The Traveler's Journal  
Travel Articles by David Bear
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Rome in a Day


When time is limited, having a personal guide to show you around can make all the difference

One of the best ways to see a new city is in the company of a knowledgeable someone who lives there.

That's the old travel maxim I followed when trying to decide what to see and do during a day in Rome -- my first visit to the Eternal City. With Rome embellished with a multiple-millennia array of art, antiquities and architecture unmatched by any other city in the world, its roster of must-sees is enough to keep even the most energetic tourist breathless for a week, let alone a day: the Vatican, the Colosseum, the Roman forum, magnificent ruins, flowing fountains and a tantalizing menu of restaurants and shopping possibilities.

When I asked readers for sightseeing suggestions, 67 of you wrote, phoned and e-mailed your favorite finds.

One of the respondents was Sally Brunn of Stanton Heights. Rich, the youngest of Ms. Brunn's 11 children, lives in Rome and is a self-employed tour guide. Considering my wife and I would be in Rome fewer than 48 hours, Rich sounded like an ideal person to show us around.

A 1994 graduate of Schenley High's International Studies Academy and Franciscan University of Steubenville, Mr. Brunn had pursued graduate studies at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, earning a minor in philosophy and master's in theology. During that time, he met and married his Roman wife, Roberta, and they now have 4-year-old Flavia and Dimitri, 1.

After working for three years as a tour guide and art history and Vatican specialist for La Scala Reale, a Roman cultural association, and another as a history teacher there, he decided to pursue his vocation as a self-employed tour guide, which he has done for two years.

Mr. Brunn took up the challenge of showing us as many of Rome's primary treasures as possible in a few hours. If the time we spent with him is an indication, he has found a good fit.

My wife and I had arrived in Rome early on a Friday morning and checked into the Hotel Dei Mellini about 11 a.m. Located on a quiet street on the left bank of the Tiber one block in from the river, the small hotel is clean and comfortable, with a touch of chic elegance. Perhaps most important at that moment: our room was already available for check-in, and it was dark and quiet, just the place for a short nap.

Mr. Brunn met us at the hotel about 2:45 p.m. and we grabbed a cab for the five-minute drive to our launching point for that afternoon's expedition.

Largo di Torre Argentina, with the Area Sacra in its center, is a broad plaza that has been excavated down 20 feet to reveal the remains of four temples dating from Roman Republic days. Mr. Brunn pointed to the ruins of a theater that once accommodated 12,000 spectators and the forum in front of the old Senate House. This is where Julius Caesar was assassinated on March 15, 44 B.C., uttering his famous last words, which, Shakespeare's version notwithstanding, were, "Tu quoque Brute, fili mihi (You too, Brutus, my son)."

Also sited somewhat incongruously on the square is the Teatro Argentina, the theater where the 1816 premiere of "The Barber of Seville" went so badly that its composer, Gioacchino Rossini, had to take refuge in a pastry shop next door.

We took our refuge in a nearby pizzeria to grab a bite and a beer to fortify ourselves for the rest of the tour. It also gave us a chance to chat and get acquainted both with him and what we were about to see, which, as he explained, would be mostly of historical Rome, as opposed to ancient Rome.

Then we followed him on a quick march through half a dozen churches, enjoying his knowledgeable, appreciative commentary both on the art and artifacts he pointed out, as well as colorful explanation of the procession of Christian saints and popes for whom Rome wasn't built in a day.

There was Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome's only Gothic church, with Bernini's obelisk-bearing elephant statue; Sant'Ivo, with its facade by Borromini; and San Luigi dei Francesi, with its dueling Caravaggios.

The Pantheon, the most complete ancient Roman structure in the city, was originally a temple erected by Marcus Agrippa but substantially rebuilt under the direction of Emperor Hadrian around A.D. 125. The huge domed space is an impressive testament to the engineering mastery of Roman architects and builders.

The energetic Mr. Brunn led a quick pace through the confusion of narrow streets and the crowds that milled almost everywhere. Our conversations were broad and quick, ranging from 1,500 years of papal succession to the prospects of the Steelers that coming Sunday. In addition to his education and experience, Mr. Brunn has an excited passion and love for the city he now calls home and the wonders it contains. He clearly knows his Rome and relishes sharing it with others, including personal theories about a variety of issues. For example, he feels the seven wall apses in the Pantheon were originally dedicated to the Roman gods attributed to the seven days of the week. He almost always was able to put the bewildering procession of historical figures into some sort of manageable perspective.

