image: The Castel Sant' Angelo, a schooner-like fortress that for centuries sheltered popes from marauding barbarians, reflects in the Tiber river.
The Castel Sant' Angelo, a schooner-like fortress that for centuries sheltered popes from marauding barbarians, reflects in the Tiber river.

Photograph by Ted Spiegel

Roman Holiday
By Taras Grescoe

The enduring, endearing 1953 romantic comedy starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck paves the way for a 21st-century visit that turns out to be timeless.

Leaning against the balcony on the Janiculum hillside, I allow my eyes to sweep from the masts of the Castel Sant' Angelo to the broken arches of the Colosseum, taking in what has to be one of the most striking panoramas in Christendom. Rome, Roma, Amor—a place whose very etymology is linked to romance—is wearing its age well. Newly scrubbed of cinders and exhaust for the Holy Year, the 2,753-year-old city looks at once timeless and brand new. Unmarred by office towers, Space Needles, or Astrodomes, the Roman sky is scraped only by the tips of Egyptian obelisks, bristling ranks of freestanding Corinthian columns, and the cupolas of baroque churches. The view should inspire sober reflections on the brevity of human life, I suppose, but today, the catacombs and colonnades seem to whisper only one question to me: As you live and walk among us, young man, are you happy?

In other words, I'm ready to fall in love. You see, before coming to Rome, I made the pleasant mistake of watching Roman Holiday, that classic story of abandoning day-to-day responsibilities and unexpected infatuation. Director William Wyler's 1953 tale of a princess from an unnamed nation, playing hooky on a good-will tour of Europe, comes close to perfection as a romantic comedy, a movie as charmed in the making as it is charming in the watching. It introduced the world to the 24-year-old Audrey Hepburn, a Brussels-born ballet dancer who would win the best actress Academy Award in her first leading role. During the filming, done entirely on location in a postwar Italy mercifully uncluttered by cars, male lead Gregory Peck—playing a cynical newsman for the fictional American News Service—actually fell in love with a French reporter, Veronique Passani, who would become his second wife.

As a carefree jaunt through an enchanting place, Roman Holiday sets out a classic itinerary: From the Forum, where Peck first stumbles upon the groggy princess—still reeling from a sedative administered by her doctor, who wanted to make sure she'd have a good night's sleep before her day of appearances—to a café outside the Pantheon, where she has her first cigarette, to the banks of the Tiber, where they dance arm-in-arm, it's a whirlwind city tour by taxi, foot, and scooter.

And so as I watch the cityscape of travertine marble facades beneath me turning honey-toned in the lowering sun, I realize that Rome won't have to work very hard to seduce me. But I also tell myself there has to be a modern-day Audrey Hepburn out there, idly sipping espresso in one of those piazzas—somebody willing to give up a day to help me with an ephemeral tour of an eternal city.

But before I can seek her out, I need to get my bearings. I'd been prepared for a Rome smudged with exhaust, choked with cars, and overrun by tour buses. But what I find is a highly walkable city, its Bernini fountains and Michelangelo-designed palazzos newly cleansed of centuries of pollution, and, thanks to the initiatives of the mayor, its narrowest streets served by quietly humming electric buses the size of milk vans.

The Centro Storico, the ancient core whose cavernous streets compensate for their gloom by breaking into sun-flooded piazzas, is now a patchwork of pedestrians-only zones. Lurching chains of riverside traffic can still make crossing to the bohemian Trastevere neighborhood or Vatican City a trial, but from footbridges like Ponte Sisto, the shores of the serpentine Tiber, dotted with fishermen's poles and families of ducks, seem oddly bucolic.

I also have the time to make a few simple observations. First: Everybody here—priest, lawyer, ticket taker—seems to own a cell phone and uses it all the time. (They are more reliable, I learn, than the standard phone system.) Second: Italians really do talk with their hands. Unfortunately, they also drive with their cell phones. Which means that, torn as they are between gesticulating and steering, Roman drivers are now the most lethal in Europe. Finally, the citizens of Rome are a real oddity in Europe: They seem to take genuine pleasure in their jobs and lives, and actually appear to enjoy the presence of outsiders. (At least the ones they haven't run over.)

