Solo Travel for the Medicare Generation

Before I departed on my one-woman tour of Europe in 2016 I read many blog posts, books and articles by women who enjoy traveling alone.  I don’t think I’ve ever found one that tells the negative side of solo travel for older women so I think it’s time for an honest report.

I am not a novice traveler.  My husband and I traveled for a nearly year throughout Europe. By car, train and cruise ship we went everywhere west of Budapest. Four years later we returned for five months in Ireland, France and Italy. Since then I’ve traveled alone quite often. I am a retired travel agent and I’ve often created tours and led as many as 30 people in places such as Athens and the Channel Islands. So I know how to travel!  (Or so I thought!)

In the year following my husband’s death I began planning an extended journey around Europe. I included in my itinerary some places I’d visited before and loved and some places I’d never been to but wanted to visit.  My journey lasted nearly five months and took me from Malta to Ireland. Here are some lessons learned about traveling alone from someone then approaching 70 years of age.

There are, to be sure, advantages to traveling alone. The most obvious for many people is that it’s better than not traveling at all.  When there’s no one to go with and staying home is not preferred, a carefully planned trip may be the best option. Taking a cruise, joining a tour group, becoming part of a ready-made collection of people is a good choice. There are also some disadvantages: single travelers often have to pay as much as 100% more for a cruise or tour because the travel company had counted on two people in that room, not one. It can be a bit unnerving to be going from one place to another alone.

For those who want a personalized itinerary — returning to Paris or finding a grandparent’s home town or seeing that not-yet-visited special place — going alone may be the only option. There are advantages to traveling alone. Desk clerks, rental car agents, and waiters were nicer to me than when I traveled with others. People offer assistance more readily. Perhaps my wrinkles help? Gentlemen helped me find a train station, told me the history of their towns, and forwarded mail to me after I’d moved on.

I spent much less on food because I prefer staying in vacation rentals with kitchens (called “self-catering” in the UK and Ireland). When I did go to restaurants I was paying for only one meal.  On the other hand, hotel rooms and rental cars generally cost the same whether one person or two will be using them.

Younger solo travelers often say it’s easier to meet people when you travel alone. I’m sure for them it’s true but I found it to be the opposite. I am not a woman who commands attention.  Little more than five feet tall, plain in appearance, dressed for comfort not style, I pass through the streets of large cities and small towns unnoticed. Although I’m quicker to strike up a conversation or to make a joke than I was when my husband with me, only once in my five months of travel was I invited to join others at dinner or for a walk or a drink.

As author Virginia Baily wrote in her novel Early One Morning, “Invisibility creeps up on you [as you age]. It is impossible to pinpoint the moment of its onset. Older than you might imagine when you’re young. A forty-year-old woman, for example, has a pull.  Perhaps around the age of fifty it begins … recently there had been a fading.”*

Libbie

* From Early One Morning by Virginia Baily: (p. 149)

The photo shows an Australian solo traveler with the hostess of a lovely B&B in Provins, France

My New Favorite Apps

In planning a very long trip at the lowest possible cost I’ve discovered three new apps that (along with an old favorite) are making my journey possible. Try them for planning your next trip, long or short, far away or close to home. I use them on my laptop but all have good, free apps for your smartphone.

Culture Trip       I discovered this app recently and I’m fascinated by it. Open the app, type in the name of any place you’d like to know more about and instantly a selection of articles with great photos pops up on your screen. I follow from one to the next, and after each a different array of options pops up. Culture Trip is like the world’s best travel magazine, with an endless supply of information and images, and it’s free! I’ve been using it to wander around Romania lately! It will take you anywhere!

Rome to Rio       Want to know how to travel from one place to the next anywhere in the world? Here’s the perfect way to discover all the available options. Rome to Rio has been created by a pair of Australians who were frustrated by the difficulty of planning transportation while traveling. Enter two place names and instantly you’re provided with all the ways of going from one to the other: flights, trains, buses, driving and if available, ferries. Instantly a map pops up along with a list of travel options. As you click one of those options the map shows you the route, the app tells you the cost, and then (in some cases) it offers  to arrange your ticket.

Kiwi.com            I may be the last to discover really-low-price air travel sites on the web. Now that I’ve done that I know how to fly to Europe for very little money. Yes, often it takes longer with lengthy delays to connecting flights. Today’s lowest price for my December flight to Paris, beginning at Newark airport in New Jersey, is $162 one way. That’s for a non-stop to Orly (the easier airport serving Paris). Yes, there will probably be some added costs. I just checked today’s price on American Airline’s site for this flight on a December weekday and it’s $3647.

