I clearly look like a woman in need of an extendable, handheld tripod as I wind slowly through the crowd opposite Rome’s Trevi fountain. My peppermint candy-striped shirt helps me blend in with the throng of holidaymakers and pilgrims, eager to soak the Roman sunshine into every microscopic cell. Anyone observing me further up the incline of the Piazza di Trevi might well notice I converse with no companion, follow no flag held aloft by a patient tour guide. As I toss a 20 cent coin into the turquoise water for luck, I am faced with the unavoidable fact that I am at the beginning of a seven day trip by myself. And it’s my birthday.
This isn’t some kind of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ 2.0. I did not come to Rome to find myself, or to meet a handsome, non-fictional Antonio Corelli type with whom I would enjoy a short-lived fling, mosquitos penetrating my skin as we fumble sweatily in a cobbled alleyway at the back of a Trattoria. I have simply come away for a break. At twenty-eight, this is not my first solo adventure, in many ways feeling pedestrian in comparison to the four weeks I spent Megabusing around the United States three years ago after deciding to blow my postgraduate uni savings visiting every city I’d ever seen represented positively in a Hollywood movie (and the Friends TV set, which confusingly is located in Burbank, California).
This week, alongside happy birthday wishes, friends have told me privately that I am “brave” and “admirable” for holidaying solo in a foreign city. This made me think: I’m not fighting in a war, nor am I making any attempts to change the world other than perhaps my own. If anything, solo travel is one of the most self-indulgent things a person can do. It’s also one of the most fulfilling. For those of you reading this who may not have the confidence to go on holiday by yourself, perhaps I can share some words of advice and encouragement.
Here’s what I know:
4G is your friend — the digital safety net provided by Google Maps cannot be underestimated. Gone down a sketchy looking side-street? No worries, your phone will show you your exact location, and how to get back on the main road. Bene. Want to visit a top rated, hole-in-the-wall pizza place in Trastevere? Phone says it’s only a fifteen minute walk away, and lets you know how busy it is in real time. Molto bene.
Mental maps — on a more analogue note, not having anyone else to rely on for directions means your sense of where you are will develop quicker than the bullseye rash around that mosquito bite you tried really hard not to scratch. If you’re confident enough to wander without GPS assistance, you’ll find fairy lit bars covered in ivy, and those non-tourist trap restaurants with menus that don’t have photographs of the food on them.
IG Queen — my social media accounts have never experienced such a high level of interaction. People you haven’t spoken to in years will reply to a story post and ask if you went to that gelato place with the blue front rather than the pink one, and whether you preferred the pastel shopfronts on the Piazza Navona to the grandiose Baroque monstrosity that is Piazza Venetia.
One hundred thousand words — You will actually read those “holiday” books you brought in your cabin bag, because your iPhone only has so much battery life and you’ve been using Google Maps and Instagram so much, your phone dies by late afternoon. Bring a portable charger for top-ups.
Eh, another time — I walked the 7km from my hostel near Termini to Vatican City in thirty degree heat, before doing a loop of the square and deciding I’d rather have some pizza at that hole-in-the-wall in Trastevere than queue for two hours to look at some old paintings in a crush of tourists. Nobody cared about this change of plan, or complained about it being a waste of time walking such a distance only to turn away, and the pizza was the best I’ve ever eaten in my life.
Hostel over hotel — six nights sharing a bedroom with strangers was, to me, a former summer camp counsellor, not that big of a deal. A solitary hotel room would have been miserable for that length of time, for me at least. One recommendation I can make is to go to a “women only” hostel like Hostella, which I found to be a positive and calm environment full of fellow solo lady travellers (not to mention the fact I looked and smelled like a bin by 5pm every day, and I know if men had been around I’d have been far more self-conscious about it).
Ultimately, armed with an open mind and at least two back up credit/debit cards when your first one inevitably blocks itself without warning, solo travel pushes you out of your comfort zone, screaming and flailing your arms as you fall through the air, landing spluttering into a lagoon of possibility. The good news is, the payoff will likely bring you memories for the rest of your life. Plus, nobody will know if you decide to have gelato twice in one day, or comment that you’re looking a bit soft around the middle all of a sudden. So, in the immortal words of Mark Twain: ‘throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails.’ But for god’s sake, try to eat a vegetable once in a while. You’ll thank me later.