|A Cottage by the Sea||
When traveling solo you set out when you’re ready, turn left or right, and you’re on your way. This morning I slept in, something I hardly ever do, but really, there’s no reason to get up at 5:30 in Rome. It’s just as well I didn’t have specific plan because roads were blocked here and there all day to make way for a half marathon that crisscrossed the city.
They say that when in Rome do as the Romans do, so I wandered where I could, and found myself using the pedestrian underpass at Piazza Barbarini, which landed me at the entrance to Palazzo Barberini.
This Baroque palazzo built by Pope Urban VIII. Several had a hand in it’s design: Carlo Maderno (1556-1629), the H-shaped layout: Gian Lorenz Bernini (1597-1680), the square staircase: and Borromini (1599-1667), the circular one. It is a big palazzo.
I wandered through 32 rooms that displayed the Barberini acquisitions, primarily Italian paintings from the trecento icons to Caravaggio and Bernini. And this was in less than half the palazzo .
Now I sit in the garden eating the salami, arugula, and cheese sandwich that I bought along the way. A cat just walked by but didn’t stop. I tell you, there is lovely solitude here in the garden.
When I go to Florence I walk around with God. Oh, I do other things: I write, visit museums, and of course, I eat. There are plenty of cafes and parks for writing, museums at every corner, and restaurants sprinkled throughout the city. And of course there are churches. Since I travel alone, my time is my own.
Italy is a Roman Catholic country, but to walk around with God you don’t have to be Catholic, Christian, or even affiliated with a religious tradition. You just have to long to find that deepest part of your being, to rest in the Holy, to search for the ineffable, to seek out your true self, to breathe in peace--that kind of thing. I call it longing for God, but pick your own term, or, keep it nameless. God is wherever you want God to be and in what every image or non-image God is for you.
Visiting churches in Florence isn’t the only way to walk around with God, but it’s a good start. One website lists 71 churches within the confines of this small city, which means that just by wandering a short distance you will come across more churches than you could possibly visit. Vsiting hours vary, but don’t let that deter you. There are plenty open to fit your schedule.
Visiting these churches immerses me in my absolute favorite period and place in history, Renaissance Florence. With its blossoming in the 14th century, to full bloom in the 15th, several factors came together: the construction of churches and secular buildings as people migrated to the city; the birth of religious orders; the establishment of a republican form of government; the creation of guilds; the acceleration of trade; the Florentine gold florin as the dominant trade coin in Western Europe; and the rising of the Medici family as a political force and patron of the arts.
I continue to be amazed at the number of churches and public buildings built or enlarged upon during the tre cento (1300s) as urban expansion continued, religious orders flourished, and the common folk found a voice. Equally remarkable are the artists, poets, and philosophers, who, with the patronage of the Medici, birthed Renaissance Florence during the quattro cento (1400s).
I start one of my favorite walks with God in the early morning, but any time will do. By 7 A.M. I have begun a walking tour of the foremost churches of Florence built by one of the religious order that flourished during the 13th and 14th centuries. Each one radiates from Santa Maria dei Fiori, referred to as the Duomo, so I usually start out at this epicenter that is the soul of Florence. Regardless of the route I take, I figure I cover about five miles on this two hour city circuit, which includes time to take photos of the facades and to stop for a cappuccino or two.
I love traveling alone but the other day I discovered that I don’t need to fly across the Atlantic or be away for a couple of weeks in order to do so. Solo travel can happen for a few hours right in your home town, or the one next door, as it did for me. It was a classic, fall New England day; I packed a sandwich, and drove the ten miles to visit the vibrant, mid-19th century Concord of Alcott, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau.
Emerson was the magnet that attracted writers, philosophers and abolitionists to Concord. His doors were always open to the intelligentsia of the time, with some guests staying for long periods: Elizabeth Stanton was a frequent visitor; Nathanial Hawthorne and his wife rented The Manse from Emerson; Alcott came and went and two of his daughters, Louisa, a writer, and May, an artist, were encouraged by Emerson.