AirBnB             Here’s my old favorite! Without AirBnB I couldn’t dream of making the journey I’m planning. Using it, I’ve found a very small apartment in the center of Venice for Christmas week for $58 a night. I’ve booked several apartments for much less than $50 a night – sometimes they are under $25 a night. Last week I cancelled my reservation for a hotel room in a French city for two nights. I replaced it with a large, well recommended room with a private bath in a lovely home and saved $110 over the cost of the hotel.

There’s an interesting story in the travel section of this weekend’s New York Times about Debbie and Michael Campbell who have been seeing the world non-stop for the past five years using AirBnB rentals. You can read it here.

Go see the world!  It can be done for much less than you think!
Libbie

The photo at the top of this post shows the rail station in Porto, Portugal.

Making Plans

I really like planning my journeys.  I like spending many hours googling places I’ve never visited. I like looking for good places to stay – affordable places – on AirBnB. I like finding bargains such as very low cost flights to Europe. I like studying maps, learning the most logical way to move from one place to the next and finding interesting places I’ve never visited near by.  I like thinking about going back to some of my favorite places – England is high on my list this year, despite being very expensive. I like finding great websites that I can share with you!

I plan to fly to Europe in early December. I’ll go to two places I haven’t seen before: the Alsace-Lorraine region of eastern France and the one major country in western Europe that I’ve never been to: Switzerland. Then I’m going to return to one of my most favorite cities, Venice, for Christmas.

In January I’m going to volunteer at a job-training program for women and girls in Morocco. Soon I’ll be writing about how to find a worthwhile and trustworthy volunteer placement agency. There are a lot of phony “voluntourism” companies on the web.

And that’s just the beginning!  I hope to travel for all of 2019. I’ll be 71 years old then and this will be my “bucket list” tour (a phrase I hate but I think it tells you succinctly why I’m taking a very long journey).

I plan to spend much of my travel time in eastern Europe, in the countries that once were behind the Iron Curtain. As a guide in Montenegro once told me, “Madame, we have no McDonalds in our entire country.” No American hotels, no Starbucks either. Under the Soviet Union many beautiful old buildings survived simply because it was cheaper to use them than to replace them. Since those countries have become independent governments they have made it a point to preserve their architectural heritage and improve upon it. Many beautiful old cities are tucked away in those small countries. And I do like cities.

So I hope you’ll come back to my blog, to learn some new ways for planning travel.

Libbie

The photo at the top is Perast, Montenegro, where they have no McDonalds!

Blogging Again

My apologies for having neglected this blog for the past six months or so. I’m going to beginning my blog again because I’m now planning a long journey for 2019. For the next few months, as I prepare for my trip, I’ll sometimes share with you my thoughts about planning a months-long journey and some tricks I’ve found for saving money. I will also be telling you about my plans and the places I plan to visit. Many of them are far off the tourist trail — I’m excited!

In the past six months I did make one good trip. I went to Georgia and Florida to visit family and to experience some places that were new to me. I’ll begin the reincarnation of my blog by telling you about two of them, Florida and Savannah Georgia.

One project I spent lots of time on recently was printing and framing a few of my favorite photos from my past travels. Have I ever told you that I had my bathroom “wallpapered” with my old maps? One long wall of maps seems like the perfect place for a photo display.  Here are some of the pictures that hang on that wall now.

The birdman of Paris, 2005

Beautiful Rye, England, 2016

Boy with a ball, Paris, 2006

Women’s work, Lisbon market, 2016

An old sailor, Mikonos Greece, 2014

The photo at the top was taken in Killarney, Ireland, 2016.

 

 

Think you can’t afford to go to Europe? Think again!

When I go to Europe I usually stay for months. I’ve learned some ways to make my travels affordable. There are some basics like “go off-season” that everyone knows and I use those ideas. Here are a few updated tips for your next trip that can make it more affordable.

