Formative moments in solo travel

Leaving Porto to Braga

I’ve always idealised travelling. When I was a little kid I asked one of my friends what the sea is like. “It’s fun, but it gets boring after some time”, he said. I honestly thought he’s not telling the truth. I thought he is just bragging, trying to pretend like the sea is not a big deal anymore. In my mind, the sea was just amazing. I imagined the waves calmly hitting the shore, the serenity, the sunsets, the dawns, the peace. Soon I realised these things are relative. The sea is only amazing if you look at it with the right mindset. It can be hard to appreciate if your own mind distracts you. And sometimes you need a good background story that elevates the experience to the next level.

Since then, I experienced this phenomenon over and over again. Sometimes I was bored and indifferent at beautiful places. Sometimes I felt a strong connection to a very ordinary place. Most of the time it’s hard to guess the mechanics behind it. Moreover, it’s probably totally counterproductive. I’ve found it’s important to be open, without expectation and let the new environment change me. It is fun if you arrive at a sunny beach, but it’s equally important if you walk through a poor village or old and grey communist city. Don’t be afraid of fear, melancholy — acceptance works better than fighting the emotion.

In the end, I realised that it was the small subtle experiences that had the biggest impact on me. It was not the parties or the iconic landmarks. It was random encounters with strangers, long train rides and long walks. It was the moments that surprised me, or provided a unique perspective.

There were a few reasons I chose a bus over a plane, but the main one was I wanted to watch the landscape change. Because this trip was shortly after I graduated from environmental science I was eager to watch how the flora and fauna changes while travelling 1200 kilometres to the south. And I was not disappointed at all. I lost myself watching the Hungarian forests, Serbian agricultural flatlands and Bulgarian sunlit mountains. For long periods I sat completely silent, alone with my own thoughts. Sometimes I distracted myself with audiobooks and podcasts. And there’s no other time when I am so focused like during these long travels. I listened to Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and several Joe Rogan Experience episodes and the stories played out vividly in my mind when I closed my eyes. Since then, I started looking forward to these long travels as they worked wonderfully in clearing my head. I found the ~9h travels a perfect compromise — I don’t get physically worn out and it’s long enough for me to completely zone out.

The Bulgarian hills

The first time I visited Budapest, it was to attend a conference. It was actually the first time I went abroad on my own. I was a little bit stressed out as I was approaching many new concepts— changing money, finding a place to stay, attending a conference and so on. And I had this anxiety that I somehow need to have a time of my life because this was a new experience. I was caught by the desire to take the opportunity and take the most out of it, instead of relaxing and actually enjoying it.

After a long day of conference talks I was heading home and on the way there I went to buy some groceries on the busy Rákóczi útca. I was wondering if I should go party or explore the city or just go home and get some rest. Then a strange guy asked me for change so he could buy some beer. He was roughly the same age as me, but very different. I was a young coder in a dressy shirt and pants. He was standing in casual worn out clothing, smoking a cigarette and sporting a big wide smile. To this day, I did not meet anyone who could better fit the term “outgoing”. He was just so… open, his eyes were full of life and he was very happy to interact. I gave him a couple hundred forints and he was glowing with gratefulness. We parted ways, but my mood was instantly changed. I realised I shouldn’t be overthinking how I’m spending my time. I did what I felt like doing, not what I was supposed to.

Roughly a year later I was travelling by bus back to Prague from the Bulgarian mountains and I chose Budapest as my in-between stop to break the long trip in two parts. I arrived at Budapest at 11 PM after 11 hours of travel. I was quite tired and sleepy, my phone was dead and I could not communicate with my host. I knew the address though so I went to a group of strangers to ask for directions. Well, I was lucky, because in the group there was this same guy I met a year ago on Rákóczi útca. He instantly recognised me and he had this same super wide smile and happy eyes, just like before. We did not speak much because his English was not so great, but I said the name of the street and he showed me where to go, enthusiastically. My fatigue went away and I was glad I was in Budapest again.

Nine months later, I went to Budapest again for a short weekend trip. I went over the Margaret bridge with someone. I was not aware of the surroundings much, I was lost in conversation and her company. But then, someone who went in opposite direction waved and smiled and caught my attention. It was dark so it took me a few moments to realise it was that same guy again. I turned around and we were standing a couple meters across. “It’s you again!” I shouted. He did not respond, but smiled and made a shrugging gesture, as if saying “Yes, of course, it’s me!”. He waved and went his own way. I couldn’t believe myself.

