Last week I discussed my experience as a solo (and female) traveler with one of my high school teachers, and I realized that I had failed to recount those experiences here. One of the side effects of living in Europe and the comparative ease of international travel in this region is that weekend trips to other countries feel much the same as weekend trips to other states within the US; as a result, it’s easy for me to forget that they qualify as the type of travel on which this blog focuses!
I posted previously about my first solo trip, to Barcelona just after my 30th birthday in 2015. That trip was a great success and gave me the confidence necessary to embark on further solo trips, at least to places within Europe where I can speak the language and feel the minimum level of comfort necessary for such an undertaking.
I booked the trip to Bilbao in March. After such a great time in Argentina for New Year’s, I was aching for another chance to speak Spanish, and I remembered that the New York Times had recently done one of its “36 Hours” features on Bilbao. I booked on a Monday and left on Friday night.
According to what I’ve read, Bilbao’s reputation is in the process of transitioning from that of an unpleasant industrial city to that of the more modern and chic variety. I had a hard time believing that anyone could have previously disliked Bilbao: I found it charming. It is a relatively small city whose center can be easily traversed on foot in 35 minutes or so. I stayed right in the middle of everything, in a hotel about a 15-minute walk southeast of the Guggenheim.
I arrived late on Friday night and didn’t pressure myself to accomplish anything in particular upon my arrival, especially since it was raining. Nonetheless, feeling that it would not be acceptable to simply go to sleep, I grabbed an umbrella and set off on a reconnaissance mission of sorts. I had a list of pintxos and cocktail bars that I wanted to scope out for the following day, and I walked a big loop to see a few of them and generally get a feel for the geography. Bilbao’s center is organized in a simple grid, so it was easy to find my way around without relying heavily on my phone.
I wasn’t hungry and hadn’t yet summoned enough courage to enter a bar alone, so after my little walking tour I went back to the hotel and took pleasure in watching Spanish Netflix. (The UK Netflix library is awful – those of you in the US should not take for granted the far superior titles available to you!) One of the beautiful things about speaking a foreign language is that you can do something like watch a movie in that language and feel like you’re accomplishing something intellectual. I happened upon a Spanish television show telling the story of Queen Isabella (in my the same style as “The Tudors”) and quickly became engrossed, not only because the story was interesting but also because the dialogue took place entirely in the Spanish that was spoken at that time. I could only watch with Spanish subtitles, which were actually very helpful. I am a big language nerd and was fascinated by the linguistic differences!
In a similar vein, one of the nice things about traveling alone is that you do only what you want to do. Had someone else been with me, I likely wouldn’t have felt comfortable staying in my room and watching Netflix even though, as explained above, for me that was an entirely enjoyable and useful activity. (Sure, it can feel a little sad or weird to be in a hotel room by yourself and without a friend nearby, but sometimes that’s just life!) I think one of the lessons of solo travel is becoming more comfortable in your own skin; somehow being alone in a foreign place feels different from being alone in your home city.
Saturday was a busy day for me; I had a long list of things to see, many of which would involve eating. I had prepared a Google Map of the city with all of my destinations saved, so it was easy to navigate efficiently. I had relied entirely on TripAdvisor, and I think almost everything I ate or drank came from one of the places for which I’d read a recommendation.
One of the lessons I learned, to go back to the idea of feeling comfortable when traveling alone, is that there’s no harm in trying to transplant a bit of your usual routine or something familiar into the new place. For instance, I happened upon Sephora, the French cosmetics store I came to know intimately while living in Paris. We don’t have Sephoras in the UK, so I was justified in going in, but my time in Sephora served the dual purpose of helping me take a break from feeling the foreign-ness of where I was and what I was doing. It was something familiar, except that the product labels were in Spanish! Watching Netflix qualifies as the same type of activity – it wasn’t just like being at home because I had access to an entirely new library of films and shows, but it also wasn’t something that further highlighted the fact that I was in a strange place alone.
