Tag Archives: Traveling Alone

Just a Child

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

It was time to move on from Amalfi to Ravello.  From across the road I watched as a bus signed RAVELLO pulled away.  I walked to the schedule board.  There had been something online about the bus leaving every 10 minutes so I didn’t put a lot of effort into it but it was indecipherable anyway.

A tall pensioner dressed for a safari was also trying to make sense of the timetable.  After a few minutes we gave up and started to chat.

“I haven’t got much time left,” he sighed, “to see all the places I want to see.”  This made me uncomfortable.  Did he have cancer?  I had just met him and I didn’t want to but I felt compelled to ask, “I hope you’re not ill?”

“Oh no,” he laughed as though this were a silly question.  “My GP says I’m healthy.  I’m just old.  One of these days there will be a fall, or a burst blood vessel, and then I’ll be bundled off to a home.  Sometimes I think I should just jump off a cliff and get it over with.”  And here we were, surrounded by cliffs.  I didn’t ask if he was widowed or had children; they had probably been killed in a tragic accident.

He eyed me and said wistfully, “You’re just a child.”  This made me feel more awkward.  Was he just a nice old man, or a lecher trying to flatter me?

Based on his accent, I made the mistake of saying something about tough English people who were independent well into their centennial year.

“I’m not English,” he exclaimed.  “I’m from Jersey.  Have you heard of Jersey?”

He proceeded to inform me about the history of Jersey, the relationship between the UK and Jersey, and Jersey cows.  “You have heard of Jersey cows?”  Ye-es.  I don’t think he was patronizing me.  I think he was depressed and lonely—at home and everywhere.  He was one of those people who badly wants friendships but isn’t good at them.  He never asked me about myself, but launched into monologues about Italian history and his favorite country, Morocco.

He was one of those men who is a walking encyclopedia, with a library of books at home on history, geography, world religions, warfare, anthropology, and politics.  They have seen every war film and documentary, have visited Normandy and Pearl Harbor and spent days in the Churchill War Rooms at the Imperial War Museum.  They can name every regiment and what kind of tanks or planes were deployed and how many men died in the Battle of Nanjing and the siege of Leningrad and the Bataan Death March.  And now that these men have Google, it’s like they’re on steroids.

I sometimes worry that I have this tendency.  I am always conscious of not spewing people with verbal diarrhea, especially if I’ve been traveling solo for a while.

Of course there are men, and women, like this in every land, but the British and their cousins seem to produce more, maybe because of their national fixation on World War II.  That’s not a criticism—they had the #@$% bombed out of them and then my country forced them to pay war reparations, which prevented them from rebuilding as quickly as they could have.  We Americans would do well to emulate their habit of reflection.

Forty-five minutes passed and people were crowding onto the platform.  A young guy who turned out to be honeymooner from St. Louis asked if we thought they should go to Venice.  He was a stereotypical super friendly American.  A nice guy, to another American.

My new Jersey friend and I endorsed Venice.  “It’s dark and decaying, in a lovely way,” I offered.  “Don’t miss the cemetery island.”  Me and my cemeteries.

“Oh, I give up! I’m going back to Sorrento,” Jersey declared and walked off.

Five minutes later the bus arrived.  As we pulled away I could hear St. Louis behind me saying, “That old English guy is one of those people who knows something about everything.  Thank god he went back or he’d be talkin’ our ears off.”

Alt Amalfi

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

I had seen the one attraction in Amalfi, the Paper Museum, in under 15 minutes.  I wandered back toward the center of town, then saw a little sign that said “Ancient Stairs.”  Of course I had to follow it.

Whoever wrote the sign wasn’t kidding.  The stairs were stone, worn concave by thousands of footsteps.  They were also slippery as hell—at one junction my left leg slid left and my right slid behind me, leaving me face down, arms splayed in the “worshipful peon” position.

Having torn my knee ligament two years ago, I was relieved to get up and feel okay.  I was also reminded of one of the pitfalls of traveling alone.  The town was deserted.  Who would have helped me up, then down all those stairs if I had torn my MCL?  I began paying more attention to my steps.

The stairs led up and around and up and back and down and up and around.  Here are a couple scenic views along the way:


These mailboxes may seem unremarkable if you are Italian, but in Minnesota everyone is named Johnson, Swanson, and Anderson, so they were charmingly exotic to me.

There was another sign that pointed to a Cimitero.  I love cemeteries and, having no other plan, decided to visit.

