Tip #6 — Traveling solo is a great opportunity to meet people. Strangers seem to be drawn to someone sitting alone; especially if you’re smiling.
I was forced to meet people wherever I went because I had forgotten my laptop charger (grabbed the wrong cord actually). I was struck by how friendly people were and how much they truly wanted to help me. One guy on the train to Bordeaux, held my laptop on his own lap for an hour while it charged (stop those dirty thoughts, his wife was the one sitting next to him). I was almost pleased to have had to ask for help — something I’m not very good at I’m afraid.
This event was a beautiful gesture in Bordeaux on Christmas day. Bodega, a restaurant in the city centre, was feeding the homeless. Festive music and good food was provided. They served wine and passed foie gras. I was extremely humbled by what I saw. I was also invited to join in, so I stayed for a bit.
Tip #7 — Money: don’t carry huge amounts of cash; use your debit card for purchases and use ATM machines to get cash. The conversion rates are usually reasonable (TD bank boasts reimbursed ATM fees for certain accounts). It is safer all around. Check with your bank.
Tip #8 –Tell your bank and credit card companies where you are traveling.
It’s no fun getting denied use of your card when it’s for your own protection.
I had a bit of a conundrum this year: do I visit someone I know for Christmas, stay at home in Portugal, or do I extend my U.S. travel plans to Europe and go someplace I have never been? I decided that I have grown quite a bit over the last few years and that I would be fine alone over the Christmas holiday. I was not alone before Christmas and I would not be alone after Christmas. I had spent a little over a week with friends and family before Christmas eve and friends came from New York on New Year’s eve. I have never seen Paris during the holidays and I wanted to be there when it was all lit up and festive. It’s not my favorite city, so I didn’t want to be there Christmas eve or Christmas day. I researched cities within three hours of Paris and I decided it was time to experience Bath Spa and Bordeaux. Bordeaux wines are some of my favorite wines and I had heard about the wine museum there.
Tip #9 — When you’re travelling through Europe or anywhere for that matter, take the train as much as possible.
Train travel was once very inexpensive (in fact in Portugal it still is), however, the cost of has gone up quite a bit in most parts of Europe. Still, the train is the way to go. It’s less of a hassle than air travel and much more comfortable. Move about, see the countryside and get there on time (most of the time).
Next stop: London, England
When you live in Portugal there are very few options for direct flights to the U.S. TAP flies to New York and Miami, but if you’re headed to Baltimore, you’re going to have to fly to France, Germany or London first. These countries are all east of Portugal, making it a bit frustrating. I imagine there will be more options out of Lisbon and Seville in the future. But this is how I ended up in London on the outbound flight. Knowing I had to return to London inbound, I decided to spend a few days there and I’m really glad I did. I’m not a frequent visitor. My main reason for going is the theatre and there was always plenty of that in New York City. This time around I would not be going to NYC and there were a few plays I wanted to see in London.
First I want to tell you about a hotel I thought was perfect if you’re looking for something inexpensive and centrally located. I found this hotel called Motel One London–Tower Hill. I’m not sure why they put “motel” in the name of the hotel because it’s nothing like a motel. Small but with an excellent mattress and great linen and wired for every device. I was close to the Underground and several excellent eating spots. By the way, the Underground is working well these days. I was able to get everywhere quickly and efficiently. It isn’t so cheap anymore at almost 5 quid a ride.
Back to my main reason for going. I wanted to see Sam Tutty in Dear Evan Hansen. I got a center stall seat (orchestra in the States) for 100 pounds. I’m not sure how that happened. I bought the ticket on-line and there were only four seats left; the other three tickets were almost twice the price. Sometimes being a solo traveller pays off. The play was wonderful, my seat was perfect, and it made London worthwhile. I also saw Ian McKellen’s one man show; all I can say is if you get an opportunity to see it, go. I saw Come From Away on the same day; although it was somewhat enjoyable, I have to say I didn’t love it — no memorable tunes and a bit campy.
I ate well, but it was more about the theatre. There was a bit of rain (it was London), but I had some sunshine too. I found a great Columbia jacket while wandering around between shows. It was about a third the original price and ended up being my “find” of the trip. Sometimes I purposefully leave articles of clothing at home so that I will have no choice but to buy whatever I need while I’m away. That was the case with a windbreaker/rain jacket.
No stories of dred to share; all went well in London. I hear that Big Ben is up and running again, so if you find yourself there, go and see it. I have decided that since I am now living in Europe, I will make a theatre trip to London annually and see several shows over a few days. I have a love/hate relationship with New York City and now I can add London to that short list.
Tip #10 — Travel is a good excuse to leave negative stuff behind.
I watched and read very little political news while I was away and I found myself in a much better emotional state of mind.
Bath is a place I have wondered about for many years. I took the train from London and arrived about 90 minutes before I could check in to one of the most most beautiful Airbnbs I have ever stayed in. It was in a 260 year old building with gorgeous views of the countryside. With time to spare and a rainy day, I found a brick oven pizza place not far from the train station. The chef was Neopolitan and the pizza was outstanding. I later learned that Franco Manca is a chain restaurant; you could of fooled me.