  1. Pick your destination(s) carefully. For example, if you’ve been to London or Paris or Rome in the past choose smaller cities this time, or (even better) explore the countryside. Rental cars can enable you to visit beautiful places where you’ll not only pay less for your accommodations but also have better opportunities to meet local people. Renting a car may be less that a rail pass or multiple train tickets. (I always use AutoEurope, an American company that guarantees the lowest price.)
  2. Go there on one of the new airlines that are hundreds of dollars less expensive than the legacy carriers. Check Kayak.com for discounted fares by the new Icelandic airlines such as WOWair. Or fly to Dublin on AerLingus then continue on to your destination on Ryan Air or another AerLingus flight. I’ve also learned that it is much less expensive for me to depart from one of the major east coast US cities than from North Carolina.
  3. Decide in advance how much money you can spend on restaurants, museums, tours, etc. Upon arriving in Europe consider taking that entire amount of money out of an ATM so you’ll spend only cash. Wearing a money belt would be a good way to protect your money. If you wear one, put the amount you plan to spend that day into your pants pocket first thing in the morning. Don’t let anyone see you take money from your money belt.Alternatively, keep a running list of what you’ve spent and how much is left in your budget. Use debit cards rather than credit cards and check your bank balance occasionally. Some people open separate bank accounts just for travel expenditures.
  4. Do your homework before going! The Internet is a gift to travelers. Read message boards such as the one at Fodors.com for information about the places you plan to visit. Read books that are for budget travelers such as Rick Steves’ or Lonely Planet guides. Google “budget traveler” and find many blogs and articles to explore.
  5. Nearly every large European city offers discount cards for tourists that lower the costs of museum entry and transit fares. Make a point of discovering these before you leave home. Before leaving home compare the cost of the card with that of visiting only the museums that interest you. Know exactly where to find them and what’s required to purchase them. For example, if you plan to be in Paris for a month and want to buy a monthly Metro pass, you must provide a passport-size photo for the permit that is required to purchase the card.
  6. Of course, there’s always this “nag” from me: stay in an apartment or an AirBnB-arranged room in someone’s home instead of staying in a hotel. The ability to cook some meals is the best money-saver of all. Visit the neighborhood bakery for breakfast goodies and make your own coffee or tea. Visit a market or take-away food emporium for lunch supplies or pack your lunch before leaving your accommodations in the morning. (Yes! You can find peanut butter in most European food stores.)

Libbie

I don’t know where the young man pictured at the top of this post slept the night before but I thought he was very clever to shave in a fountain in Florence.

I don’t receive anything from any company for mentioning them in my blog posts.

What’s your best idea for saving money while traveling? Please use the “comments” section below to share it with us.

Verona, Italy

A medieval/renaissance city filled with history and beauty and lively people, Verona should be on every tourist-to-Italy’s bucket list.  Wander through one square after another, finding marvels everywhere.

One of three ancient sculptures in Verona’s ancient mark.etplace

The market place has fulfilled that role for 2000 years, and has a Roman statue in the middle in a fountain to prove it.  The square where the court has been held for hundreds of years is next, with a magnificent stairway of carved pink marble.

Perfection!

Go through an opening in the wall, and come into a beautiful square surrounded by renaissance palaces.

Here stands Dante, pondering the scene all around him. The building in the background is considered to be one of the most perfect renaissance structures in Europe.

A statue of Dante, the Italian writer/philosopher, stands proudly in the center of the square.

I envy the people who live in Verona.

My favorite restaurant in Italy, Ristorante Dante, is in that square. On a good day you can sit for hours, enjoying fine wine, delicious food, the beauty of the surroundings and delighting in people-watching.

Lovely Juliet, standing and waiting for the return of Romeo.

A popular place with tourists is “Juliet’s House.” Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet are supposed to have lived in Verona. It’s a small stone house completely covered in graffiti, the old fashioned kind with names written in a heart “4-ever.” A lovely “Juliet” sculpture stands near the entrance.

We found a gladiator outside the Verona coliseum.

Verona has an intact Roman coliseum.  In summer a series of some of the best-loved operas are performed there: LaTraviata, Aida, La Boheme, Romeo & Juliet among them. The coliseum seems to be the centerpiece of the city. A wide street lined on one side with sidewalk cafés runs along one side of it and a park filled with greenery is on another.

A perfect example of the residences found in central Verona.

The city streets of Verona are lined with upscale shops and lovely old buildings. It’s all spotlessly clean with pots of flowers everywhere. The entire city flaunts its age proudly!

Memorial to a tired tourist!

Parma, Italy

Parma is a beautiful old city.   Before we went to Italy all we knew is that Parma is the source of Parmesan cheese and Parma ham. We discovered a busy and appealing city with a very long history and a collection of fine old buildings. Parma dates from 183 BCE. An earlier Celtic settlement existed in the same place. It’s small and easy to explore because the center is laid out in a grid pattern which is unusual for a city this old.  It has many glorious churches and palaces.  Today it is a rich and proud small city, one of the most prosperous in Italy.

