By Colette Fitzpatrick
I travel quite a bit – not as much as I would like, but a great deal – and these travels have taken me both near and far, within Ireland and abroad.
I have travelled alone. I have visited friends living in other cities and countries. I have travelled for events. I have taken big leaps and gone to the other side of the world, alone and barely speaking the language. I have seen iconic sights and eaten delicious food and shopped in incredible stores.
Yet, for all the things I have done, all the adventures I’ve had, and all the money I have spent, nearly all of the things that stick out most strongly in my mind made such an impression because of who they were shared with and how they made me feel. The best travel experiences that I have had have always cost very little or been entirely free, as so much of the best things in life are, and I thought I would share them with you as I, myself, continue to try and place worth where it truly lies.
1. Cycling and singing in Sligo
Last summer, my best friend from college (i.e. my wifey) and I spent a weekend in the town of Sligo in Ireland. The main event of the trip was heading to the seaside village of Strandhill, nearby, to visit a seaweed bath, hike a little and brunch by the water. We could have chosen to get a taxi there but, instead, we decided to cycle out. We rented bicycles from a nearby hotel that had a scheme in place, largely for their own guests, and then began our journey. It was long and tough, at times, but the weather was pleasant, Ireland was at its most beautiful and we were on holidays with a spa day and delicious food ahead of us. After a long day, the hiking and the cycle earlier, however, the return journey no longer seemed so appealing. Despite this, we gritted our collective teeth and began the trip back to the Airbnb.
I’m not quite sure how it happened but on that return journey, we began singing. The traffic noise wasn’t that intense, as it was a relatively quiet country road, but the combined sound of passing cars and wind noise as we sped along and the effort some hills required made normal conversation difficult. To pass the time and be companionable, we started singing songs we both knew and the pursuit was so wholesome that it made us both laugh until, eventually, we forgot about laughing and we were simply in the moment and enjoying songs we had loved together or shared to console each other over the years. It was cinematic and silly and beautiful and one of those moments of whimsy and small but great happiness in life. We were alone, without distractions, and so fully focused on each other’s company, and it was magic. When we passed a house with a whole family sitting on the front lawn, staring out at us in surprise, the giggles returned but so, too, did the singing for the rest of the trip afterwards.
2. Wandering Paris with a pal I don’t get to see often enough
In the run-up to Christmas last year I decided, on a whim, to head to Paris for 24 hours to say goodbye to the iconic store Colette (recorded on my own blog here). Already, before even arriving, the trip smacked of the whimsy I feel that all of these stories are rooted in but it only increased when my good friend agreed to spend the day chaperoning me. Another pal had housed me the night before, upon arriving into the city, and welcomed me with Champagne and late-night giggling and then my second friend greeted me at the door the next morning and acted as my guide. We, essentially, just walked around Paris for ten hours but it was the most wonderful experience of the city I’ve ever had and a delightful Before Sunset rip-off. We stopped at the store, of course, and we grabbed food a couple of times, and we even visited the Louvre, but the most enjoyable part was simply walking and talking together.
In college, I often had days where I would spend hours one-on-one with a friend, where we would truly catch up and talk about topics often reserved for long nights on the phone with giddy first loves. So, so, often, I was privileged enough to gain so much insight into the ones I love and have such intimate conversations but having so much unadulterated time with friends is a luxury that few of us can afford any longer. Which is why this day with a friend I value so much and see so little was so joyous. And, so much time with a person can test your affection for them but, luckily, I came out of the experience liking him even more.
Let me tell you, there are few things more magical than simply walking around Paris (better still with someone who lives in the city) and talking about every topic under the sun, with the Seine, the Eiffel Tower, the Jardins des Tuileries, and Notre Dame as backdrops, twinkling Christmas markets to cut through, and sunsets to chase.
3. Climbing a hill because it was namechecked in an 80s bop
This summer, I went to Bath with two friends from secondary school and a primary school pal. One of those secondary schoolmates and the primary school acquaintance are a couple and were joining me and my best friend for one day of our trip and, after seeing them off at the train station at the end of our first day, we wondered what to do with ourselves for the evening. My best friend mentioned that the titular hill from Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill, was, supposedly, close by. So, on a whim (you may be seeing a trend here), we decided to go. We took a taxi as it seemed easier than figuring out local buses and we had been walking around in the hot July sun all day (only to later find out that it would have been a good deal easier and cheaper to get the bus). We also then walked the wrong way in the still-hot sun for a good twenty minutes upon arrival, before discovering the correct, rather steep, route. The internet told us an hour’s climb lay ahead and I could feel my bestie’s will flagging. It had been such a spontaneous and romantic notion that we had jumped on board and I didn’t want to give up but things looked bad.
