Wednesday 1 January 2014

My first solo trip - to the Queen of Adriatic - Part I

Thanks to my job, I do get opportunities to travel.
It was 2011. Even though I have been staying in a foreign land on my own for a few years, probably due to the social environment of my upbringing and very protective parents, it required quite a bit of effort on my part to break the shackles and actually go out on my own to 'see the world'.

Now staying in Scotland itself is a stupendous holiday in itself which I ensured I enjoyed to the full. The excitements of the Scottish outdoors are unending and I had been doing as much as I could on my own. However, I was now yearning to take up a little bit more challenge and visit Europe on my own as well. The place high on my list was Italy. I had been to Rome and Venice over three decades back with my parents and brother and the place had already cast its spell at that young age. I lived the places in the photographs. Moreover, I have always been gastronomically inclined which explains my eternal struggle with weight. There is so much satisfaction in having a local dish made from fresh ingredients and with traditional expertise. That I call is food for the soul. Food definitely is a decision maker in my travel planning, and when it comes to Italian food, it makes me grow weak at my knees, err tongue...should I say?

So, Italy it was going to be - as the first. I had bigger plans as my work required a long stay in Edinburgh and I intended to use it to the full. Thus started the planning.

The Preparation

Getting the Visa

How I wished a UK work permit would allow me to travel Europe, but unfortunately I could not persuade the EU. I needed a Schengen Visa and that too, if my plans were to work out, not one that would end with my trip. With waiting times for appointments running into weeks followed by a three weeks processing time and a £60 fee, it was difficult to do it very often. I would have liked one for a year if I were to believe a friend, but being realistic, I was hoping at least for 6 months. Sent an email to the Italian embassy and received a prompt response - the visa would be for the duration I would be planning my trip, at their discretion. So, if I needed a longer one, needed multiple bookings.

It was October, and I was planning my Venice trip in December during Christmas. Decided I will go to Rome in March, and so that was 3 months sorted. I was going to attach a covering letter requesting for a longer stay and was hoping it would be considered.

There wasn't much rush at the Italian Embassy and I got an appointment on the very next week. Fortunately, they have one in Edinburgh which reduced the hassles. 

Reached about 30 minutes before time and was ushered in on time. The lady went through my documents, then took a look at the covering letter - 'We do not give visa for 1 year, 6 months is maximum but in your case most likely it will be 3 months. We will see'. All my hopes dashed.

My passport was ready for collection in two days. They did not need the 3 weeks processing time after all, and my Visa was multiple entry, 15 days till end of March. I had planned a total of 10 days in Italy, and definitely could not waste the balance...but that is a different story. 

Preparing for the trip

This was my first solo travel and I was nervous. At what time I reached, where do I stay - these had never been so critical before. There were further hindrance - budget, solo travelling is not cheap and the most important - language barrier.  

So, first stop - Easyjet. There wasn't any direct flight to Venice, but I had the option of squeezing in Milan, travel to Venice by train and then fly back from Venice via Gatwick to Edinburgh. I zeroed-in on the plan. 

Next was looking for a place to stay within budget, easy access from airport and safe. I wasn't that worried about northern Italy, but Rome was definitely a concern, given my father had a very unpleasant experience when I visited as a kid and all the warnings on the web. I needed the bookings for Rome too for the Visa application. Dug into Tripadviser while looking for discounts at the same time. Finally, managed to find what I needed and I was all booked and planned for the trip.

21st December: Leave Edinburgh at 2pm, reach Milan Malpensa at 5:30pm. Take Malpensa express train to Bovisa, get a taxi and off to Hotel La Residenza
22nd December: Stay in Milan
23rd December: Take train to Venice. Stay at Hotel Paganelli
24th December: Sight-seeing and attend midnight mass at San Marco's
25th December: Stay in Venice
26th December: 4pm flight from Marco Polo, reach Gatwick at 5pm and Edinburgh at about 9pm

Once the transport and accommodation were sorted, I needed to address my other concern - language barrier. Maybe English would have helped, but at least this got me motivated to learn a new tongue. That I had a colleague at work to practice my theoretical knowledge was a big help. The practice went well for a month and I could just say a few sentences, could read a bit and not understand much of what was said. Definitely not enough, but the prospect of being on my own felt a little less scary. 

The Trip Begins

Milan - Day 1

Finally the day arrived and I was on my way to the Edinburgh airport. The flight reached on time and it was easy enough to find the train station at the airport. Boarded the Milan Express as was advised by the hotel. Unfortunately, no one informed me there is a fast train as well which does not stop at Bovisa! 

As I got off at Milan Central station at about 8pm, I realised that I was already in a mess. I needed help to get back on track and I was trying not to panic. It wasn't too far after all. I spotted some official looking people in a glass room but would need to go over the ticket barriers. My first experience of Italian helpfulness - the official asked me to board the train going to Lake Como and put me back on the platform through a back door, no ticket purchase required he said. Once on the train, had barely got my breath back when all of a sudden disgruntled passengers started rushing off the train on hearing an announcement on the PA system. I tried to ask around but did not manage to get any response, so just decided to push my luck. The train left soon and I counted the stations. Eventually it did stop at Bovisa, a quiet dark station with no one around. 

I now had to get to the hotel in a taxi. I was hoping to find one close to the station but it didn't look like a popular train stop or maybe it was either too late or too early. The streets were quite empty. I had been given two numbers to call. The first one I called up simply said 'No English' and hung up, so called up the next number hoping for better luck. A lady responded and luckily she could understand what I was saying. After waiting for another 10 minutes or so, finally a taxi arrived and I got a very expensive ride to my hotel. It wasn't at all close or I was simply taken for a ride.  

After this slightly nerve racking start, I was indeed glad to have reached the hotel. It was a nice place, a Green hotel, they said. My room was by the staircase, cosy and looked comfortable. Decided to have my food at the hotel restaurant and as I waited, was greeted by this marvellous chef, Roberto. All right, I did not yet know how good a chef he was, but he was a lovely gentleman, very courteous. I ordered spaghetti with chicken and mushrooms with the house red wine. My gastronomic tour of Italy had actually started. I have always been a fan of Italian food, but having the same in Italy was an altogether different experience, something worth the travel and the trouble. Its speciality is in its simplicity and I was relishing it. Roberto offered dessert. Reluctantly, I had to refuse and apologised. I was already on the verge of bursting. He said that he would make fish tagliatelle for me if I were to have my food there next night. I readily accepted. 

It was late and I was tired. The bed was comfortable. I was happy as I dozed off. Even with the hassles, I had managed to make it on my own. It was my first experience. I had made mistakes and there was still so much to learn. Five days ahead of me and so much to look forward to.

I ended up sleeping with a pillow over my head to keep off the sounds from the corridor and the streets, but was too tired anyway to notice. My holiday had started.

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  1. very nice....please keep writing.

  2. Thanks Moumita. I am quite overwhelmed by the response on Facebook. Thanks for encouragement, I have now posted the second instalment.

  3. Indeed a great travelogue..looking fwd for more Saheli di...

    1. Thanks Sohini for following. Trying to finish this off quick now.

  4. kathopokathon baro kam...apnar ase pase keu ki chilona?

    1. Ashe pashe lok thakleo, kotha bolar karon chhilo na - apart from at train station and the hotel. Solo trip ater all :-)

  5. tobe sabe to jatra suru....porte porte dekha jak


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