There were no more Cimitero signs, just crude arrows hand-painted here on a wall and there on stair.  Some of the walls were so close together that the sides of my umbrella brushed against them.  I climbed, and climbed, and counted steps: 200, 300, 400 … every so often the view would open up before me:

view view-3

Heartbreakingly beautiful, eh, even with the rain?

There were more lovely mysterious entryways.  I would have loved to be invited in for lunch:


500, 600, 700 … Here’s a tip: Go while your knees are still good.

800 … I wondered why the cemetery was at the top of the mountain.  Wasn’t that kind of unhygienic?  I had not seen a single human until now, when a couple came my way and said with in rough English, “The trail is closed.”

I figured they couldn’t possibly be headed for the cemetery.  Only I was weird enough to hike 800 stairs to see headstones.  So I smiled and kept going.

“But it is still beautiful,” said the woman over her shoulder as they hiked down.  And it was:


This was as far as I got because when I turned around from shooting this photo I saw the sign for the cemetery, which had closed five minutes earlier.  FIVE minutes!  Again, this is one of the hazards of traveling in the off season, many sites have limited hours.


The hiking couple had been right, there was an orange plastic fence across the path just beyond the cemetery entrance.  I stood there a moment, waiting for some special feeling and, feeling none, turned around and walked back down the 800 steps.

All that hiking had helped me work up an appetite, and not for a protein bar.  I found a hole-in-the wall pizzeria (it seemed like every restaurant in Italy was a “pizzeria”).

For 4€ I got an enormous sandwich with grilled red peppers, eggplant, and onions smothered in melted mozzarella, and a Coke Pink, which was everywhere.

Since I come from a land where we must huddle inside for six months of the year due to the cold, I always sit outside when I’m traveling, even if it’s raining, which it still was.  I pulled up a café table under the awning, leaning in to stay dry.

There was a bored English middle-aged couple sitting nearby, and a pair of middle aged Italian women.  Suddenly one of them said to me in perfect English, “You made a joke.”


“You made a joke in the museum.  I’m an English teacher.  I understood.”

We laughed and chatted about languages; it was nice to have a little human interaction.  Then the English guy asked me what I thought about Donald Trump.  What a buzz kill.  I made a noncommittal comment, wolfed down my food, and walked off.

Art and The Avocado

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

As I exited the Borghese Gallery at exactly 2:00 pm I wondered, Why Caravaggio?  Why Bernini? Why did they become famous, while hundreds of other artists who had created most of the art in the gallery remained nameless nobodies?  How do some artists “break out” from the pack? Is it talent, connections, luck, or what?

I could appreciate how difficult it must have been to carve fingers out of marble.  Were no other sculptors able to do that—is that why Bernini stands out?  I could see how Caravaggio’s paintings were darker than his peers.  Is that why he’s considered so much greater than other painters?  Was “darker” a breakthrough in the 16th Century, like cubism would be in the 20th?  Even the worst artist in the gallery—if there was one—was infinitely better than I could ever be.  I felt like a philistine and resolved, as usual, to read up on what I had seen when I returned home.

I sat on a bench outside the gallery next to an elderly couple and pulled out my map so I could think about where to go next.  The man leaned over to me and asked where I was from.  He had never heard of Minnesota and his English was so-so, but that didn’t stop him from talking without interruption for 20 minutes straight.

He commandeered my map so I couldn’t walk away.  He was very nice but he made enough suggestions to keep me busy in Rome for a month.  “You must walk over to the other side of the river and see the Church of St. Celestine of the Bloody Hand,” he said enthusiastically.  “It’s like no other church you’ve ever seen!  It will only take you about a half hour to get there by taxi.”  I made up that church name, of course.

He paused, then sighed, “Ah, that’s-a-Roma.”

His wife leaned forward to peer around him at me with a look that said, “He always does this.”  She must have been 80 but she didn’t have a hair out of place and she was wearing a skirt and high heels.  He was wearing a black trench coat, open so I could see his tweed suit and silk tie.  They were both wearing boxy, trendy eyeglasses.

He said something that sounded like “I am an avocado.”  What?  “A lawyer—retired,” he said in English.  Ah, an avvocato—as in legal advocate— I nodded.

“You must see the Caravaggios in the Church of the Holy Martyrs of the Flagellation,” came next.  “Ah, that’s-a-Roma.”

“You are by yourself?” he asked.  “Alone?”  When I nodded he looked back at his wife and I couldn’t see their faces but I imagined they exchanged pitying glances.