If I ever meet him again, I’ll shake him and I’ll buy him a beer. Budapest feels more like home just because I know that he is somewhere there, roaming the streets.
The role models we are given in current cultural climate are successful people — entrepreneurs, social media stars, movie stars, youtubers, vloggers. We lack the role models of humble people, living a simple life, yet spreading joy and happiness to people around them. You have to find these for yourself. You won’t find them on the internet. Maybe my perception of him is super skewed. Maybe he’s not constantly kind and joyful. But in the end, that’s not crucial for me. I don’t want to be him, I was inspired to be like him — in my own way. The idea is what’s important. The short encounters we had were inspirational enough.

The view from the Margaret Bridge

I decided to do a day-trip to Braga after getting a recommendation from someone during my stay at Porto. I did not know much about the city and I did not do any research beforehand. On the way there I did not read a tourist guide, but instead, I read Lord Byron’s Manfred which I randomly bought in an old bookshop in Porto the day before. Lord Byron wrote this piece when he fled to Switzerland to a small town of Cologny. In the story, the main character — Manfred, deals with his demons and his troublesome past in solitude in the mountains. It was a good romantic story to read before visiting the romantic Braga.

Maybe that’s the reason why I enjoyed this trip so much. I was astounded when I walked out of the train and after a couple minutes of walking, I arrived at the colourful Arco da Porta Nova. I was amazed by the architecture, musicians in the streets and the religious statues.

After covering the most of the historical centre I saw a signpost and out of multiple options I could go to, “The Monastery” caught my interest. I thought “Why not?”. Who knows how much the reading of Manfred influenced this decision, but it just felt right.

The path towards the monastery

The path to the monastery led me outside the city. I went by busy roads, old vineyards and eucalyptus forests. When I arrived at the Monastery of São Martinho de Tibães, the sun has just set down and I could look over the landscape which was covered in the evening orange haze. I walked through an old cemetery and then finally, I decided to walk inside.

The cemetery near the monastery

There was only a half-asleep middle-aged man who spoke almost no English. I gave him 10 and got a ticket.

“Left, left, right, up, left, left, down, left, left”, he said as he was slowly travelling with his finger over the small miniature model of the monastery. The building had multiple stories and apparently, it was easy to miss something.
I shrugged, thanked him and went my own way.

I went ahead, and soon after I got goosebumps. It was almost dark and there was only subtle lighting. I was looking at the paintings on the walls, I went through a small garden with a stone well in the centre. I went into a big hall, that was all golden and had an eerie audio of monk chants playing somewhere from the above. There was no one around. There were no restrictions. I could look at all the stone and wooden statues from a minimal distance. I could go see the altar if I wanted. Instead, I sat behind and tried to take it all in. I couldn’t get enough of it, it was such a strange experience.

I went further upstairs to the floor with individual personal rooms for monks. I couldn’t resist looking inside a few closets. There were clay poetry and books. Maybe those were props, but they looked authentic. There were single beds and wooden chests. Each room had its own meditation chamber.
I looked from the windows at the farmlands that were once worked by the monks living there. I couldn’t help but wonder what their daily lives must have been like.

A seat by the window in the small room
A sacred selfie

I went back to the city in darkness. I went by the old road again, through the eucalyptus forest and by the vineyards. This time I listened to some music and the time went by fast. I was enchanted by this experience.

Travelling back I remember how relaxed I was. A little bit lonely because I spent the whole day by myself, but not anxious. I slept super well that night and I was looking forward to the start of the workweek. I felt grateful for being so lucky to have such an experience.

The reason why I visited Lyon was quite random. I got a pretty bad ear infection and I could not fly to the Canary Islands from Malaga so I cancelled the whole trip. It was a bummer but I got excited about planning alternatives. I decided to travel by train back to Prague. I made several stops on the way. The two weeks in Barcelona went by fast but I did not enjoy my time there as much as I could because I was still recovering. Then I continued to Lyon. I knew very little about it and I mostly picked it because it was a convenient spot on the map.

And Lyon was such a nice surprise. I was impressed by the bridges, stylish restaurants, historical centre, but most of all its authenticity. Lyon just seemed like a place designed for a good life. It had nice parks, lots of space around the river, nice accessible sidewalks and bike lanes. I was surrounded by locals everywhere.

The timing couldn’t be better. I still had some tension inside me from the ear infection back in Malaga. I was behind with some work, I was still quite low on energy. That tension just went away so fast during my stay in Lyon. I felt great again. One sunny day I was walking through the streets, admiring the buildings, peeking inside coffee shops and restaurants. I was listening to the audiobook of Doors of Perception by Alduous Huxley. Inspired by the story, I exercised my focus to fully immerse myself in the surrounding environment. I walked around with no intention and the time went by fast.

