48 hours in Rome

The Holy City, always a place for pilgrims, is expected to attract 20 million extra visitors for Jubilee 2000 - why not beat the hordes?


WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

Because 20 million fellow visitors cannot be wrong. That is the number of people expected to visit Italy for Jubilee 2000. This Holy Year continues a tradition that began amid wild rumour and general anarchy in 1300. A wide-ranging programme of special events is planned, full details of which can be found in the new Cadogan Guide to Rome, Padua and Assisi (£9.99). Those 20 million pilgrims will double the usual visitor numbers in the Italian capital, putting extra strain on everything from hotel rooms to public transport, and attracting pickpockets and other villains from around the globe. So going now in the misty days of winter is a better plan than hitting the city in midsummer. Oh, d with the pound at an all-time high against the euro, and consequently comfortable against the lire, life in Rome is especially sweet.

BEAM DOWN

The only no-frills flight is from London Stansted: Go (0845 605 4321 or www.go-fly.com) flies twice daily to Ciampino, for fares starting at £88 return (£2 supplement for telephone bookings). The journey from Ciampino to the centre is slow and cumbersome, involving a bus to the last stop of metro line A. On a full-service airline, you can fly to Fiumicino (Rome's main airport) from Heathrow on Alitalia (020 7602 7111) for £122.40; or British Airways (0345 222111) from Gatwick, Heathrow, Birmingham or Manchester. From Manchester, the fare is £142; from Birmingham, £158. Try asking for the "voucher price" to save £25 on these BA prices. From Fiumicino the fast rail link to Termini station takes 25 minutes and costs 13,000 lire (£4.50). To solve the accommodation problem, you could take advantage of an excellent deal with city break operators Italiatour (01883 621900). Until 24 February, it is selling a two-night break in a three-star hotel for £185, including flights from Heathrow.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Two thousand years of turmoil have left the place in a mess. So much for the airport; once at Termini station the outlook appears brighter. Beyond the frenzy of the Piazza dei Cinquecento (a chemically enhanced version of Victoria coach station), Rome unfurls north-west towards the calm of the Borghese Gardens south-west towards the Colosseum and the Roman Forum and west to the heart of the city, wrapped in a fold of the Tiber river, with the Vatican City beyond. The city is linked by good bus services, while a metro system of sorts meanders around in a not-terribly-useful fashion. If you prefer someone to look after your bearings for you, James Hill (00 39 06 6390570) offers a bespoke guiding service.

CHECK IN

As the year goes on, accommodation will get much tougher to find. This week the following choices reported good availability in February. The Portoghesi is a well-appointed three-star hotel on Via del Portoghesi, behind Piazza Navona in the centre of the city (00 39 06 686 4231), charging 220,000 lire (£70) single/310,000 lire (£100) double, including breakfast. The Hotel Pomezia at Via dei Chiavari 12 (00 39 06 686 1371) is rather less well-appointed and considerably cheaper; a room this week costs 112,000 lire (£36) single/150,000 lire (£50) double, including breakfast. If even that is a bit up-market for you, the Fawlty Towers Hostel , Via Magenta 39 (00 39 06 445 4802), goes as low as 30,000 lire (£10) for a night in a four-beddeddorm, or 120,000 lire (£40) for a double room with bathroom.

TAKE A RIDE

It is temptingly easy to do the Roman thing - to hire a scooter (eg from Scooters for Rent, Via Cavour 199) - and ridiculously easy to fall off. As a non-Roman, you will not be fully conversant with the traffic laws nor with the extent to which they are ignored by road-users. But if you are feeling confident about doing battle with the capital's traffic, go ahead. A one-hour rental costs 18,000 lire (£6) including fuel, while 60,000 lire (£20) buys you 24 hours excluding fuel. Call ahead on 00 39 06 481 5926.

SHOP TILL YOU DROP

The designer names and de luxe prices are concentrated on the Via dei Condotti. For goods and prices that bear some relation to normal life, try central Rome's longest street, Via del Corso. For the best range of superb clothes at reasonable prices, go to Milan instead.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

The funny thing about cafes and restaurants in Rome is that location is no guide to value. In most other capitals, the places around tourist attractions tend to be over-priced and uninspiring. But Rome has some great places in choice locations. For instance, on the Via della Croce an unpretentious wine bar called the Antica Enoteca di Via della Croce serves real meals at fast-food prices - and timescales.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

You could do the obvious, such as the Forum with the Colosseum for afters, but a rather more intimate experience is to content yourself spending the afternoon with a genius. The Piazza Navona began as a sports arena constructed by the psychopathic Emperor Domitian, but by the time of the baroque the square had become a hub of high society (Sophia Loren and Silvio Berlusconi still live there). The genius in question is Bernini, whose Fountain of the Four Rivers is a marble masterpiece, blending mammal and marine forms, rock and water, light and shade. The four watercourses are the Danube, the Nile, the Ganges - and Argentina's river Plate. Cross a more accessible river, the Tiber, for Bernini's other great set piece: St Peter's Colonnade, the triumphal approach to the home of Roman Catholicism. Having spent most of the last two years under wraps, the centrepiece of the Vatican is back to its breathtaking best.

AN APERITIF

Stay on the west side of the river, but wend your way south to the district of Trastevere for the evening. You could happily tour the bars and ice- cream parlours of Piazza Santa Maria, but for something a little trendier, head along to Piazza Trilussa close to the newly (and beautifully) restored Ponte Sisto. Here, a new bar called Friends is attracting plenty of amici.

DEMURE DINNER

Proper Roman cuisine makes much interesting use of offal. To see how innards intersect with the pizza, make your way to a rather splendid pizzeria, well off the tourist trail in Piazza de Mercanti. At La Taverna de Mercanti you do not need to order a brains'n'kidney pizza - but neither do you have to settle for the usual cheese'n'tomato base. A pizza bianca (literally "white pizza") with rucola e bresaola will give you a thin layer of mozzarella beneath a rocket salad and delicately cured beef.

SUNDAY MORNING - GO TO CHURCH

If you only go to one church, it might as well be the biggest in Christendom. On a floor scuffed by a million pilgrims and a billion tourists, St Peter's brags about its vastness.

Look 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. This indicates how far St Paul's in London falls short of the size of St Peter's. In a smaller place of worship, the assemblage of tombs, chapels and sculptures might be a clutter - in St Peter's, it amounts to a miracle, whose strongest element is Michelangelo's Pieta. St Peter's opens at 7am, with the first mass at 7.30am. The Pope's blessing takes place at noon on Sundays.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Careful with your timing for the greatest surprise in Rome. The Palazzo Spada in Piazza Capo di Ferro (00 39 06 686 1158), opens only 9am- 1pm on Sundays (and not at all on Mondays, but 9am-9pm from Tuesday to Saturday). The 10,000 lire admission is worthwhile for a single, magical work: Borromini's Perspective, a corridor with a magnificent fresco of a garden and avenue that transcends conventional dimensions.

TAKE A HIKE

The Borghese gardens provide a respite from the tempestuous city, and a beautiful viewpoint over Rome. If the weather is not co-operating, head for the Borghese Gallery - a papal summer outhouse, a palace of pleasure devoted to art, with sculptures by people such as Bernini, Titian and Caravaggio. You must pre-book on 00 39 06 328 10. Open 9am- 9pm daily except Monday.

BRACING BRUNCH

Sundays can be a problem for eating in Rome. So play safe and aim for Doneys, a funky bar in the Fifties and Sixties, recently (and tastefully) refurbished. Its location on Via Veneto, next to the Excelsior Hotel, cannot be faulted. And neither can its prawn sandwiches and frothy cappuccinos.

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