Eternally Grateful Rome's Charms Are Both Monumental and Intimate

Article excerpt

AS I'VE GROWN older, cities - big, sprawling, busy cities - have lost much of their appeal. A perfect vacation is one spent away from the city, safely ensconced in a small, preferably quaint, town surrounded by great natural beauty.

That's why I hadn't expected to fall so deeply, so irrevocably in love with Rome.

I first visited Rome more than a decade ago and, yes, I adored it. I loved the pace, the bustle, the action, the feeling that something was always going on; I loved everything that now tends to make me feel pushed, pulled and pressured.

Recently I returned with two skeptical newcomers in tow. We went to Rome with a sense of obligation, burdened by the sense that you can't go to Italy and not go to Rome. You can't go to Italy and not see the Vatican, St. Peter's cathedral, the Forum. We dreaded the traffic, the noise, the pickpockets at every tourist attraction, the inflated prices. We approached Rome the way most people approach a visit to the dentist: It's good for you.

Well, a visit to Rome is good for you - and not in a medicinal sense. A visit to Rome is a treat for the senses, a luxurious indulgence, especially for the eyes.

Of course, Rome is incredibly grand, a city of magnificent, huge monuments. On both visits I was continually astonished by Rome's monumentality, the city's tributes to its age and history.

I'll never forget the first time I saw the Trevi Fountain on that long-ago trip. I was walking down a typically narrow Roman side street at night, then turned the corner and came upon a piazza, half of which was occupied by the Trevi Fountain. It took my breath away.

It did again, as it did for my two companions. The fountain dominates the square and demands the attention of all those assembled or even passing by. It is far too huge for the space, and it is so impossibly ornate - even gaudy - that even the most jaded tourists have to get into the spirit of things, dig into their pockets and toss a few coins.

And what could be more monumental than the Colosseum? This glorious gift from the past is a wonder, both an invitation to the imagination to conjure up scenes of gladiators and a reminder of the sophistication of the Romans in engineering, civil and social.

Our hotel, the delightful Hotel Due Torri, was only a couple of blocks from the Tiber. In the evening, we would stroll along the river and see St. Peter's and the Castel Sant'Angelo, two imposing structures, lit up against the night. St. Peter's is so massive that it looked like it was but a few minutes, not a half-hour, away.

It's impossible not to be bowled over by all this. But this time, I was also impressed - or, more accurately, captivated - by Rome's intimacy.

The alleys, narrow streets and peaceful piazzas are just around the corner. Historic Rome, the Rome in which tourists spend their time, is actually rather compact. Everything is remarkably accessible.

My favorite piazza, the Piazza della Rotonda, was a hop, skip and a jump from our hotel. It's where the Pantheon, one of the oldest extant, continually used Roman buildings, is situated. It is there that monumentality and intimacy collide. The piazza is relatively small. The Pantheon, with its majestic, towering columns, takes up one side of the square.

Something about this square is marvelously relaxing, even soothing. Maybe it's the architectural simplicity of the Pantheon. Maybe it's the way the afternoon light hits the golden, pumpkin buildings on the other three sides so they seem to glisten. Or maybe it's the silly fountain in the center, with a platoon of pigeons parked on the heads of its gargoyles.

One of the loveliest neighborhoods is one of Rome's oldest and certainly most picturesque. Trastevere, which means "across the Tiber," is across Ponte Sisto from via Giulia or the Campo de Fiori. Crossing over into Trastevere feels like crossing over into a different century. …

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.