At the end of the day, I walked uphill to see the Basilica and to see the city from the above. It was such a peaceful day. In the open space before the building, there was a man sitting in a wheelchair. He was at least partially blind and he was talking with a young beautiful woman. They both looked so happy and kind, enjoying the conversation with each other. I have no idea what they were talking about, but I could figure out the overarching emotion: gratitude. I had to force myself to go on and don’t stare for too long.

The Basilica

Porto in December can be quite challenging. The old buildings have poor insulation and they easily allow the night chills to creep in. When brushing teeth in the morning, I could see the water vapours condensing in the cold air, when I looked at myself in the mirror.

Because a hot shower was not an option (the water was lukewarm at best), these cold mornings were a good motivation to do some exercise. I also went outside as fast as I could to feel the warmth of the sun and have my morning coffee somewhere in the restaurant garden.

I felt so cold those mornings and it was hard to get out of the warm bed. But somehow I did not mind. The morning cold worked better than any coffee or tea could. I was so buzzed by the time I started working. The morning cold made me appreciate the sun and the warm afternoon when the temperature was just alright that I could have a lunch outside. And during the coldest days, when I marched down to the office above the Douro river I was rewarded with the best views. The river was covered with mist that was then taken over by the wind and fanned out into the streets. I couldn’t wish to have a better start of the day.

The mists over the Douro river

I did a weekend trip to Lisbon. Porto was a little bit cold and rainy but Lisbon was warm and sunny and bright just like I remembered it. After some lazy days at Porto I was excited to do some exploring.

I pretty much walked around the whole weekend. The step tracker told me I walked over 40kms in those two days. On Sunday evening, I was pretty happy, but also tired. So tired I managed to miss my train back to Porto. I had to wait extra three hours for the next, and also the last train. I wasn’t in the mood to do any more walking, so I sat inside a small coffee shop right inside the train station. I had three espressos and the only two chocolate cakes they had there.

When the train arrived I had this mixed feeling of fatigue and caffeine buzz. I was really looking forward going back to Porto, to my small cozy room. I couldn’t really sleep on the train, I was captivated by the night lights. I scribbled down a few lines to capture the moment:

Lights floating in darkness,
The only thing that’s left,
To feed a curious mind

The train is rambling and shrieking,
Yet I am the only one alert.
The others are calm and relaxed.
In their minds they are comfortable,
In their minds they are already home.
Meeting their friends,
Petting their dog,
Watering plants,
Washing the dishes.

All I am left with,
Is the present moment
Body and mind tired after long travel,
All I can listen to,
is the rhythm

Tat, tat
Tat, tat

Tat, tat
Tat, tat

I am like a madman,
Staring into the night,
Expressionless,
Yet deeply moved

On top of that, by returning to Porto on Monday at 3AM in the morning, I could walk through the whole city without seeing hardly anyone and I could experiment with some night time photography. The silence was surreal.

The shopping street that’s usually filled with people, was completely empty.

The hostel I slept in Lisbon was located right at the LXFactory. An artsy street with fancy shops and restaurants and interesting events.

My room was basically a chipboard cubicle. It was a bed and a wooden chest fit into two square metres. I did not mind. I actually slept super well there. There was no distraction. If you lie into this small place that is only filled with a bed, you sleep, there’s nothing else to do.

Except one night I woke up around 3AM and I couldn’t fall asleep again. I just laid in bed and distracted myself with my own thoughts. Because it was pretty quite and calm, after some time I realised, I can actually hear the traffic from the tall 25 de Abril Bridge above the city. It was a constant subtle, yet daunting, hum. If I focused hard enough I could recognise when a big truck or bus was passing. It was interesting because for many days, even when staying right beneath the bridge, I did not realise I could actually hear the traffic from the above.

I thought hard why the sound was scary. Well, I don’t enjoy sitting by a busy road. Maybe it’s the noise that’s disturbing. Or it’s just the high energy. The idea that you’re couple metres from a tragic death. Maybe it’s the vibration. Yet there laying in the bed, the subtle disturbing hum was also comforting. The fossil fuel industry, that destructive force, also runs the global economy. The hospitals, the governments, the agriculture. Hearing the hum meant this system is still live and functioning. Keeping people alive.

The LXFactory and the 25 de Abril Bridge

Solo travel is not always about joy and happiness. Sure, there’s some of it. But there’s also loneliness, fatigue. Overall, it gave me numerous opportunities to reflect, to grow, to think about my life, my relationships, my past and my future. At the same time it taught me the importance of not thinking about the future and the past and just let things happen. Balancing living in the present and planning ahead is a skill that I keep learning, but will never truly master. And that’s okay.

Creative through code. Inspired by nature.