Reflections on international living and travel
 

 

 

Jeffrey of the Alps
Just call me, "Jeffrey of the Alps".

A Solo Journey to Aosta Valley

Aosta Valley, Italy - June 2022 - By Jeffrey

This being June, I've decided to take a quick trip to the Italian Alps before schools close for the summer holiday and every European family hits the road, thus ensuring that hotels are charging top rates, aeroplanes are full to bursting and traffic jams are liberally sprinkled across the continent. Fortunately, my offspring are adults now and mostly arranging their own trips these days. As a result, there is no rational reason for me to join the travel chaos of July and August. Instead, I enjoy Belgium, devoid of the Belgians away on holiday. That said, it has been a couple of months since my last journey out of Belgium and I wanted to take a little trip in June before holiday madness engulfed the continent.

Unfortunately, Ira could not make it owing to work obligations. Fortunately, I am sort of early retired and don't have to deal with pesky work obligations. As a result, I would be travelling alone for the first time in nearly a year. No problem, I thought. I have travelled alone frequently throughout my life. Indeed, the original concept behind the blog is that as it would give me a project to work on while travelling alone. So, I was all set to travel. Alone. No problem.

Or so I thought.

In fact, I missed Ira's presence on this trip more than I expected. One of the nice things about solo-travel is that one can be selfish, do what one wants and not give a flying fart what anyone else thinks. Walking in the Alps, I thought, would allow me time to meditate, reflect and -- in an ideal scenario -- find solutions to all of life's problems. The downside to travelling alone is that when I see something really beautiful, there is no one to share it with. The best I can do is to grab my camera and hope the resulting photograph will do the beautiful thing justice. The thing with the Alps is that there are lots of stunningly beautiful things to see. Above the tree-line, it's basically stunningly beautiful everywhere you look. Close your eyes and the air is so clean, cool and Alpine that you can sense the beauty even without seeing it. You cannot photograph that.

Nevertheless, I took lots of photographs, a few of which are on this page. As I write this, I realise another advantage to travelling alone is it allows me to get into more of a photographer's state of mind, looking for pictures, evaluating lighting and adjusting shutter speed and lens aperture to suit my needs (okay, sometimes I get a little too serious about photography).

 

View from my hotel room - at night
View from my hotel room at night

The Trip

I drove to Aosta in Aosta Valley, a pretty town nestled between mountains in the Northwest of Italy, close to the borders of France and Switzerland. It's not the most spectacular bit of Alps. Nearby Mont Blanc is the tallest Alp and attracts serious mountain climbers. I am not a serious mountain climber. I'm a relaxed mountain wanderer. And, as I hope you can see from the pictures, the views of the lessor Italian Alps left nothing to complain about.

My hotel was a few hundred meters up the side of a mountain with great views. It was a bit more remote from the city centre than I expected, which meant a steep climb downhill when going for dinner; and a steep climb back uphill afterwards. When travelling, I prefer to walk to dinner so I can enjoy some wine while dining, without worrying about having to drive afterwards.

Waypoint sign

First Alpine Walk

As often seems to be the case on a hiking trip, the first walk was the nicest. I drove to the village of Lillaz and followed the route: Cascate [waterfall] du Lillaz, Lago Loie, Testa della Goilles. The walk started out as a rather steep (In my memory, about an 88.5° gradient) hike up stone strewn footpaths.  Tough, but a delightful change from the flatlands of Flanders. I passed through a fir tree forest that filtered the Alpine air in a delightful way and after a grueling (by my standards) climb, I emerged from the trees and found myself above the tree-line.

The Alps are magical above the tree-line and this particular Alp was no exception. Near the summit, the vegetation changed from trees to a mossy grass scattered with colourful wildflowers to rocky desolation. And, I mean that in a good way. I love rocky desolation in the same way I love a beautiful piece of music in G-minor -- Bach's Air on a G-String comes to mind. Alone above the tree-line, I felt a cool, fresh wind blow through my hair and echo in my ears. The world, for a moment or three, comprised just me and the mountain. If lightening were to have struck and killed me then and there, they would have found a smiling corpse.

Fortunately, lightening didn't strike and I continued my walk along the desolate heights of the mountain and eventually down into the trees and back to Lillaz where my car was waiting like a faithful dog. But better. My car doesn't bark insanely, smell like a dog or manically jump on people like me.

 

Roman ruins in Aosta
Roman theatre

Exploring Aosta

On day two, I decided to explore the centre of Aosta. It's a pretty city with a splash of Roman ruins here and there. For €10, you get access to a Roman theatre; an archaeological museum; Area Megalitica di Saint Martin-de-Corléans (which was closed when I visited); the foundations together with other bits and pieces of an early Christian church; and a criptoporticus, which sounds awesome, but in fact is just a " semi-subterranean gallery whose vaulting supports portico structures above ground and which is lit from openings " (Wikipedia). Still, I can proudly tell people "I've been in a Criptoporticus!" Can you?