The Baptistery stands alone to the right of the cathedral and its tower. In medieval times only baptized persons were allowed to enter Italian churches causing baptisteries to be adjacent to churches.

Parma’s most notable structure is the Baptistery at the cathedral, called “the most perfect medieval structure in Europe” by every book I’ve got, a building which illustrates the change from Romanesque to Gothic architecture.  It is seven stories high, octagonal, made of pink marble.  The exterior carving is very fine and the signs of the zodiac run in a band around the outside.

This doorway is 800 years old. The skill of medieval sculptures, working only with primitive tools, astonishes me. The “tympanum” is the carved half-circle piece above the door.

Scenes from the life of Christ and other Biblical views are carved around the three exterior doors.  Each of them has an exquisite tympanum, two of which still have some of their original paint.

The extraordinary interior of the Baptistery.

It is the inside of the Baptistery which is spectacular. Sixteen “rays” made from stone extend from the floor seven stories to the roof. The interior is entirely covered in beautiful, bright frescoes, originally created by famous native artists of Parma.  This building dates from around 1250 AD.  Think about how difficult it must have been to design, to construct and the paint.

One view of the interior of the cathedral, with apologies for the poor quality of this old photograph.

The Parma cathedral is beside the Baptistery. A purely Romanesque cathedral built in the 12th century, small looking from outside but feeling huge and deep inside.  It too is made of pink marble and is covered inside in floor to ceiling frescoes.  The nave is smallish but serves almost as an ante-chamber to the altar which is raised and is reached by many marble stairs.  Side altars on either side of the main altar add more richness and beauty.  There is a tall bell tower from the 14th century standing beside the cathedral, slightly tilting.

Some of the kids who visited Parma shown in front of the 12th century cathedral.

During our visit to the Baptistery a large group of school kids came in.  They were part of a larger group, probably a hundred and fifty or more.  Kids are the same everywhere – funny, cute and noisy. They were getting their art lessons with the icons and items in the churches as teaching aids.  Few of them will remember much of it for long I suppose, but how great it must be to grow up among all this beauty and history and art.

The government building in the center of Parma was a palace many years ago. Note the sundial beneath the clock.

Today’s city center is focused on a large, bright yellow building with a massive clock tower on top known as the Palazzo del Governatore, once the palace of governors and princes. The city streets are lined with upscale shops and fine restaurants. A narrow river runs through the center of the city, crossed by five classic bridges.

This picture makes you wonder who thought the building on the right was a good idea, doesn’t it?

Parma has many historic sites to explore. There’s a five-pointed “cittadella” (fortress). The “Parco Ducale” is an enormous park and garden open to visitors today  It was originally part of the Farnese-built ducal palace.  This small city requires several days to fully enjoy, but taking your camera and your taste buds there for a night or two will keep you busy.

 

Sources:

Wikipedia’s entries about Parma are very detailed and have excellent photographs. Some of them are:

The Cathedral: Wikipedia’s page is found here.

The official webpage for the cathedral, in English, is very detailed. Find it here.

The Baptistery – click the blue text for the link.

The Parco Ducale (in Italian but instantly translated by Google’s translation button at the top of the page.)

The Parma tourism office has a very complete site here.

Ancient Ravenna Italy

Imagine a city filled with 1600-year-old buildings richly decorated with original artwork. Ravenna, Italy, is just that place. The capital of the Western Roman empire from 402 AD until the fall of Rome in 476 AD, Ravenna’s earliest extant religious buildings date to that period. The larger, grander buildings were constructed in the 6th century. Mosaic tile artwork covers the interiors of many of the ancient churches, baptistries and mausoleums begun between 400 AD and 550 AD that remain in perfect condition today. Here are some of my photos of many of them.

The Neonian Baptistry, ca. 430 AD, is one of the oldest buildings in Ravenna. The interior is lavishly decorated in mosaic tilework and sculpted stone.

The Mausoleum of Galla Placida, also dates to the early 5th century.

This is the ceiling of the Arian Baptistry, built in the late 5th or 6th century. It was placed next to the ancient cathedral which was destroyed long ago.

Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, dedicated in 504 AD, features a row of 22 Virgins along one wall and 26 Martyrs along the other.

Possibly the most beautiful because its interior is covered in ancient mosaic art, the Basilica of San Vitale was constructed in the mid 6th century. The building is considered to be one of the best examples of early Christian architecture in Europe.