My friend Rachel was coming from South Wales the next day, so I was alone the first evening. Six weeks prior, I had made a reservation at The Olive Tree Restaurant, the only Michelin star restaurant in Bath and the food was exceptional. I then dropped some pounds off at the casino, met some really nice locals at the blackjack table and went back to my beautiful apartment.
Rachel joined me the next day and we did the Thermae Bath Spa, which was a two hours of pure bliss. There was a rooftop nicely heated pool which was great for my sore muscles. We went out for cocktails at a very upscale bar and then Rachel treated me to a terrific Italian dinner at Martini Restaurant. The entire experience was delightful in every way and it made me want to return to Bath often (and I will). It also made me want to see more of Rachel (and I will).
I had taken the Eurostar to Paris a number of years ago and I thought I should take a short trip to Paris on my way to Bordeaux. This time the boarding process was much more efficient. It’s a 3.5 hour journey; comfortable and fast. I got lucky and didn’t have anyone sitting next to me.
There were announcements about the Metro strike at the train station in London and all I could think was that the French were going to mess with my travel once again. Sure enough I arrived at the train station in Paris and there were hundreds or thousands of people everywhere. Gypsy taxi drivers were asking for crazy fares to wherever and on principle, I wasn’t having it. I decided to use Uber to get to my hotel. I can’t say how many people had the same idea, but I can tell you that there were many, many, many people outside the station looking at their phones and looking for their Uber.
Tip #11 — Do yourself a favor and do not overplan. Allow yourself the luxury of free time.
Leave your hotel or Airbnb and wonder around. I always seem to discover something wonderful or unexpected. It’s honestly one of the best things about traveling to a place you’ve never been. Get out and explore.
The metro strike forced me to stay local and that turned out to be a good thing. I discovered an outdoor food market that went on forever. I spent quite a bit of time there and enjoyed it.
I had to take a very expensive Uber share to the train station. Traffic was terrible and the Uber driver was agitated; seemingly trying to make as much money as possible during the strike. We arrived at the train station, I exited his vehicle to get my luggage and he drove off. I chased him, banged on his back window and he stopped. I went over to the driver’s side window, he rolled it down and I told him that my luggage was still in the trunk of the car. He got angry at me for some reason that I still do not understand. Needless to say, he only got one star and no tip. Another wild day of travel.
Tip #12 — Allow yourself plenty of time to get places.
Have a good book and relax when you get to where you’re going.
I chose a hotel right in the centre of the city because I love walking. The Quality Hotel was very central and super affordable. The desk staff seemed to be very sensitive to my solo status and they made me feel welcome, comfortable and at home; an especially nice since it was Christmas. They even upgraded my room. I think the mattress and linen were the most comfortable for any hotel I have ever stayed in or perhaps it was just my satisfied frame of mind.
The day I arrived was dark and dreary and I was fairly spent. I got to the hotel, unpacked and set out to find a place for dinner. I found a fantastic ramen restaurant, Restaurant Fufu. To say that I was pleased is an understatement. Saki and hot soup on a rainy night . . . ah. And the last seat at the bar too. Had this place been open Christmas day, I would have returned for more.
Cité du Vin the Bordeaux wine museum was the main reason I wanted to visit Bordeaux. It was a fairly new, high tech experience, very close to the center (about a 30 minute walk) and right next to a very cool (newish) food market with restaurant vendors. The museum boasts an innovative way to learn about the history of wine and the different varieties of wine from all over the world. You can do it at your own pace, but I would recommend a minimum of eight hours. After you’ve explored the museum, there is a beautiful space at the time of the museum where you get to choose a lovely glass of wine and take in a spectacular view of Bordeaux. Get Your Guide offers tickets in advance at a discounted price.
The next day was Christmas day and I was a bit concerned because I had attempted to make a reservation for dinner months prior, only to discover all the restaurants I tried were closed. I decided to just leave it and find a restaurant while in Bordeaux. Christmas morning I walked around town and found a man cleaning a restaurant in one of the main squares. He told me the restaurant would be open for dinner and he noted my reservation in a book. I was pleased that that was taken care of. I had dinner at Le Noailles Restaurant next to the Intercontinental Hotel and the food was traditional French cuisine; beautifully prepared and presented. I paired the food with a 2015 Bordeaux (1/2 bottle, see pic below) and the whole meal was wonderful. I need not have worried because unbeknownst to be, there was a large food festival with music right across the street from the restaurant. No regrets though, I loved my dinner and I was glad that I had made a reservation because they turned many people away.
I took a slow walk back to my hotel and had a delicious nights sleep.
Home on the 26th. I flew back to Faro; on time and uneventful, the way one hopes it will be.
Tip #13 — Expect that there will always be a few bumps in the road and breathe.
I committed to adopting a pooch last week. We’ve met, he’s just under a year old, and I have named him Paco. Paco will be joining me at home in a few days. After a bath (or two), I will blog a photo.