None of the Roman things were particularly big and could be thoroughly visited in a half hour or so each. Between exploring ruins, I found the city's one and only vegetarian restaurant: Cibo Ristorante Vegano which offered a small menu of creative dishes. It was a delightful lunch with a view of a nearby mountain climbing up to the sky.

The problem with Aosta, from a traveller's perspective, is there is not a lot to see in the city. Even walking at a leisurely pace, taking one's time over lunch and contemplating the Roman ruins, only filled about 3/4 of a day. Once I'd visited everything and wandered the streets sufficiently, I found a quiet café, pulled a book out of my rucksack and split my time between reading and watching people pass by -- while drinking a glass of wine slowly.

 


Criptoporticus

 

Thinking about Solo Travel

While sitting in the café, I got to thinking about solo travel again. I've done a lot of it throughout my life - for business, pleasure and moving to new countries. It seems to me now that I met a lot more people while travelling when I was in my 20s than I have done as a middle-age guy. I wondered whether this was because of the way I travelled in my younger days compared to the way I travel now; or was it because I have changed and am less open to meeting people than I used to be. Or was it a mistaken assumption that I meet fewer people when travelling these days?

In my younger days, most European -- and later Thai and Malaysian -- travel was by train. European trains offered cheap tickets for under 26ers and cheap flights hadn't been invented then. So young people on a budget took trains to travel in Europe - even for long journeys. And, long journeys in trains with other young travellers inevitably led to conversations. If we were going to the same place and hit it off in the train, we'd sometimes hang out at our destination. Occasionally -- very occasionally -- a short term romance blossomed. Eventually, new found friends and lovers went their way and I went mine. Because social media also hadn't been invented then, we could only stay in contact if we exchanged addresses and took the time to write letters. That seldom happened -- at least not for long.

So, while I often met and occasionally hung out with fellow travellers in my youth, very few of the connections were lasting. I do not believe any have lasted until now.

These days, I am more likely to travel by car or aeroplane, though I occasionally take trains to nearish cities. Antwerp, Paris, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, den Haag, Cologne and London are all within a two and a half hour fast train ride from Brussels. But these are high speed trains with assigned seats and more reminiscent of aeroplane seating than train seating.

Many of the trains I rode in my younger days had compartments of six or eight seats facing each other and you could sit where you wanted -- or stand if seats were full. This made it easier to strike up conversations with fellow travellers, especially if they were around my age and dressed casually. In an aeroplane or high speed train, you can always strike up a conversation with the person next to you, but I seldom do. If it turns out the person next to you is a talkative weirdo, you're stuck listening to her for the entirety of the trip.

I came to Aosta by car, so meeting someone in the car would have been extremely unlikely, unless I stopped to pick up a hitchhiker. However, one seldom sees hitchhikers these days. That said, I often talk to other drivers while driving, though my comments are largely critical observations of their poor driving ability and I suspect they don't hear me. So, it's not really a conversation.

So, it seems that form of transportation was a major factor in meeting or not meeting other travellers. That said, I believe that in our youth we are more open to making friends. As we grow older and have an established group of friends, we become less open to adding new pals. Indeed, people who spend their lives in a particular geographic area tend to make most of their friends in school and higher education. So, perhaps in our youth we are programmed to make new friends, but later in life we are programmed to maintain existing friends. At least, this was my thinking at the time.

 

Travelling Solo in Thailand

Thailand, where I lived from age 26-36, was different. I picked up basic Thai rather quickly. When I visited villages, locals were often delighted that a westerner could speak their language. This led to invitations to join people for meals in restaurants and even in their homes -- probably so people could show off their new farang friend to their families. Guidebooks warn you against doing this kind of thing. Apparently, some baddies will invite foreign visitors to a meal, drug them and rob them. This never happened to me and most Thai people I met on the road were friendly and generous. Nevertheless, it is probably wise not to accept food or drinks from strangers. Not everyone is as lucky as I have been.

Nevertheless, like fellow travellers met on trains in Europe, I seldom formed lasting friendships with Thais I met in villages and cities outside of Bangkok where I lived.

 

View of Cretaz
View of Cretaz

Troublesome Day

Day three started off badly. I woke around 5:30 in the morning after a poor night's sleep. To make matters worse, breakfast would only be served at 8:00, which meant waiting two and a half hours for my coffee. I pretended to go back to sleep again, but failed to fool myself. Fortunately, the hotel served an awesome cappuccino at breakfast. It was worth the wait.