BUT, Henry Thoreau, with his longing for solitude, was the magnet that attracted me to take this solitary fieldtrip--even though there are no Thoreau sites to visit in Concord. I had been to his cabin site at Walden Pond the week before, which was enough for me. Henry, who spent most of his life in his native Concord, was present wherever I went: he had often offered his handyman skills at The Manse where Nathanial and Sophia Hawthorne lived as newlyweds; he must have visited Bronson Alcott and his family at Orchard House; and he had lived off and on at Emerson’s home during his adult life.
My first stop was a detour from my original plan to stick to the mid-19th century transcendental Concord. Tucked away in the corner of the Old North Bridge parking lot is the Robbins House, a two story farmhouse originally occupied by the first generation of free blacks in Concord.
I had never noticed it before, so in I went for a brief tour before crossing the road to The Manse (no time for a visit) and a quick walk to the bridge.
My next destination was Sleepy Hollow Cemetery where the Alcott, Emerson, Hawthorn, and Thoreau families are buried. At the Emerson family burial plot I ate half my sandwich, and wished I had an area map and more time to find Thoreau’s site (I only had time for a three hour fieldtrip).
Next stop on my itinerary was Orchard House, the home of the Alcott family. I sat on a bench outside the house, enjoying the other half of my sandwich and recalling the guided tour I had taken years ago. (Note to self: fieldtrips are not one-time events; take the tour this winter.)
Final stop was The Ralph Waldo Emerson House * (in Emerson’s day called “Bush”). Everyone was there: Emerson writing in this library; his wife, Lidian, atending to their four children; men and women discussing in the parlor; Thoreau writing, as well as popping popcorn for the Emerson children, and fixing things around the property; and Emerson encouraging the Alcott girls, Louisa as a writer, May as an artist. The creative energy was palpable.
As I headed to my car I noticed Emerson’s hat and walking stick by the side door (taking photographs not permitted), waiting for him to pick them up as he did every afternoon. Maybe this day he would take the trail behind his barn and walk the two miles to Walden to see Thoreau. Maybe on my next field trip to Concord, I will take the walk with him—to visit Thoreau, of course.
* Emerson bought his Concord home, when he married his second wife Lidian. They lived their until their deaths, he in 1892, she in 1892. It was their son Edward’s home until his death in 1930. The house is now run by the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society.
“I go to Florence to write,” I tell people, and that is the truth. For the past ten years I’ve been doing just that in the spring and fall, and last year I fit in a December visit as well.
“I travel alone,” I tell people, and that is also the truth. For the past twenty years I have been doing just that several times a year.
Solitary travel gives me the freedom to make my own schedule, change my plans at whim, live in the moment, and give full attention to my own thoughts, all of which are essential to my writing. If you have a different craft, bring along your paints, clay, needlework, camera, or even your flute. As for me, over the .years I have worked on books for teachers, a memoir, and currently am writing travel articles for this blog.
You, too, can plan a writing vacation in Florence. All you need is a place to stay, the desire to write, and a map to lead you to inviting places for writing: cafes, parks, cloisters, libraries, and tucked away courtyards. You will glean inspiration from the city’s many churches, museums and artisan shops, and from Brunelleschi’s Dome.
Where I stay
I always rent an apartment because I want space to spread out and relax, and a kitchen.
Apartments are easy to find over the internet. They are less expensive than hotels, and are available for as short a stay as four nights. Each apartment listed gives details of amenities, price, dates of availability, photographs, client comments, and general location.
The photos show the decor and layout of the rooms, and any inviting views from the windows. If no outside pictures are offered, you can be sure the apartment looks out into an alley, or lacks any view worth mentioning. The Duomo and the Arno will always be featured, which is a definite plus for me.
Be sure to read the reviews written by prior renters. I want to know if the apartment is quiet, if it has an elevator (I don’t want to walk up 86 steps), if check-in is easy, and if the internet is reliable. The size of the kitchen and bathroom may also be important to you.