Our next stop was several blocks east in the Piazza Navona. The long oblong space follows the racetrack oval design of the first-century Stadium of Domitian, which it replaced 1,600 years later. Influenced by the creative duel between the artists Borromini and Bernini, it is today lined with shops and cafes, with three marble fountains in its infield, including Bernini's huge and exuberant Fountain of Four Rivers.

Several churches later, we found ourselves at another famous Roman fountain, the Trevi, a most baroque collection of artificial streams flowing over faux rocks and statuary erected against the back wall of a Renaissance palace.

By that time, I was too tired even to toss a coin into the famous fountain. Our heads were really spinning when we finished up our tour at about 7 p.m. at the base of the Spanish Steps, which, as I discovered, although they are quite lovely, have nothing to do with Spain.

Instead of taking one reader's advice to try a restaurant at the base of the Spanish Steps, we decided to say goodbye to Mr. Brunn, find our way back to our hotel, grab a bite and go to sleep. It had been a long, long day, but a good one, and we had arranged to meet him again at 8 a.m. at the Vatican.

The morning dawned sunny and cool. Although we could have easily walked from our hotel, we decided to enjoy the breakfast buffet and catch a cab to the Vatican Museums. Mr. Brunn had arrived at 7:30 and held a place near the front of the line, which by the time we got there was already hundreds of yards long. We were among the first to buy tickets (12 euros each) when the doors opened at 8:45.

Of course, there is no way adequately to encapsulate the Vatican in a few hours or the few words of a newspaper article. The huge walled complex, its museum's warren of incredible galleries and chapels, its grounds and gardens, culminating in its inspirational basilica, is the center of the Catholic world. The collections, the adornments, the architecture, the history all of it was beyond comprehension, but Mr. Brunn did a great job of putting things in some perspective, all the while smoothly steering us through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds that had formed.

It was nearly noon when we walked down the long staircase from the Sistine Chapel into the blazing sun that illuminated Michelangelo's greatest work, the piazza and basilica of San Pietro. Joining a new horde, we made a long, slow circuit inside the vast cathedral, the center of which happened to be cordoned off that day.

At any point during that morning, we could have easily stopped and spent hours soaking up only a scintilla of what there was to see and feel, but Mr. Brunn kept us moving. And that afternoon we had still centuries of ancient Rome to see.

Still, as we walked away, I made a note to return the next morning to make the journey to the top of the basilica's dome.

We were heading for the Colosseum, and Mr. Brunn suggested it would be faster if we jumped on the Metro at the Ottaviano Station a few blocks away. After a quick transfer at the Termini Station, we emerged at the structure properly known as the Flavian Amphitheater with a better sense of the city's mass transit system.

Mr. Brunn had arranged for a lunch in Royal Cafe Art Restaurant, a simple trattoria just across the street from the giant structure. Though somewhat jet lagged and buzzed from the steady torrent of input, I was able to enjoy the very nice plate of lasagne it served.

We were briefly joined by Mr. Brunn's wife and children and Daniele Fortuna, a licensed tour guide whom he'd arranged to show us through the ruins of ancient Rome. Mr. Brunn had another engagement that afternoon, and he wanted us to meet one of the several guides who help him during his busy times, which these days seem to be the year around.

Mr. Fortuna proved to be a capable engaging guide, who after eight years of leading people certainly knew his ancient forum. But we also quickly noticed definite differences with Mr. Brunn's style. Mr. Fortuna provided adequate English explanations, but Mr. Brunn's colorful, ebullient commentary helped bring life to history.

The afternoon had grown quite hot by then, and the route we followed involved a lot of up and down. First to the top of the Colosseum, then to the peak of the Palatine Hill, where legend puts Rome being founded by Romulus in 753 B.C. Since then, the flat topped hill has served as the residence of Emperor Augustus and, during the Renaissance, the gardens of the Farnese family. On one side the Palatine overlooks the vast field where the Circus Maximus once stood. On the other, there's the Arch of Titus and the modest valley that was once the beating heart of the Roman Empire.