My favorite part of Saturday was going to the Corte Inglés, Spain’s principal department store. My hotel was a five minute walk away, and I logged over an hour inside. I delighted in the kitchenwares section, where I found a pan designed specifically for making tortilla española (and in this case, for people like me who have not yet mastered the art of flipping the tortilla halfway through). I also bought two glass champagne coupes (now the vessel of choice for many artisan cocktails), which I mention because a) I’d tried to find ones of exactly the right shape and height all over London, including in antiques shops and b) they cost a mere 3 euros a piece – go figure! I spent probably an additional 40 minutes in just the books department; whenever I am in a bookstore in a Spanish or French-speaking country, I feel so tempted to buy a bunch of books; they appeal to two sides of my nerdy nature: I am a girl who loves to read, and I am a girl who loves foreign languages. Combine the two and… I have to exercise real restraint, especially since my track record of actually reading books purchased in such circumstances is not the best. I managed to withstand the temptation and instead spent the equivalent amount of money on chocolate. 🙂
The highlight of the trip was of course the food. Bilbao is part of the Basque region (more on that later) and is famous for its pintxos (tapas), which are even more ubiquitous there than in the rest of the country. Practically every block had at least one pinxtos bar, where throughout the day and night a colorful medley of pintxos were laid out on the bar, ready to be grabbed and eaten along with a cheap (but delicious) glass of wine.
My introduction to this experience was the covered market across the river, which like the famous market in Barcelona was a mixture of produce, meat, fish, and cheese stands as well as pintxos establishments. The place was packed on Saturday afternoon, and the only thing harder than finding a place on which to put my food was picking that food in the first place. I got a bit of everything and even took advantage of some free wine tasting. The market was the perfect place to come alone because there were so many people around, and the atmosphere was totally distinct from that of a regular bar or restaurant.
My culinary experiences later in the day were just as satisfying from a taste perspective but more difficult from a solo traveler perspective. The clientele at the pintxos bars I visited later seemed generally disinclined to engage with me as someone there alone; everyone seemed to be there in large groups or in a couple, so no one was looking for someone else to talk to. (I wonder now how many times I might have failed to notice someone alone in a similar situation.) I was more surprised that the men behind the bar weren’t inclined to chat with me – it’s been my general experience (recognizing that my experience being in similar situations is limited) that men serving drinks are not unwilling to chat with women, and it was obvious that I spoke Spanish, so I was disappointed that no one struck up a conversation with me. The only time in the span of about three hours that I did talk to someone was when standing next to an older couple. I don’t remember how we started talking (something must have triggered them saying something to me), but I spoke with them for about 10 minutes and was grateful for the interaction. I don’t think eating alone is as hard as I had previously thought, but in this case it was made more difficult by the fact that I was always standing at a bar – I wasn’t seated at a table where I could get out a book and tune out what was going on around me.
I did manage to have an extended conversation later in the evening with the owner and chief bartender of a cocktail bar that was surprisingly devoid of patrons, even at 11 p.m. I had walked past the night before and found it similarly empty, but I had read a lot about it and really wanted to try one of their drinks, so this time I was undeterred by the emptiness. The owner asked me what I wanted to have and (this is the mark of all good bartenders) readily invented something for me based on my response. I had finished the whole drink by the time anyone else entered the bar! I still don’t know how a bar was empty on a Saturday night.
I did feel a bit discouraged and lonely after the evening, but I was proud of myself for sticking it out. After all, I could have just eaten a bunch of pintxos in just one bar and then given up and gone back to the hotel at 8 pm; instead, I stayed out for five hours and went to five or six different places, which is worth celebrating even if I didn’t do much talking!
The next day I was more social because I had arranged to go on a date in the hours before my late afternoon flight! I started the day at the Guggenheim museum, which really is a very cool piece of architecture, and there is a lot of thought-provoking art inside (even if I’m still not the most appreciative of modern art). As a side note, going through museums is the best part of traveling alone – you can go at exactly the pace you want, not spending a moment more or less than you want to spend on any particular piece. Anyway, Iñigo came and picked me up at the Guggenheim around 1:00, and that was the last time I spent alone on that trip.
