A solo trip around Europe, with my travel phobia? I only wish I had done it sooner | Travel

Inever been to Paris before but it lives up to its reputation so far. I arrived only a few minutes ago and have parked myself in an elegant 1920s-style cafe just across the road from the Gare du Nord, where the Eurostar train drops off Channel hoppers like me.

I am here to begin a three-week big trip across the continent: from Paris to Naples via Nice, Florence and Rome. I have never traveled to mainland Europe before. I haven’t been able to afford it and even if I had the money, anxiety would have kept me at home as I suffer from mild travel phobia. So, in addition to a vacation, this trip will also be a kind of aversion therapy.

At the ingeniously named Café du Nord, a waiter in a black vest, bow tie and beret brings my café au lait and croque monsieur on a small round tray, then leaves with a nod and a «good appetite“. It’s all very elegant. I eat, drink, tip, wave au revoir and head to my hotel, a budget affair near the Bastille.

I only have three days in Paris and intend to make the most of it. Some Parisians claim that the best thing to do in the city is to become one flâneur and wander aimlessly. But the whole concept can describe my life so far, so I decide to see the sights.

I reluctantly board an open bus tour. When I lived in London, I used to scoff at the gaping day trippers who saw the city one monument at a time through little rectangles. But it’s a good way to see an unfamiliar city and get a story via the free earphone commentary.

La Promenade des Anglaise in Nice. Photo: Studio Barcelona/Alamy

I also visit the Eiffel Tower: it’s just like Blackpool Tower only bigger, and in France. Then I go to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre – it’s perfectly fine, but I don’t really see what all the fuss is about. Tomorrow I travel to Nice.

The first part of the train journey to Nice goes through scorched farmland, but after departure from Marseille you get a spectacular view of the French Riviera. To my left, misty mountains fill the horizon, lush vineyards line the track, and sand-walled villas with sun-kissed copper roofs frame lush hillsides. On my right are clusters of exotic trees – palms, pines and olives. Behind them is the Mediterranean, sparkling in the sun. I have to pinch myself: all this distance and beauty for under £50.

Nice is nice, but that’s as far as it goes. Again, the bus ride is worth doing, but the old town is the thing to see: a collection of beautiful buildings where you can spend a fortune at a pretty cafe in a pretty alley and look at statues set amidst marble fountains. I then head to the Promenade des Anglais where there is ice cream, surfing and other seaside pleasures on the pebble beach.

The author at Place Massena, near the seafront in Nice.
The author at Place Massena, near the seafront in Nice.

If you’re fair-skinned like me, the big downside to visiting the continent in August is that it’s baking hot. I end up looking like a sun-dried tomato, which is more demoralizing than usual given the number of olive-skinned beauties walking around in shorts and vests.

I’m supposed to be going to Italy, but I left my phone in the taxi I took to the train station. These days, losing your phone is like losing a limb, so I panic and consider visiting the British consulate and canceling all of this.

On the Find Me app on my laptop, I see my phone doing circles around nearby Monte Carlo. I decide to get another cab and ask the driver to follow my phone icon. Unfortunately, the app is unreliable, so I go back to the station and somehow contact Uber and the driver, who returns my phone hours later. It’s five hours of my life and £200 I’ll never get back, but eventually I board the train to Genoa, and change from there to another heading south into the Tuscan hills.

Arno River in Florence.
Arno River in Florence. Photo: Sergey Borisov/Alamy

“Ahh, Florence,” I hear myself say more than once as I look at the sumptuous architecture, romantic streets and Renaissance art. I feel genuinely emotional when I look at the Piazza del Duomo and Florence’s 14th century cathedral.

The joy is somewhat dampened by the roving groups of tourists. I am a hypocrite, of course, because I am one of them. Central to Florence, at least when I visit, it feels like an estate agent has curated it. It is spotless and you are being sold something. That something is a version of Italy seen through the lens of a Dolmio ad. The restaurants play the Godfather soundtrack on a loop and serve pizza, pasta, gelato and more pizza. In a restaurant, a small man wanders up, puts down an amplifier and mimes to Pavarotti, wild gestures and all.

My next stop is Rome. It is an ethereal place. It feels like I’m being assaulted by history – ancient fountains, the Colosseum and the Spanish Steps – with manicured cypresses, broad umbrella pines and lush palms popping up around corners without warning.

The best way to see Rome is on an electric scooter early in the morning. I whiz around empty cobbled streets, and the city’s landmarks look even more dramatically lit.

The only thing I must see in Rome is the Sistine Chapel. To look up at Michelangelo’s ceiling, I had to buy a ticket to the Vatican Museum, and like many museums and tourist attractions on this trip, it had to be arranged through an unnecessary middleman. This involves visiting a tobacco shop a few meters from the museum, where a tour guide picks me up, leads me to the museum entrance, hands over the tickets and leaves. (I would later learn that I could have booked a slot online.)

I pass through several galleries on my way to Michelangelo’s masterpiece, but they are more than worth it. The map gallery is spectacular – with its gilded vaulted ceiling and lovely frescoes. Painted topographical maps inspired by Ignazio Danti’s drawings decorate the walls and giant windows offer breathtaking views of the city.

The 'fantastic' frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican
The ‘fantastic’ frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Photo: Daniel Lavelle

I finally get to the main event. It’s serious here. No photos, no shorts or vests, and the Vatican demands silence, which everyone of course ignores. The ceiling is an amazing feat, but I find the paintings disturbing. Many frescoes depict suffering and trauma; an entire wall shows demons dragging naked people to hell on one side, and angels carrying people to heaven on the other. Also, it’s impossible to experience the chapel the way Michelangelo intended – lying down and in silence – because the place rumbles, and security is eager to get you back out.

I had planned to end the trip with a few days in Naples – for pizza and ice cream. But since that’s all I’ve eaten since arriving in Italy, I decide not to head south. If you are interested, the best pizza I had was at Mister Pizza, next to the cathedral in Florence. And the best ice cream was in Via del Boschetto, a trendy street near the Colosseum in Rome.

This was a stressful journey for me, but I’m glad I did it. In fact, I wish I had the courage to do this years ago.

Well done

Get there
Crossing the Channel on Eurostar costs from £69 one way, Paris to Nice costs from €55, Nice to Genoa from €19, Genoa to Florence from €19 and Florence to Rome from €15.

In Florence, Casa Regina Santo Rosario (single room from €50 B&B) is a guest house in the convent where the rooms are small and shared facilities, but it has a lovely garden, is very clean and quiet, and the nuns are friendly.

In Rome II Covo B&B (doubles from €90 B&B) is located near the Colosseum and has high ceilings, opulent furnishings and a roof terrace.

In Paris I enjoyed the best Greek food I ever had at La Maison de Gyros near the river in the Latin Quarter. The souvlaki (€6 with chips) was delicious and the interior is all high chairs and tables, barmy artwork, books and other knick-knacks.

In Florence I loved the pizzas (from €8.50) at Mister Pizza and the ravioli (€12) and lager at Le Botteghe di Donatello, both near the cathedral.

If you thought you’d eaten every pizza topping, check out the daily changing menu of takeaways at Bonci Pizzarium near the Vatican in Rome. It could be cod and potato pizza, or pumpkin puree and squid, from €4 per slice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *