Travel Europe: Rome's secrets unwrapped

The Italian capital may be preening itself for the year 2000, but if you hate crowds, go now.
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Look out - Christo's about. Any visitor to Rome this autumn could be forgiven for thinking that the Bulgarian-born artist, who likes to wrap up well, has set to work on many of Rome's most celebrated sights with serious quantities of scaffolding and tarpaulin.

Actually, he hasn't. Instead, there seems to be a campaign to rebuild Rome in 500 days. From tiny chapels to extravagant road projects, the city feels like a Work In Progress. The Forum resembles a building site even more than usual, and, most alarming of all, the facade of St Peter's is obscured. The build-up for Holy Year in 2000 is being taken all too literally.

For those unversed in the ways of Catholicism, the Vatican is not specifically celebrating the Millennium. Holy Years come round every quarter-century. The tourist board memorably promoted the last one in Britain with the slogan "Trip over Italy in Holy Year".

So, you could conclude that tripping over the Italian capital this year or next would be an unholy mistake.

"Wrong," says James Hill, a British tour guide in the city. "All the pilgrims are putting off their visits until 2000, so there's a good case for visiting Rome now." This autumn, queues for the Colosseum are shorter, and even at the height of the evening passeggiata, you can find space on the steps to gaze at the Trevi Fountain or pose at the Piazza di Spagna. Even the pickpockets seem to have decided that the volume of tourists is currently too low to be viable, and have sloped off surreptitiously to more lucrative cities.

A couple more good reasons to visit Rome now: the pound edging towards an absurd 3,000 lire, and the silliest air fares in Christendom. Britain's low-cost airlines are engaged in a vicious price war. British Airways' low-cost operation, Go, is offering returns to Rome from Stansted for pounds 100. And Debonair is selling tickets from Rome to the Italian capital for pounds 59 or pounds 69 return.

A year ago, autumn flights to Rome cost around pounds 150. So use the cash you save to hire a registered guide such as James.

If you are a first-time visitor, a guide will provide coherence to the overwhelming antiquity and help you sort your Bernini from your Borromini. Even those who know every tangle of the city's spaghettine street layout will glean a gem or two, like the magical keyhole on an anonymous door on the north west side of the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, on the Aventine hill. Peer through from the humdrum world into a sublime one: framed by the perfect leafy avenue, the view of the dome of St Peter's will stun you.

To make the most of your pounds 50 for a morning's expertise, keep the itinerary simple. An obvious track, chronological as well as geographical, takes you zigzagging from the Pantheon via the Piazza Navona, across the Tiber to the Vatican - a distance of barely a mile.

The Pantheon is a miraculous dome. How on earth can a temple built nearly 2,000 years ago, and devoted to an array of gods, have survived in what subsequently became a fiercely monotheistic city? The spiritual answer is on the door, announcing this is now the church of Santa Maria and Martyres - the latter, adds James, being Christian martyrs whose remains were brought here from the catacombs.

OK, so what about that big hole in the dome? The nine-metre oculus, as it is correctly termed by James, did not happen when Hadrian's builders struck a structural impasse. "The design of the Pantheon mimics an Etruscan dwelling from the sixth century BC." In other words, like an igloo with a hole in the roof to let the smoke escape. Outside, we almost collided with Tiffany from EastEnders, being filmed in Rome for TV, and headed west.

If I were constrained to remain in a single square for the rest of my days, it would have to be the Piazza Navona. "The reason it is rectangular, rather like a sports arena, is because that is exactly what it was." James explains that it is built on top of the arena constructed by Domitian ("a dreadful, psychopathic emporer"). It was the right of everyone to enjoy free entertainment, which is one reason why the Colosseum is so colossal. The Romans tried out the Greek idea of athletics, but the events didn't play as successfully as bloodier pastimes involving those with the misfortune to be the wrong species or religion.

Present residents of the square continue the tradition of providing entertainment: the politician and television magnate Silvio Berlusconi has an apartment on the square, as does Sophia Loren.

The Piazza Navona also doubles as an open-air art gallery, with Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers as its prime exhibit. You may often have marvelled at this marble masterpiece, blending mammal and marine forms, rock and water, light and shade. But did you know the four watercourses in question are the Danube, the Nile, the Ganges - and Argentina's river Plate? No Rhine or Euphrates, Yangtse or Amazon.

Bernini's other great set piece is St Peter's Colonnade. But the triumphal approach to the home of Catholicism is less than sublime: this week, they are cleaning up the columns. The facade of the basilica is under wraps, with only the dome peeking above the drapes. Progress across the square is impeded still further if you happen to arrive, as we did, on a morning when the Pope is conducting an audience. Fleets of smoky eastern European coaches, bearing pilgrims who have not deferred until Holy Year, converge and park within the arc of the colonnade, which battles to retain its dignity while doubling as a wall between coach park and street vendors.

Once past the style police who measure the amount of exposed skin and reject those who score too highly, you are predictably awed by the sheer scale of the biggest church in the world. But until now, I had not realised that, on a floor scuffed by a million pilgrims and a billion tourists, St Peter's brags about its vastness.

Look closely down the middle of the basilica, about 25ft inside the entrance, and you will see a brass line inset into the floor with a Latin inscription indicating how far St Paul's falls short of the sheer size of St Peter's. Tombs, chapels and sculptures - of which Michelangelo's Pieta is the most emotive - James unravels them all.

Then he comes up with a top tourist tip: "Post your cards here. As an independent state, the Vatican has its own post office. The stamps will cost a couple of hundred lire more, but everything goes express so they'll arrive sooner".

And they did.

Fact File

Planning: Italian state tourist office, 1 Princes St, London W1R 8AY (0171-408 1254). To book James Hill, call 00 39 06 639 0570.

Going: Debonair (0541 500300) flies from Luton, and Go (0845 60 54321) from Stansted, to Rome's Ciampino airport. Or you can fly to Fiumicino from Heathrow and Gatwick on Alitalia (0171-602 7111) and British Airways (0345 222111). Charters are available through agents such as Italy Sky Shuttle (0181-748 1333).

Staying: at the Hotel Pomezia, via dei Chiavari 12 (00 39 06 686 1371), a room this week costs 50,000 lire (pounds 18) single/100,000 lire (pounds 36) double, including breakfast. The Fawlty Towers Hostel, via Magenta 39 (00 39 06 445 4802), is a bargain at 30,000 lire (pounds 10.50) for a night in a four- bedded dorm to 85,000 (pounds 30) for a double room.

Seeing: the writer reports from Rome for the Holiday Maker series, to be shown on the cable and satellite station Travel Channel on 28 September at 8pm.