Do you get a look of surprise or pity when you say that you are travelling somewhere solo? You are going on your own because you have no friends?
We probably all look at someone eating on their own in a restaurant. Eating is a social activity. We break bread together. So when we see someone eating on their own we can’t help but wonder. What is their story?
And yet solo travellers would not have it any other way. We value the freedom too much, the freedom to do what we want, when we want, where we want and if we have to leave the who we want behind, then so be it.
I came across another reason for travelling solo on a recent jaunt to Lyon.
I had planned the trip as an exploration into rail travel. Travelling by rail uses about 90% less carbon than flying, and of course I would like to reduce my carbon footprint. What responsible traveller does not?
But was I prepared to pay the price in longer travel times and a more expensive ticket?
The train was a little more expensive, but most budget flights charge for cases, which is not the case on the train, so there was not a great deal of difference. Time wise, the convenience of stations being in the centre of cities reduced travelling time considerably. The overall journey was 6 hours, and I must admit I was flagging a bit by the 5thhour. However, once you have taken the decision to go by train, so many more destinations are opened up to you.
But enough digression. On to Lyon!
The modern part of Lyon into which the train draws is fairly unremarkable, grey buildings on a grey, almost raining day. Once you are out of the station, the city has a French feel, wide streets, bustling…even in covid times… but without being too busy or crowded. It is once you start getting close to the first River, the Rhone, that you begin to see why you have travelled here.
Most great European cities are based around the river that brought them trade. Lyon is remarkable in that it has two great rivers, the Rhone and Saone. As you reach the Rhone and see the colourful old part of the city on the hill on the other side, you begin to see the beauty and magic of this city.
The hill on the other side is steep, and although there is apparently a funicular to take you up, I didn’t see it. And those steps didn’t look too bad. If you are thinking of training Rocky-style, come to Lyon. Those steps are a killer!
I had come up here to see the Roman amphitheatre and museum in the heart of Roman Lugdunum. The amphitheatres are impressive, for there are two. One for plays and one for poetry. The museum on the other hand from the outside looks quite mundane. Until you go inside. It is huge, well spaced out over several floors going down. Lyon was a centre for mosaics. It still boasts a world renowned mosaic training school. The mosaics they have on display are well preserved, beautiful, and help us to understand why the skill is still practiced today.
But what really blew me away was an exhibition they had entitled “Enquete de Pouvoir.” It is a study of the pursuit of power when the succession of a leader is interrupted by sudden death. The two examples they take are the vacuum caused by the death of Julius Caesar and secondly the struggle at the end of the year of the Five Emperors, AD197 between Severus and Albinus. It is particularly apt because Severus’ victory at the Battle of Lugdunum gave him control of the Empire.
What struck me were the modern parallels of how ordinary people were sucked into the ego and ambition of those people who wish to lead. It would have made little difference to the people of Lugdunum, those mosaic makers, the people trading along the Rhone, whether they were ruled by Severus or Albinus, but they paid a heavy price for backing the loser, as did the people of Lugdunum. Is it really any different now when we consider the egos of a Boris Johnson, a Vladimir Putin, or really most other leaders? The quest for power is always paid for in someone else’s blood.
Coming out of the museum and turning back to look at it, you then realise that the museum is in fact hewn out of the hill. It is impressive and one of the best museums dedicated to the Roman empire that I have come across.
But now it’s time to walk back down the killer steps. At the bottom is the area known as the Traboules, a series of secret passageways. They were used by the silk weavers of the past to get down to the river, and by resistance fighters during the German occupation to evade capture. Atmospheric, but still part of an active city, doorways leading to homes.
My feet were aching after a morning of going up and down steps, so I stopped at a local café for a coffee. While waiting to be served, I was having a browse on my phone when I came across a quote from writer Virginia Woolf which seemed really apt to me.
“I hope that you will possess yourselves of enough money to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future and the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.”
And I thought to myself, “Isn’t that why we travel solo? To have the time to think, to read, to browse and loiter. I can sit back and watch the people wandering by outside the café, the young lovers with not a care in the world, the middle aged man walking very fast… perhaps late getting back to work from lunch, the old couple with their elderly dog. We can watch the world go by, our world, and think “is this it?”
We can ponder on the pursuit of power, or on how we are ravaging the environment on which we depend for life, inequality or great compassion.
And then perhaps instead of contemplating the future and the past of the world, we can narrow our focus to our own future and past. What do we want from the world, and from ourselves?
While we are away, we are disconnected from our normal life, from the usual distractions, and that means we can think with more clarity about what really connects us to our purpose. We can allow our curiosity to roam, to explore the things that are important to us. Can I learn anything about myself from watching these Lyonnais, how they live, they love, they die?
There is an inscription on a Roman sarcophagus which reads
“Make the most of life. Where you were, I was, and where I am, you’ll be.”
A great epitaph which really resonates with mem and one which prompts me to ask myself “Am I making the most of life?”
Travelling alone gives you the time to think, and to dip into that stream of thought.