The ruined remnants of a dozen temples and basilicas sited in and about what was Rome's central forum are today delineated in standing stone columns and tumbled brick facades and foundations.

Situated near the Tiber, these lowlands have always been prone to flooding, and during the dark ages that followed Rome's collapse, the valley filled with silt. Cut marble and standing stones that protruded were carted away for other purposes, and the ruins of what remained have been excavated only in relatively recent times.

Though there is ample evidence to consider, comprehending how it all must have looked 2,000 years ago requires some imagination. The book we bought from a vendor outside the Colosseum, "Rome: Then and Now in Overlay," also helped a lot.

It was nearly 5 p.m. when Mr. Fortuna concluded the tour in front of the huge and gaudy marble Monument to King Vittorio Emanuele II and Italians who died in World War I, an edifice he referred to with some disdain, noting it is not popular with Romans, who call it the "wedding cake" or the "typewriter."

After pointing out the balcony on the nearby Palazzo Venezia from which Mussolini addressed Italy a decade later, Mr. Fortuna bid us ciao. We had appreciated his showing us around the grandeur that was Rome. We strolled back down the Via del Corso, a broad boulevard that was absolutely packed with people out on a sunny Saturday afternoon. So many in fact that it was difficult to get by, even after the street turned into a pedestrian way. Once back at the hotel, we had a short lie down and shower, then went out again in search of a restaurant recommended by the hotel concierge. It was just across the river, but we must have turned right one street too late and somehow in our weariness were unable to find it. So we settled for a sidewalk trattoria, which was a memorable dining experience mostly because it took place on a beautiful evening in Rome.

Sunday was a travel day for us, but we weren't scheduled to leave until 1 p.m. My intentions were good; I did want to get up early enough to walk over and climb to the top of St. Peter's Basilica. But at 7:30 a.m. it was looking like rain, and then I remembered that crowds would be arriving to hear the pope. And that bed was very comfortable.

So instead we got up slowly and, after packing, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. With two hours to spare, we decided to wander over to the historic district. Walking somewhat aimlessly through the narrow cobbled streets lined with small shops, trattoria and strolling Romans, we eventually found our way into the magnificent Piazza del Popolo and climbed up the steps at its far end into the Borghese Gardens, Rome's largest open park.

We had time only for a short stroll around Pincian Hill on its edge, but even that provided a lovely tableau of modern Rome in repose. Lots of people were walking or sitting on benches. Others were peddling around the paved paths on bicycles built for two, three and even four. Skating and scooting kids were having a happy ball on what had become a sunny Sunday afternoon. As we passed, laughter emanated from the little puppet theater, and from the long balustrade that fringed the park, we had a magnificent view of Rome with the Dome of St. Peter's set against an unblemished azure sky.

As far as that view from St. Peter's Dome, I'll have to come back to enjoy it. We had experienced a great deal of Rome in 48 hours, and yet it had been only a quick taste. Still while my impressions of the city were just cursory, they were vastly more informed than any previous ones I had. It is easy to see how people could spend a long time here; it is an exciting, inspirational place to be. And having tapped into Mr. Brunn's relationship with Rome, I am reminded that experiencing any place as a visitor and experiencing it as a resident are entirely different matters.

Of course, in a city as old as this, everyone is only a visitor, and even though I didn't throw a coin in Trevi Fountain, I'm confident that someday I'll return.

To again paraphrase Caesar, "Veni, vidi, vinctus sum." I came, I saw, I was conquered.

If you go: Rome


   Roman authorities mandate using officially licensed tour guides, and, as of 2010, Rich Brunn is one of a few non-Italians to have earned that designation/  He offers suggested itineraries for excursions to a variety of areas in and around the city, and he can also arrange special-interest tours as desired. His rate for small groups is 50 euro per hour. For more (as well as a lively video clip of him preparing a tour couple to appreciate the Sistine Chapel), visit
   Numerous guidebooks provide directions for seeing Rome. We consulted those published by Lonely Planet and DK Eyewitness. Fodor's also has posted a nice series of suggested miniguide walking itineraries at "Rome: Then and Now in Overlay" (Alpha Italia, also helped us comprehend how magnificent the ancient ruins once looked.
-- David Bear




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