A Roman holiday of a bold Italic type

When in Rome, writes Richard Holledge, you really have to do as the locals: keep one eye on the sights ... and one on the scooters
Click to follow
The Independent Travel
Rome. Where to start. Sistine Chapel? The Pantheon? The scaffolding around the Colosseum? You've only got three days. It's all much too daunting. Best start with lunch.

I'm not saying that the Hostaria Romanesca is the best restaurant in Rome. But it feels good and it tastes good. It is on the east side of the Campo dei Fiori, a piazza given over to a busy little market by day - flowers, fish, lots of veg, much bustling - and a few streetside cafes by night. You could miss the Romanesca. It doesn't spill out into the square like its three or four rivals. It tucks in behind a huddle of stalls selling spices and fruit. Just three tables make the pavement and there are only about eight more inside. The maitre d' greets you with the air of a man who knows you have made the right choice. He recommends the gnocchi. I select the caprese - small mounds of creamy mozarella, slices of tomato straight from the market, sprinkling of basil. Of course, signor, of course. The right choice.

A half litre of fresh white wine and a basket of crunchy new bread and it is time to study Rome.

From here, it is the back end of a market stall, which is closing down for the day. The trays of veg are stacked, the unsold containers of spices piled on to trolleys and taken off. A few shoppers dive in for the last bargains of the day. As the stalls come down the square is revealed. It is like many others. Apartments piled on top of each other in buildings of grey and ochre with terracotta roofs. The balconies sport a few tired geraniums, the roofs proudly proclaim their Roman monuments, 20th-century style: lines of aerials and satellite dishes. In the middle, a convenient resting point for the pigeons, a statue to a heroic monk who was burned in 1600 for heresy.

As the dust carts move in, the cafe attracts a few customers from the market, and an old lady in crocheted hat, widow's weeds and odd socks takes stock of what is left. She collects a potato or two from the pavement, carrots, avocado and a lemon disappear into her voluminous cardigan. The market is over until tomorrow.

As I pay the bill - about pounds 10 - I notice tributes to Enzo, the "maker of the best pasta in the world". They are signed by Francis Coppola, Robert de Niro, Gregory Peck. Obviously, rehearsing for a spaghetti western.

Whether we are talking Gregory P or Gregorius Xl, the Romans take celebrity status lightly. It's as if all that history littered around the city in dusty piles is an aside to their main passions: high politics, low politics, lunch, wild scootering, shopping, dinner and ignoring tourists.

For a place with a palace on every piazza and a church on every corner there are few signs to tell where things are. You stumble on the entrance to the Foro Romano and once in there is little attempt, apart from a brusque stone label or two, to tell you which column, which loose arrangement of stone, which line of statues is pre-Gracchi, post-Septimus, ante diluvian. It's a blur of BCs and ADs. You have to pinch yourself that you are looking at monuments built 2,000 years ago as tributes to mighty egos and soaring genius.

The only way to see the city is to walk. But beware scooters. The place teems with them. Chic young things with their skirts pulled dangerously high zip along the cobbled streets on them, dapper chaps making mobile phone calls while eating sandwiches weave through the taxis on them. And don't think for one moment that being on a pedestrian crossing means you are safe. Quite the opposite. It means you are nicely lined up for target practice. Don't panic, look the whirring attacker in the headlamp and stand your ground. The scooterists will whirl disdainfully past you.

There are so many tourists, perspiring Germans, camera-wielding Koreans, puzzled Americans, pink Brits - all of us happily fulfilling our national caricature - that it seems perverse not to join the throng, milling its way to all the obvious sights.

Take the Sistine Chapel. Thousands of us trek through the Museo Etrusco, the Museo Pio-Clementino, Galleria degli Candelabri, the Appartimento Borgia, gaze in vain for Raphael's cheeky cherubs, which ornament the stall of every T-shirt vendor in town (it's being restored), and end up weary but prepared to be awed by the Sistine Chapel.

Except you aren't. The place is teeming. Solid. Like the underground. We all stand there heads cocked reverentially upwards gazing at La Creazione. Camcorders whir remorselessly. The hubbub of admiration is broken by fierce clapping and a fearsome shushing sound from the attendants. We shrink back at this onslaught. It gets worse. A Tannoy orders us in five different languages to be silent and not use cameras. The camcorders whir on.

Luckily, outside you can buy any number of T-shirts decorated with the works of Michelangelo - which lose something on the artistic front but certainly spare you the tyranny of the attendants. Yet you don't have to take such extreme measures. The trick is to save your strength, and you can do that by following one of the four itineraries through the Vatican's unending corridors. There's a choice of four - ABCD. D leads you to every room and hall on the way to your goal. Take the A route which leads you straight there. Then you can retrace your steps.

Apart from the Sistine Chapel there are sights you are duty-bound to see. St Peters, glorious, monumental, the austere grandeur of the Pantheon, the froth of the Trevi Fountain.

The small places offer as much pleasure: the Church of St Charles at the four fountains; the Oratory of the Holy Crucifix where a nun appears silently out of a side door to give you a leaflet about her domain; the German church of Santa Maria dell'Anima with its unicorn spire covered in ceramic.

Well, actually, there is so much and so many that your feet cry out for a rest and your eyes a respite.

Inevitably you end up sitting in a bar in the Piazza Navona, listening to the buskers, observing the hectic eating habits of the locals - fork in one hand, telephone in the other, indulging in the dinner-table habit of tagliatelle al telephonari - watching the sun slant off the ochre, grey and yellow walls.

Until the end of August, Alitalia (0171-602 7111) is offering Heathrow- Rome return fares of pounds 250.20 (mid-week) and pounds 260.20 (weekends) including tax. British Airways (0345 222747) currently has a Heathrow-Rome return fare of pounds 321.10 including tax - although reduced fares from World Offers will be announced on 14 August. Alternatively, most tour operators will offer weekend deals - Richard Holledge paid pounds 384 for a three-night break (flights, transfers and hotel inclusive) through Kirker 0171-231 3333.