When in Rome…Use This Book!
Like most inveterate travelers, I am something of a guide-book “junkie.” Over the years, I’ve come to depend on different travel guides for different things. Eyewitness Guides for a visually compelling and detailed full-color depiction—dissection, even—of the sights and monuments you’ll be seeing. Blue Guides—more accessible, I find, than Michelin Guides—for detailed history, background and commentary on cities and towns, places and monuments to be visited. Fodor’s guides for tips on restaurants and lodgings. Lonely Planet guides for detailed and out-of-the-way recommendations in “off the beaten path” destinations like Bolivia and Guatemala. Insight Guides for in-depth cultural and historic essays on your destination country. My favorites barely scratch the surface of the crowded and competitive marketplace for English-language travel guides.
Against this backdrop, I was more than skeptical when I learned that Frederick (“Frecky”) and Vanessa Vreeland had produced a new guide to Rome—surely one of the two or three most written-about cities on the planet—entitled Key to Rome. I realized that Frecky—who was, coincidentally, my classmate in the Ambassadorial Seminar in 1990— and Vanessa had lived for years in Rome, where he had served as President of John Cabot University. Vanessa, I recalled from our Seminar together years ago, was an accomplished and discriminating artist. Clearly any guide that they produced would be informed by their vast and deep experience in the city and by their highly cultivated aesthetic and artistic sensibilities. What I didn’t realize before taking on to review Frecky and Vanessa’s new guide is that Frecky was a veteran, not a novice, travel writer, having co-authored Rome ACCESS and served as a contributing editor to Condé Nast Traveller.
The premise of Frecky’s and Vanessa’s new guide was intriguing—but I couldn’t imagine how they were going to carry it off. The novel twist here was to consider Rome not in terms of its different sections and districts or its major monuments and attractions, but as a succession of epochs—Ancient, Christian, Renaissance and Baroque, and “The Grand Tour” (corresponding, I supposed, to the period of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when “The Grand Tour” became first think-able and then do-able). Intriguing idea—but how would it work? My experience of Rome was acquired from several visits over 20-some years—obviously nothing near the depth of long-time residents like Frecky and Vanessa. But my experience had taught me to think of Rome almost in geological—and specifically sedimentary—terms: a city consisting of layers and layers of civilizational relics, artifacts, monuments, and achievements piled one on top of the other, inextricably entangled throughout almost the entire core of the historic city, and comprising its very fabric. How could anyone, no matter how intimate their knowledge of the “eternal city,” hope to disentangle these layers of history and make them sensible for visitors in terms of the eras that contributed—or “deposited”—them?
Frecky’s and Vanessa’s guide not only succeeds to do this admirably; it turns out to be the best overall guide to Rome that I’ve ever read. In the first place, it taught me to think of Rome differently than I had previously—to replace my central metaphor for the city. In Frecky’s and Vanessa’s hands, Rome becomes less an accumulation of sedimentary civilizational strata and appears more like the concentric growth rings on a tree. To be sure, even this metaphor isn’t perfect, but it is more apposite. It suggests the way the Vreelands are able to see—and help the visitor see—Rome’s development and evolution through the epochs of its history.
Each segment of their new guide provides a first-class, quite detailed and compelling explanation of a particular portion—and historic epoch—of the city. It’s all here: a description of how that area of the city would have looked in its time; how it evolved and developed, architecturally and historically; charming and insightful descriptions of the principal sights in the vicinity; timelines; fascinating vignettes and asides. Each epochal section of Key to Rome begins with a cleverly-designed, four-page fold out pictorial description/illustration of the nucleus of that section of the city on which it is centered. The one on the Piazza Navona, for instance—the beginning of their section on Renaissance and Baroque Rome—is as good or better an introduction to that captivating square as you’ll find anywhere. Each new section is as fully engaging and engrossing as the last.
Throughout, the Key to Rome’s glossy, four-color format is as visually engaging and exciting as an Eyewitness Guide, and its commentaries are fully as rich and informative as a Blue Guide—without overburdening the reader with excruciating detail.
It’s hard for guidebooks to strike the right balance between sightseeing descriptions and routes, on the one hand, and really good tips on lodging, restaurants, the entertainment scene, shopping and diversions, on the other. The balance that the Vreelands strike is nearly perfect. Theater and concert information is often hard to come by when visiting overseas. It’s presented here in the most concise, accessible format—though I seem to recall a couple of other theaters presenting opera in Rome, at least occasionally, beyond those that Frecky and Vanessa mention. Particularly charming are the night-time strolls that the Vreelands map out for the visitor—though, at the risk of discouraging romance, a little more comment on safety and security here might be helpful.
The Vreelands’ hotel recommendations are replete with insider tips on individual, more out-of-the-way establishments, e.g., “Ask for room 402” at the Hotel Rinascimento in the Via Giulia area, “a small double room with its own private terrace.” Side by side with these insider tips you’ll find pithy, to-the-point thumb-nails of all the well-known stand-bys: Hassler, Intercontinental, Excelsior, Ambasciatori Palace, Inghilterra, Eden, and others. The Vreelands’ tips on Roman gastronomy are comparably insightful and, thankfully, include most of the enotecchi (wine bar restaurants) that are my personal favorites (including the humble and out-of-the-way Enoteca Corsi near the Gesu Church.)
The highest compliment that I can pay to the Vreelands’ Key to Rome is simply this: I can’t wait to use it on my next trip.
United States Ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, 1990-1993