The night before, I had found what seemed an interesting walk on Alltrails.com. After breakfast, I drove to the starting point and found packed car parks and lots of people milling about with off-road bicycles. It turned out there was some kind of big rally or race starting very near the starting point of my walk. Nevertheless, I tried to walk to the starting point of the walk, but it was difficult. Bicycles raced past on adjacent trails that would intersect with mine. I reckoned I had a 50% chance of surviving the walk. I prefer better odds of making it to the end of a walk alive and so I walked back to the car.

Fortunately, I had a backup walk also found on Alltrails.com. It was a shorter hike starting in Cretaz, about a 20 minute drive from the failed walk. As I'd wasted time with the failed walk, a shorter walk made sense. I drove to Cretaz, had a sandwich lunch and then embarked on the trail.

The downside of walks on Alltrails.com and similar web sites is they are based on GPX routes which one can follow with an app on one's phone. It's convenient, but I prefer to keep my phone in my pocket as much as possible on walks. I prefer marked routes or paths following waypoints. Moreover, on a mountain, GPS signals can occasionally get a bit wonky. That's what happened on this walk and for a short period of time, my location bounced about according to my app and Google maps.

Fortunately, I was on a clear trail and simply followed it. I knew the GPS would soon sort itself out. And it did. Unfortunately, it turned out I was on the wrong path and about a kilometre off the trail I should have been on. I had to climb around shrubs, over rocks and across ravines to get to the correct trail. Eventually I did and from there, the walk was a delight with stunning views of neighbouring mountains. At one point, I found a decent log, sat on it and just let my mind wander happily while looking at the mountain view.

The climb back down the mountain was straightforward and suitably uneventful.

I stopped for a coffee on the drive to the hotel. The owner of the café spoke no English and I speak only a few words of Italian. Using those words together with some gestures, I attempted to order a double espresso. Clearly he misunderstood me and brought me a quadruple espresso of rocket fuel enhanced coffee. It put hair on my chest. I never had hair on my chest before.

And, it was a delicious coffee!

 

The Ride Home and More Thinking   

Before hitting the road the following day, I stopped briefly at a local supermarket. Italian wines are substantially cheaper in Italy than they are in Belgium. I pretty much emptied their limited stock of Valpolicella, and grabbed a few bottles of Orvieto for good measure.

The ride home was a delightful drive between and over mountains and through the 11.6km long Mont Blanc tunnel. A classical music list on Spotify filled the car with classical and modern classical music that complemented the stunning mountains I drove past.

Driving alone allowed my mind to wander and again I found myself thinking about solo travel. Business travel this time. Since moving to Belgium in 1999, I have travelled a considerable amount for business. Most of that travel has been to give talks (people pay me to get up on a stage and talk to them; is that cool or what?) and workshops at conferences, at corporate gatherings and in companies. In my earlier Belgian days, I also travelled to visit some EU funded projects I was overseeing (I originally moved to Belgium to consult the European Commission).

I almost always travelled alone for these business trips. But, conferences and industrial events have lots of networking dinners and drinks where I usually chatted with attendees. But not always. Although I am comfortable giving talks to 1000s of people, I am shy about introducing myself during networking events! Fortunately, attendees often seek me out to ask questions. And sometimes these questions turn into conversations.

For EU project trips, I met with project participants and there was usually a group dinner following the review.

So, I guess in my later years, I still meet people while travelling. It's just that the people I meet now are met on business trips rather than trips for pleasure. And now we can stay connected via LinkedIn.

It is also worth bearing in mind that when I travel for pleasure, my aim is not usually to meet people. It is to see and explore new places, discover art and be inspired. If I explicitly wanted to meet people while travelling, I could probably do so by participating in activities such as group tours, local social events and visiting lively bars at night. But, I like travelling alone at my own pace; or travelling with Ira whose pace and tastes are surprisingly similar to mine. 

What about you? Do you travel alone sometimes? Do you tend to meet people when you travel?

 

Mountain in Aosta Valley
Approaching the end of the tree line.

 

 

 

  Lake near summit
Small lake near summit

 

 

 

Above the tree line - aside from a few determined trees.
Determined little trees hanging out above the tree line.

 

 

Cloud rolling in
Cloud rolling in.

 

 

 

Clouds marching along the mountainside.
Clouds marching along the mountain.

 

 

Path through the mountains.
Path through the mountains

 

 

 

Colourful wildflowers
Wildflowers near the summit.

 

 

 

More wildflowers near the summit
More wildflowers near the summit.

 

 

 

 

Still more mountaintop wildflowers.
Still more mountaintop wildflowers.

 

 

View on the way down the mountain.
View on the way down the mountain.

 

 

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