the maze of the narrow cobbled streets of Alfama, inching past parked cars and oblivious tourists, was not for the faint-hearted, but far kinder on the feet and the lungs!  On the other side of town, the “hill” problem is overcome via the Gloria funicular or the slightly bizarre neo-gothic styled Elevador de Santa Justa, rising from the Baixa district to the top of Barrio Alto in seconds, so the views are the only thing to take the breath away!

Lisbon’s hills leave a lasting impression, that’s for sure.

As does the food. In any country, there are certain things that never taste as good as when they are eaten there … in Portugal, it’s sardines. Silver slithers of deliciousness sizzling on market stalls, best enjoyed simply with a fist of crusty bread to soak up all the oil. And of course the famous “nata”, a delicious custard tart, buttery flaky pastry, custard just slightly wobbly, and a dusting of cinnamon.  She could have developed a seriously unhealthy addiction – may be climbing the hills was a good idea after all!

She found herself addicted too to the heart-breakingly beautiful fado music that flowed through the open windows of tiny airless bars in Alfama, as the sun sunk low on those early Summer days.  Fado, from the Latin fatum, and the source of the English word for fate …. so profoundly melancholic, it haunted her still.

They say you have to love yourself before you can be loved. It felt as if Lisbon was just waking up to its potential, quietly hiding away its faded beauty like a secret treasure, still wondering if it could hold its place in the hearts of the tourist droves starting to wander there. She left Lisbon, unsure where this fascinating city sat in her heart, but may be that was because she too was still learning to love herself. She wondered if she had given it enough of a chance to show her all it had to offer …. or perhaps it just wasn’t ready to yet.

 

 

finding Positive Solitude

 

 

“Claim your space. Draw a circle of light around it. Push back against the dark. Don’t just survive. Celebrate.”

(Charles Frazier)

 

She had never heard the expression “positive solitude” until a few days before, but it described perfectly the place she was on her journey.  

When she left her marriage, she knew loneliness would be her achilles heel, so had, of necessity, taught herself to embrace solitude.  The thought of a day on her own still had the capacity to leave a dull thud in her stomach and an uneasiness which she couldn’t quite put her finger on.  But, for the most part, she could get through a day alone, in fact, more than get through….

She found that keeping busy, or at the very least, having a plan, was the key.  Yes, of course, those plans very often displayed all the symptoms of running away, to escape the day-to-day, to break the routine where the silence of no early morning message from him would break her heart again and again. And sometimes, those plans were the end result of anger and defiance standing firm together in a “sod it, I don’t need anyone” kind of way.  Of course, in an ideal world, she would have given anything to be with someone who loved her, simple as that. But there is a difference between wanting and needing.  It took all her strength, but it was that anger, disappointment and hurt that gave her the momentum finally to step out into the world and say “bring it on”.

Holidaying alone, of course, was something else altogether, though she found that fear, when you are brave enough to look it in the eye, has nowhere to go.  

Florence was her first solo trip.  Alone, she spoke less, noticed more … and those moments when it would have been so wonderful, later, to say “Do you remember when …?”, sat in her memory bank alone.  More than anything, she came home with a sense of achievement that made her spirits sour, and still the memory of speeding through the Tuscan hills on a Vespa, that life-affirming rush, that freedom of spirit, left her grinning from ear to ear.

And so to Lisbon. A last minute, need to get on with my life, kind of booking … without any preconceived notions of what to expect.  A deliberate attempt not to be too touristy, to step out of her comfort zone a little further than before. 

And so, she sat typing this story, in a sun dappled courtyard just east of Alfama, the hilly artisan quarter of the town.  A local resident, Jose, popped his head out of his window and offered to put on his favourite fado music to keep her company.  Hauntingly beautiful voices, mending all those lost dreams in a soothing wave of melodies floating through the lemon trees, the delicate blues of heady agapanthus and lavender, across the white washed terrace outside her tiny apartment. For all Lisbon had to offer, she would remember most the magic of that moment. It was perfect.

She realised how far she had come.  So terrified before of even being alone, here she was, in a foreign land without a single soul to turn to. For her, this was being brave beyond her wildest imagination, and she knew she would be fine.  That’s quite a journey!