As part of your apartment search you will be asked to indicate which areas of the city you prefer. I keep a street map beside me so I can find the exact location of any apartment that interests me. Since I like to return to my apartment during the day, I choose a section in the historic center. My preference is the Duomo area, because it most centrally located, but I also recommend the areas of Santa Croce, San Lorenzo, and the Arno.
I avoid apartments outside the City Center. They may be less expensive and boast a beautiful terrace, but are probably a long walk or even a bus ride from the City Center, and that is too far for me. I want my apartment to be in the midst of the museums, churches and restaurants that are the landmarks of this culturally rich city.
Eating in Florence
It is said that you can’t get a poor meal in Italy. Whether I prepare a meal in my apartment, or eat at a restaurant, I have found that to be true.
On a given day, especially if it is raining, it feels just right to put my feet up, enjoy a salad or dish of pasta, and write alone at home, which means I have to buy groceries.
Shopping at the Central Market and San Ambrosia, the two biggest markets in Florence, makes me feel I am living in the city. I can wander from stall to stall choosing fresh fruit and vegetables, cheeses, prosciutto, salami, pasta, olives and olive oil, bread, and prepared food. Sometimes I stop for lunch at one of the eating spots nestled among the stalls. If I am at Piazza Santo Spirito. I pick up a head of lettuce from one of the outdoor vendors. Walk along any street and you’ll find shops selling bread, cheese, smoked salmon and prepared lasagna.
There are also many supermarkets throughout the city. Their storefronts blend in with the other shops on the street, so if you are not aware of them, you may pass them by.
Choosing a restaurant is easy. Menus are posted outside every restaurant, so if something appeals to me, in I go. I order vino da cassa, the house wine, which is served by the glass, ¼ or ½ liter, or bottle. Wine in Italy lacks the preservatives we are used to in the states, so enjoy a glass or two without feeling sleepy.
At the bottom of the menu you can note if there is a cover or service charge. In Italy these are considered in lieu of a tip, so when paying the bill, I may leave a little change, and then out I go.
I am always trying restaurants, but I never miss a meal at Ciro and Sons, Via Giglio, 27, behind San Lorenzo near the Medici Chapels. Great hospitality, great food, no matter if I eat inside or out.
My daily routine
My daily schedule includes walking, sitting in cafes, visiting churches and museums, and eating, with periods of writing interspersed. Nearly all my writing starts in journal form, sometimes handwritten, but often on my MacBook Air, which is light and fits in my backpack; I carry it with me almost all the time. My other valuables, passport, credit cards, cash and Kindle, fit in my Scotty vest of many pockets. My hands are free.
I set my alarm for 6:30 and am out of the apartment by 7, wandering along the Arno and through the back streets, stopping for a quick cappuccino along the way before entering the churches of La Badia, Santa Trinita, or the Duomo (entrance for prayer is through the side door on the south) for twenty minutes of meditation. I need these meditation times because when I walk I think; when I meditate, I empty my mind for new ideas to come. All grist for writing.
Early dinner for me. I am hungry by seven, and being one of the first in the restaurant assures a private table from which I can take my time watching the scene, enjoying the food and wine, reading, and writing in my journal. An after dinner stroll through the Piazza della Signoria to the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio, becomes the other bookend to my early morning walk. My mind begins to empty of daytime chatter, to be filled with a quiet sense of peace as I find my way home for a good night’s sleep. Lights out by 9:30.
My writing day
My first writing of the day starts with a cappuccino and brioche at a favorite café. I pay at the cashier booth, take the receipt to the bar, and in less than a minute, my cappuccino is ready. Returning to the same cafe morning after morning helps me settle into a writing routine. I feel welcomed as a ‘local’ as I open my computer and pick up where I left off the day before.
Cafe Chiaro Scure is often my first stop because of its extra large coffee cup.
Café Ricchi is my go-to place on a beautiful day when I walk to Piazza di Santo Spirito on the other side of the Arno. I carry my cappuccino and brioche to the room adjacent to the bar, or to a table on the piazza, and begin writing.
Felletrini’s Red Café on the Piazza della Republica is a bookstore cafe. Since it doesn’t open until 9, I often settle in there for my second cappucchino.
