Splendid views from the Villa Borghese, musicians playing at Ponte Vecchio, and the five little fishing villages of Cinque Terre — Italy is a solo traveller’s paradise
White patches of clouds scattered across the dull grey sky, the hills - sometimes far and sometimes near - dotted with beautiful houses with slanting roofs and green windows, the train hurtles along at a steady pace stopping every so often to let a few passengers get off and a few more get on. I wonder whether I would have enjoyed this beautiful landscape as much if I had chosen the high-speed train to cut the travelling time in half. My choice cost half the money and gave me a chance to read the book, Under the Tuscan Sun. I yearn to be able to get off at the town of Cortona and wander the streets described in the book. But I am nearing the end of ten wonderful days of travelling alone and am headed to Rome to catch my flight back to Paris.
It had been more than six months since I had taken any vacations. I had booked a flight to visit a cousin in Rome right after the end of my work contract. Two or three weeks before the planned visit, my cousin informed me that his family was visiting so that he would not be able to host me at that time. I was working twice as hard at the end of my contract and I needed the break, so instead of changing the dates of my trip, I went ahead anyway. That is how I ended up going to Italy on a solo trip. The overwork also meant that other than doing the bookings, I did not have the time to research or make any plans for the trip.
So, when I arrived in Rome and the driver who picked me up from the airport asked me what my plans were and what I wanted to see in Rome, I told him the Colosseum and the Vatican since that is all I knew about Rome at that moment. He was nice enough to give me a sense of other must-see places. I had booked a last-minute bed and breakfast near the Vatican. The entrance was a small metal door overhung with plantation, which opened into a small courtyard with two trees. Both were covered with fairy lights. The room was comfortable and provided a respite in the sweltering heat for afternoon siestas with air conditioning. The best part was having breakfast on the sixth floor with a view of rooftops and rising above this the dome of the Basilica de San Pietro, which is technically in another country, the Vatican.
Visiting Italy at the end of July, when the temperature hits 35°C during the day makes sure that you tan a healthy chocolate brown and makes you seek the shade every possible minute. I ditched my shoes for sandals most of the time and wished I had chosen a better time to visit.
As I explored the city of Rome for the next six days, which are not enough by any means, I saw many landmarks. The gigantic Colosseum, one of the most remarkable, makes you wonder how in the world it was built two thousand years ago. The slave gladiators fought wild exotic animals here for the entertainment of the citizens. Once the Romans got bored of this form of entertainment, the Colosseum was used for other purposes.
Another must-see is the Trevi fountain, where one can find a throng of tourists, some artists painting, and policemen with whistles in their mouths, shouting at anyone trying to sit or go into the fountain. The beautiful blue colour of the water in the fountain makes you wonder how it is possible to have such a beautiful colour. According to legend, one should throw a coin into the fountain over one’s shoulder, to wish for a return to the city. Every night, the coins are collected and given in charity.
Night is the best time to take a stroll through the city. It is cool and the monuments are lit up like a set. A particularly beautiful viewpoint is from the Pont Umberto I from where one can see the Pont Sant’Angelo with the Basilica in the Vatican in the background. After taking a picture or two here, one must walk to the Pont Sant’Angelo to see the Castel Sant’Angelo bathed in golden light and then walk a bit further to the Piazza San Peitro with the Basilica with its green hues.
Like the rest of the tourists, I would, however, retire early unless I had friends for company. Since I was travelling alone, in a new city where I needed to use navigation to come back to my hotel, I was afraid to venture out at night. I even got UberEATS to deliver dinner to my hotel which I devoured while watching an episode of Suits on my first night. Once I got more familiar with the city, I was bolder to explore it at night. Yet I would also always text a friend to check up on me every time I went out in the evening or night.
The city comes alive with the nightlife when the tourists go to sleep and the locals come to town. I attended a rock concert on the last night I was in Rome at the Villa Celimontana which is a ten-minute walk from the Colosseum. During summers, there are around 100 concerts arranged here along with an open-air dance floor. There are two positive aspects of travelling alone. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want to, and you are also more likely to pick up conversations with nice strangers. I struck up a conversation with the lead singer of the band that played at the concert. A friend of his had visited India and we talked about how India and Pakistan are similar and different.
