All roads to roam

Caroline Gladstone sits back and takes in the views - and stories - on a driving tour of Rome.

It's all quiet on the outskirts of Rome as we wander in Parco degli Acquedotti where ancient aqueducts have stood for 2000 years. A couple of runners jog by, followed by a lone cyclist.

Not so in the scene from the acclaimed Italian movie and Oscar-winner The Great Beauty, when Rome's cultural elite gather to watch a bizarre theatrical performance involving a young naked woman who runs headlong into the towering structure smashing her head. The slightly bemused audience sprawled out on this grassy patch 10 kilometres south of the city claps in rapt approval.

I hadn't been in Rome for 29 years and had never ventured this far afield.

But the outing, which also takes in the Appian Way (or Appia Antica), where Spartacus was crucified in 71BC, was a piece of cake, or pezzo di torta if you will, with company Walks of Italy. Ironically my half-day jaunt was titled "Rome Driving Tour" and I was pleased; I'd been in Italy a week and had walked myself silly.

I meet my guide, Joseph, and my fellow travellers at Victor Emmanuel II Monument at Piazza Venezia. The six of us are split into two groups, each with our own mini-van, driver and guide. Decades earlier I was gripped with fear contemplating how to cross this busy square without being hit by a Fiat Bambino, but today, thanks to traffic lights, it's tame.

I am sharing my van with a couple from the US, devoted Italophiles, who had prepared for this trip by watching every movie from Ben-Hur to La Dolce Vita. The good thing about small tours is the enthusiasm of their participants. Indeed, Joseph is so enamoured of Italy he quit his history-teaching job at a Dutch high school and moved to Rome to seek work.

As we head off, Joseph tells us Romans either love or hate the Victor Emmanuel II Monument, which happens to have an amazing view from the roof.

We swing past the Coliseum and stop at Circus Maximus in the shadow of the Baths of Caracalla. The "circus" ground is rough and patchy, which has me imaging a great chariot race has just taken place. But like the aqueducts park, this ancient ground is used for concerts and events.

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We head to the Palatine Hill for terrific views of the Vatican and then to the curious Knights of Malta key-hole. I am amazed when I peer through a key-hole at the Villa Malta (near Santa Sabina church on Aventine Hill) and see what I do. It's a secret, so I'd best not spoilt it.

My favourite stop is the cobble-stoned Appian Way and the church of Quo Vadis. A woman is restoring a fresco in the 17th-century church, which stands on the spot where the Apostle Peter was said to have encountered Jesus in the first century. Legend has it Peter asked Christ "Domine quo vadis?" or "Where are you going?"

Our tour ends at Janiculum Hill, known for its commanding views of the Eternal City, just as the midday cannon blasts.

The writer travelled courtesy of Swiss Air and Rail Europe and was a guest of the Jumeirah Grand Hotel Via Veneto in Rome and Walks of Italy.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

walksofitaly.com.

GETTING THERE

Thai Airways operates daily flights from Sydney to Bangkok for connections with Swiss Air to Rome (via Zurich). Thaiairways.com.au; swiss.com.

STAYING THERE

The Jumeirah Grand Hotel via Veneto is housed in a 19th century villa on the street made famous by Fellini's classic film La Dolce Vita. Decor is 1920s inspired, artworks include pieces by Picasso and Dali and the rooftop bar is perfect for a drink. Rooms from €261 ($388). Jumeirah.com.

TOURING THERE

Walks of Italy has several tours of Rome and Italy from half-day to multi-day trips. The Rome Driving Tour costs €69 a person.

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