There are so many ways to travel. Some like to arrive in a city and simply wander. Others arrive with a list of “must-see” items to be ticked off as the visit evolves. I think I’ve always been a wanderer with a mental must-see list in the back of my mind.
However, of late I’ve evolved into exploring with a theme, whether it’s hummingbirds in British Columbia, the Shackleton trail through Chile’s Punta Arenas or technology in Texas.
In Rome on a recent visit we sat in bed in the Hotel Majestic Roma and re-watched the 1953 film Roman Holiday, starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. It remains a great movie and set the theme for our next few days.
And this explains by the first site on the tour was to be a manhole cover – albeit one with a difference. We wandered down to Santa Maria in Cosmedin where this church, not far from the Tiber, has the Mouth of Truth on its porch. While it may originally have been a drain cover, the circular stone face has been a testing place since medieval times.
Legend has it that liars who put their hands in the mouth will lose them. It formed one of the most memorable scenes in the film when “Joe Bradley” pretended he’d lost his hand and “Princess Ann” appeared genuinely shocked (the director hadn’t told her what was going to happen). Now there’s a line of presumably honest tourists waiting to pay their money and prove their virtue.
Did you know that Audrey Hepburn had a waist of just 51cm and battled anorexia for much of her life? That fact was imparted to us as we entered the gates of Palazzo Barberini that was used for the exterior of her character Princess Ann’s residence in Rome. Of course the gallery contained some great art, but perhaps the most interesting feature was the competing staircases of Borromini and Bernini – we decided that the less-acclaimed Borromini won.
It’s on the Spanish Steps that “Princess Ann” has a gelato with “Joe”. Sadly, tourists, their backpacks and suitcases, and the overflow from the nearby McDonalds may obscure these elaborate rococo stairs that were built in 1720.
The extravagant Spanish Steps
Not far from the Spanish Steps is “Joe Bradley’s” apartment at Via Margutta 51 – it’s private property, but normally you can walk into the open courtyard and the apartment is easily recognised. It’s also close to Via del Corso and Rome’s upmarket shopping area.
The Via del Corso is the equivalent of London’s Oxford St, lined with international labels and mass-produced fashion and Via Condotti and other streets radiating out from Piazza di Spagna offer haute couture. For more funky boutique shopping, try the Monti area, south of Via Nationale.
An old cobbled street in the heart of Rome with its traditional Osterias
Not too far in the other direction is Via Veneto. The heady days of Rome’s 60s social life revolved around the Via Veneto and were captured by the Fellini films 8½ and La Dolce Vita. Modern excesses were lovingly framed in Paolo Sorrentino’s exquisitely beautiful 2013 film The Great Beauty.
Has anyone been to Rome and not been photographed at the Trevi Fountain? The barber shop where “Princess Ann” had her chic haircut has gone and now scores of street merchants swarm to sell cheap selfie-sticks. The fountain itself and Salvi’s ornate 1762 sculptures are gleaming following a Fendi-funded restoration. Most visitors throw a coin over their shoulder into the fountain to ensure they return to Rome.
The front of the Pantheon at Piazza della Rotonda
Impressive but unattractive, the Pantheon (Temple to All Gods) is one of the most interesting buildings in Rome, not least of all because the large open hole at the top of the dome ensures it’s not the place to seek shelter from a storm. It was probably designed as a temple by the Emperor Hadrian in 118 AD and became a church in the 7th Century. It was here in a long-gone café outside that “Ann” and “Joe” meet “Irving” and it’s where “Ann” has champagne and her first cigarette.
In nearby Piazza della Minerva an obelisk the Romans brought from Egypt is preposterously balanced on a marble elephant sculptured by Bernini.
With a sense of drama we come to Palazzo Colonna where “Princess Ann” has resumed her role and meets “Joe Bradley” the reporter in the film’s closing scenes.
The magnificent Palazzo Colonna is only open on Saturday mornings
When you walk into the gallery and into the scene you discover how much glory was lost in black and white. Designed in the mid-1600s, the gallery was somewhat redesigned by a French army barrage in 1849 that left a cannon ball embedded in the stairs – it was covered by a carpet for the movie. This impressive opulence is open only on Saturday mornings.
Of course there are many ways to explore Rome – from the ancient Rome, capital of the Roman Empire, with the Colosseum and the Forum, to the Vatican and the remarkable churches of the city. Or you could do fashion, food, or simply style.
However, retracing the steps of a simple movie romance that still resonates today is rewarding and takes you to corners of the city you might otherwise miss.
Have you been to Rome? What’s your favourite spot?
Image credit: (feature) © Paramount Pictures, Roman Holiday 1953; (in-text) Alexandre Rotenberg, Alexander Lukatskiy / Shutterstock.com