Florence with my Trusty Companion

One of my sure-fire solo travel recommendations is to tap into the growing market of ‘experiences’ available in any given tourist location. These excursions run from the traditional – history walks, guided tours in art galleries and food tours – to a new wave of exciting options, all based on what I’ll call the ‘learning economy’.

I have a friend who spent a week in a French chateau with her sister, on a knitting adventure. I was salivating at the thought of spending a week in such a beautiful spot, with like-minded artisans, partaking in the sights, tastes and sounds of the French culture. Sign me up! Oops, I don’t knit. 

There are similar opportunities across the globe. Hop on a cruise ship for a week with your favourite authors, musicians, or thought leaders. Move into a gorgeous Italian villa with your favourite painter or food guru. Many of the river cruise companies that slowly glide across Europe offer deals for single travellers. My to-go list is very long! 

I’ve always been a point-and-shoot photographer, with a deep admiration for and desire to be a real photographer. My trusty Nikon (ok, my son’s) was my travel companion on this trip. I must tell you that seeing a new place through the eyes of a camera is a very different experience. Instead of looking at the grandeur of a gorgeous city, I started to see details. It also allows you to be a bit bolder … in that ‘you aren’t really supposed to stare at people like this’ kind of way.

I was pretty excited to find a private photography tour in Florence. Here we are – our instructor Nathan and a fellow student – ready to head out on a lovely tour of Florence, from tip to toe.   

  

We meandered through squares, streets, and strange little places. We learned about composition, focal lengths, exposure, and all the funny little things that photographers know and love. Except it was in Florence!   

  

     

We hopped into a cab and travelled up to the Piazza Michelangelo, for a stunning view of the city. It was in the middle of a heat wave, so the skies were hazy. (I’ll need to go back in the off season to retake this!)    

 

My eye naturally travels to people and details.

     

        

It was a great day. Learned a pile of new things. Already wondering what I will do next! 

Carry On!

 

Driving tips for the solo traveller

I have a sweet set of wheels on this trip. Meet Ravenna, my Fiat500.

 

My Vespa is named Florence, so now she has a cousin. 

For many, the thought of driving in Italy is, well, ominous. The rumours are true. Italian drivers are aggressive, impatient, and they honk the horn incessantly. They are also 100x better drivers than 99% of Canadian drivers. Why? Because they are always on alert. Most learn to drive on scooters and motorcycles, which makes them instantly defensive drivers. (If you are driving here and getting angry … It’s you, not them!) 

I love to drive here, because it is fun and provides me with a great deal of freedom.  Well, here, as in everywhere in Italy but the Amalfi Coast, but that’s a whole other ball game. Twisty. 😖

Here are some tips to consider, when you are deciding on transportation options, if you are travelling on your own. 

  • Follow the signs. The Italians are superb with directional signs. Look, there’s a toilet down that road! Look, another church! 
  • Understand that you are a mere inconvenience to those on two feet or two wheels. I was stopped at a red light today and in the wee minute we were waiting, I was surrounded by no less than 8 scooters and motorcycles, all pulling rank on me. Scusi me! Also, jaywalking is a way of life – just like in Uptown Waterloo – so don’t ever assume that the pedestrians will actually use the sidewalks!
  • Take a look at your destination’s map before you arrive. Make note of key roads and general landmarks. Is there a castle? A duomo? An ocean? You will have a clearer lay of the land as you arrive in town. 
  • Be prepared to be lost, frequently. Today, en route to my hotel in Rimini, I took the same one way loop through town before I found my hotel … 6 times. Yup. 6 times. Made it! 
  • Consider being lost part of the adventure. Go easy on yourself. 
  • Be prepared to pull over and ask yourself for directions. Or your roam like home map app. Hallelujah for the Internet. 
  • If someone is driving aggressively behind you, pull over and let them pass. They may not be on vacation. 

If that sounds too daunting, remember that Italy has a fantastic train system. You can also hire drivers very easily – we did that in Amalfi and it was a brilliant choice. 

Speaking of vacation. If you arrive at your Italian hotel, nestled in the coastal city of Rimini, there may be one of these there. 

  
  And some of this. 
  
Enjoy! 

Benvenuto a Bologna

I have a new favourite Italian city. Well, until I arrive in the next one…

Bologna. Beautiful, gorgeous, civilized Bologna. 

Home of the oldest university in the world, I am lucky to be here during ‘Reunion’, their version of Homecoming. 

What did I do? 

I took a cooking class. Most Cities now offer cooking classes, food walking tours, photography classes … you name it. It’s a growing industry and is such a great way to jump into a culture. 

 

In which we used the freshest ingredients – including ginormous amounts of freshly grated Parmesan cheese – to make stuffed ravioli and tortelloni.