These cafes don’t charge extra for sitting in the morning, but check first because in Italy it is often the custom to pay more for that privilege. Once you’ve ordered, however, you can stay all day; there is no pressure to free up the table.Most cafes have free wi-fi and Internet access provided by the municipality of Florence.
Florence offers a treasure trove of parks just waiting for you. Pick a destination on your map, or just start walking, and very soon you’ll come to the perfect park bench. Pull out your journal or laptop and start writing.
The Giardine delle Rose, overlooking the city on the way to Piazza Michelangelo, offers many welcoming writing areas. I usually head for a bench in the Japanese Garden, where it is neither noisy nor crowded, just the spot to jot down a few thoughts in my journal or open my computer.
Walk along Via Romana to the spacious public park at the Art School near the Porta Romana, enter the Boboli Gardens at the Pitti Palace, or climb to the Bardini Gardens for an extraordinary view of the Florence. You’ll be glad you have packed a bottle of water, a sandwich, and your computer in your backpack.
If you want to write outside, rain or shine, a church cloister is a good choice. Although cloisters usually don’t provide benches, I sit on the low wall with my back against a pillar and start writing.
The cloisters adjacent to San Lorenzo, Santa Maria del Carmine, Santa Croce, and Santa Maria Novella are among my favorites.
Libraries seem to encourage serious writing: silence is honored, the space is safe, no one pays attention to you, and distractions are at a minimum. I am always inspired when I am among other writers, sharing energy with peers. The two libraries I frequent the most are The Biblioteca delle Oblate, Via dell’Oriuolo, 26, with its quiet writing rooms and café on the portico overlooking Brunelleschi’s Dome, and The Biblioteca Palagio di Parte Guelfa, Piazzetta di Parte Guelfa.
Florence’s historic libraries, may not provide places to write, but they do offer inspiration. The library in the Convent of San Marco, designed by Cosimo de’Medici, is considered to be the first public library in Renaissance Europe. It exhibits fifteenth century manuscripts, along with a display of the writing utensils and raw pigments used to create these manuscripts. The Laurentian Library (adjacent to the Medici church of San Lorenzo) was designed by Michelangelo to house the books and manuscripts belonging to the Medici family.
Inspiration throughout the day, throughout the city
The city of Florence is a big museum with small museums scattered throughout. Solitary travel heightens my awareness of the inspiration that is presented wherever I go. At a moment’s notice I can turn into the church I am passing, or I can plan ahead to visit the Uffizi. Without the distraction of a traveling companion, I can spontaneously respond to whatever Inspiration appears before me,. Guide books will lead you to the usual attractions, but by wandering about I have found many unique out-of-the-way places that inspire my writing.
Tap into your adventuresome spirit, and discover writing niches wherever you wander. Peer through an open gate and if the prospect looks inviting, find a place to sit, take out your journal or computer and begin.
My special secret place is through the rear entrance of the Scuola del Cuoio (leather school/shop), adjacent to Santa Croce. Park yourself on the steps leading to the apse of the church, or on the shaded stone bench nearby. People may glance at you as they walked by to the shop, but, as in most public places, you will be left alone with your writing.
Writers, Visual artist and musicians in Florence
You can’t miss Dante’s inspiration as you walk around the city. Quotes from his Divine Comedy are incised on plaques hung on buildings throughout the city. The exhibit at Casa Dante brings to life the poet’s work.
Walk through the rooms of Casa Guidi, Piazza San Felice, 8, the home of Elizabeth and Robert Browning from 1847 until 1861, and gaze at Elizabeth and Robert’s writing desks. Also visit the English Cemetery, Piazza Donatello, where Elizabeth is buried.
The creative spirit, be it expressed through writing, painting, sculpture or music, is visible throughout the city. I continue to be inspired by the dedication of street artists and performing musician, and by the craftsmen working away in little shops.
At Lastrucci Mosaics, Via del Macci, 9, watch artists employ original mosaic techniques dating back to the 16th century.
Attend one of the Italian opera concerts Saint Mark’s English Church, Via Maggio, 16, that are offered throughout the year.
