Why do you travel? Wait, let me qualify that question. Why do you travel for fun? Not traveling to visit your family across the country - which often entails paying premium airfare and fighting snow storms and flight delays at the holidays. Not traveling for business when your schedule is filled with back to back meetings followed by obligatory dinners at restaurants selected to please your colleagues with less adventurous palates. I mean why do you travel when you are traveling for fun - not duty? As with any endeavor, it’s important to think with the end in mind: what do you want to get out of your trip? Decide and then plan accordingly.
Me? I travel for adventure and exploration: opening my eyes and mind to a new culture, language, glimpsing beautiful scenery, and most of all, experimenting with new food and wine to understand the people and place of my destination. And, of course, I want to capture all these things in photographs to trigger memories of them when I return home and for years to come. My stated reasons for travel make traveling alone ideal, generally, but specifically on my recent trip to La Rioja when I had the added goal of escaping the comforts of home and trying to envision my future. I suppose I had the same goals when I was 21 and traveling alone to Paris after a study abroad program at Oxford - traveling for the romance of it and thinking of who I wanted to become. But then I felt a little lonely, afraid to dine at a restaurant on my own or go out alone at night; at age 21, I wished I had someone with me - preferably the not yet discovered, romantic love of my life (I know, I know. Cue the eye rolling). At that time there was a sense of yearning for someone or something to “complete me.”
Now at the ripe age of 48, I am wise enough to know that, if we’re doing it right, we are never complete and yet, at once, fully complete - depending whether you’re a glass half full or half empty person, I suppose. We are continually transforming. What I was missing at the age of 21 was not someone or some great job or purpose. I was missing confidence in myself and my own self-reliance … and, sure, the financial means to enjoy a higher standard of accommodations and restaurants. Now I relish quiet time alone - whether it’s a peaceful hour in the morning between feeding the dog and engaging with the rest of humanity (i.e. my husband, colleagues, or The New York Times) — or, in this case, three weeks of solo travel in Spain and Portugal to quiet my mind and plot my next course.
What’s So Great about Traveling Alone?
When you travel alone, you are your own pilot, navigator, and DJ. That also means you can pull the car over for a photograph any time you want without a groan of impatience from your companion. I vividly recall the words of a friend some twenty years ago when I squatted down on a sandy beach in Maui for the umteenth time; she snipped: “Oh God. Not another f@#!-ing sunset photo!”
Essentially when you travel alone, you can do anything you want, whenever you want. Without compromise or judgment. Freedom. Adventure. The open road. It calls you and lets you design your trip, including your destinations, pit stops, soundtrack, schedule - or lack thereof, and dining establishments. Rioja awaited, and when I arrived, it greeted me with a beautiful sunset (pictured in the images above) as if to say, “you’ve come to the right place.”
During my visit to La Rioja in September 2018, I relished following my intuition to turn down a dusty road to find a beautiful vineyard valley cradled by a rocky hillside and framed to the north by the mountains separating Rioja from the Basque Country (pictured above) or stumble onto a twelfth century monument at magic hour with not another soul in sight (Hermitage of Santa Maria de La Piscina, pictured below). I slammed on the brakes and pulled over more times than I can count - leaving the car door ajar with the engine still running, while I ventured into the macaron-like soil to see the vineyards from a new angle; inspect the grapes up close and reevaluate my already loose plans for the remainder of the day. You see, everything is negotiable when you travel alone.
Since I had no one else to please but myself, I became obsessed with these guardaviñas - curious looking stone structures dotting the vineyard landscapes. These guardaviñas are unique to the region - built as shelter for the vineyard workers. It would be a dream to return and catalogue the location and history of each of these interesting relics. But for now, just marvel at them for a moment.
Traveling in Rioja provides ample opportunities for scenic stops. I took as many as possible in my four days there. But one need not travel half way around the world to experience the adventures of solo travel. As wisely stated in “Awakening the Buddha Within,” by Lama Surya Das:
“One need not travel to distant lands, seek exotic mystical experiences, master esoteric mantras and treatises, or cultivate extroaordinary states of mind in order to experience a radical change of heart and inner transformation. Spiritually speaking, everything that one wants, aspires to, and needs is ever-present, accessible here and now— for those with eyes to see it. It’s the old adage all over again: You don’t need to see different things, but rather to see things differently.”
If You Can’t Take a Solo Vacation - Take a Solo Break. You Deserve It.
There is beauty all around us. We often inhabit the world with our blinders on: falling into a routine, rushing from one obligation to another, taking conference calls on our commute, multitasking to take advantage of every waking moment, yet not stopping to be present in the moment. Sure, travel enables an escape from our daily routines and forces us to break those patterns. But with a little mindfulness, we can experience our daily lives in a whole new way. One can seek to find adventure in the seemingly mundane.
Try something new. Take a different route on your daily commute, treat yourself to a lunch by yourself in a fancy restaurant you always wanted to try, venture to a different part of town or city for a new perspective and experience. Stop along the way to check out anything that piques your curiousity. And if you can, schedule yourself to have a full day of exploration on your own: get in the car and drive without any agenda (or take public transportation to a new part of town). Take a hike. Sit on a park bench and just notice everything around. See how many discoveries big or small you can find along the way. Maybe you’ll notice the scent of Eucalyptus trees, freshly cut grass, or freshly baked bread. Follow the scent and see where it leads. And if you find that freshly baked bread, buy it and enjoy it - ideally smothered in salted butter and with a glass of wine. But this is important: when you venture out, you must turn off the news and social media. Don’t let anyone else spoil your day or influence your thinking. Let your own curiousity and pleasures propel you from one moment to the next. Then see how happy and relaxed you feel.
Wait - What About the Wine?
You may be wondering whether I did any wine tasting while I was in La Rioja. You bet I did. The next post will dive deeply into my visits to Bodegas Muga, Marques de Murrieta, Marques de Riscal, Roda, R. Lopez de Herredia (Vina Tondonia), and Artadi. There I found many discoveries along the way.