All I heard from people for weeks before my last trip to Italy in 2011 was “Who goes to Venice alone?” “Venice is one of the most romantic cities in the world. You’re insane to go to alone.” “I could never go to such a sexy city by myself. It’s not normal. Won’t you feel out of place and lonely? ”
I was actually shocked to hear these comments directed toward me. After all, my friends, family and co-workers were all well aware that I travel solo quite often. Yet, I guess they drew the proverbial line at Venice as an “acceptable” or “normal” option for solo travel, especially for a woman travelling alone.
Morticia Adams of The Addams Family stated famously, “Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.” This is not only a brilliant and insightful statement, but it is poetry that moves my heart. It motivates me to keep pushing past my comfort zones.
“Who goes to Venice alone?” they all wondered. My answer was, “I do!” I guess I am more the spider than the fly (HA!).
In addition to Venice, I also visited other parts of The Veneto region including Lido (Venice Film Festival), Murano (Venetian glass factory), Burano (painted house town/historic lace-making), Verona (Casa di Giulietta, Giardino Giusti) Lake Garda, Bardolino and Padua. Before I share a few highlights of that fabulous vacation, I want to say something very important for the nervous solo travellers out there. Lean in, please. Ready?
Romance i not something which is shared exclusively with another person. A place like Venice which is an old and storied city built on water is incredibly unique. It is a living, breathing, romantic thing with its gondolas, Grand Canal, smaller canals, narrow and winding alleys, palazzos, San Marco Square, Rialto Bridge and much more. I needed to see it before it officially sinks into oblivion! And, I was not about to wait around for a husband, boyfriend, lover or platonic friend to free themselves up to join me. Sometimes, a person must learn to romance oneself! (OK. This last statement may have come out a little dirtier-sounding than I intended, but YOU know what I mean!)
I visited The Veneto in September because The 68th annual Venice Film Festival (one part of La Biennale di Venezia), the oldest, major and longest, continually running film festival in the world was kicking off at that time. I love movies. I even minored in film while I was in college. Score! I had a plan! Also, it was equally fortuitous that Venice’s Historica Regatta on The Grand Canal was happening at the same time. Double score! Since those same events are beginning today (8/27/- 9/6) and I am feeling nostalgic, I thought I would share some of my travel planning and experiences from that solo vacation. I hope you find it helpful and inspiring.
1. Don’t over plan. It can stress you out and often leads to disappointment when things don’t work out perfectly. It also leaves little room for a myriad of life’s unexpected and fun memories:
- I ordered and printed my ticket for a screening of the movie, “Shame” at the Venice Film Festival, starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan online. I picked my actual seat, too;
- I let American Express Travel book my rail tickets from Venice-Verona-Padua-Venice because they were more efficient about it than I would have been. I also let them arrange for my private speedboat pick-ups/drop-offs between the airport in Venice and my hotel there;
- I collected and saved a few restaurant recommendations from The New York Times Travel Section and The Food Network and vetted those with locals upon arrival. Since food is one part of my “holy trinity,” it’s nice to have a few restaurants to look forward to visiting even if you do not end up dining at them;
- As for the rest, I knew the local vaporetti lines would take me to my other Venetian points of interest, just like any subway in a major city, so I could purchase that transit card upon arrival. Plus, Venice is a walking city and so easy to get around.
- I hooked up with a small, local tour of San Marco Square upon arrival just to make sure I got the most out of its history;
- Mostly, whether I was in Venice, Verona or Padua, I allowed myself to get “lost”. Getting “lost” builds confidence, self-reliance, forces you out of your comfort zones and can lead to cool memories you otherwise might not have made.
2. Learn some local language before you visit. The locals appreciate it and it is so much fun to practice/learn in the country where you are spending time. I studied Italian for 2 years in college, so I was a bit ahead of the game, but I still studied a few cool/helpful phrases on the plane.