I spend my first two days roaming the city's streets in a happy daze, eating my first Roman pizza—whose crêpe-thin crust miraculously supports eggplant, sausage, and bitter greens—and drinking espresso unmolested by that barman's scowl that is de rigueur in Paris and London.

Rome, I'm also beginning to notice, is full of lithe and mysterious-looking women, many of whom could pass for errant princesses. I audition my first Audrey at a café terrace in the Trastevere neighborhood, striking up a conversation with an elegantly dressed stranger in dark sunglasses who's reading a Paul Auster novel over a cappuccino. Her name is Francesca, and she turns out to be an Italian ballerina who trained with the Bolshoi; what's more, she remembers seeing Roman Holiday—or Vacanze Romane, as it is known here—as a child, and loving it. When I invite her on a city tour, she not only agrees, but also invites me for drinks that night—and as I arrive, she immediately presents me to her scowling, broad-shouldered beau. The next morning, ensconced in the red velvet banquettes of the Antico Caffè Greco, where we'd agreed to meet, I'm not particularly surprised when she fails to keep the date. Francesca, I pout, has definitely failed the audition. Audrey Hepburn would never have resorted to such an elaborate ruse simply to make a boyfriend jealous.

Ah well, I muse, bucking myself up with every cliché in the book: Rome is the capital of the world, so when all roads lead to Rome (a city, they tell me, that was not built in a day), you might as well do as the Romans do.

I decide to try my luck on the Spanish Steps, that curving staircase that cascades down from the Trinità dei Monti church, home to a permanent population of teenage boys inspecting the girls who are inspecting the lingerie at the Dolce & Gabbana store. Sandwiched between the Keats-Shelley Memorial House and Babington's Tea Rooms, named after the nearby Spanish embassy to the Vatican, and a favorite photo-op for Japanese shoppers, the Steps are about as cosmopolitan a setting as you can find in Rome.

It was here, at the Spanish Steps, that Gregory Peck's character—hiding his identity as a newsman eager for a scoop—urged Audrey Hepburn to eat gelati, and "take a little time for dangerously." Giggling, Hepburn gets into the spirit of the city: "I'd like to do just whatever I like the whole day long....Sit at a sidewalk café, and look in shop windows, walk in the rain—have fun, and maybe some excitement. It doesn't seem much to you, does it?"

Certainly not to me, anyway.

The rain has stopped, Rome is throbbing all around me, and I decide to take a chance, sitting down next to a pretty young woman with wavy black hair in a mauve sweater, who's been absorbed by an Italian translation of Madame Bovary for the last half hour. Ten minutes of fast talking later, I have my Audrey.

Her name is Elisabetta—a good name for a monarch's stand-in, I figure—she's from Naples, and when I describe my plan, she sighs: "Ah, Vacanze Romane!" in gratifying recognition. "I loved [she says this word in two syllables] this film." In town for a job interview, Elisabetta has three spare hours ahead of her, and she giggles with a hint of Hepburn's spontaneity when I warn her that my Italian is as sketchy as her English seems to be shaky.

"Is no important," she says, standing up and brushing off her pants, "Andiamo!"

I remind Elisabetta of the movie's plot as we walk toward our first stop, the setting for Peck's bachelor pad. The reporter, weary after a night of poker-playing, reluctantly takes the sleepy princess back to his apartment—after unsuccessfully trying to fob her off on a taxi driver by waving a Kleenex-size 5,000-lire note.

The straight-backed Hepburn, unimpressed by Peck's cramped digs, blearily inquires, "Is this the elevator?"

In fact, Paramount's location scouts had chosen one of Rome's best addresses, the enviably situated Via Margutta. Even today, though the street is only about a hundred yards away from traffic chaos and Armani, Chanel, and other designer emporia, it feels very much like a three-block-long transplant from Paris's Montmartre, an unexpected, welcome oasis of tranquility that backs up toward the quiet park paths of the tree-lined Pincio hillside.

