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
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
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. …