|A Cottage by the Sea||
Good thing I chose to carry my computer in my backpack the other afternoon. I almost told myself no, but every time I leave it behind, I am sorry. This time, for sure. Here I sit in a corner in the Writers Museum, especially designated for people like me. At least that how I feel. The sign on the table in front of the couch invites me to relax and browse, but I figure writing is implied and accepted.
The museum features exhibits about Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
It is run by the Edinburg City Council and is located in the Lady Stairs House along the Royal Mile. It gives inspiration to all kinds of writers, including me, a woman, who at my stage of life, is happy blogging.
I just posted this on “On My Mind” but decided to post it here also in case some of you only check in to “A Solitary Traveler’. Seth Kugel has inspired me to try new adventures and to keep traveling.
The other evening at the library I heard a delightful talk by Seth Kugel, the New York Times’s “Frugal Traveler” from 2010 to 2016 , and author of the recently published Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious.
Seth writes as he talks, telling engaging stories, offering useful tips, and blurting out the array of valuable insights that whirl around in his hyperactive mind. Whatever our age, and however and wherever we travel, he suggests that we go off the well-beaten track and try something new.
Like me, Seth usually travels solo. Although I am a somewhat adventuress traveler, which of course one has to be when traveling alone, I’m inspired anew to wander off the tourist’s physical and psychological trampled-down path and rediscover the new and curious of Edinburgh (June 12-20). I’m ready and very grateful to be going.
“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.
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.
My first day in Edinburgh, the only sunny day forecast for my week’s stay. But, I am here to write no matter what the weather: write, sightsee, walk, eat, and pray. I travel alone; I love it.
Renting an apartment rather than staying in a hotel is my first money saving decision, although truth be told I love spreading out in a homey environment. In the kitchen I can I make salads for lunch, brew my own coffee, and at the least heat up take-out for supper. With discipline, I can be a frugal traveler. I’ll see how it goes.
My day started with an early morning excursion to the local supermarket for breakfast supplies: coffee, juice, cereal, milk, eggs and a butter croissant, and then home to my rented apartment to fuel up for the day.
A writing vacation always calls for inspiration. I can’t write all day, and why would I when there is so much to see in this city? I plan my day for both. Today I joined The Book Lovers Tour of Edinburgh, an hour and a half walking tour led by Allen Foster. We started at the Writer’s Museum near Edinburgh Castle and walked to Southside, the university area of the city, where we heard stories and saw places where literary legends such as Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, J.M. Barrie, Alexander McCall Smith, and J.K. Rowling spent their time.
After all that inspiration, and lunch, I decided I’d better get a little writing done, so off I went to the Queen Street Garden, a private garden for those living on the block, and across the road from my apartment. As I was writing, a woman came by and sat with me for bit, telling me a little of the history of the garden. Evidently, as a little boy Robert Louis Stevenson played here. Inspiration from my secret garden, which I know is secret because I have a key. I write on.
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.