If you read my last post you know that it took place in Florence while I was traveling abroad for a total of four months, and my next destination was Rome. I had left the safety of my travel group to meet my friend Danielle in Florence for a few days, but I was going to be traveling solo in Rome. I had three days to do whatever I wanted, and as it was my first time traveling completely by myself, I was excited but also a little nervous. This may seem like the perfect set up for a Roman holiday with a beguiling, passionate, Italian man with a sexy accent and loads of chest hair, but I’ll tell you right now that it’s not. On this holiday, I made a new friend, a fellow unaccompanied American girl, and she and I conquered Rome together.
I had been to Rome twice before so the city wasn’t completely unfamiliar to me and I kept that in mind when choosing a first solo international visit. I booked myself a bed in an all-female room in the Yellow Hostel, which is known for young people and having a bit of a party vibe. I had a previous experience with an almost too-empty hostel in London that had completely skeeved me out, so I decided to err on the side of noisy partiers rather than a creepy, empty hostel in which I might have to share a room with just one weird stranger.
On my first day, I booked myself a tour of the Colosseum and the Forum and headed over early in the day. I paid extra for the Colosseum tour where you get to go down below, into the maze where they used to keep the slaves and the gladiators and the hungry lions and tigers that they would sick on the gladiators. It was unreal, thinking about how old the structure was (almost 2000 years; they started building the thing in 70 AD!), how many people had passed through the exact spot I was standing; how starkly different their lives had been from mine, whether they were a slave, a gladiator (still a slave) or a starving wild animal being raised up through the floor in a giant lift. I took way too many photos as I pondered and wandered.
Once I completed my Colosseum tour, I headed out to meet up with my next tour group that would take me through the Forum. There were dozens of tour guides holding signs up in the air, herding tourists like cattle, and I had no idea how to find mine. I read my ticket over a few more times and headed towards the sign that seemed like it would be my tour. I waited a few minutes amongst other seemingly clueless tourists, until I was approached by a tour guide.
“Oh, I already have a ticket for a tour.” I offered up, assuming he was trying to sell me a ticket. He smiled at me, and I was a little confused as to whether or not he was just a ticket selling guy or an actual guide. He looked about as Italian as I do (which, if you don’t know me, is not Italian at all), with blonde hair, blue eyes, a few extra pounds on him, some scruff, and a very casual, American-looking outfit of a t-shirt and cargo shorts.
“Let me see your ticket” he offered. I was hesitant, but he sounded American and in the sea of foreign languages drifting around my ears, it was a bit of a relief. I showed him my ticket and confirmed that my reservation was not with him. He didn’t seem to mind. “Well, you’re welcome to join my tour group. We’re leaving now so you don’t have to wait around, and I’m a much better guide than whoever you’re supposed to have anyway.” He smiled wryly. I studied him, slightly confused, and on the defensive because we’ve all heard the stories of tourists getting swindled in heavily trafficked areas. It happened to me on my first trip to Italy and I was not going to let this guy rip me off.
“Why do you want me to join your group? I haven’t even paid you.” He smiled calmly. “I make most of my money off tips anyway, so there’s still time for that. Plus, you’re cute.” I was taken aback at his frankness and recoiled a bit more. I looked at him, questioningly. He laughed at my unease.
“I get it, you’re a woman traveling alone and you don’t want to get ripped off or taken advantage of. I promise I’m not trying to do either one of those things. I just think that you’re cute and you’d have more fun on my tour.” I smiled at him and decided to relax. It’s not like he was trying to get me to go into some dark alley alone with him, there were literally dozens of people on all sides of us. Plus, I liked his gumption and decided he’d be an entertaining tour guide. I was right about that.
The tour was great, and he was very knowledgeable and funny. By the end of the tour, it felt like some members of our group were friends and we were talking about our plans for the rest of our trip. Our tour guide, let’s call him John because I can’t remember his real name, had the perfect answer for us.
He offered a sunset walking drinking tour of the city, every evening at 7pm. If ever there was a tour that sounded custom made for me, this was it. Just take my money! I signed up for the tour and hurried back to my hostel, wanting to change out of my workout clothes and into something a little nicer (and cleaner). I showered and threw on a green dress and boots, grateful for the unseasonably warm April weather in Rome, and headed out for my tour.