Brunelleschi’s Dome has always been my number one inspiration in Florence; it is what draws me back here again and again. Every time I visit I climb the 463 steps to the lantern at the top. I locate my apartment and writing cafes, museums and churches, parks and cloisters, libraries, out of the way places, and all my inspirations. When I come down, I’m ready to write.
Raining. Not intermittently but steady enough for me purchase an ‘I love Scotland,’ umbrella.
Rhythm is important for writing. I am especially conscious of it when traveling alone and staying in the same place for a week. I have time, lots of time; time not taken up traveling from place to place or talking with a companion. It’s up to me to get the beat going and to keep it lively and inspiring.
This morning I needed a break after writing in the flat, so I weathered the weather with a visit to the Scottish National Gallery. A painter’s inspiration (Italian, Flemish, Dutch, French, English, and Scottish paintings from the Renaissance to the twentieth century), but truly inspirational for and kind of creativity.
In the midst of the visit, a poignant moment, ordered by Her Majesty’s Government, as everyone stood “in remembrance of those who lost their lives and all others that were affected by the attack in London on Saturday.”
Upon leaving the museum, I dodged the puddles and umbrellas and returned to the National Museum of Scotland, this time for lunch in the Museum Brassier, located in the bowels of museum, most likely the crypt of an ancient church. Delicious Cullen Skink (smoked fish chowder) and a half smoked salmon pate sandwich, both food and ambience conducive to writing. Thankfully it has become socially acceptable to open a computer at a restaurant. I always have my MacBook Air in my backpack.
My week writing in Edinburgh is ending. I have spent this rainy afternoon in my rented flat, writing, reading and packing. I will go out to eat tonight and then tomorrow before 6, I’ll shut the flat door and walk to the bus stop and wait for the airport bus. I’m very grateful for this time, and have enjoyed sharing this writing diary with you. Hopefully you have gleaned some ideas for a solitary writing, or painting, or sketching, or photography or, you name it, trip.
Is it safe to say that every city has a public library? For my purposes, yes. The Central Edinburgh Library is directly across from the National Public Library, where I spent the morning, writing in the café, and signing on to easy internet access.
This was also the day I decided not to visit Edinburgh Castle. The lines were long and the crowds too big for my liking.
Instead I walked to the to the Royal Botanical Garden. I was too late in the day to go in, but in my wanderings I came upon the Water of Leith Walkway, “a public footpath and cycleway that runs alongside the small river of the same name through Edinburgh, Scotland, from Balerno to Leith.” A comforting place for someone like me who wanted to be alone.
I returned from this outing, happy to write at home, just as it started to rain.
Sunday morning everything starts a little later in this city so I had to wait a few minutes for my café to open.I like the idea of one cup of coffee at the flat before setting out for the first writing and second coffee of the day.
Next stop, St. Andrews and St. George West Church for the 11 o’clock service—a simple Church of Scotland service offering a fine sermon and excellent music.
The highlight of my day was lunch at the Royal Café with Andrea Baker, who performed Sing Sistha Sing at my church last month. Andrea graduated from high school with my son, so needles to say, we’ve known each other a long time, although not as adults, that is, until today. We shared stories and dreams and talked about doing the right thing in all the ways we lead our lives, not just in the particular way we express ourselves.
I noticed, however, that after three hours of conversation with Andrea, my mind was exhausted; I couldn’t think, much less write. It came to me that one the benefits of traveling alone is that I have less need to clear my mind of everyday chatter. We writers need stimulating conversation in a Scottish pub with a friend, but we also need solitude.
My Sabbath day ended with evensong sung by the Oslo Cathedral School Choir at St. John’s Episcopal Church.
After all that talk about staying in and brewing my own coffee, I woke up this morning and decided to go out to a café, and so I did!. One of the charms of traveling alone is how easy it is change my plans. There is no one to confer with.
It didn’t take long to find a spot with right ambience for me to work at my computer while sipping a huge cappuccino and savoring a buttered croissant. In fact, I may find a different cafe tomorrow, aware as I am that it is cheaper to eat in.