And, then, it turned out that all of our fears were for nothing. After the steep road, the actual climb up the hill took less than five minutes and, as we crested the top, a stunning panorama opened up before us; a sweeping view over the English countryside and Bath, itself, all accented with butterflies dancing about, colourful hot air balloons rising on the horizon, and the most beautiful golden light bathing it all, as sunset approached.
We sat together, just the two of us (bar the drunk teenagers being loud a distance away), with the world at our feet and more stunning than we had even anticipated, and took it all in. We breathed in the beauty of the moment, took some commemorative photos, and then headed back to our rental apartment after a long, immensely satisfying day with a funny shared story and lovely shiny new memory in tow.
4. A stressfully planned Tuscan trip that wowed us all
Despite everyone being grown-up (kind of) and having moved out, we still go on at least one family holiday a year. Last year, we went to Tuscany and while it was a wonderful trip, I spent much of it very stressed out. As the only Italian speaker in a group of tourists based in a small Tuscan town, I spent a lot of time translating back and forth for my boisterous family and locals who didn’t give much of a shit. I was also the navigator and planner of the trip, trying to balance the very different demands of the various sub-groups within the family. One night, I was reading inside when I was called out to the pool. They had decided they wanted to go wine-tasting at a vineyard the next day. The next day. Keen to not let anyone down, I went back inside and spent the rest of the evening researching and then got up early the next day to make some phone calls and try and plan something. My rusty Italian was even more stressful over the phone, where you have no facial expressions or body language to help you out, but, eventually, I managed to find a vineyard that could take us that day and didn’t seem too far away.
As I navigated us to the vineyard, we seemed to venture more and more into the middle of nowhere and the collective patience with the time spent in the vehicle waned. Complaints arose as I tried to figure out maps and massage away a headache. Then the tiny mountain roads appeared and my nervous mother began to scream in alarm and other people tried to scream reassurance and my father tried to scream for calm and quiet. Chaos – as it always is with us (said with much affection, of course). Just as I was losing the will to live, we rounded the corner into the most picturesque Chianti landscape you’ve ever seen and we finally spotted the entrance to the estate. It was exceptionally beautiful. Postcard lovely. Movie gorgeous.
The tour and tasting was given by a guide perfectly fluent in English who had spent time in Dublin and was passionate about Ireland, so I was able to relax and retire my translator duties for a while. Everyone we met was incredibly lovely, as were the farm dogs on site, the wine was delicious, the tour cost a fraction of others I had priced, and everyone brightened up. Everyone was in a wonderful mood and I had done my job well. All the stress was worth it and, like so many other things, is now merely a funny story. It was one of the highlights of our whole vacation and making my family that happy and sharing such a purely joyous day with them is something I couldn’t put a price to.
5. The wonder of solo travel
I have travelled solo at least a couple times a year for a while now and there is a limb-stretching, warm-and-fuzzy, luxury to it. There is no one else to please, no negotiations to be had, and no need to ignore any of your whims or desires.
This year, I made a goal of mine come to pass and got myself to Seoul Fashion Week. It was a truly incredible experience but was the furthest I had ever gone and the first time I was alone in a country where I wasn’t at least proficient in the language. Yet, I managed to figure it out, despite a bumpy start. I quickly fell in love with the city, as I am so prone to doing.
However, it was not the cool art galleries, the elegant cafes, crazy stores, buzzing nightlife or delicious food that made me feel most at peace and delighted – though all those things were very enjoyable – but, rather, a singular moment. I had chosen to visit one of the many historic palaces of the city, one of the smaller ones named Deoksugung and as I wandered around, I noticed that every view, even those pierced by modernity, was so beautifully framed by the various buildings that it was like stepping into a painting. The bare trees on the grounds, not yet brought to life by Spring, were still different to those back home and magical (I really like trees). As I explored more, I met a girl from Hong Kong, also travelling alone, who I chatted to briefly as we both obliged in taking photos of the other. A security guard, a middle-aged gentleman, paused to converse with me, one of the few local people to do so for my whole trip and was incredibly sweet. I walked to the little vendor in the corner and bought a tea to warm my hands on the unseasonably cold day. As I blew on it to take a sip, a snowflake landed on my nose. Then another landed on my eyelash and, quickly, a whole flurry of fluffy white things were dancing in the air. Other visitors dashed indoors but I stood there for the brief shower and really realised how lucky I was to be in such a place, doing such a thing. I felt just how magical real life can be and the whole thing had cost the less than two euro equivalent entrance fee to the palace.
So, I guess in all of this, my point is that the moments that stand out the most in my mind from travelling have rarely been the flashy things or the crazy things but the quality moments spent with loved ones (including myself) where I slowed down and took enough stock of my surroundings to allow reality to be just as beautiful as a scene from a movie…