Is it best to take a group tour or to be an independent traveller? For familiar destinations such as London, New York, Paris or Rome, the answer would seem obvious: go it alone. But what if a tour company promised to show you a side of the city you'd never see by yourself?
That was the premise of a Tauck/Travel The World six-day tour rather cheesily named "The Tauck Roman Holiday Event 2014". It's one of a series of Tauck "Event" holidays around the world that promise once-in-a-lifetime experiences. It was a big promise. Could it be fulfilled?
Three days after flying into Rome, and after several great highlights, I'm standing alone in Rome's Sistine Chapel with uninterrupted views of Michelangelo's ceiling fresco and The Last Judgement. Looking up, I'm in awe of this privilege.
For the past 45 minutes I've been one of a mere hundred visitors in here – instead of the usual several thousand being shuffled through. This time I have the freedom to wander at will and absorb the exquisite detail of this remarkable interior. It's as if I'm inside a jewel box with treasures in every direction. Satiated with Michelangelo, I moved on to Botticelli's contribution to the triumphant Renaissance artistic abundance. It's the third time I've been in the Sistine Chapel but the first time I've truly experienced it.
The guard patiently waiting in the doorway signals it's time for me to leave. I'm due at pre-dinner drinks in a Vatican courtyard before dinner in the Hall of Statues.
Sometimes travel gives you a moment you know you will treasure forever, and Sistine Chapel solitude was certainly my moment.
"But you'll be travelling with Americans," a friend had exclaimed when I told of my Tauck journey.
Yes, most of my travelling companions were American but they were the sort of traveller you cherish as they absorb the finer points of the Roman Republic while we are standing on the Capitoline or ready to discuss the feud between Borromini and Bernini by Bernini's plaque in Santa Maria Maggiore.
Perhaps the most indelibly American person we encounter is Her Serene Highness Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, who welcomes us into her home, the Villa Aurora close to the Via Veneto, for cocktails at the start of our tour. Born in Texas and a former actress who married Prince Nicolo in 2009, she's justly proud of her ceiling painted by Caravaggio. The grand villa still stands on expansive grounds but we learn the family estate once included the Via Veneto and beyond.
Our tour, of course, takes its name from the 1953 film Roman Holiday, which starred Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. Of course, it's a recurring theme for our travels but doesn't overwhelm the other aspects of Rome.
Our Roman Holiday is just that – five nights in the grand Westin Excelsior Hotel on Rome's Via Veneto with no excursions beyond the city so we unpack once upon arrival in Rome and packed only to head back to the airport and home. There are about 100 participants but we are divided into several groups of about 20 that coverhe same itinerary but in a different order. Mine is the "Fellini" group, a fitting name because the Excelsior is where Anita Ekberg had her face slapped in Fellini's 1960 movie La Dolce Vita.
While Tauck promised much, it was immediately clear it intended to over-deliver. The following morning we leave the hotel with an expert tour director and even more expert local guide to explore from Romulus to the Caesars. Our local guides change each day, according to our activities and their specialities. Capitoline Hill just has far too much history to readily absorb in a single morning and is followed by an afternoon in the Colosseum, a killing field that could seat 60,000 spectators. The crowds poured in to explore the ruins as if for a Saturday afternoon game at the MCG. It was a surprise to learn that Ridley Scott found the real Colosseum too small so created a larger arena for Gladiator. (Explore in 360 degrees below)
A late afternoon spent at the Baths of Caracalla is the perfect peaceful antidote to the Colosseum. It's clear that the ancient Romans loved their baths – no wonder the city fell into ruin after the Goths cut off the water supply in 537. (Explore in 360 degrees below)
Rome can be very crowded, especially in summer, and, while there's no way to avoid the hordes altogether, planning can make life easier. It's best to arrive at St Peter's early because guides aren't allowed inside until after 9.30am, so many tour groups arrive after this time. We arriveearly and wanderaround the virtually empty interior while there is time and space to appreciate features such as the Pieta. Then we rejoin our guides to discover the highlights we'd missed.