 

finding Mykonos

It was certainly a bit of a Thelma and Louise moment.  It was probably the pink helmets that did it.

Three days in to their spring break in Mykonos, it became clear that the only way to reach the tiny unspoilt bay on the other side of the island, was to hire some wheels. Whilst a car was the sensible option for two ladies of a certain age, quad bikes looked infinitely more exciting.  And so it was that they edged their way out into the morning traffic, with nothing but a rudimentary map and a vague sense of direction to guide their way.

They had happened upon Mykonos purely because the right travel deal came up at the right time.  Its reputation as a party island preceded it. Party girls they were not … but pictures of the unassuming family-run hotel just outside Mykonos town, low-rise, white-washed and draped in vibrant bougainvillea, lured them to this tiny dot of a Greek island.

Mykonos turned out to be a surprise in every way.

The town itself was a short boat taxi ride across the bay … what a way to arrive! Chugging into the mooring, they got their first glimpse of the iconic paving that winds its way through the narrow streets of the Old Town, inviting them in to explore it’s maze of quirky local bars and high end fashion retailers … this tiny island certainly attracts the money.  Shopping is more about Armani than  trashy souvenirs. Standing proud on the ridge, the time-worn windmills watch the to-ings and fro-ings of this busy harbour, like they have done for centuries past.

The famous party beaches weren’t for them, but the rest of the island remained surprisingly untouched by mass tourism, and the notion of the romantic Greek island idle that Shirley Valentine gave us in the 80s, can still be found in its barren hills, dotted with white-washed rural hamlets and tiny chapels peeping out at every turn.

Giggling with delight at the absurdity of  how they must have looked to the locals, two English woman on a quad bike, pink helmets, old enough to know better,  they jolted their way along the dusty tracks across the island to Fokos, recommended by a friend for its not-to-be-missed taverna.  Just as they arrived,  the locals started to spill in, bearing gifts for the staff on this the first day of opening for the summer season.  They felt they were intruding on a secret party, but were welcomed like long lost friends and beckoned onto the veranda to enjoy their meal lazily sitting in the dappled shade overlooking what can only be described as an island paradise. For the people, for the food, for the place …. it was one of those “do you remember” meals. Total bliss.

Mykonos … one of those places that where time passes so slowly, but a holiday is over so soon.  A definite must-go-back-one-day ….

 

finding that Eating Alone Isn’t Funny!

 

Laughter needs two people.

Laughing alone, tears rolling down her face,

because her book, the one that was meant to make it look

like she hadn’t been stood up

in the restaurant,

that book – well it was

side-splittingly, eye-wateringly hilarious!

And who, in their right mind,  would want to sit

anywhere near the crazy English lady

snorting in the corner!!

finding Florence II

Of course, it wasn’t challenge enough to solo travel for the first time. In a moment of madness, she decided to put something a little crazy in the mix, just to make sure this, for her, was the mother of all challenges!

So she booked a sight seeing tour around the Tuscan hills … on a Vespa!

Sound enough idea for an experienced motorcycle driver who had driven on the wrong side of the road before. She’d done neither the motorcycle or the side … ever!! Crazy or what?

That’s the funny thing about fear. Once she’d looked it in the eye, it had nowhere else to go. She’d realised that only way to find out how to travel alone, was to do it! It was a huge, life-changing life-enhancing decision … the icing on top of the cake that was her new independent grab-every-moment life. Hiring a Vespa? Just the cherry on the icing!

It wasn’t without trepidation however that she presented herself at the allocated time at the hire centre. Ten minutes later, after a quick run through of the essentials (basically how to start and how to stop), she emerged into the madness that is Florence’s mid morning traffic.

In the group of a dozen or so riders, some pillion, she was the only solo woman of a certain age. A object of some curiosity to the youngsters and the couples! She rather liked that … though they did collectively take it upon themselves to keep her in the middle of the pack out of harm’s way. Bless.