Finally, I maintained eye contact and smiled while gently extracting my map from his hands, then walked off down the tree-lined lane.  They were such a sweet couple.  Why wasn’t I part of a sweet couple?  Why?  What had I done wrong?  Would I ever meet Mr. Right?  Why was I the Only One in the World who was alone?  Blah, blah, blah went my thoughts.  A few tears escaped, and I thought this would be a good time to sit on a bench, rest a bit, and gather my thoughts.  But counterintuitively, it’s often when I’m over tired that I have the urge to Press On No Matter What.  I was determined to find one of the things the old man had recommended—a church in the Piazza del Popolo which had two Caravaggios.

Despite it being close by, I got lost.  I consulted the map, then got lost again.   It was hot, I was hungry and tired.  The thoughts started again: What’s wrong with you?  You’re such an idiot.  No one else gets lost this much.  Finally I stumbled into the church and gazed at the Caravaggios.  Meh.  I think I had OD’d on art.  After three days of nonstop touring, I told myself I had nothing to prove.  I walked back to my hotel, polished off my complimentary prosecco, and slept for 12 hours.

Benvenuti a Roma

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

This is Rome’s air traffic control tower:


I would find it to be emblematic of Italy—colorful and confusing.

The guide books and websites tell you to take the Michelangelo Express from the airport into the city.  I scribbled down directions for walking from the train station to my hotel.  How hard could it be after flying 5,000 miles, on no sleep, and with a full-sized suitcase and a big backpack?  Why spend 10€ on a taxi when I could walk for free, right?

Fortunately a coworker had been to Rome recently.  “Don’t take that Michelangelo Express thing,” she said.  “Go to the generic ‘Ticket Counter’ and tell them you want the bus that takes you directly to your hotel.”

“But won’t that be super expensive?” I asked.  “It’s like a half-hour ride.”

“No.  It’s only about 6€ more than the Leonardo Express.  It doesn’t have a name and there are no signs for it anywhere, but if you ask for the “door-to-door bus,” you get in a little van with a couple other passengers and they drop you off at your hotel door.  They call it a bus but it’s not a bus—but ask for the bus.  Got it?”

“Why wouldn’t everybody do it?” I wondered.

“Because they don’t know it exists,” she laughed.

It sounded too good to be true.  Since it had no name, I couldn’t Google it.  I couldn’t find anything on Trip Advisor or in guide books.  But it did exist, and it was great to go directly to my hotel instead of schlepping myself and my luggage from the train station.  Plus, since it wasn’t a train, we drove through the city and I got a nice little sight-seeing tour as a bonus.

Welcome to travel, where mysteries abound.  All you can do is laugh a little, go with the flow, and hope for the best—or at least for a little adventure.

I had found the Hotel Italia on Trip Advisor by Googling, “women traveling alone in Rome.”

I have spent time in hotels known as romantic getaways, and it can be depressing to be surrounded by couples mooning over each other.  There are safety considerations, and it’s worthwhile trying to find a place where you don’t pay a double occupancy rate.  Sometimes it feels like I am the only one traveling alone, but I’m not.  We’re out there, and dozens of women had taken time to suggest solo-female-friendly hotels.

I’m not aware that the hotel category “single” exists in the US, but it does in Europe.  In fact, maybe due to the age and quirkiness of European hotels, I have stayed in rooms with three twin beds, four twin beds, and now at the Hotel Italia, I would stay in a tiny room with one twin bed.

The front desk guy was Indian, of course.  He seemed melancholic and perhaps a bit resentful, that he had been meant for greater things than running a two-star hotel.  But he was nice enough. He opened a city map and did what he had clearly done many times—marked the hotel with a big “X”, circled the Big Sights and told me how far they were, and described how to take the metro to the Vatican.

“What time does it get dark?” I asked.  It was already 2:30 and I wanted to get out there and see what I could before nightfall.

“5:00 o’clock, and I would advise you to be very careful after dark,” he said, then retracted slightly. “I don’t mean to discourage you from being out a night, but as a woman traveling alone ….”

Well.  That was discouraging, but I wouldn’t be able to stay awake much beyond 7:00 anyway.

The Hotel Italia website proclaims itself a “Cheap Hotel” and they aren’t kidding.  It cost $85 a night to stay in central Rome, within walking distance of the Coliseum, and included breakfast and a free bottle of Prosecco to boot.  I tipped the bellman who showed me my room, tossed back a glass of Prosecco, then headed out to find the Coliseum.