There is a 12th-century French proverb meant to signal that greatness takes time. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” the saying goes.
The Eternal City isn’t really meant to be seen in a day, either. But I was going to try.
I had been in Rome on assignment with Secretary of State John Kerry, seeing the city mostly from a motorcade, glancing at sites from a van window in between stops for press conferences and photo ops. But when Kerry departed for the Middle East, I remained in Rome, tacking on about a day and a half of personal time.
I had no guidebook, had done no planning, and was traveling alone. I had been to Rome as part of a high school trip about 15 years ago, but had forgotten most of what I saw.
Now I was trying to cram some of the world’s richest history into 36 hours. It felt kind of like eating a fine steak in five minutes: The taste is good, but it’d be nice to have more time to savor it.
Ridiculous? Yes. Worth attempting? Absolutely.
I booked a small room at a basic hotel near the Pantheon and a few doors down from Ditta Annibale Gammarelli, a shop that has been the official papal tailor. My room had little more than a bed and a bathroom, but it didn’t matter, not for my mission.
I began, in the early afternoon, at the Pantheon, which I found to be the best place to evoke ancient times (despite the man playing “Tears in Heaven” on his guitar as people ate outdoors nearby). It’s one of the best-preserved Roman buildings, and a place I would return to over and over again, drawn to its grandeur and its history.
Outside there were men dressed as Romans, waving plastic swords and offering to pose for photos. A man dipped his bucket into a fountain outside to gather water for his horses. Couples kissed, water flowed, and there were smells of coffee roasting nearby.
The scope inside the Pantheon is amazing. Even more so is contemplating that it was built nearly 1900 years ago, when power tools were not available. Statues line the walls, there’s an altar up front (in a place that was initially built as a temple for all the gods), and the Renaissance artist Raphael is buried here.
An audio tour was 5 euros ($6.50), but most of this site didn’t need much explaining.
Afterward, I strolled into a nearby cafe. I was walking past a place called ZaZa pizza and stopped to order a slice of parmesan and mozzarella (the servings are done by weight, so you have to indicate how big a piece you want. Then they cut it with scissors and heat it up).
In the late afternoon, I walked across the Tiber River toward the Vatican. It was the day after Pope Benedict XVI resigned, and I was expecting crowds. But by 5 p.m., there was no line and I walked right into St. Peter’s Basilica.
I was quickly drawn to the Pietà on the right, a statue of Mary holding Jesus, which Michelangelo did when he was 23.
It had me thinking about what I was doing at 23, and realizing that whatever it was would not be worthy of display like this.
Most visitors seemed focused on the statue, but looking up while standing there showcases the enormity of the building — how high it goes, how intricate the detail is.
Liturgy was being said at the altar, and the smell of incense grew stronger whileI walked to the front. As the sun began to set, I strolled around outside. One spot I missed was the Sistine Chapel, which was about to be closed for the conclave.
That night I had dinner with a friend and former colleague who had arrived to cover the election of the new pope. After a quick search and a few recommendations, we settled on Renato e Luisa, a cozy spot with a good antipasto and tasty carbonara. Afterward, we had gelato.
The next morning I got started early with a cappuccino at Caffe Tazza D’Oro and a few minutes later, when I passed Gran Caffe La Caffettiera, I couldn’t resist having another.
I went to numerous cafes for fuel. Rome is one of those places where an average cappuccino — like a slice of pizza, or cone of gelato — will taste better than any you’ve had elsewhere.
Plus, cappuccino was the one word that I could say with such gusto that, for a moment, I’m convinced I was seen as a local. But then something else would be said in Italian. I’d just stare ahead blankly and wait for my drink.
(The only other words I used were, “grazie,” or “thank you,” and “scuze,” or “excuse me.”)
For this day I had downloaded a few of the Rick Steves podcasts onto my phone, with some audio guides of key sites. This meant looking, and feeling, out of place strolling the streets of Rome with headphones on. But I needed to cram some history in somehow.
I began making my way toward the Colosseum.
As I did everywhere I went, I walked. I never rode the subway, and the only time I took a cab was to and from the airport. I figured walking was the best way to see more of the city and would take some of the guilt out of having a heaping serving of gelato.
There was a long line at the Colosseum, but there’s a shorter line if you pay an extra 5 euros for a guided tour. My tour guide spoke in broken English, but I got the gist: This was a place where Romans used to watch gladiators fight to the death (when it opened, at least according to Steves, 2,000 men and 9,000 animals were killed — one death every five minutes).
At this point my legs were tired, and I needed sustenance. I grabbed a tomato and mozzarella sandwich from a pushcart outside, sat for a few minutes, and then marched onward, up Palatine Hill to the Roman Forum.
The forum is where the political, religious, and commercial aspects of ancient Rome took place. Even though all that remains are some columns marking where the sites used to stand, it’s easy to imagine a more bustling area.
Look at the spot where Caesar died, where flowers on a mound of dirt now mark the spot, and it’s not hard to imagine Shakespeare channeling Mark Antony, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar not to praise him.”
As I left the ancient ruins, I headed toward Victor Emmanuel Monument. It’s a place that Italians have nicknamed “the typewriter” and the “wedding cake,” and have criticized for being too grandiose. But a somewhat recent addition is an elevator that will take you up to the top, where you get a spectacular 360-degree view of the city.
Afterward I walked across the river to a neighborhood called Trastevere. On a sunny Saturday, this was where I could better see average people. The neighborhood is more gritty, a place that’s often compared to the Latin Quarter in Paris. There’s a slightly rougher — and a little more real — edge to the charm.
I strolled around and got lost in the winding streets, some so small you don’t think a car could go down them. Until one does.
People were out walking dogs, pushing strollers, or lounging in the squares. But my clock was ticking. No time for lounging.
I made my way back across the river, with my compass turned toward the Spanish Steps. But I got detoured when I crossed a street that was shut down. There was a big crowd, so I followed it. A band — with an upright bass, an accordion player, a guitarist, and a saxophonist — was making lively music.
Eventually I made it to the Spanish Steps, said to be Europe’s widest staircase. I can confirm that it is wide, and it is usually packed with people.
Toward the end of the day, I returned to where I began: the Pantheon. There was a free concert that I stumbled into, with a choir and a man playing a penny whistle, walking around and showing off the acoustics of the building.
I settled in for dinner at Bar Ristorante. The ravioli wasn’t all that memorable, but the view of the Pantheon at night was.
One thing I discovered: In trying to take in a phenomenal and culturally rich city in a day and a half I had to lose the notion of trying to see everything, as if worried I wouldn’t be back.
I know I will.
Because before I left, I tossed a coin in the Trevi Fountain, just as I did 15 years earlier.Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.