Feeling giddy as teenage tresspassers, Elisabetta and I walk through the tall carriage entrance that leads to the gravel-strewn courtyard of Via Margutta, 51. I instantly recognize the setting—we're at the entrance to the staircase, overhung by a slanted, vine-covered arbor, where the princess is forced to borrow cab fare after she wakes up in Peck's apartment.

This is clearly an idiosyncratic little enclave, filled with painters' studios, well-fed cats, and stray sculptures. In vague hopes of finding the apartment that was Peck's in Roman Holiday, we rap on the door to a movie production-company called Cineroma.

"Come in," says a man sitting behind a laptop computer in an open, loft-like studio. He introduces himself as David Nichols, and it turns out he's an American-born, British-raised executive producer who fell in love with Italy and decided to settle down and work from Rome.

"This is a unique place," Nichols says, leaning back in his chair. "It's very quiet. When you wake up in the morning you hear the birds. It's one of the oldest sections of Rome, and a great community of artists used to live here. Via Margutta was a tax-free zone for foreigners in the 15th and 16th centuries—Caravaggio lived here. And more recently, Fellini did too."

Nichols adds, just a little ruefully, that it was only after he moved in that he learned William Wyler's film had been made here. "Roman Holiday seems to be big in Japan, so we regularly get scores of Japanese tourists coming into the courtyard." (From upstairs, his wife, Jenny, shouts, "More like hundreds of them.")

Outside, I ask Elisabetta if she expected to find a place like Via Margutta in the heart of Rome. "Oh, is nice," she says grudgingly, "but we have many places in Napoli like this." Hmmm—I'd heard tell of this Neapolitan pride, born of an age-old rivalry between Rome and Naples. Back on the street, we stroll among art galleries and antique shops in 17th-century buildings, until Elisabetta grabs my arm and shouts, "Gregorio!" She's spotted a poster for Roman Holiday in the window of the Osteria Margutta.

The restaurant is closed until dinner, but we talk to an employee who's setting up a buffet. "I can tell you that Gregory Peck has been here this year," says waitress Valeria Testarmata, setting down a plate of roasted red, yellow, and green peppers. "He didn't want to speak about himself as an actor. He just came and sat here, because he saw the poster outside. He said everything was like it was so many years ago; nothing has changed."

I think I know what he meant. In spite of the cell phones and high-tech Smart cars, Rome's fundamental pleasures seem reassuringly eternal, as though the Romans—whether they're senators in sandals or techno kids in platform shoes—have always been strolling these same cobblestones, enjoying guiltless gelati and sunshine.

Inspired by Audrey Hepburn's example, Elisabetta and I make a pit stop for ice cream, pausing at Il Gelato di San Crispino, an ice cream parlor that's generally considered to be the best in Rome, if not in Italy. The paper-hatted counterman gives me my scoop of zabaglione, made with egg yolks and Marsala and served in a cup (an artificially flavored cone, the owners claim, would compromise the purity of the experience).

We take our booty to the steps in front of the Trevi Fountain, that baroque fantasy of finned horses surging from beneath a billowy-bearded Neptune, crammed into a piazza so tiny it suggests The Tempest being performed in a teapot.

I ask Elisabetta whether her scoop—she's ordered the eponymous house specialty, whose creamy yellowish tint comes from traces of Sardinian wild honey—is as good as what she gets back home. "Is okay," she concedes, "but the gelato in Napoli is very good too." It seems I'm dealing with an unbeatable case of civic pride.

While I'm debating whether it's worth asking if she prefers thick-crusted Neapolitan pizza to its thinner Roman counterpart, she looks at her watch, jumps up, and cries "O, Dio!"

It's time for her job interview; like Audrey Hepburn in the film, Elisabetta is being beckoned by reality. I wish her luck, but before we go, we have to engage in the official Trevi Fountain ceremony.

