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The ultimate Italian getaway: Travelling Audrey Hepburn’s ‘Roman Holiday’

With Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn and Greggory Peck not only helped to define the aesthetic and feel of Rome for those unfamiliar with her charms but it would seem that they almost did the same for 20th-century romance. With only a knowledgeable guide and a Vespa, Hepburn was able to see Rome in a day, a feat that many would deem impossible, but she even had time to fall in love during the whirlwind process. With all that in mind, Roman Holiday may well set unrealistic ideals for mere mortals, but as Federico Fellini once said, “Rome is the most wonderful movie set in the world”. In the Italian capital, fantasy and reality seem to intersect.

In the movie, Audrey Hepburn’s Princess Ann quips to Greggory Peck’s Joe Bradley that she wants to “have fun and maybe a little excitement”. As car horns blast around you en route to the famed Palazzo in the midday sun, you’ll certainly agree that she went to the right place to do away with any lingering malaise. Here the bustling hive of the ancient city swarms in a kaleidoscopic swirl as civility seems to have been thrown into a cocktail shaker and the ancient setting is as a result of a few drops too many of Absinthe in the mix.

Then suddenly within the Palazzo Colonna, this frenzy falls silent like someone has thrown a blanket over the birdcage and suddenly all the lustre is rendered upon the splendour of the hushed great halls. For Hepburn and Peck, this is where the movie ended, but with self-guided tours from nine in the morning to around midday, this proves the perfect place to start, for Rome might be a movie set, but in some places visiting hours still apply. 

However, just a 15-minute walk from the Palazzo Colonna, down the sort of cobbled back alleys where cats lay prostrate in the shade and record players pipe half notes into the breeze from open windows, you can pick up the trail of the uber-stylish pairing on the famed Spanish Steps where they enjoyed a gelato in the movie. With purple flowers usually blooming all the way to the top, it is these iconic sights that make you forget that the film was originally in black and white. Rome might seem terracotta from above, but from the crooked ground level, it has all the shades of Da Vinci’s brush bustling through its nooks and crannies.

A great many times when travelling you can be told ‘to stand in the same spot as a movie star’ as though the ground itself holds some sacred property, but the beauty of Rome is that things may have changed but modernity seems to be merely a facsimile cast over the city and not the other way around where history is phoney and the notion of a cultural past is as flippant as a postcard. To lend the words of Fellini once more, when he was shooting the film Roma, he explained, “I wanted to get across the idea that underneath Rome today is ancient Rome. So close. I am always conscious of that, and it thrills me. Imagine being in a traffic jam at the Coliseum”.

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Nowhere is that notion felt with as much force as at the quaint cafes dotted around the outskirts of the Pantheon. In the Piazza Della Rotonda, one of the most notable buildings that man has ever erected has simply been assimilated into the espresso sipping culture surrounding it. However, in the right half-light, you can look up from your sweating beer and have thousands of years of history rush back to you. It was here that Hepburn and Peck dined and watched the world go by. As is so often the case in short city breaks, you are told to go here, there and everywhere in a whistle-stop, but from a single seat you can see a city and you leave with less of a checklist, but contentment rarely comes from ticking boxes when you have to depart a happy here and now. After all, what is Roman Holiday about if not following the whims of your own fancies?

If you do manage to wander from the chic world of brand-new ancient cafes and pre-Victorian modern cocktail bars in this roving district then aside from all the Colosseum hotspots that Peck manages to race by on his trusty Vespa, The Arch of Septimus Severus is as good a spot as any to visit from his whistle-stop tour. At the far side of the Forum, this grand old spot is a place of airy escapism where music lingers, and anything cast in the sky seems to creep a little closer. As Hepburn and a few of the cities flighted friends and furry creatures would attest, the ruins are a place for slumbering and even time itself seems to have dawdled.

In short, the dallying trek of Hepburn and Peck might be a fanciful one, but in Rome, everything is imbued with a frenetic sense of reverie anyway. As the famed Italian poet Francesco Petrarca once said: “A fool is one who admires other cities without visiting Rome.” Although it was filmed in 1952, all the charms on screen remain, as a fellow film star can attest—“Italy has changed,” Robert DeNiro said, “But Rome is Rome”.

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