In the right-hand apse of La Seu, Palma de Mallorca’s cathedral, is Miquel Barceló’s 2007 reimagining of the loaves and fishes parable, a modern mural that makes a striking contrast with the rest of the Gothic cathedral. The original wall of Saint Peter’s chapel is overlaid with a ceramic skin, from which clusters of empty-eyed skulls, fish with open mouths, and loaves protrude; it was unlike anything I’d seen in a traditional cathedral, the new juxtaposed so freely with the old. I looked at it properly for ages, first standing, and then sitting down when I had to make way for other people. Maybe I would have spent just as long there had I been in a group, but I’m not so sure. It seemed that travelling solo had made more observant, conscious that if I didn’t notice something, no one would point it out. It was all up to me.
Since I had free time between leaving my job and starting a PhD, I decided to travel through Spain and Italy this summer. Before travelling, I also considered the freedoms enjoyed by men and the often inferior freedoms enjoyed by women when walking and travelling in public spaces, and I didn’t want to feel as though the option of travelling alone was off limits. I wanted to know I could do it. At first, I couldn’t help but feel it was a slightly odd thing to do, that it was one thing to go shopping, or for a walk alone, but another to travel solo by choice. But gradually, I lost the suspicion that I shouldn’t be there, taking up space by sitting alone in a restaurant, or walking for miles wherever I wanted.
From Palma, I took the Ferrocarril de Sóller, a quaint, old train with wooden seats and windows pushed up to let the smell of pine trees in, all the way to Sóller, an orange-rich town surrounded by mountains in the west of the island. I went there on a sort of pilgrimage, because one of the writers I would be researching, Robert Graves, spent a long time living nearby in the coastal village of Deià, higher up in the mountains. I took the bus on the hairpin road to reach his former house, now a museum, and arrived just as a thunderstorm hit. Inside it was just a member of staff, closing all the shutters before the rain got in, and me, touring the rooms reverently. Afterwards, when the downpour had passed but thunder still rolled in the mountains, I walked down to Cala Deià, a small shingle beach frequently visited by Robert Graves, past sheep jingling with bells. Contrary to what I expected, I felt no grand sense of reverence when I arrived – the busy shore-side restaurants and tentative paddlers reminded me that Graves used the beach practically, as he did the house; he swam daily to keep fit, and the island was a place where he could get work done.
After a few days in Sóller, I flew to Barcelona, initially because it was easy to get to from Palma, and my trip became dictated far more by chance. On my first night, I walked to the imposing Palau Nacional on the hill of Montjuïc. From there, I could see an impressive building mirrored across the city. The next day, I set off to what I had discovered was the Sagrat Cor church, on the mountain of Tibidabo. In her book on walking, Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit talks about the streets of a city as being ‘repositories of history, walking a way to read that history’. I understood what she meant as I walked the vast Avinguda Diagonal that slices the city in two, from the site of the 1992 Olympic Village on the coast, an event that completely regenerated the city, past Antoni Gaudí’s exuberant, crown-like, and still unfinished Sagrada Familia, to the Tibidabo funicular, which first opened in 1901. From the Jesus’ eye view at the top of the Sagrat Cor, the whole of Barcelona flickered, like a mirage.
After Barcelona I travelled to Bergamo in Italy, a city of two halves. The Città Bassa, or Lower Town, is a financial and industrial centre, while the Citta Alta, Upper Town, is old, grand and expensive, enclosed by the Venetian walls built to defend the city in the 16th century. From Bergamo I took a day trip to Lake Como, which was stuffed with tourists but somehow still peaceful, and then travelled by train to my last stop, Bologna. Lacking students, Bologna was half-empty, and a little sleepy. Most streets had covered walkways lined with columns, the amber-coloured walls covered with political graffiti about Berlusconi and the rich, but that spirit of protest was seemingly nowhere to be found in August.
Despite the highs, I left ready for home at the end of my trip. Travelling alone was not without problems. I never lost the feeling that I had to be constantly alert to danger (in Bologna I heard enough comments from men to remind me that I was a woman, and not just a person, travelling alone). And it could be stifling, in those moments when I wanted to hear the thoughts of anyone but myself. I also missed out on wild nights. However, with the loss of one freedom I gained another – the liberation of doing whatever I wanted.