Speed-Dating Rome


From the March 2009 issue of National Geographic Traveler

When your time is short but your passions high, here's how to get intimate with a city.

Do the Spanish Steps in Rome lead to St. Peter's Basilica? Absolutely not! Pardon my yelling, but it's ten o'clock at night, I've been walking for two hours trying to find the most famous church in the world (one that's longer than two football fields), and instead I'm standing at the bottom of 135 marble steps in the opposite direction of where I thought I was headed and which lead to a different church entirely. I once crossed 20 miles of treeless, unmarked Saharan sand dunes, guided only by my compass and the sun, without getting lost. How then is it possible that in Rome, a city littered with famous landmarks, street signs, and 2.7 million people who could find their way to the Vatican blindfolded, I'm as turned around as Christopher Columbus when he said, "Funny, this doesn't look like India."

I'm here to speak at a business convention. I don't do much suit-and-tie traveling, but the other attendees tell me it's common at these events to be sequestered in the hotel grounds like a gang of ankle-bracelet-wearing white-collar criminals. Any free time is spent at the hotel golf course or poolside, sipping cocktails. Then, when the meetings conclude, you rush back home—without experiencing any local culture or history.

Personally, I don't do golf or tanning, and after 24 hours in which my only exposure to anything Italian is the room service pasta, I'm getting antsy. Fearing that I'll see Rome only from the window of my airport taxi, I ask myself, "What's the fastest way to get to know a city?"

Then it hits me: "Speed dating."

Hey, if an organized series of brief encounters can hook you up with a potential mate, then surely it can get you intimate with a city, too. I decide to take a day to speed-date Rome, seeing as much of it as humanly possible.

First tip: Hire a guide. There's no time to fumble with guidebooks.

9 a.m. I meet my guide, Letizia Ambrosi, near the Colosseum. She has agreed, for the next eight hours, to give me the CliffsNotes version of what would normally be three days of sightseeing. Appropriately, we're both wearing running shoes.

The Colosseum, according to Ambrosi, opened in A.D. 80 to a booming business. "Crowds of 50,000 to 60,000 came to watch battles matching gladiators, Christians, and lions," she tells me. I add: "And Russell Crowe, of course."

Please note that in speed dating sometimes the faces run together and the facts get muddled. But I'm fairly certain Ambrosi says the Colosseum eventually became a kind of Home Depot, where people helped themselves to building supplies—bricks, iron, and especially the marble that once covered the walls.

9:50 a.m. We leave the Colosseum, pass by the Arch of Constantine, and head up Palatine Hill to gaze over the private stadium, or playground, of the infamously randy emperor Caligula. This is the birthplace of the toga party. Think Animal House with lots of sex scenes. Other early emperors also built their houses on this hill. We're on a tight schedule, so we also check out Circus Maximus from our high vantage point—where 270,000 people would sit to watch the chariot races down below.

It dawns on me that ancient Rome has been revealed to me before, a few times by history teachers and once by Charlton Heston. But lectures and movies did little to prepare me for the thrill of climbing over broken walls built by Nero and treading 2,000-year-old stone roads frequented by Julius Caesar himself.

11 a.m. We hit the Forum, make a cursory stop where Caesar was cremated, pass the spot where Antonio made his "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech that got Brutus in such trouble, and climb to the top of Capitoline Hill.

11:40 a.m. For the next 20 minutes, like birders ticking off species on our life list, we make quick work of a palace, a monument, a church, a theater, and a temple.

Noon We arrive in the Jewish Ghetto, where Pope Paul IV ordered Rome's Jews confined starting in the 16th century. Delicious smells abound, but lunch isn't on the agenda. We're here to see the Sant'Angelo in Pescheria Catholic Church, which Jews were forced to attend but reportedly stuffed their ears with beeswax to block out the sermons.

12:30 p.m. After admiring the architectural wonder of the Pantheon, we toss three coins into the Trevi Fountain and then sample some gelato.

2 p.m. We mount the Spanish Steps so I can look out over the city and get my bearings, which, unfortunately, is just a figure of speech. I count the steps.

3 p.m. We reach our final stop, the Vatican, which was furnished under the principle: "When it comes to art, you can't have too much of a good thing." A nice touch: When Pope Julius II needed someone to paint the ceiling, he hired Michelangelo.

No way can we take in all the sculptures and paintings in one afternoon. But today is about getting a taste. Quick tours of the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica, and a couple of other glorious rooms and hallways leave me plenty satiated.

5 p.m. I say good-bye to Letizia and walk back to my hotel to recover. After a couple of hours I realize that in speed dating, when all goes well, you end up wanting more, so I decide to head out on my own to see Rome at night. That's when the trouble begins.

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7 p.m. Walking without a map, I go searching for a sidewalk café. A pizza and a couple of glasses of wine later, the city lights entice me to continue exploring.

8 p.m. After an hour of random twists and turns, I'm completely lost and have no idea how to get back to the hotel. Stubbornness takes over. I refuse to ask for directions, telling myself, "I've just spent a whole day walking every important street in this city. I can find my way to something as big as the Vatican, by God."

This isn't profanity; it's more like a prayer. After all, isn't it part of the Big Guy's job to help the lost? And once I get to the Vatican and St. Peter's, I know I'll be able to find my hotel.

10 p.m. Let's just say that if my prayer was answered, it was in a mysterious way, because now I'm back at the Spanish Steps with the chance to double-check my count. Yep! It's still 135 to the top, which is where I have to climb to spot distant St. Peter's in this labyrinthine city. This time I take an actual compass reading and set off at 270 degrees—due west.

10:30 p.m. At last I reach St. Peter's. No building ever looked so beautiful.

Bottom line: You can speed-date a city and see many of its most famous sites in a single day, some of them (perhaps by accident) twice. And if you get lucky—as I did in Rome—it can be love at first sight.

Contributing editor Boyd Matson hosts TV's Wild Chronicles as well as National Geographic Weekend on radio.

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