There is a new trend of “Tinder Tourism” – using Tinder as a means of meeting people while traveling. (For anyone who may not know, Tinder is a dating app that uses your location and shows you a seemingly unlimited array of candidates – you can usually see a few pictures, and you find out their names, ages, and any other small amount of information they want to include on their profile.) Mary and I have previously tried using Tinder together (creating one account with pictures of the both of us and indicating that we’re two friends traveling together) without success, but this was my first time using it successfully as a traveler. I changed my profile to have a message in Spanish explaining that I was an American living in London who was visiting Bilbao for the weekend and interested in sharing pintxos with a local. I love using Tinder outside of London because a) the men always seem to be more attractive (in every way) and b) the men are always more responsive. I got messages from a handful of guys but “hit it off” best with Iñigo. I should appease the worriers out there by saying that of course I approached this with some caution, but really, meeting up with a total stranger in a foreign city isn’t radically different from meeting up with a total stranger in the city where you live!
Iñigo turned out to be a very nice guy; we spoke Spanish the whole time, of course, and he told me more about what it’s like to live in the Basque region. As in Barcelona (where Catalan is the official language), all of the street signs in Bilbao are in both Spanish and Basque; according to Iñigo, everyone grows up speaking both interchangeably; both are taught in school. (This is pretty impressive because Basque is a totally different language, unlike Catalan, which isn’t all that different from Spanish.) We didn’t discuss the grittier political issues like the movement for Basque independence from Spain, but we kept our general conversation going pretty easily. (First dates are wonderfully low key when you go into them knowing that they are also, in all likelihood, the only date you’ll ever go on with that person!) Iñigo took me across the river to the old town (part of which I’d explored the day before) and to a crowded pintxo bar just off a big square. It was clearly the place to be on Sunday afternoon; people seemed to be there with their entire family, and everyone from the age of six months to 85 was enjoying the array of food and drinks. We grabbed a bunch of pintxos, including one that was not immediately identifiable to me, and we had a funny couple of minutes as Iñigo tried to convince me I didn’t want to know what it was – it turned out to be blood sausage, which I quickly explained was no big deal and something I was quite fond of eating! After spending a while there, we wandered around for a bit and eventually decided to spend the remaining time I had drinking beer at a place down the street from my hotel. It was a really nice way to spend my last few hours in Bilbao; travel is always enhanced by the interactions you have with locals, and what better way to interact with a local than to go on a date with one?!
In summary: overall I had a very nice time in Bilbao. It was a stress-free and refreshing weekend away that, despite not being quite as socially engaging as my trip to Barcelona, was nonetheless quite enjoyable (the food was so good…) and helped me feel a different type of confidence and self-reliance about traveling alone. I was fortunate to go on a lot of great trips in 2016, but my trips to Bilbao and Lyon are ones that pop into my head especially frequently – perhaps because I shared them with no one but myself.
I went to Lyon at the end of the summer, over the UK equivalent of Labor Day weekend. I knew it was likely my last time to get away for a while, and I decided it was high time that I forced myself to go somewhere other than Paris in France. Of course, I still allowed myself some time in Paris – I arrived in Paris on Friday and took the train to Lyon on Sunday morning.
Thanks to my friend Colleen who had studied abroad in Lyon during undergrad, I arrived in the city with some more personalized recommendations, and as I’d done for Bilbao, I plotted everything onto a Google Map. I checked into my Airbnb apartment in the center of town and then did a small loop around the neighborhood before sitting down for lunch. Lyon forced me to get comfortable eating alone – I ate two lunches and two dinners in restaurants, so I really had to face the fact that there was no one sitting across from me. For this first lunch, I was sitting outside, so the passersby provided some distraction.
After lunch, I walked about 40 minutes over to the History Center of the Resistance and Deportation, which is a museum dedicated to France during World War II. Everything is in French, so there was plenty of opportunity for me to practice my reading! I knew very little about occupied France and the Vichy government and even less about the treatment of Jews during the occupation, so this was very educational for me. I ended my visit with a 40-minute mini-documentary about the trial of Klaus Barbie, one of the Nazi officers in France who was ultimately convicted in France of crimes against humanity. Since international criminal law is my passion, I really enjoyed getting to watch the footage of the trial, and the statements from the witness helped to contextualize everything I’d just seen in the exhibits.
