Brian Viner: I spent €250 and things started looking up

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Last Sunday's opening instalment of BBC1's adaptation of Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen books, about an incorruptible detective in Rome – perhaps the incorruptible detective in Rome – got careful scrutiny in our house, because we'd only just come back from three days in the Eternal City. "That's where we had the ice creams," went up the cry, causing far more excitement than Zen (Rufus Sewell) being followed by a sinister fellow on a motorbike.

Our short holiday differed markedly from my last trip to Rome, inter-railing round Europe with my schoolfriend Mark in the summer of 1982. Chatting up 19-year-old American girls was obviously a no-no this time. Moreover, Jane and the children had never been to Rome before, so we were eager to cram in as much culture, as much history, and as much fettuccine, as we could.

Even so, I wasn't expecting the Sistine Chapel to feature. When we arrived mid-morning in St Peter's Square, the queue to get into the Vatican was about half-a-mile long, the kind of queue that my kids would contemplate standing in only if there was a really good rollercoaster ride at the end of it, or perhaps an opportunity to meet Matt Cardle from The X Factor. And although we were approached by any number of English-speaking guides promising tours which, for €45 a head (€35 for under-16s), would get us out of queuing, my instinct on such occasions is always to assume that I'm about to be ripped off.

In the end, though, we decided to dig deep, very deep, and take the tour option. I'd seen the Sistine Chapel and so had my mother, who was also with us, but when would the others next be in Rome? I suppose it could have gone either way, but it turned out to be the best €250 I've ever spent. Our guide was a chirpy Londoner called Luke Mullinger, who fed us all the standard stats (to spend one minute looking at each piece of art on show in the Vatican Museum would take 11 years), but also managed to weave Dan Brown and even, to my older son's delight, Pulp Fiction into the narrative. He turned what could have been a grim experience (cramming into the Vatican's halls reminded of me of fighting for elbow space on packed football terraces in the 1970s) into an enthralling one, and actually made a virtue of the crush, by showing us in the mobbed Sistine Chapel how to apply Alexander the Great's principles of warfare to a stony-faced Russian tour group bearing down on us.

Alexander taught his soldiers to deal with charging chariots by forming channels, through which the enemy would pass harmlessly. We did the same to the Russians. My sons loved that, indeed it's just possible that my younger boy will remember the Sistine Chapel for Alexander the Great's battle nous, which is not what Michelangelo had in mind at all.

As for what Michelangelo did have in mind, Luke explained it superbly, pausing only during the frequent demands, thunderously delivered in six languages over the loudspeaker system, for hush. I was prepared, almost 30 years after my last visit, to be underwhelmed by the Sistine Chapel, but it fair took my breath away, and not just because of the chubby middle-aged woman from New Jersey jammed up against me.

It later occurred to me, incidentally, that she might have been one of the doe-eyed teenagers Mark and I chatted up at the youth hostel in 1982. Of course, she'd never have recognised me, either. There's nothing like a visit to the Vatican to remind you that only the folk represented in paint and marble are ageless.

Like my favourite tipples, I mix better with age

On New Year's Eve, back in Herefordshire, I waved my older children off to parties with an enjoinder not to mix their drinks. A few hours later I was sitting replete at a friend's dinner table, having enjoyed sparkling wine, sweet wine, dry white, fruity red and home-made damson gin, but at least I can say that I savoured the taste of everything I imbibed. And I'm in my late forties, not my late teens, so I'm allowed.

The faint fumes of hypocrisy do rise, though. Last night, it struck me that of the many well-known people I have interviewed down the years, the handful who are enduring friends became so because we got squiffy together at first encounter.

The thought struck because I was watching Alan Bleasdale's brilliant drama, The Sinking Of The Laconia, and Alan has remained a pal ever since he and I, in the course of a long interview, shifted several bottles of wine and, if hazy memory serves, possibly a few vodkas as well, 15 years or so ago. But even had there been no sinking of the sauvignon blanc, The Sinking Of The Laconia would still, in my estimation, be brilliant.

A farcical carry-on along the Via Veneto

Returning to Rome, it always cheers me on the Continent to spot the iffy use of English. We ate at one restaurant which on its menu boasted "chiarezza, trasparenza e impegno" and I'm sure that Italians would be more attracted by those virtues than would English-speakers by "clearness, limpidity and effort".

Best of all, though, was a chic children's clothes shop on the elegant Via Veneto called Carry-On. That must sound stylish to Italians. Little do they know that to us it evokes Charles Hawtrey and Hattie Jacques.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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