This morning, I received a question from a reader who says, “I am a single gal thinking of taking off from AZ this summer for some adventure in Spain or Italy. Have you been to both? I didn’t see Italy in your blogs, but maybe you didn’t mention it. Anyway, I was just wondering if you had a favorite place that you had been overall in all of your travels and secondly if you think I could get around easily enough being solo and not speaking any other languages.”
I thought it might be useful to discuss my answer on here, since it does pertain to traveling, although I did respond offline.
Unfortunately, I have yet to go to Italy – though I have a conference planned there for September 2008! I do know a number of people who have traveled through Italy, and hands down, anyone I have talked to who has been to Venice (NOT in the summer months), says that it is their favorite city in Europe. With that kind of response, how can I not want to go there? I will advise against traveling during July and August, when I’m told the smell of the city can overpower its charm. I’ve also heard delightful things about the Tuscan region of Italy. And after seeing Under the Tuscan Sun more than once, I’m sure I’m not the only one who has visions of buying a villa in Tuscany and restoring it – impractical, yes, but a girl can dream, can’t she? So although I’ve never visited Italy myself, these are my two top recommendations. I’m sure a lot of people would also be in favor of trips to Milano and Rome, but I have never heard such strong feelings about them in the same way of those who speak of Venice.
As for Spain, any of you who have read my Spain retrospectives know that I loved Barcelona. The city has its own undeniable charm that really separates it from any other European city. And what’s not to love? It is cupped by the mountains next to a glittering ocean, where the hot sun makes you feel exotic and mysterious. The typical European architecture often makes way to surprisingly delicious Gaudi buildings and I can’t help but be drawn to any city that houses a Picasso museum and was his home, even for a time.
The food is varied and excellent, and the nightlife is fascinating – don’t even think about going out before ten for dinner! It’s really a magical place to go. Anyone I know who has fallen in love with Barca and traveled elsewhere in Spain has also quite enjoyed Madrid. And my cousin was also a fan of Pamplona – though I have NO interest in ever seeing the spectacle that is the running of the bulls!
Truly my favorite place in Europe though, if I am to choose a favorite, is Vienna. I have no travel diary from my trip there in April of 2006, but I have never enjoyed three days in a city more. Rumor has it that it’s a nicer, gentler version of a German city. From exploring the city by subway to testing out an entire menu over three days at a local pub to falling in love with the animals at the zoo at Schonnbrun Palace, I just can’t wait to go back. I highly recommend going to Wiedenbrau Pub (great Wienerschnitzel, and the BEST potato salad I’ve ever had – oh, and try their desserts!), venturing out to find any piano bar in the city, meeting the locals who own the tiny tourist shops by St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and spending the day at Schonnbrun Palace. Don’t forget to see the Opera House, St. Stephen’s itself (the roof is magnificent), all of the art galleries, and the Hofsburg Palace – yes, the very location of the ball that is held every New Year’s Eve. I look forward to my return!
As to traveling as only an English-speaker, I highly recommend learning the phrase “I’m sorry, my [insert the current language here] isn’t very good. Do you speak English?” in whatever language you need to know. In most major cities, you’ll find that a lot of people speak English, and do appreciate you at least attempting their language – and when you do, they’ll realize that they prefer to speak English with you! This phrase has served me well in Germany and in France (although my French is decidedly better than my German!). I also find that you can pick up a lot of the local language if you ask people that you meet how to say something – most people around the world are really nice and helpful. I’ve only run into true difficulty when traveling in Russia – you ABSOLUTELY need a tour guide in Russia to simply survive. I was lucky to have good friends with me, and the best tour guide I have ever had in any city – Irina. But it’s almost impossible to get around without an understanding of Russian and cyrillic writing. And of course, some of the Scandanavian countries are a bit intimidating. Although there, you’ll find that most natives speak English better than some Americans and are exceedingly polite.
On the topic of traveling alone as a woman, I certainly think it’s possible to do so and a number of books have been published on that very subject. Now, I can’t recommend any of these personally, because I am not yet comfortable to travel on my own for pleasure, but I can list them here:
Fly Solo: The 50 Best Places on Earth for a Girl to Travel Alone by Teresa Rodriguez Williamson
Gutsy Women: More Travel Tips and Wisdom For the Road by Marybeth Bond
Wanderlust and Lipstick: The Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo by Beth Whitman
I can highly recommend the Sand in My Bra series, edited by Jennifer Leo – these are travel essays by women and they are some of the funniest travel stories (the funniest ANYTHING stories) I’ve ever read. And they constantly inspire my wanderlust.
Recommendations I would have for traveling alone (since I have done it for business after all!):
– Make sure you do splurge for a fairly good hotel – you want to feel safe at night, and be able to trust the staff so that if you do have questions or difficulties, you don’t hesitate to go to them.
– Make three copies of your passport – leave one at home with a family member, put one in your suitcase, and one in your purse. I try to always carry my passport with me.
– Make sure you have a friend at home that you check in with every day, whether it’s by phone or email. It’s good to be accountable to somebody!
– Look confident, even when you’re not. It’s okay to ask questions of people if you’re lost, or not sure where you’re going, but walking along the street, pretend you belong there.
– Check local customs before you go – this is good to do whether you’re traveling alone or in a group. It’s just nice to know what’s expected of you, and when they eat in other countries!
– Sometimes, you might be more comfortable joining a tour group if you don’t have a buddy to go with. I’d certainly recommend this for Asian travel.
– Don’t go to India alone as a woman. 🙂
So I hope that this inspires all of you to take a trip soon – whether it be to Europe, Asia or just exploring your own town. There really is a lot to see out there!