You’ll no doubt learn a lifetime of lessons when you travel alone, but I’d like to share seven that I learnt when wandering in Italy.
Books. Taking books or buying books when travelling was one of the most enriching experiences, whether it was a light read from back home that transported me to an albeit slightly predictable love story whilst sitting alone in the sun, or a book of Italian poems gifted to me by an elderly man in a coffee shop (yes, this happened). Those lonely train journeys, rainy afternoons or nights in a single hotel room were quickly transformed by a paperback in my lap. My Bible got me through a lot. The provocative words of a travel novel often fuelled my desire to see more, to do more, to learn more. In sum, a book is a must for a lone-traveller’s backpack.
Research. It was really rather daunting, the prospect of jetting off into the unknown alone. So, I made sure it wasn’t entirely unknown beforehand. I must stress that I love surprises, discovering hidden corners and uncovering the unimaginable. However, some things I did need to know in advance. Making sure I looked up the basic cultural norms, the transport links, the best routes upon arrival and, of course, those essential phrases (although having studied Italian for two years meant that this was somewhat easier!) enabled me to hold my head that little bit higher when arriving in Puglia, feeling smugly savvy when turning down offers of extortionate taxi lifts in favour of my pre-booked airport shuttles.
Escape the hustle and bustle of the centre. This was quite straightforward when living in the midst of the Pugliese countryside, out of sight and out of mind of the general tourist trends. However, even here it was when I escaped the town in which I worked, for desolate olive groves and chilly cathedrals that I was truly able to soak up Italy. The region has such an expansive countryside and such ancient remains and I am all the more in love for the few I managed to visit.
Accept help. Solo travel does not have to mean stubborn travel. I love the sea and was determined from the offset to dip my toes in Puglia’s crystalline waters, something that had existed only in my dreams until then. However, without a licence and too young to rent a car overseas anyway, those waters seemed slightly out of reach at first. I wanted to do it all myself, to be that fully autonomous explorer. Still, when offered a lift on a local family’s beach trip, I blurted “Si’ without a moment’s hesitation. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with taking advice, holding a helping hand and taking people up on their offers of help when you’re travelling alone. Not only can it make things far simpler, it can also be the beginning of new relationships with those you meet along the way.
Tea. Or, perhaps more prominent in Italy; coffee. Though really any hot beverage that facilitates an afternoon spent people-watching and, hopefully, some friendship-making is a wonderful thing. Italians in Puglia were serious about their coffee. Tip: do not ask for an Americano – and bonding over a quality roast was a pretty special way to meet the locals and climb under the surface of tourist traps into the depths of real Italy. Get to know your barista, ask them about the area and take full advantage of their local expertise. They’re often the coolest people you’ll meet when travelling. I ended up becoming dear friends with my barista and his wife, joining them for festive dinners and taking road-trips together to those insider hideouts.
Have confidence. Have confidence in yourself. This is so important when you’re travelling alone. The minute you doubt what you’re doing and whether you’re really even capable of making it until the
end, it can quickly turn from Eat Pray Love to Sleep Cry Fear. Of course, solo travel as a woman brings with it risks, and it is important to avoid putting yourself in dangerous situations. But I trusted that my decision to take that flight was the right one – my decision to decline familiarity for freshness was one I thought long and hard about. Sometimes that meant faking it a little. Disguising my initial nerves when arriving in Rome for the first time with a smile that said, “I’m home”. The disguise soon became an identity and I was soon losing myself in Rome’s beauty.
Expect the unexpected. Sometimes Southern Italy was cold. Really cold. Even the eternal summers of the Mediterranean have their exceptions. And boy, did I feel silly for not having considered this when packing my optimistic suitcase full of SPF 20 and hopeful light dresses. But it taught me to loosen my grip on preconceptions, which can only be a good thing.
So, BREATHE in. Go. And maybe come back.
Connie Hogg is a French and Italian student at the University of Bath and keen traveler writer. Images credited to rhiannamay – a wedding and lifestyle photographer based in Milan.