Since the forecast was for afternoon rain, I then set out early for sightseeing/inspiration. First stop, Greyfriars Kirk (church) and Graveyard, where Greyfriars Bobby is buried and memorialized. Over the years several children’s books have told the story of the dog’s loyalty to his master. My favorite, perhaps because of the illustrations, is by Ruth Brown.
Next stop, the state-of-the-art National Museum of Scotland located across from the church. I concentrated on the sections exploring Scotland’s story, but the other exhibits are equally impressive. They include: Discoveries, Natural World, World Cultures, Art, Design and Fashion, Science and Technology, and a Learning Center, special Exhibition Gallery, and Research Library.
I mention these different offerings to encourage those of you who are not writers to spend a week pursuing your craft. How about “Seven Days Photographing (or sketching) in Edinburgh.” If you are a musician, spend the seven days delving into the history of Scottish music and attending local concerts.If you are a weaver or knitter, there is history to be explored, exhibits to view, and stores to peruse.
Traveling alone and staying in one city for a week different from touring with a companion. I need a focal point, a project. Maybe writing is a way for me to talk with others while cherishing the week alone.
Since morning coffee is such an important part of my writing life, I want to straighten out a few things about coffee in Edinburgh. The city is full of coffee houses, packed with coffee drinkers all morning long and even into the afternoon. The same is true in Italy. The difference for me is that at least on this visit I have chosen to brew my coffee in my flat and stay in for the first part of the morning to sip and write. In Florence, my schedule was different. I’d walk for the first hour of my day to avoid the crowded sidewalks of the compact city and to watch the city wake up. I’d have my first cappucchino while standing at a local bar, and then later enjoy an another cup while sitting down and writing at a cafe.
Today I have done more walking than writing. After a coffee/writing morning, I set out to climb to the top of Arthur’s Seat. I ended up walking around half its base and then getting lost before finding my way to the Royal Mile and a three o’clock lunch of fish and chips.
Now I’m back at the flat, reading and writing. I’ll probably have some cereal for supper before thanking an evening walk.
I was up early this morning, always my best time to write. When I wrote my books for teachers, I wrote an hour every morning before heading off to the classroom. Wherever I travel, I try to keep to my normal time schedule. And as you might imagine, traveling alone as a senior, my night life is a minimum.
Today I took advantage of this best writing time by staying in the apartment until mid-morning. By then I was desperate for exercise and in need of inspiration. Robert Louis Stevenson became my muse as I walked through Queen Street Garden to 17 Heriot Row, to gaze at the front door where Stevenson lived during the early years of his life. Looking up at the window, I could almost hear him reading his garden of verses to me. After all, he and I are sharing the same garden. I can almost hear ‘The Lamplighter’ and ‘Night and Day’.
Next stop, The Parish Church of St. Cuthbert, the oldest Christian site in Edinburgh, and where Agatha Christie was married—for the second time. The divorce proceedings from her first marriage have all the intrigue of a Christie mystery, but I’m not suggesting inspiration other than to note that a fascinating life can inspire fascinating writing.
Continuing with the writing theme, I sat outside the church writing postcards. Then through the Princes Street Gardens and up the hill to the Writers’ museum at Makar’s Court just below the castle. The museum features artifacts, portraits, and a narrative of Robert Burns (1759-1796), Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) and Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894).
‘So much inspiration, no time to write,’ I thought. But then I came to a couch and table, and a sign inviting me to sit down and rest. And, so I did. Taking my journal from my backpack, I began to write.
I love to travel alone, and so I do. My husband of 54 years loves to stay home and garden, and so he does. But he knows I love to go off by myself for extended periods of time. For five years (2009-2014) I rented a cottage by the sea, an hour and a half from our home, and spent the weekdays there alone. For the past twenty years I’ve been traveling by myself, primarily to Scotland (Iona, the Highlands, and Edinburgh) and Italy. When I say Italy I really mean Florence, with occasional short stops and excursions around Tuscany and Umbria and to Rome.