We met in the city near the Colosseum at a small market that sold alcohol and snacks. We all purchased our own drinks, I chose a small (ish) bottle of white wine with a screw top for convenience, and we were off. John showed us some of the smaller, less noticeable but equally as historically significant elements of the city, starting with Stumbling Stones.
These were brass stones inlaid with the cobblestones that marked the location where Jews had lived and worked before they were taken from their homes during the Holocaust. They were small, flat, brass stones, engraved with the words “Qui Abitava”, meaning “Here Lived”, followed by their name, birth date, and death date. I would have completely missed them and walked over them on my own, and was grateful that John pointed them out and told us their story. John showed us all kinds of small things like that, pointing out statues and explaining their meaning as we went.
One of the best things about this tour though, strolling through the beautiful streets of Rome at sunset while sipping my wine, was that I met the other solo traveler who would become my Rome buddy, and Stephanie and I spent the next three days exploring, eating, drinking, and laughing. I would have done all of those things by myself, just without the laughing and company, and this changed my entire experience in Rome.
Stephanie and I started chatting while we purchased our drinks from the market and that’s when I found out she was traveling alone, she was from New Jersey, and she was pretty fucking cool. We bonded on the tour when we came to an open square that looked like an active archaeological dig, except that it had been inhabited by dozens of cats. John told us that these cats used to live at the Colosseum, and I remembered when I had visited on my previous trip to Rome that the colosseum had, in fact, been occupied by lots and lots of cats. They weren’t in the way or anything, mostly basking in the sunshine where the old marble seats used to be, but as you scanned the colosseum you would see cat after cat dotting the horizon.
Evidently the city officials had grown tired of this and relocated all of the cats to this square/dig site, where they appeared to be living quite contentedly. They weren’t feral or aggressive, they just didn’t belong to any humans. Some of them would walk right up to you and pose for photos, hoping for food. It was quite a remarkable sight to see the dig site itself as well. Mere feet below the city streets of present-day Rome lay an entire world, and this was a spot where you could bear witness to that.
As we finished up the tour, we returned back to our starting point and ended at a pub to have a drink with John. He had invited the whole group to stay but only a few of us did; the solo travelers and young folk. We sat and drank and talked and when John revealed that he had a scooter, Stephanie was thrilled. She wanted a ride on that scooter, and John was happy to oblige her.
He took her for a quick spin around a few blocks and then returned to take me for a spin. He had helmets for both rider and passenger; the big, bulbous, goofy looking kind that were white with a red and green stripe, mimicking the Italian flag. We took pictures on the scooter and were ready to call it a night, but John was a little disappointed and clearly had been hoping for a rendezvous with one of us.
I can see how this would work on one tourist girl after the next; a sunset walking tour with wine, followed by a scooter ride through the cobbled streets of Rome, but neither one of us was into him so we thanked him for the fun evening and headed out. I was grateful that John had goaded me into joining his tour group though, because otherwise I never would have gone on the sunset walking tour and made my new friend. Stephanie and I exchanged numbers and made plans to meet up the next day.
Our plans happened to coincide nicely, and Stephanie and I both wanted to head to the Spanish Steps, do some shopping, and just wander around the city. We made our way to the Trevi Fountain and tossed our coins over our shoulders into the water, making secret wishes to Triton and his seahorses. We visited the Pantheon and its accompanying fountain, then continued on to the Piazza Navona, a former stadium from the first century (!) that now serves as a busy marketplace lined with shops and restaurants, and featuring the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the center. This is another massive statue featuring four river gods, each representing a river from the four continents that had been reached by the Roman Catholic church; the Nile (Africa), the Danube (Europe), the Ganges (Asia), and the Rio de Plata (Americas).
We had a delicious lunch featuring the best calamari I’ve ever had, followed by gnocchi and a delicious pasta and washed down with an Aperol Spritz. Pro tip: Aperol spritzes are a great deal in Europe, as they are heavily featured during happy hour and usually run you about five Euros. We ate our meal facing the bustling square and listened to the musicians playing their violins, cellos, and stand-up bass, while children danced around them and dropped tips into their instrument cases as instructed by their parents. It could have been a pretty romantic scene, but we were both glad just to have the company of a new friend with whom to enjoy it.
