Words by Lucia Cockcroft
The cautionary tales came thick and fast, urging caution of the undeniable folly of a female travelling in Italy alone. I would, apparently, be harassed by would-be Romeos emerging from every piazza; I would be hampered by an almost complete ignorance of the Italian language; and the chances of falling prey to pickpockets were high.
Despite these friendly words and fuelled by wonderful descriptions of the town’s famous Byzantine frescoes and its proximity to Bologna, I decided to go ahead with plans to spend a weekend alone in Ravenna, northern Italy. Of course, as with all types of travelling, there would be risks, but I reasoned that common sense and a few cautionary measures would see off these threats. Luckily, the gamble paid off.
Hot holiday destination
Despite being heavily bombed in the Second World War, enough remains of the town – quite apart from its breathtaking mosaics – to make it a friendly and manageable destination in its own right. When I visited, Italy was experiencing the hottest June for 50 years; the heat, at over 40 degrees Celsius, was intense and unrelenting – and would have been utterly exhausting in a larger city.
But Ravenna’s relative compactness, and the slight but welcome breezes that wash in from the nearby coast, meant the heat was just about bearable. In fact it was another excuse to take things easy.
Ravenna proved a good choice for a solo weekend holiday for other reasons.
Its size also means that walking is the only sensible way to explore the town, negating the need for reliance on a public transport system that can often seem daunting to a new-comer to a city, especially if your Italian leaves much to be desired!
As a woman alone, I was acutely aware that choosing a friendly, very central hotel was a necessity, not a luxury. After consulting guidebooks and the internet, Hotel Diana, under ten minutes’ walk from Ravenna’s central Piazza del Popolo, proved an excellent choice – the cool, roomy lounge and free internet access proving other trump cards.
As always, a map of the town or area is a must but this is especially true if you are alone. It took only one or two trips into the town centre to memorise the route back to the hotel; an important point, particularly if you are wandering around in the dark. Although violent crime in Italy is rare, it makes sense to minimise the risks by appearing confident and au fait with your surroundings – even if you are not.
Most of all for a single female traveller, evenings present potential difficulties. The main question flitting through my mind before I arrived in Italy was the solo traveller’s perennial challenge: how to approach meal times. It seems to be a general rule of thumb that if you are planning to eat alone, you will be the only one doing so.
My evening search in Ravenna for restaurants in which to dine was dictated by the usual considerations of choice and cost but another, less familiar, consideration nagged at the back of my mind: who else is eating alone? Suffice to say that I appeared to be the only lone traveller out and about that weekend in Ravenna, regardless of whether or not this was true.
Bluff your way in solo dining
But solo dining is an art to be mastered and by the end of the weekend, I was almost enjoying the experience. The secret is this: adopt an expression of blank nonchalance and stride confidently into the restaurant of your choice, requesting a ‘table for one’ with a smiling, unembarrassed tone of voice. Chances are, no-one has noticed your solo arrival and if they have, they admire – even envy – your situation!
After all, dining alone brings the opportunity to luxuriate in some well-deserved ‘me time’, without the need for idle chit-chat. It also presents a prime opportunity to observe, and even eavesdrop, on your fellow diners. If you are of a nosey (I prefer to say ‘interested’) disposition, the rewards can be considerable. A good book or newspaper is another necessity for solo dining: what better way to spend a leisurely, uninterrupted hour or two than having a novel in one hand and a glass of cool pinot grigio in the other?
Travelling to another country for a few days in the company of a friend presents little opportunity to strike up a conversation with a local. If you are alone, however, the chances of doing so are far higher: you are more receptive to outside conversation and, seeing you alone, people are more likely to start speaking to you, whether out of kindness or interest!
Strangers on a train
As an example of this, I decided to spend the Sunday in Bologna, involving a train journey of just over an hour. Shortly after boarding the train I found myself chatting to a friendly chemistry student in her second year at Bologna University, whose English was good.
We talked for the length of the train journey, and by the end of it, had exchanged email addresses and phone numbers. I was touched by the trouble she had shown in marking points of interest in Bologna on my map and recommending good restaurants. When we parted I walked away with a spring in my step, heartened by my new friend’s warmth and concern that I should get as much as pos- sible out of my eight hours in an unknown city.
When, sadly, my weekend came to an end, it did so without a trace of violence or mishap; the language problem had been successfully tackled with a few carefully researched phrases and gesticulations; and I was half-heartedly approached by only one budding Romeo one evening at Piazza del Popolo.
Travelling alone does bring drawbacks, of course: accommodation is almost always more expensive and loneliness, especially during a trip spanning a week or more, could be a factor. It’s also more important than ever to be on your guard against unwanted attention or thieving fingers. But these are minor quibbles, easily overcome.
Above all, solo travel presents a rare and luxurious opportunity for some serious self-indulgence: fancy an afternoon – or even morning – siesta? Or a last-minute change of plan? No problem – there is only yourself to please.