 
   

Yes, totally from scratch! Did you know that the Italians have special eggs for making pasta? The hens eat a diet that includes carrots, making the egg yolks an incredible dark orange in colour. That leads to that gorgeous dark yellow colouring in the pasta. Such a fun experience! I also made a delicious eggplant parmigiana and stuffed zucchini flowers. Yes, more cheese. 

Extra bonus, meeting a lovely mom & daughter travelling together from Denver. We had a great time cooking together and the two bottles of vino rosso we had with dinner was pretty good, too! 

Lesson of the day – travelling solo is always an adventure if you are open to doing new things and meeting new people. 

I finished off the night in the Piazza Maggiore – the main public square in Bologna – which houses the Basilica and all of the main public buildings. 

This guy lives there. You know who he is.

  
I joined about 3000 happy people for the nightly outdoor movie. Does it get better than this? It was incredible to be in this spectacular, ancient space … with a massive digital projector and a 100 ft wide movie screen. 

  
An incredible start to my summer travels. Ciao from Bologna!

Flying Solo: Choosing the Perfect European Hotel

In a few weeks, I am packing up my carry on bag and hopping on a late afternoon flight to Europe, kick-starting my 50th birthday celebrations – my gift to myself – in Italy.

I have spent a fair bit of time plotting my route, planning experiences, and picking hotels for my adventure.

florence-map-big

After years of experience – yes, I know I’m enormously blessed to travel as much as I do – I have developed a strategy for picking the perfect hotel in Europe, particularly if I am travelling on my own.

  1. Location, location, location. I always book hotels that are central to the historic hub of the city. They may or may not cost a bit more – simple economics – but the value of a central location is huge to me. If picked properly, I can step outside my door and be right in the action. European cities are wonderful at night – lots of pedestrians, window shopping, and excellent street lighting – and by choosing a centrally located hotel, you are safe and sound in the midst of it.  Don’t forget – dinner starts at 9 or 10pm. Picture yourself drinking wine and enjoying homemade pasta, while people watching from a cafe table in a beautiful public square.
  2. Single rooms.  Be prepared for the fact that European hotels are wonderfully different than our North American cookie-cutter hotels – they are quirky, particularly in historic areas. One of the good bits about that is the availability of single rooms … cosy, clean, and cheaper than a regular hotel room. I love this option!
  3. Use Google Maps.  I always pull up Google Streetview to see what the neighbourhood looks like. I like to know that there is a pizzeria in the immediate vicinity, just in case I am craving a late night margherita pizza. 😉 You can also make a decision – does this look like someplace I will be comfortable walking alone? You can also see where transit stops are on those maps – good info!
  4. Check in with Tripadvisor. A bit of a caveat: I consider Tripadvisor (and similar sites) to be a bit of a double edged sword. I will always check the reviews of my choices … with an eye to understanding that “Barbara from Houston” who is upset that her hotel in Siena’s historic district isn’t close enough to a Starbucks may not have the same travel goals as I do … and weigh my options. I do want to know if a hotel has horrible customer service or a problem with mold and/or mice. Other than that, I will likely book a room. These sites will also help you know if there are lots of tricky stairs to be navigated or if parking is a problem. Take a look at the ‘traveller’s photos’, particularly if you want to see what the loo likes like!
  5. Don’t let availability of parking determine your hotel choice. If you are choosing a hotel in the city centre – many of which are off limits to cars – there will be parking garages nearby. Ask at the hotel … its an easy solution and keeps you in the best part of the city.
  6. Set an average per night price that you are comfortable with.  This approach to booking rooms allows me a bit of flexibility when choosing hotels. In Italy, I find that an average of $100/night gets me into really nice spots – not fancy – that are safe, clean, and well-located. That’s what I’m looking for as a single, female traveller.

As an example, check out Hotel Alessandra in Florence.

It’s a lovely traditional hotel, set in the midst of Florence’s historic core. One block to the Ponte Vecchio, a few cobble-stoned blocks to the main squares, museums, and the Duomo. Everything you need at your feet.

You will see that there a multitude of room choices, from family rooms to singles. Last summer, I stayed in the pink single room for less than $100CAN (an early, discounted booking) including breakfast. It was perfectly clean and cosy, with a lovely washroom. The breakfast was great and – oh, Italy, I love you so much – they make your morning coffee to order.

I have started using Booking.com as my preferred tool for booking hotel rooms in Europe. It works for me – all of my booking information is collected in one online spot, making the traditional hunt for emails obsolete. My iPad and I love that! It also allows you to book early – without a deposit – and change your plans, as they emerge.

Finding the perfect hotel for you and your travel needs can be daunting … I hope you find these tips empowering.

Carry on!