- One day in Padua, I decided to stop in a teeny-tiny salon off the beaten path which I stumbled upon to freshen up my manicure. The staff and customers only spoke Italian which forced me to practice mine with them while I also read Italian Vogue magazines and drank espresso. Very fun and challenging 🙂
3. Always, always, always talk to strangers! Strangers are just people you haven’t met yet. As a solo traveler (especially a female, solo traveler), you have a greater chance of meeting fun locals who will invite you to join them, regardless of whether you approached them first or vice-versa! Here are some of my highlights of from talking to “strangers” in The Veneto:
- I was invited by a young Venetian man to dance in the street in front of restaurant where a band was playing outside. He was my waiter that evening and we were chatting for quite a while. He complimented me on my Italian and thought it was cool that I was not afraid to travel alone. Of course, I danced with him. He may not have asked if I was with a travel companion. And, that was my first night in Venice 🙂 ;
- I was treated to drinks and lovely conversation by a few of the film crew that worked on “Shame” the night I attended the screening of that film on Lido Island at the Venice Film Festival. That may have never happened if I was travelling with a companion(s). They also invited me to sit with them in a better seat than I had for the screening (I already had a pretty great seat but what the heck!). Meeting those guys was rivaled only by all the celebrity sightings that evening, including Michael Fassbender who was sitting just 4 rows behind me. Unbelievable! ;
- While I was enjoying a delicious “bellini” cocktail at the oh-so famous, Harry’s Bar in San Marco Square, I was chatting with a local businessman and the bartenders there who asked me about my plans for the rest of my vacation. When I mentioned that the next morning I was heading to Verona, they informed me that the gondoliers and the trains were going on strike that evening, as they often do in Italy. This information was not made public yet, so I appreciated the “inside scoop.” I was not freaked out about the strike because I experienced one 10 years earlier in Italy. It’s so commonplace. This “insider information” allowed me to make arrangements with my hotel to hold my room for one more night, in case of the strike. The lesson here is that if I had been too shy to chat with those guys, especially the bartenders, I would have not been aware of the strike until I arrived at the train station the next morning. Securing another hotel accommodation might have been tricky during such a busy time in Venice. Luckily, the strike did not affect my particular train to Verona. But, I was prepared and not stressed out! And, if I had not had this insider information, I would have had to simply “roll with it” and adapt;
- In Verona, one of the restaurants I wanted to dine at (based on my research) was not able to accommodate me one evening. So, I asked the concierge at my hotel for another recommendation. He steered me toward MariaCallas which is a lovely and romantic restaurant, named after the famous opera singer of the same name. Who knew?! What an interesting evening THAT turned out to be! Long story short, I was dining alone in the beautiful patio garden off the main room when an older gentleman who was dining with 3 women (all of them locals) approached my table, extended his hand and in Italian invited me to join their little birthday celebration. At first, I declined. But, he was charming and persistent and I had a sneaking suspicion that it would be fun. So, I finished my main course and joined them for wine and birthday cake. This guy was a professor of literature in Venice, although he lived in Verona. His lady “friends” all lived on various islands off of Lake Garda. The conversation, cake and uber-expensive Bardolino wine were all fantastic. Their English was as good as my Italian, so we were all on an even playing field. They provided me with some very useful tips for visiting the islands along Lake Garda. Score! What fun! Ernesto, the charming, flirtatious, Italian professor picked up the entire check and, basically, invited me to join him and the rest of his “harem” as they continued on to some other clandestine location. I am usually up for spontaneous fun but I had my share here in the garden and I just felt that there might be an “Eyes Wide Shut” situation about to happen (HA!). So, I thanked them all for their fun company and took my wine and cake-fed, solo ass back to my hotel 🙂 ;
- In Padua, I stopped to ask a local police officer what was being set up in City Hall Piazza. He mentioned that later that evening, there was a free annual concert going on and that I should stop by. I did just that. It was a beautiful night and performance. If I had not stopped to inquire what was going on, I might have missed an incredible concert set against the ancient buildings of Padua.
- On the final evening of my vacation, I hopped a vaporetto back to San Marco Square, specifically to have a cocktail on the terrace of the famed Hotel Danieli under the full moon. Upon arriving, I was told that since I was not a patron of the hotel and it was after 6pm, I could not go up to the terrace. Oh well! I decided to enjoy the incredibly adorned lobby of the hotel while having a glass of wine, people-watching and listening to some free piano music. My unexpected surprise was chatting up the senior bartender, Marino, about the array of awards and other interesting memorabilia behind the bar. He had been a bartender at Hotel Danieli for over 30 years. He told me that no one ever asks about the history of those things (including all the dignitaries and celebrities that have stayed at the hotel over many decades) and he shared all of those great stories with me, treated me to another glass of wine and personally escorted me up to visit the terrace and other famed parts of the hotel that many people never get to see. Holy crap! Had I been travelling with friends, I probably would not have had that experience. Was he flirting with me? Of course, he was! He’s Italian! But, also, he was genuinely excited about my interest in the hotel’s history, an unusual diversion from his typical day there. When the private tour ended, he asked me to join him for breakfast in a few hours. I declined and I mentioned that his wife might take offense (HA!). He kissed my hand, said “buona notte” and allowed me to sail on back to my hotel. What a freakin’ great way to end my holiday!
I understand that solo travel is not for everyone. However, I do recommend that everyone try it at least once or twice in their life. We all sit on different levels of the “Adventurous Spectrum.” Pushing outside of one’s comfort zones can be both scary and exciting. But, travelling solo also allows you to learn at least a little bit more about yourself than you might have known before 😉
So here is my advice: Shoot for the middle of the “Adventurous Spectrum”… BECOME A LITTLE MORE “SPIDER” and A LOT LESS “FLY” 🙂
ROAM. REVEL. REPEAT.