The Vatican is a place of intrigue, as we find when we attemptto begin our tour of the Vatican gardens. While our visit is approved by the Vatican's administration, that counts for little with the captain of the Swiss Guard After an hour it is resolved and the delay is fortuitous as we arrive in the gardens just as the Pope was getting into a car to leave. Such is the popularity of Pope Francis that Vatican visitor numbers are up 50 per cent – on peak days up to 35,000 people pass through the Sistine Chapel. That evening was my time to be grateful the other 34,999 had moved on. (Explore in 360 degrees below)
The next morning we visit the grand Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica where the altar can be used by only the Pope then headed to San Giovanni in Laterino that is, in fact, the cathedral of the Catholic Church in Rome (the Vatican is a separate state, of course). Our special moment here is to be taken down to the excavations under San Giovannio that have opened up original streets of ancient Rome, including the home of Marcus Aurelius.
Across the road is the Scala Sancta, or the Sacred Stairs, reputed to be the ones Christ ascended to see Pontius Pilate. They were brought to Rome in the 4th century by Constantine's mother. To ascend the 28 stairs, you must do it on your knees (a tradition Martin Luther broke at the moment he broke from the Church of Rome). Less ecclesiastically, we walk up a parallel set of stairs to visit the Sancta Sanctorum, once only accessible to the Pope and where several important relics were once stored.
Well-prepared independent travellers can arrange tours of the Vatican Gardens, San Giovanni's underground and the Sancta Sanctorum – the dedicated who know 28 prayers can even ascend the Scala Santa. But that night Tauck gives us our own private fashion show by designer Michele Miglionico. My personal wardrobe excludes me from judging it but others more au fait declared it a well-run exposition of cutting-edge fashion.
Did you know that Audrey Hepburn had a waist of just 20 inches, or 51cm, and battled anorexia for much of her life? I was told that as we entered the gates of Plazzo Barberini, which was used for the exterior of her character Princess Ann's residence in Rome. Of course, the gallery contained some great art but perhaps the most interesting feature was the competing staircases of Borromini and Bernini – we judged that the less-acclaimed Borromini won.
This is our final day of the Roman Holiday event and we are waiting for the climax. The day didn't disappoint though the visit to the Trevi Fountain did. It's under renovation until autumn this year (sponsored by Fendi) and even a determined Anita Ekberg would find it hard to get through the scaffolding to cavort in the fountain. (Explore in 360 degrees below)
With an exquisite sense of drama, we come to the usually closed Palazzo Colonna (it's open only on Saturday mornings) and are taken to a marbled room to watch the final few minutes of Roman Holiday, where the viewer's attention is divided between the break-up of their romance and the glorious setting of the Colonna Gallery, where it dies.
We walkaway from the television set and into the scene – and discover how much glory was lost in black and white. Designed in the mid-1600s, the gallery was somewhat redesigned by a French army barrage in 1849 that left a cannon ball embedded in the stairs – it was covered by a carpet for the movie. Like Gregory Peck's Joe Bradley, we depar the impressive opulence with some sorrow.
Movies and tours need grand finales and ours is a farewell dinner on the set of Ancient Rome at Cinecitta Studios. Each building and facade is familiar from too many movies. Drinks are served in the forum as the sun sets and the lights come up. Dinner is a boisterous event in a grand tent and we wonder what the evening entertainment might be. We don't have long to wait as three young women take to the stage for a night of Italian opera. Their glorious voices are matched by their beauty and their gowns.
Judy, from Michigan, is sitting next to me and whispers "Looking at those bodies; if we're here till the fat lady sings, that's going to be a lot of good meals from now".
See also: Twenty reasons to visit Rome
Tauck Events may only visit a destination annually (or less frequently) but promise "once-in-a-lifetime" experiences. In 2015, there are Tauck Events in New Orleans, New York and Vienna – and one in Rio for Carnaval in February.
Emirates flies to Rome from Sydney and Melbourne via Dubai. See www.emirates.com/au
The Westin Excelsior, Rome, Via Vittorio Veneto 125, Rome, is an iconic hotel at one of the best addresses in town. It's close to the Spanish Steps and the subway and offers stylish accommodation. Rooms range from €330 to €3080 per night. See www.westinrome.com
David McGonigal travelled as a guest of Tauck/Travel The World and Emirates Airways.