Sant Apollinare in Classe is another beautiful mid 6th century Christian church in Ravenna.

In addition, two other important buildings of this era, the Archiepiscopal Chapel (ca. 500 AD) and the Mausoleum of Theodoric (ca. 520 AD) can be visited.

Resources:

Find more about Ravenna’s ancient churches at the UNESCO World Heritage site here.

Wikipedia’s entry for Ravenna is a detailed history of the city with links to entries about each of these ancient religious buildings.

Ravenna is jsut 85 miles south of Venice and is linked to that city by train and highways.

Slowly Exploring Italy

“Slow travel” means taking time to explore the places you visit. It’s a “hub and spoke” way to travel.  Staying in one cottage or apartment for a week or longer and taking day trips to surrounding places is an ideal way to discover more than just the touristy centers of major cities. Italy, for example, offers many opportunities for exploration of historic, artistic cities and beautiful agricultural areas.

The early spring view from “our” kitchen window in Montaione.

On our first trip to Italy my husband and I stayed for three weeks in Montaione, a village in Tuscany. We caught the train from a nearby town for day trips to Florence several times. We explored Siena twice —  one of those days was Easter Sunday. We spent days in San Gimignano, Pisa, Cortona, Assisi and Volterra. We explored the Chianti region. We enjoyed just roaming the countryside, poking around in small ancient villages, going inside very old churches. (Here is a link to the place where we stayed in Montaione.)

The villa called Castel Marinoni in Barbarano, Italy.

Another time we spent ten days in the Veneto, the region in northeastern Italy that includes Venice. We stayed in a very Italian apartment (that means a kitchen and a bedroom – no living room) in a village named Barbarano near Vicenza. (Here’s a link to gorgeous pictures of the property where we stayed and the surrounding area.) We made three train-trips into Venice, several drives to Vicenza, went twice to Padua and to Verona. We were there in the off-season when the rent was very low. That trip was really our introduction to Italy and we couldn’t have chosen a better place to begin.

The village children of Cetona after their performance, dressed as winter, summer and autumn.

On our third trip to Italy we stayed in a small village named Cetona on the line dividing Tuscany and Umbria. Although we were tourists who visited Orvieto and other small cities, what I remember best was the experience of “living” in a small Italian village for a week. We were there in May when the school year was ending. One evening all the children in the village put on a performance with all the village in attendance. Children dressed in homemade costumes representing summer, autumn and snow danced in the village center. Although we didn’t understand a word, we loved the experience of temporarily being part of life in a small Italian town. (The place we rented on that trip seems to no longer be advertised on the internet. Prices of rentals in that area have sky rocketed but some good deals are still available on AirBnB.)

I plan to share with you in my next few posts some of the beautiful but less well-known places we have visited in Italy. I hope you’ll discover that renting a small place and exploring the Italian countryside can be very affordable and very interesting, and that you’ll plan your own trip there soon!

Libbie

The photo at the top of this post is of the doorway of our apartment in Cetona.

 

Ten Reasons I Love Ireland: No. 1 – My Irish Home at Fruit Hill

My home in Ireland this year and last was on a former dairy farm that dates to the 17th century. My hosts, Dick and Susan, sold their cows and some of their land a few years ago and turned to hosting visitors in their three self-catering rentals. (“Self-catering is a British term for a vacation rental with cooking facilities.) I discovered Fruit Hill last year, While there I made new friends.

This year I stayed in a small cottage that Dick built in the early years of this century around a massive chimney that was all that remained of an old “bake house.” Dick and Susan have rescued a large late-17th century house from ruin and live there now with several of their children. They never seem to stop working, but they always made time for conversation with me.

Just outside my windows a local farmer grew a field of hay.  After he harvested and bailed it and hauled it away he brought in a large herd of steers. Sometimes they peered at me over the stone wall separating us.

The view from my window.

Opposite the cottage there’s a beautiful view from my kitchen window of a large field of hay. I enjoyed photographing the changing of the seasons there. (A photo of the view from my kitchen window is here.)

Fruit Hill farm has truly become my Irish home. I am very comfortable there. I feel fortunate to have found it. I now have two more generous Irish friends. I have the luck of the Irish, indeed!

Libbie

The photo at the top was sent to me by Susan. It was taken by Gareth Landy.
The lower photo is of a nosy steer who wanted to know what I was up to. He was just outside my living room window.
Here’s a link to a post with many photos I created last year at Fruit Hill.

Here’s a link to Fruit Hill’s website: fruithill-cottages-ireland.com