Another hip area which is not always on tourist guides is Trastevere, a word I was never able to pronounce correctly. It has beautiful, cobbled streets lined with bars and cafes where tourists and locals alike sit sipping orange coloured Spritz in tall stem glasses. This is where I met a wonderful girl from Albania who was in Rome to take care of her paperwork to start working in a town in the north of Italy. Together we went up to Belvedere del Gianicolo with sweeping views of the city and swapped stories of our experiences living abroad for studies.
The city affords many other viewpoints. One can be found above the Spanish steps, another from the edge of the Villa Borghese which overlooks the square of the people, Piazza de Popolo. If one is short on time, I recommend the view from Villa Borghese. For any viewpoint worth seeing, be prepared to walk up a lot of stairs.
Italian cuisine is everyone’s favourite with its famous pastas and pizzas. An amazing pasta to look out for is Cacio e pepe, this incredibly simple spaghetti-with-cheese-and-pepper is perfect for vegetarians. If one needs meat, the Italians do two main courses, the first one with plain pasta, and the second with meat. So, meat lovers would be equally happy in Italy. The gelato is to die for, one must eat gelato every day when in Italy. One can’t watch one’s weight, because even piccolo, which is the smallest size is quite sufficient. I tried a plethora of interesting flavours, melon, basil (yes Basil), mango, salted caramel, one with nibs of red fruits, peach, pistachio, and chocolate. In many places, one can also get a dollop of whipped cream to top off your gelato. Another must-eat dessert is Tiramisu, a beautiful contrast of coffee dipped ladyfinger biscuits with mascarpone.
Over the weekend, I was invited to join a group of locals for an evening on the beach of Focene. For clear blue waters where one can’t resist taking a dip in, I would suggest a beach more south. As the sun set and we cooked the food on a grill, the dark sea became no different from a clear blue sea with the full moon shining and illuminating the scene. In the deep lull of the constantly restless sea surrounded by the warm and friendly locals, I felt that I could finally let go of all the worries in the world. This was also the night I picked up the most amount of Italian language. As the night wore on, the music transformed into a live session with one person playing the guitar and the rest singing along.
Next on my itinerary was the city of Florence which is home to the Duomo and the David’s sculpture. As one walks down the cobblestone streets, one comes across an empty square during the sweltering heat in the day, everyone taking cover in a bar or restaurant in the side alleys. The same squares transform at night, with everyone standing and listening to musicians playing Italian songs late into the night. Another remarkable point where one always finds a musician playing is Ponte Vecchio, lined with jewellery shops. It has survived from the 1300s when it was built.
A bit of a climb but worth the effort is the Piazzale Michelangelo, from where one has an amazing view from across the river, especially the Duomo among other monuments. As dusk draws closer, one can find many tourists on the steps with food and drinks waiting to watch the sunset.
Florence is perfectly located for day trips to the nearby towns of Pisa, Sienna and San Gimignano where one can explore the leaning tower of Pisa, the Cathedral, and the medieval towers, respectively. One can also take a train to La Spezia and visit the Cinque Terre (pronounced Chinke tere) which are five pretty little fishing villages along the coastline, all well connected with the regional train. Each village is distinct from the other.
The town of Riomaggiore with its rocky beach and stalls selling batter-fried seafood in cones, Monteresso with its wide sandy beach with umbrellas, Corniglia with the climb all the way to the cute little town, Vernazza with spectacular views of the sea, and Manarola with its marina and the coloured houses. It is possible to visit all five in one day, each town being just five minutes apart from each other via train.
The night before my last day in Florence, I wanted to book a tour to discover the Cinque Terre with a group, instead they only had one going to Pisa, Sienna and San Gimignano. All I had to do was show up at a spot at 8am. Instead, when I woke up the next day, all I wanted to do even though I was scared to do it on my own was to go explore the little villages of Cinque Terre. I packed up a bag of things I would need for the day trip and set off for the station. I informed my brother of my plans, he agreed with my choice of the seaside villages over Pisa and Sienna, and I bought a return ticket to La Spezia. I would arrive at 12 and leave at 7. Once there I had seven hours to explore five small villages. I bought a day pass which allows access to the high-speed regional train that normally runs every 15 to 30 minutes between the five towns. So I decided to face my fears. But to my pleasant surprise, it seemed much less scary when I was there because there were many other tourists as well. Despite the tourists, the towns seemed untouched and remarkably beautiful. This was the highlight of my trip to Italy, the day I set off to do the most adventurous thing.
– The writer is a consultant based in Paris with a love of travelling and exploring Europe.