After our late lunch (we were really living like Italians) we wandered down towards the Tiber river, and on our way we stepped into a shop that featured mostly clothes and accessories, but had a glass case of what looked like marijuana. Stephanie and I saw it and exchanged a look. It was relatively inexpensive and even though we couldn’t fully communicate with the shopkeeper to get an answer as to whether or not it was, in fact, marijuana, he seemed to think that it was and it was cheap enough that we took a chance. Turns out Stephanie and I were both part time stoners who were jonesing for some weed! We took our purchase and set off to find a market that would sell rolling papers and a lighter, then found a place to sit down by the river.
Unfortunately, Stephanie and I are both terrible at rolling joints, so after way too long we were left with a pretty lumpy, unevenly filled, puffy-ish joint. Didn’t matter, we were stoked. It was time to light it up! The papers burned so unevenly though that it would burn all the way down one side and not through the middle, the actual flowers, and we were stumped yet again. We returned to the market in search of something pre-rolled and found some pre-rolled cigarrillos. We bought a pack and emptied one out, filling it with our “weed”, and that sort of worked.
We had also purchased a bottle of wine from the market and this time decided to sit up on the bridge over the water and watch the sunset. We sat on the wall of the stone bridge, attempting to smoke our makeshift joint, giggling, drinking our wine straight from the bottle, and just having a care-free evening. Passersby glanced at us but didn’t seem to be bothered by the open container or whatever you would call what we were attempting to smoke. The Romans were just relaxed, making their way home or to dinner, and we were greeted with smiles.
And then one passerby stopped to talk to us. She was a beautiful blonde woman in her late 20s-early 30s, and she walked over to us to ask if we knew a good place to grab a drink nearby. Her name was Sanne, (she told us it was okay to call her Sunny once we mispronounced it a few times) and she was from Amsterdam. Stephanie and I laughed at ourselves as we explained to her that we were just tourists trying to figure out how to smoke this sad little joint and invited her to join us. Ironically, Sunny didn’t smoke, but she did share some of our wine with us. We told her we weren’t sure where to find a drink but that we were happy to wander with her until we found a watering hole, and just like that, we became a trio. One drink turned into many, and before we knew it, we were drunk and dancing at a bar, as if we had known each other for years.
Stephanie and I had booked a tour to go to the Vatican City the next morning. You what’s not a fun place to be when you’re hungover? The Vatican. It’s crowded, it was hot, and you’re on your feet ALL DAY LONG. Of course we had booked a tour and not just walked through on our own, which had perks like skipping the line that wraps a half a mile around the street surrounding the Vatican, but also meant that we were moving much slower through the museum instead of just skimming at our own pace and sitting down whenever we saw an open spot on a bench.
By the end of the tour, we had seen all the sights; St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, the Pope’s balcony. The hangovers had worn off and mostly fatigue remained. We grabbed a quick bite and then stopped by a market to grab more wine and cups and headed to a park to meet up with Sunny. Once we arrived at the Caffe del Pincio, a beautiful park up on a hill affording beautiful views of the city, we were pleasantly surprised to find an outdoor stage with an Earth Day music festival taking place, apparently free of charge. We found a spot on the grass and drank our wine, alternating sitting on the grass with dancing near the stage, watching the sunset from atop the hill, and watching fire dancers in the piazza down below attracting crowds near another architectural masterpiece in the center of the square.
It was accidentally picturesque, and again, would have been incredibly romantic with a partner, but was honestly just as enjoyable with my newfound traveler friends. We wandered down the hill, found a restaurant, and treated ourselves to the most decadent meal I’d had yet in Rome. Fried artichoke, caprese salad, pasta, gnocchi, lamb, gelato, and tiramisu. We shared all of the dishes and a couple bottles of wine, and it ended up being a pretty perfect day.
That was my last night in Rome, and so I parted ways with my new travel partners in crime. We stayed in touch for the next few months and I even met up with Sunny again when I visited Amsterdam a month later. Stephanie returned home to New Jersey to start her new job, resuming life as usual. We aren’t in touch much anymore, but I wouldn’t hesitate to call either one of them the next time I’m traveling, and they are both welcome in my home any time they pass through California.
Being single in a romantic city isn’t bad, especially when you find friends to share it with. This was my first time traveling completely by myself, and though I had been a little intimidated by the prospect of it at first, as I just went about my plans and sightseeing, companionship found me. It’s a unique experience traveling alone, and even though mine was short, I had more fun with my unexpected new friends and just playing it by ear than I ever could have imagined. Chalk it up to one more life experience I got to have as a single woman that I never would have had if I were coupled up. See? This single thing isn’t so bad after all.