I spent the remainder of the afternoon walking around even more and covered a lot of ground. I eventually made my way to the Le Bouchon des Filles, which was my dinner destination. Lyon is famous for its food (even in a country already famous for its food), and bouchons are its claim to fame. They specialize in what might be categorized as “country” fare, made with simple ingredients that often include parts of the animal that many might prefer not to have identified. I had heard from multiple sources that Le Bouchon des Filles was one of the best, so I made sure I was there when they opened in order to get a table. What a spread and what a value: I paid a total of 26 euros for a starter of smoked flounder and chilled beef tenderloin, a beetroot amouse-bouche, a main of andouillette (sausage featuring that meat you don’t want identified), and a dessert of fromage blanc with pear compote and a gooey chocolate cake with salted caramel. It was INCREDIBLE. And although I felt a bit awkward eating in the restaurant alone (it’s definitely harder inside), I was in good company; another woman came in by herself a few minutes after me and was seated near me. (I was tempted to ask her to join me but couldn’t quite work up the nerve – partially because I couldn’t tell if she was French or something else.)
On Monday, I visited the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which was huge and had plenty of items to help me pass the time – I didn’t see everything. When I was ready for lunch, I returned to a place I’d passed the day before that looked great and specialized in tartines. It had been very crowded on Sunday and was no different on Monday, but I had nothing else to do and was willing to wait. I had a heartwarming conversation with a waiter:
Waiter: Can I help you, mademoiselle?
Me: Do you have a table available for one person? I’m alone.
Waiter: You are not alone, mademoiselle! I am here with you, and I will take care of you!
And sure enough, the kind older man had me seated at a table (sadly, not in his own section) less than five minutes later. (A linguistic note: in French, the word “seule” means both “alone” and “lonely” – at least in Spanish, where those two words are “sola” and “sóla”, you have the accent to differentiate! This is not the first conversation I’ve had where I haven’t been entirely confident that my use of the word “seule” was taken as “alone” rather than “lonely”.)
At any rate, I had a delicious tartine featuring three different kinds of cheese. It was a grilled cheese sandwich the likes of which I could never dream of in the US…
My last meal in Lyon was my most anticipated as I’d managed to get a restaurant at a relatively famous restaurant: Le Sud, one of four restaurants in a chain (each named after a direction – there is also Le Nord, L’Ouest, and L’Est) owned by a famous chef. Fortunately for me, I was able to sit outside, and I ended up not touching the Kindle on which I’d expected to rely. I had a prime view of not only the passersby (and we were just off a huge square, so there were plenty) but also a gorgeous sunset taking place behind a church. The meal itself was lovely; my favorite course was the dessert, for which I allowed myself the indulgence of waffles with a variety of homemade sauces and compotes.
I had more reason to feel isolated in Lyon than in Bilbao. Because I was there on Sunday and Monday, none of the bars I would otherwise have visited were open, so my only nighttime activities were eating dinner and walking around; there wasn’t really an opportunity to meet other people. I did dabble in Tinder again but didn’t get as far as I had in Bilbao. So essentially, I spent about 48 hours not only by myself but also without really talking to anyone except waiters. But that was okay too; as I discussed earlier, one of the tricks of solo travel is to just incorporate something from your usual routine. I usually FaceTime with Mary on Sundays, so that’s what I did on Sunday night there after I returned from my dinner at Le Bouchon des Filles. I also watched a little Netflix (again, the French library is superior!) and did give in to my urge to buy a French book, so I had that to read as well. And despite all of the quiet, I look back on that trip often and fondly.
2017 is going to be a big year for me (I am about to move back to Paris!), and I’m not sure what sort of travel it will hold – but I am glad that I pushed myself in 2016 to go on these two trips. Both have made me better prepared for future solo travel, and while I think my preference will always be to travel with someone else, I’m no longer afraid to go by myself and can appreciate certain ways in which it can actually be quite nice to travel solo. I hope others reading this will feel similarly comfortable and will have the courage to go it alone! Travel is too important and too enjoyable to avoid simply because of a lack of partner.