So here we are again, now on my third post of the series that I really should figure out a name for; My Solo Travel Experience sounds so uncreative and boring. You can find part one here and part two here.
San Francisco was a great first trip on my lonesome but by summer of the following year, I needed something big. (Also, I highly recommend San Francisco as a first solo travel experience. California is definitely a melting pot, but SF is even more so. Lots of different cultures all at once.) I’ve always loved Italian food, culture, language and passion, so why not Italy? I’m sure everyone can agree that pasta is absolutely delicious…but I love the simplicity of Mediterranean food. The splurging of parmigiano reggiano to make each dish flavorful, the tastes of various olive oil from old trees in different regions, the freshly the crispness of bruschetta. I’m sure I’m romanticizing food, but the country’s passion and intention pulled me in even closer. So that summer, I booked a ticket to Rome in November over the Thanksgiving holiday and immediately started planning my trip.
I was never one to enjoy social studies lessons in school, but soon I found myself researching the regions of Italy and why the Coliseum is important and what the Black Plague actually was. I wanted to know everything (a common theme in my life…sorry for everyone who has to deal with all of my fun facts) before heading to this foreign land instead of missing out on key cultural locations and only realizing it afterward. After all, I had no tour guide to make sure I spotted the big building on the left or tell me that the Spanish Steps are around the corner from the Trevi fountain, let alone educate me on why they’re a big deal.
Another huge factor that fueled the fire of learning the ins and outs of Italy is that I didn’t want to look like a tourist. And not just a tourist, but a solo young gal in a foreign country. The biggest piece of advice I learned in my trip to SF the prior year is to confidently look like I knew where I was going. Accidentally walk into the Tenderloin wearing a bright green jacket near dusk in a city I’ve never been to? Definitely not accidental, I MEANT to go this way. I wanted to make sure I was confident both on the inside as I portrayed myself on the outside in cities where most people don’t speak English fluently. Besides the whole safety factor, who actually wants to look like the nerdy American tourist who doesn’t know the native language and only sticks to the main areas? Not I. Plus, all this research kept me at home to save cheddar instead of spending it on nights out at the bar. (Win, win)
I’ll go into more detail about planning and where I went later, but this trip to Italy turned out to be as magical as I hoped it to be despite with some minor set-backs. I wanted to see it all; a real Tour of Italy (and not that expensive dish you order at Olive Garden). I knew that late November-early December was the low season for travel so I could be as flexible as possible with my accommodations and plans. I researched, researched, and researched some more and came down to a general plan of Rome, Florence, Milan, and Venice throughout three-ish weeks. And let me tell you: it was awesome.
Obviously it was full of many firsts, but it was really the first time being a vagabond and going where the wind (and my whim) would take me. I had three full weeks to do whatever the hell I wanted without feeling guilty of going too fast or too slow or staying in bed until noon. I walked for 15 hours throughout Rome with my new hostel friends; I spent a few extra days in Florence sitting under a tree in the piazzas; I climbed to the top of the duomo in Milan and spent hours nerding out at the Leonardo da Vinci museum; I was the +1 at a university party in Venice with the B&B manager. I’m in no way knocking traveling with others at all — I LOVE all of my friends and would go on a trip instantly with them — but solo travel guides you into spontaneity and allows you to be yourself when no one is watching.
I managed to hit 22 towns and cities overall, which is very fast paced but just what I needed. Plus, I got to try gelato in all the different regions. 😉 (Spoiler alert: Siena, my favorite city on the trip, has the best gelato. Second place goes to a little shop outside of the Vatican in Rome.) Italy was fun and exhilarating and lived up to all of my expectations. It was definitely full of neat surprises, but it was the kind of feeling when you finally watchthe movie based on your favorite book and it wasn’t a huge flop; everything you imagined has come to life in front of your eyes.
If I thought I was hooked on travel in San Francisco, I was totally hooked now. Being American, and even more so as a Californian, you hear about ancestry and heritage but you don’t necessarily see it. Modern day California was built a hundred or so years ago — buildings are created to look old and worn in but are built as quickly as possible to keep up with the population. People are focused on new technology and the next ‘big’ thing. Being in Europe (and Italy), you soon realize that everything there IS old and authentic. It’s like a breath of fresh air in cities that have been breathed in for thousands of years.