They wound their way up and up until Florence disappeared into a valley behind them. Clear of city drivers, with the dusty tracks to themselves, she began to relax, loosen her white knuckle grip on the handlebars and enjoy the Tuscan hills that stretched before them, just like they are in the movies. Cypress trees standing tall and straight on undulating hills, row upon row of vineyards ready to harvest, sprinkled with sun-mellowed terracotta villas.

The locals, intent on their daily tasks, watched bemused as a crazy English woman whizzed through their tiny hamlets, squealing with the freedom of it all.

She couldn’t believe she was actually doing it. She felt like she could fly. And life felt so, so extraordinarily good.

finding Florence I

She caught first sight of the Duomo while she was trundling her luggage along what had now become a rather haphazard route between the station and her hotel. A shock of green and white marble tantalizing her from the end of the street. It, quite literally, stopped her in her tracks.  She was to learn, during the next few days, that Florence has a habit of doing that …

The unpretentious family run hotel situated right at the end of Ponte Vecchio was perfect for a female first time solo traveller. Everything she wanted to see within touching distance, and a friendly face to come back to after a day’s “determined not to miss a thing” sightseeing.

A three night city break, particularly going solo, is more than enough time to get to grips with most cities.  With no-one else to please, she could focus on the things she wanted to see and do …. with the freedom to take, literally, a different path whenever she felt like it. The Florence must do’s – the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace,  the Duomo of course – called to her like presents that are so beautifully wrapped, it goes without saying that what’s inside will be something special.  Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Caravaggio … the names just roll of the tongue, all there, conjuring up a veritable cultural feast for the soul. The highlight for her, seeing the towering presence of the David standing tall at the end of the main gallery at the Accademia, took her breath away.  He’s quite something.

What she hadn’t anticipated was that the whole city feels like an architectural extravaganza, the most stunningly buildings at every turn.

But it doesn’t seem to show off about it. Florence waits to be found,  like a serene and beautiful woman, who is quietly confident in her own skin.

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 445 Days

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Day 444. His message read, “I’m leaving with the morning tide”.

A lifetime before, it was his freedom of spirit that had called to her soul. Those impenetrable eyes that would always seem to hide his darkest secrets, sparkling then, as he told her of his plans to sail the world, of being brave enough to dream impossible dreams.

So how it would end, was written from the start.  A cautious heart with any sense of self preservation would have wished him well and moved on.  Hers was neither, and in that moment as she fell under his spell, the pendulum set in motion, marking their days.  

The other lady in his life had stood proud and tall at the marina’s edge when at last they were introduced, and later, as the three of them glided out into the heady blue, the wind caught the mainsail,  and their spirits soared as one.  Anchored under the stars that night, time, it seemed, stood still.

The months passed. She waited and watched in awe, while he poured over tidal charts, swathes of blue surrounding tiny dots of paradise, and lavished his every waking hour on resolutely fettling his dream into a reality. She breathed his salty air as it seeped into her very core, and, for all the voices that told her she was crazy to give up everything she knew for his dream, she believed him when he said “meet me on the other side”.  

The last day. He silently slipped the ropes, a morning fog wrapping its icy fingers around the bow, stealing her heart and the promise of their tomorrows. She held her breath as the pendulum caught the final whisper of the prevailing breeze, it’s heartbeat faltered, and stopped.  

He took with him a piece of her, lost to the heady blue and the whim of the salty skies ….. and was gone.

First published by Reflex Fiction (Spring 2017)

 

finding the Other Lady in his Life

so serene at rest
calm and self-assured

as the sparkling dance
on the tips of the waves
fades with the setting sun

gone
only to reappear above
in the darkened sky
like magic
one by one

the gentle lap on her bow
as she wraps her arms around you
her hypnotic caress
a slow, lingering kiss
your bodies as one as
she whispers sweet nothings

“I am here, trust me, I am yours”

with the waking day,
she sleepily stirs
the breeze catches her breath
her sun-kissed limbs
languidly stretch
as she turns her face to the sun
calling her
an intoxicating desire engulfing her

“take me”

she arches her back
and groans with longing
as she strains to the call
of the heady blue

your powerful arms hold her tight
guide her
reassure her
as you take control
as she bends to your will

and you conquer the world

as one

 

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.”