Italy For One, Times Two

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My last memories of Italy were barely a year old, and every snapshot included the presence of one of my best friends, in various states of pasta-induced, gelato-laced scenery-hypnotized bliss. It was a bliss made possible by: the melt-in-your mouth chewy pizza in Naples of which there is no equal...the best homemade lasagna we feasted on in Rome...the tear-triggering sunrise from our balcony on the Amalfi coast...the endless gelato combinations like lemon and biscotti and creamy stracciatella...it was a journey to remember.

It was also a journey of comfort, the sort of comfort you can only find in the company of best friends.

For this year's trip to Italy, I took the comfort out of the equation with a solo journey, one that included a fascinating and physically taxing day.

I had journeyed to Florence for the art, and for a pasta-making course in the heart of Tuscany. The art component was easy for a solo gal, and the pasta class? A focused effort where you don't really notice you're surrounded by strangers.

The renaissance city was a sight to behold; charming, well-aged, walkable and friendly. It was also small, and with an extra day on my itinerary I was looking for some added adventure.

I signed up for a 12-hour whirlwind tour of Cinque Terre, for hiking, a visit to fishing villages and some swimming too!

If you Google Cinque Terre, you'll find the postcard-perfect image of colourful cliff-side houses along the Italian Rivieria. As you scroll the images, you'll wonder how such colourful houses even exist, as your photo-filter suspicions go on high alert.

I knew little else of Cinque Terre beyond this picturesque image (and the fact that I needed to arrive at the train station at 7:45am sharp...)

***

There we were; myself, twelve couples, a mother-son duo, three best friends, two sisters and a partridge in a pear tree.

When you're travelling solo and you sign up for tours, you always run the risk of being the lone wolf. Sometimes you barely notice it as you're too entrenched in your life-affirming journey. Other times though, like on a two-hour bus ride where everyone's paired off and chattering away, it's a conspicuousness that's hard to ignore.

Except...was I the only solo adventurer?

As the Americans, Australians, and other travellers settled into their bus seats, this Canadian realized that the three best friends were in fact two best friends, and that the other young woman who'd been with them had only been standing within their proximity.

Two solo travellers, you say?

The possibility of making a friend on a solo journey is a new dimension of travelling, one full of anticipation, BFF fantasies and pressure that has no place on a relaxing Italian mini break. So why did I feel like I was under the spotlight when I sat in the bus seat across from her?

Full disclosure: I am an extrovert, and I typically have no problem talking to strangers. But what if said stranger is staring out the window as the bus rolls on?

To make matters worse, when the tour guide made the rounds, asking each traveller where they were from, she could only croak out her answer as she'd recently lost her voice.

And so, I accepted that this would be a solo journey through and through.

But the good part about "adventures for one?"

You wind up chatting to other strangers on your tour, and if you're lucky, you'll have a lot of friendly interactions full of laughter.

This mix of "independent but friendly" was perfect for Cinque Terre. We started off learning about that region's agriculture (crops in the cliffs, who knew), and as our hunger grew, had the chance to enjoy authentic basil Genovese pesto in the actual home of pesto, Corniglia.

So off we went, climbing 380 steps in feels-like-40-degree-Celsius weather to enjoy our lunch on a terrace next to a church.

Oh, did I forget to mention the extreme heat, blazing sun, and endless steps to get to lunch?

Well it happened, and it felt like the sort of accomplishment that makes it A-okay to binge-eat fresh pasta drenched in local pesto with your newfound touristic acquaintances.

This was also the moment when my fellow solo traveller wound up at my table, and...after some croaky-voiced exchanges, we shared some laughs and agreed to become each other's photo buddies.

["Photo Buddy" is an important strategic alliance, in which two solo travellers become temporary photographers to one another. With this important alliance you're not strictly bound to the selfie perspective. Priceless.]

Photo Buddy, as she shall henceforth be named, was superior in hiking to my novice skills (oh...did I not yet mention the death hike in the nearly debilitating heat?)

It seemed like an impossible task to follow the uneven steep stone steps to the top of a picturesque view, but somehow, amidst probable hallucinations, I did it.

Since Photo Buddy was somewhere far ahead, I had a chance to go back to being my solo traveller self, and in that way of experiencing the feeling of grit, independence, fear of "death by heat stroke," and all the other life-affirming emotions that accompany travelling alone. It was grand.

As we descended to the fishing village of Vernazza at our own sweaty paces, we were on the clock, with an hour to enjoy the best gelato by the pier, along with a dip in the sea.

This was another moment when having a "Photo Buddy" came in very handy, only now she was "watch my stuff while I take a dip" buddy, and vice versa.

And the best part of all?

When the bus dropped us back in Florence, she was "meet me tomorrow night by the cathedral for a drink" buddy, which is the best kind of friend to make when you're travelling solo, and the best sort of balance between being social and being on your own.

(It ended up being three drinks and a night cap of gelato)

[Hope you enjoyed this little Jaunt through Italy, and that it inspired you to write you own travel story for the #SoloTravel contest on the @Travel profile ! (you can enter until October 31st). Make sure you follow my Instagram account for updates on all my travel adventures (Italy, Paris, Slovenia, Portugal, and an a trip to New York City in the end of Oct! Instagram username: romimoondi )

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