Points on solo travel, as jotted in Barcelona

Point 1. Concern re: cheap hotels

There is definitely something to be said for having a friend to make eye contact with (the eye contact that means, “Is this a good idea?”) when you experience deep misgivings while following a man up three flights of dilapidated stairs to the pensio you booked online because it was cheap and still had good ratings on Trip Advisor. Left alone, you can only ask yourself, “Am I about to disappear and never be heard from again?” Clearly, as I promise this is actually me blogging, the worst-case scenario did not come to fruition. But I would have felt better staying at the cheap hotel if I had a companion. Particularly a male one.

Point 2. Fullness of hands

I didn’t realize how much stuff I carry until I did it alone. I usually follow Rick Steves’s walking tours in a new city, which means guidebook in hand so one person can be saying things like, “We have to look for the little passageway at number 22 to find a recently uncovered Roman necropolis!” However, I also like to take five hundred digital photos; and I like to be very wary of pickpockets and purse-snatchers. Book in one hand means it is difficult to operate the camera in the other hand, and the purse is fending for itself. Sipping bottled water? Forget it. I never found the Roman necropolis, and I am convinced it is because I did not have enough hands.

Point 3. Photos of self

I like to have photos that prove I was there (with traveling companions when relevant). Three or four times in Barcelona I asked a stranger to take my picture, and none of them came out really well (barring perhaps this one where you can’t see my face clearly) because I do not smile naturally on cue for strangers. Also, although every time I asked a stranger to do this I picked non-threatening American tourists with their own digital cameras, people seemed put out by the request. Why?

Note how the stranger has perfectly positioned some sort of object in the background so that it appears to be coming out of my head.

Point 4. Wanting social interaction vs. coming off creepy

When I attended the evening at Casa Batlló, a group of four early-twenties American guys asked me to take their group photo. Afterward, I asked if one of them would take a picture of me. (He took three and they were all so terrible I will not share any.) The guy who took the camera joked that I could “borrow” any of the other three to pose with me. Ha, ha. Since they were clearly American I asked where they were from, and the photographer told me California. He asked where I was from and I said Boston, but that I live in the Netherlands. Then I felt like I needed to justify being alone, so I said I was meeting my husband the next day, but I was on my own that night. Then there was some awkwardness that I felt like I had caused, even though everything I said was true and I was not trying to pick up a bunch of Californians ten years my junior. I got my cava and studiously avoided that group for the rest of the night. I looked around for anyone who might also need someone to talk to, but saw only couples and groups of friends. Introspection commenced.

Point 5. Introspection

I had some very productive thoughts while traveling alone. I could pull out my notepad and write down ideas for my book whenever I felt like it. I could stare at some piece of art longer than Tim would have wanted to; ditto with clothing shops. I could insist on walking everywhere and not taking the Metro. And so even though I slept terribly at the cheap hotel, I felt refreshed when Tim and I met up on Saturday afternoon when his work trip was over.

Point 6. Dining alone

I was initially stumped on what to do for dinner. Although I like to picture myself as the classy woman reading a book at a nice restaurant alone, it’s really just a picture. Yet I do. not. eat. fast food, so I wasn’t really considering takeout. Luckily someone had recommended Sagardi. Sagardi is a Basque restaurant near the Jaume I metro that serves pintxos, little bites of different things. They spread dishes all along the bar, and when you go in you ask for a plate and a drink. Then you fill your plate with whatever you like from the dishes, as many times as you want (note: a second person would be useful re: the drink/plate/two hands conundrum). Most people eat standing around high tables (there are a few sit-down tables outside), and it was a very easy place for a solo diner to feel comfortable. The pintxos have toothpicks in them, and at the end of your meal a server counts your toothpicks and tells you how much you owe (it’s not a lot: I think each one was less than €2). Sagardi isn’t the only place to employ the toothpick-tally method, but it was new to me.

Point 7. Feeling of triumph

There is always a feeling of triumph, I find, when you navigate a new location on your own for the first time. When I found the train station attached to Barcelona’s airport (and successfully bought the super-useful T-10 card), there was a train ready to depart and I had about a minute to decide if it went to where I wanted to go: Passeig de Gràcia. I looked around the train car and saw nothing but suitcases, and so I obeyed the general rule of trying to get to airports and major tourist areas: follow the luggage. I hopped on and asked a Spanish couple if the train went to Passeig de Gràcia; they said they weren’t sure, but that it definitely went to downtown Barcelona. The train began to pull away and I read the digital stop list as we rolled along: the train went exactly where I hoped. These moments are little things, but they always boost my travel confidence.

All told, I traveled Spain on my own for just 36 hours; but previously I’d only done the kind of solo travel where I was staying with a friend who had work or school in the day and could meet up in the evenings.

Do you travel alone? What do you find to be the positives or negatives?



Filed under European Travel

2 responses to “Points on solo travel, as jotted in Barcelona

  1. Mathieu

    I spent almost a decade doing solo business travel, where as often as possible I’d work in extra days when in an interesting destination (Istanbul = yes, Kassel = no). Personally I only use guide books/sites before going to just orient myself and get some ideas, and then like to just spend my days wandering aimlessly. Maybe I miss some things, but the feeling of “accidentally” stumbling across points of interest is fun.

    The random wandering during the day is also a good recon mission for the evening, when I like to do a 5-bar challenge (one beer in five different bars). It doesn’t bother me too much if it’s a locals/tourist spot so long as it’s got a fun vibe. There may be a certain authenticity to sitting in a dingy cafe drinking Pernod with sour-faced old men, but I do tend to look for places that attract the same kind of people I would like to drink with, regardless of location. I’ve tried the “let’s go have a drink with a dockworker” kind of approach, and it rarely works — maybe I’d have better luck if I were a woman, but most times I’ve only gotten stares and cold shoulders.

    The only thing I’ve never been able to get over is eating alone. When we travel as a couple, a disproportionate amount of energy goes into deciding where we want to eat. Reviews are scoured, menus dissected, locations scrutinized. Having a Nice Meal is a big part of our travel experience. Yet on my own, even with something to read, I just feel really uncomfortable sitting for an extended period in a restaurant. That, combined with my random-roaming tourist style, means that I eat a lot of quick food. Local if possible, but I also get a real kick out of eating at McD’s in different places, so that’s always good for at least one meal. Many a hipster has tried to shame me about this, but, even for the hater, it’s actually a culturally-relevant experience. Menu differences, who’s eating there (Shanghai = aspirational workers enjoying a luxury meal, Kuwait City = groups of teenagers flirting at a distance from the single male/female sections) and more. Plus I just like me a Big Mac.

  2. like this story a lot how you’ve experienced your time in barcelona

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