My mom was pretty alarmed when I told her I was going to go to Rome by myself. “Really? You don’t want to take someone with you? I thought you had friends!”
Well, I do, but I’ve never traveled alone, and it seemed like something I would enjoy. At every hostel I had met a couple of people who were traveling by themselves, and sometimes I was jealous of their independence. I’ve loved the trips I’ve gone on with friends, but everyone takes museums at different paces, everyone has different priorities for each city, and everyone needs a little bit of time alone every once in a while.
I stayed at a hostel near the train station. I got into Rome at night, and after settling into my room, I grabbed a map and sat in the hostel bar, making a list of everything I wanted to do. We had spent the week before on a trip to Istanbul (which I will write about soon, no worries!) so I didn’t have many specific plans for my time in Rome. This is part of why I chose Rome, actually. I knew there would be enough “touristy” sights, so I wouldn’t have to worry too much about planning. The trip, I was sure, would probably plan itself.
Once I put the map away, two very nice engineers studying in Munich sat down with me. One was from Argentina, the other from Slovakia. Both told me some of the wildest stories I’ve heard in my life (flying over borders illegally, living in 200 person villages, playing polo, walking through the Colosseum alone one morning) and were thrilled to tell me all of their opinions on President Obama (the Argentinian loved Obama, the Slovakian thought that “Obama crawls to Putin begging for help!”). After agreeing to proofread their job applications, I said goodnight and fell asleep as soon as I returned to my room.
The next morning, I walked around the neighborhood to two churches I had read about online. Walking through Rome, there were soldiers on nearly every other corner. I’ve never been to Rome, but I assume there usually are not that many soldiers around. I think it was because of the Paris attacks. It was a little alarming, I must say, to see so many guns.
The Santa Maria della Vittoria was beautiful, of course, and had a body under one of the altars. I realized that it was probably an incorrupt saint, a Catholic saint whose body never decomposed. However, it didn’t look like it was a real body. I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school for fifteen years of my life, so I’ve very much been raised on the idea that some saints are so holy that God preserves their bodies after they die. In Rome, I discovered this is not quite the case. Most relics are really only partial—bones and teeth and the occasional shriveled organ. Whenever you see a full body relic in Rome, it is almost definitely just a wax figure. Visiting all these churches without a guidebook was the only thing I really regret about my trip. I really wish I could have read more about the history of the places I visited while I was within them. Next I went to Convento die Frati Cappuccini, which has an incredibly eery crypt decorated with human bones. Seriously—their designs almost look baroque. Skeletons of children hang from the ceiling. It is incredibly weird and spooky, and I highly recommend it.
I went back to the hostel to go on a tour that they supposedly offered, but apparently they stopped running these tours a while ago. Luckily, another girl was also looking for the tour, and we decided to go on a tour offered by a different company. She was from Canada, and had been traveling by herself for a few months, and was making her way to Africa. The tour we went on was excellent—we went to a lot of Piazzas that I probably wouldn’t have visited otherwise.
The sun sets around 4:30 now, and I knew I didn’t want to walk much alone outside. However, I really wanted to see the new Hunger Games (whatever, judge me all you want, I really love teen action movies—they’re glossy and exciting in a wonderfully predictable way) so I was going to make an exception one night so I could walk to the theatre. Luckily though, my new friend from Canada also wanted to see it, so we were able to go together. And yes, in case you were wondering, it was incredible.
The next day I went to the Vatican. While in Europe, I’ve seen a lot of wonderful churches. St. Peter’s Basilica was one of the most stunning I’ve ever seen. While there are certainly churches I’ve found more beautiful, the size of the Basilica is jaw dropping. It is enormous. I also found it interesting as something that is both a tourist site and a holy space. For example, in one corner of the Basilica, a small congregation was attending a Mass amid hundreds of tourists snapping selfies and chatting about where they were going next. In another corner, there were maybe ten to fifteen confessionals from which many people were receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation (also called Confession). I must say, although I’ve often felt at odds with my Catholic upbringing, seeing St. Peter’s Basilica felt like the culmination of my religious education. It was so unlike any part of my experience of Catholicism in New Orleans. My Church at home is comparatively small, although also ornately decorated in murals and statues. But my Church at home, where I knew all the parishioners by sight if not by name, always made God seem close, like someone I could chat with if I needed to. The God of Saint Peter’s Basilica seems removed, maybe even imposing. Suddenly all the religion classes where I was taught strict rules that seemed at odds with the practices of my own Catholic community made sense.
