Conquering Rome Solo: On Travelling Alone
One traveller embraces solo travel and find the rewards outweigh the occasional perils
"Get in the car."
And with those four words, the conversation had changed.
His eyes narrowed. His hand, which had once held mine in a friendly shake, now closed around my wrist. I tried to pull back but his grip tightened.
"I'm from Milan," he sneered, pulling me closer to the window of the car. "Do you know what we would do to a girl like you, walking alone, in Milan?"
I watched helplessly as cars sped past. This was a busy road. We were surrounded by watchful eyes, and yet they were all lost in their own worlds.
A dizzying panic began to rise in my chest.
Just minutes before, I had been minding my own business as I strolled along Rome's Tiber river. I had stopped for a moment to check my map when a car beeped its horn and pulled up onto the pavement beside me. I watched, confused, as the driver wound down the window.
The car was occupied by an elderly man, Italian but with good English and kind eyes. He explained that he had taken a wrong turn, and asked if he could borrow my map for a moment. We struck up a conversation, as you do, and everything had seemed above board until he produced a leather handbag from the back seat of his car and offered it to me.
"I am the managing director of Valentino," he said. "I want you to have this bag as a way of saying thank you for your help."
He tried to press it into my hands, as I tried to bite my tongue and refrain from asking why it was that the managing director of one of the world's leading designers was driving a clapped out Fiat on a Thursday afternoon.
Sensing a dodgy sales pitch coming on, I politely declined and tutted at myself for not smelling a rat sooner. It was when I tried to walk away, however, that he caught my wrist.
I searched his eyes for the kindness which was once there, but it was gone. His grip tightened and he repeated the words,
"Get in the car."
The panic had now shifted to frustration.
This is just the kind of thing that would happen to you came the inner monologue. This is why you shouldn't travel alone.
It’s true. I do have a knack for finding myself in troublesome situations. Over the years I've clocked up a fair few horror stories – from falling down a drain in Singapore to getting lost in the Thai jungle – and so it's no wonder that my family were a little mystified when I announced suddenly over Sunday dinner that I was off to Rome alone.
“Are you sure it’s a good idea?” they asked, cautiously.
I told them I was sure, and I acted it too. I had booked the trip in haste, fed up of the dreary Scottish winter and plied with a sufficient quantity of gin. I didn't ask around to see if anyone was free to come with me, nor did I particularly want to. I had always traveled with friends. This time I was determined to do it alone.
In the weeks leading up to my trip, I feigned confidence. If anyone asked whether I was excited, I'd tell them of course. After all, this was Rome we were talking about, a city I'd longed to visit since my primary school days, when whole lunchtimes were spent recreating battle scenes, and when garden steps became makeshift ampitheatres on sunny afternoons. With so much that I wanted to see and do it seemed irrational to let a little solitude hold me back.
And so I psyched myself up, crafted an itinerary and boarded the plane. It wasn't until I reached the city centre that first night that the anxiety took hold.
Hampered by a one way street, my taxi driver had to drop me a few blocks from my hotel. It was close to midnight and thick wet rain dropped from the sky. I had no idea which way to turn and more importantly, no one to ask.
Reality hit hard. The questions came thick and fast;
Why did you think you could handle this alone?
Why didn't you take a bloody map?
Who do you think you are, Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love?
The truth was unsettling. I had not let myself think about how scary it can be to travel alone. I hadn't thought about what I might do if something bad were to happen, or if I were to get lost. I hadn't thought about whether or not I might get lonely.
That last thought troubled me the most. Now I'm very comfortable with my own company, and love nothing more than whittling away an afternoon alone in a coffee shop with a good book. But it's an entirely different thing to go on holiday by yourself, with no one to share the experiences with.
Would it be weird to ask for a table for one? Would people take pity on me? Would rumours begin to circulate about the strange, lonely Scottish girl who had, presumably not long ago, been jilted at the altar?
With so many questions swirling around in my mind, my first night in Rome turned out to be a bit of a sleepless one. This was not helped by the fact that the gentleman next door seemed to have a penchant for watching questionable pay-per-view content with the volume up max. Hiding beneath my sheets, I found myself wondering whether the Ryanair staff at Ciampino might take pity on me if I were to turn up first thing with a decent sob story and my tail between my legs.
But alas, it's amazing what a few hours kip and a suddenly sunny morning will do to rouse the spirits.
As I took in the view from the hotel's rooftop terrace over breakfast the worries began to dissolve. I gazed out over the rooftops of the townhouses, the ancient city lying just beyond. There was a whole world waiting to be explored.
Over the next four days I fell in love with Rome. I climbed the hills and explored the ruins of ancient empires. I stood beneath the dome of the Pantheon and pondered over the works of Bernini, Da Vinci and Caravaggio. I sipped espressos in beautiful piazzas and ate more pizza than I care to admit, and I didn't regret a thing.
Most importantly, I learned how liberating it can be to travel alone. You see the sights that you want to see. You do the things that you want to do. You take courage from yourself.
Of course, there were moments when I missed having a companion by my side. It would have been nice to have someone to talk to at the end of each day. But it wasn't nearly as lonely as I expected. If anything I probably met more people traveling solo than I would have with company. Travellers have a funny way of gravitating towards one another.
There were also moments when I had to have my wits about me. Rome, like any big city, has its fair share of troublemakers and I lost count of the number of scammers I had to fend off. My initial politeness faded. By the end of the week I had my 'naff off' look down to a T.
I remembered this as the old man pulled me closer to the window of his car. I wasn't going to let him make me feel vulnerable for travelling alone, and I wasn't going to let him taint the memory of my time in Rome. Instead I left him with a few choice words, which I shan't repeat here, but which I'm certain were still ringing in his ears as he eventually released his grip and tore away back into the line of traffic.
I don't know whether the gladiator mindset had set in or whether it was that final prosecco over lunch, but as I watched the sunlight dance across the Tiber, I realised that never before had it felt so good to be alone.