I never quite considered Italy much of a “vacation” spot as much as it is a place for spiritual reorientation. I was there for the last week doing research for a story I’m writing, and although it wasn’t my first time there, there’s always a virginal bliss to Italy. When asked by an American professor at the University of Kansas I met there if I was traveling alone, I said I was. She said, with commiseration, that traveling Rome shouldn’t be done alone. I thought, it ought to be. At least once.
I spent most of my week 25 miles from Rome, but bookended my trip in the city, staying in modest hotels and relying on the city’s whimsy to pull me into its arms. My first day there was spent seeing my favorite work of art, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s David, at the Galleria Borghese, in person. The gallery is sublime, with pink marble walls and art from its floor to ceiling. A passion for life and aspiration for the supernatural, free from pedantic over-analysis and theory, was palpable in the building and the paintings and sculpture it held. An understanding of the human anatomy and natural physics was demonstrated in the sculpted furrowed brow of David and the creases of the couch that Antonio Canova sculpts Paolina Borghese on. Rome is egalitarian in its ability to provoke the imaginations of those who visit it, with its abundance of opportunities for spiritual satiation.
It’s in these opportunities that being alone is cathartic. Having espresso at a cafe in the morning and observing the dextrous barista, reading receipts and operating the espresso machine on her own, benefits from the lack of distraction from a travel partner. In the Italian spirit of sprezzatura, nonchalance and ease unburdened by excess, a cafe menu is more limited than an American one. There are no drinks sweetened by syrups. It’s an opportunity to see what one can make using only espresso itself and steamed milk, the true test of mastery.
With traveling alone also comes the autonomy of deciding to avoid souvenir shops — of which there are many — like they’re leprosy. Grocery stores, where food is mostly unprepared and there is no opportunity for scenic Instagram photos, are caches for Rome’s most representative qualities. I spent several hours grocery-store hopping, often around people who seemed too aloof to be tourists. It’s here that you can spend time perusing wines in the aisle, in which there must be at least a hundred different ones, often for less than ten euros, because the wine shouldn’t be reserved for a special occasion. Here is an opportunity to appreciate life in the Mediterranean, free from the pleas for tourists to empty their pockets elsewhere in Rome. When in Rome, my advice is, do as the Romans do — inside grocery stores.
And, of course, visiting Saint Peter’s Square and the rest of the Vatican sites ought to be done alone. It’s the most suitable here that one arrives alone, as a singular human creation of God, for a solemn adoration among the foot traffic and cheap trinkets. If there’s any place one could have their Road to Damascus moment, it’s here.