Next I went to the Vatican Museum. I definitely enjoyed this, but I should have eaten before. My favorite exhibit was probably this one room full of maps that look like something out of a fantasy novel. I really want to find prints of them if I can. Half-way through the museum, a boy stopped me to ask where the “Adam and God thing” was. I was confused until he touched his fingers together, ET style—he meant the Sistine Chapel, which was at the very end of the museum.
The Sistine Chapel affected me more than I expect. It was a place I was really glad to be alone in, and I spent quite a while there. Don’t skip it.
The next day I went to the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine. The same ticket will get you into all three, so start off with the Roman Forum and Palatine, because there isn’t a line at all really. This took me basically all day, and I must say I was a little grumpy by the end of it. So for a little while, I sat down for coffee and the most incredible gelato I’ve ever eaten and I read my favorite book—Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.
Once I had regained my energy, I went to the Trinita dei Monti, a French church at the top of the Spanish Steps. I went to a Sacred Heart school, and so I wanted to see Mater Admirabilis, a fresco of Mary that almost is a mascot for the school. I don’t know how else to better explain the way this fresco is treated at Sacred Heart schools—we had copies of this painting in just about every room, we sang songs about it at Mass and once a year, at a special Mass, we created a live tableau of it. Supposedly, when it was first painted by Pauline Perdrau, it was so ugly that the nuns of the Sacred Heart decided to cover it with a drape. When the Pope came to visit the chapel, he demanded to see what was behind the drape, and when the curtain was drawn, the painting was miraculously beautiful, and to this day it has been since been an emblem of Sacred Heart education.
I almost didn’t get to see it. Sacred Heart girls (I’m sure one of you will read this eventually) planning to visit Mater Admirabilis, you need to bring your Sacred Heart passport that they give you at graduation. I didn’t have mine but I had a picture of it. The guard initially refused to let me in without the physical copy, but I think he saw how emotional I was getting (I kept trying to hand him my graduation ring in proof that I was a Sacred Heart graduate) and decided to take pity of me. I have included a picture of the painting at the top of this blog. It was truly lovely and exciting to see in person, and the chapel it was in was also charming and tiny and reminded me of the chapel of my school in New Orleans. I have included a picture of Mater Admirabilis at the top of this blog, and if you are a Sacred Heart graduate, I highly recommend going.
The next morning, I left Rome to go to Prague, where I met several of my good friends from Hopkins. My time alone in Rome was wonderful. I think I have introverted blood in me—I need time to wander alone, to be self sufficient, to meet people but not feel obliged to hang out with them longer than I care to, to do what I want when I want. To be honest, I sort of wish I had traveled alone more this semester, and now that I know how to do it, I plan on busing to all sorts of cities I've never seen in the northeast of the United States and spending time alone there too. Boston, Augusta, and Manchester, I'm looking forward to meeting you next semester.
My advice on traveling alone:
- Go to the hostel bar. Everyone is there because they want to meet new, strange people, and you definitely will.
- Look up “Free Tour (insert city)” - these tours aren’t really free (you are expected to tip) but you don’t have to tip nearly as much as you would often pay for tour that you pay for up front (I’m not advocating for being stingy though, please tip your tour guides fairly!).
- Bring some sort of guidebook. Although you can plan trips very easily online, it became very frustrating not being able to read about the history of whatever I was looking at while I was looking at it. This is especially true in churches.
- Buy a nice map. The hostel map will not cut it, especially in these old European cities where street names change on each block. Trust me, investing in a map is worth it.
- Feed yourself! My mom always says she is jealous that my dad and I forget to eat, but while traveling, this became a nuisance—suddenly it would be 3PM and I would be exhausted and grumpy and have a headache and not understand why…until I realized I hadn’t eaten since 7AM that morning. When I was trying to pack in a lot of sights, I forgot to leave time to eat. By my third day in Rome I bought granola bars and carried them in my purse until a guard at the Colosseum told me I couldn’t bring in food, so I had to eat them all in about two minutes.
- Pick an album! I listened to Challengers by The New Pornographers and Art Angels by Grimes. Now I think both albums will be forever remind me of my trip to Rome, which is a pretty cool association to have.
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Ruth Marie Landry
<p>Ruth Marie Landry is a junior majoring in the Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. On campus, she works in the library and as a tutor for high school students. She is also a DJ for WJHU (Johns Hopkins' only student radio station) and the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Vector Magazine, an online literary magazine. While growing up in New Orleans, she developed a love for spicy food, dancing to live music, and long, poorly planned road trips. Ruth enjoys big cities, Sphynx cats and Brutalist architecture.</p>