Turning our backs to the fountain, we toss coins over our shoulders—I, a quarter; she, a 200-lire piece. My wish, I tell her, is to come back to Rome—next time, with a significantly better command of Italian. Elisabetta, however, her coin sinking to the robin's-egg-colored bottom, refuses to tell me hers.

"When you throw," she giggles, "you must make a wish, but you cannot tell what it was. Capito?" Capito, I say, a little sad. We exchange kisses on the cheeks, and she runs off with a wave, leaving me to wonder whether her wish featured me or Gregory Peck in the leading role.

Alone, but not lonely—it's hard to feel abandoned in this intensely social city—I decide to complete my Roman Holiday itinerary on the back of a scooter. Tearing a garage owner away from his soccer game, I rent a Yamaha, a little disappointed not to get the Vespa of my dreams ("It's maybe Japanese," he consoles me, shooing a cat off the seat. "But motor is a Minarelli.") Soon, I'm juddering over cobblestones, slipping between lines of cars, and circling the Colosseum, where muscle men in gladiators' capes wield plastic swords and pose for tourist photos. Then I drive past the Forum, that ancient civic center turned quarry, where director William Wyler was delighted to learn that guides had started telling tourists: "Here is where Caesar is buried. On those steps is where Marc Antony spoke. And over here is where Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck played a scene in Roman Holiday."

Outside the Vatican walls, I roar onto a quiet street—which turns out to be a pedestrian zone—and am pointed toward the curb by a carabiniere. Rather than interrupt his conversation with two colleagues, however, he uses some impressively expressive mime to indicate I should turn off my motor and simply walk my scooter to the end of the pedestrian zone. Near the Castel Sant' Angelo, a schooner-like fortress that for centuries sheltered popes from marauding barbarians, I pause just long enough to note that the riverbank where the princess and the newsman danced on a moored barge for the first and last time is now utterly bare.

Finally, I use my scooter to make a special pilgrimage, to a church called Santa Maria. It was here that Gregory Peck stuck his hand into the slit-mouthed Bocca della Verità, a circular relief of a hirsute god (actually an ancient drain cover), eliciting an unscripted cry of alarm from Audrey Hepburn when he pulled his arm out of the hole with his hand tucked up his sleeve.

As I take off my helmet, I see the church's portico is full of people lining up to have their pictures taken in front of the antique manhole. Two Japanese girls enter, and one of them leaps in the air in delight when she sees the familiar face. To her alarm, however, a squat Italian man in his fifties grabs her wrist and thrusts it into the gaping mouth, pushing her sleeve up over her hand in imitation of Gregory Peck as he pulls it out. "Vacanze Romane!" he cries in triumph.

Later that day, buzzing beneath aqueducts on the Janiculum hilltop at sunset, I realize that it's finally happened: I've fallen in love. Not with any ringer for Audrey Hepburn (although Elisabetta had a certain winsome charm...) but with Rome itself. It has to be love, because I forgive Rome for everything, even her traffic. I forgive the woman on the Lambretta scooter in the swank Aventino neighborhood, who, driving with one hand on the throttle, the other on her cell phone, almost ran me over. I admire the élan of the guys who drive up onto the sidewalks, not bothering to dismount from their motorbikes to withdraw lire from wall-mounted bank machines. And I out-and-out love a place where I've seen flocks of nuns power-shopping in religious knickknack stores on the Borgo Pio, or teenage boys presenting a middle-aged woman on the Spanish Steps with a single spray-painted rose.

At the tear-wrenching end of Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn shows her regal mettle by returning to her life as a princess. In turn, Gregory Peck demonstrates his class by returning to the daily grind, resisting the temptation to turn his romantic outing into a scoop. Happily, I've got no such motivation to deny myself a newfound love. Forget noble self-restraint: I fully intend to return to Rome, and I've got a quarter in the Trevi Fountain that says it's going to be soon.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.



Click here to go to National Geographic Traveler Online Click here to subscribe to National Geographic Traveler