In Rome, Using ‘Roman Holiday’ as a Guide


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Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck on the Spanish Steps in Rome.

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Paramount/Photofest

The silver-haired gentleman in the perfectly tailored dark suit made a sweeping gesture and gave me a wistful smile.

“It was right here,” he said. “1952.” He pointed to a particular spot on the floor. “That is where she stood.”

If he was alive in 1952 he was a very little boy, but every guide I speak to at the Palazzo Colonna in Rome knows and reveres the spot where she stood. “Roman Holiday” was the first American film to be shot in its entirety in Italy, and “she” was Audrey Hepburn in her first starring film role, playing a princess on the lam who spends one glorious day in Rome with a journalist who figures he has the scoop of his career. Gregory Peck was the journalist; it didn’t take long for the scoop to turn into a brief romance.

“Roman Holiday” was released in 1953, not 1952, but in context the guide is correct: She stood there in 1952, when the film was shot. I walked over to stand where Ms. Hepburn did in the film’s final scene, as the princess prepared to bid farewell to Rome, to Mr. Peck, and to a room full of real journalists drafted to fill out the press conference — and although I have been a moviegoer since I was a child, I was not prepared for how delighted I would be to be exactly there, surrounded by make-believe memories.

This was my first visit to Rome, and I faced my own time constraints. Too many friends said that it was impossible to see Rome in the three days I had, but things worked out pretty well for Princess Ann, so I decided to go where she did. She had one day, a knowledgeable guide in Mr. Peck’s Joe Bradley, and the use of a Vespa; I had three days on foot. Much of what they saw was hundreds if not thousands of years old, so it would be right where they left it.

Joe Bradley was looking for great copy and photo ops, while the princess, by her own admission, wanted to “have fun — and maybe a little excitement,” and I liked their itinerary, with its mix of ruins, food, window-shopping and dancing.

The Palazzo was surely the most formal of the film’s locations. I vowed to include as well the Castel Sant’Angelo, the backdrop for the wackiest scene in the film, a melee that involved music under the stars, the princess using a guitar in self-defense, an unplanned late-night swim and, this being Hollywood, a glimpse of fleeting love. I watched the film again before I left, consulted the website imdb.com for local information, and mapped the rest of my visit.

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Paramount/Photofest, Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times

The Arch of Septimus Severus and the Temple of Saturn

Princess Ann fled her country’s embassy after yet another night of reviewing the next day’s schedule and a bedtime snack of milk and crackers. She escaped in the back of a truck, and Joe Bradley found her half-asleep on a low wall in front of the arch. To the right, the eight remaining pillars of the Temple of Saturn, built in 476 B.C. This location is at the northwest end of the Roman Forum, for those who come here to look at the ruins — which the princess and the journalist did not. But I had time and daylight on my side, so I lingered to consider the vast scale of the Forum. Yes, I leaned against the very wall where Ms. Hepburn pretended to slumber; not quite as good as being discovered by Mr. Peck, but it would have to do.

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Paramount/Photofest, Susan Wright

The Colosseum

In the days before computer-generated images, real men tore each other apart, and this is where they did it. The largest amphitheater in the world had just a few strategically placed tourists in it when a guide explained its 2,000-year history to Princess Ann and Joe. Times have changed: Occasionally the admissions lines grind to a halt because no more than 3,000 visitors can enter the Colosseum at any one time. But do not be dissuaded. I expected a quick stroll and then the real-life equivalent of a jump cut to the next scene, but the more I walked, the more I wanted to walk, to try to grasp the graceful enormity of this violent place.

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Paramount/Photofest, Susan Wright

Piazza della Rotonda, the Pantheon

If you were a princess in 1953, you ordered Champagne for lunch. But the G. Rocca cafe by the Pantheon is no more. Now there are two less glamorous but satisfying options: L’Antica Salumeria at Piazza della Rotonda 4 greets the hungry at the door with free samples of porchetta, and inside serves an array of sandwiches and antipasti. Just off the opposite side of the square, at Tazza d’Oro, Via degli Orfani 84, you can get the signature granita di caffè con panna, sweetened coffee frozen to a granular slush and topped with whipped cream. Ann paid no attention to the hulking Pantheon. I think that’s why I embraced her tour; sitting at a sidewalk cafe, watching the world go by, is a great way to experience a city.

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Paramount/Photofest, Susan Wright

The Spanish Steps

This is where Joe found Ann eating a chocolate gelato she bought from a cart at the base of the steps, in the Piazza di Spagna. She lied and said that she had run away from school, and he offered to help her plan her day of fun and excitement. The sweeping 135-step stairway, built between 1723 and 1725, links the Piazza di Spagna with the Piazza Trinità dei Monti at the top. And while you can purchase a selfie stick from any one of a dozen vendors, there was no gelato cart.

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Paramount/Photofest, Susan Wright

Palazzo Colonna

The director William Wyler shot “Roman Holiday” in black and white to save money, so the most startling thing about the great hall in Palazzo Colonna is that it’s saturated with color, the walls covered in paintings. It is one of the oldest and biggest private palaces in Rome; construction got underway in the 14th century and went on for five centuries, and members of the family still live here. Art lovers pack the Saturday tours — English language at noon. Or you can wander without a guide on that day only from 9 in the morning to 1:15 in the afternoon. This is where the story ends. The princess realized that Joe was a journalist and the two recited the kind of coded but passionate dialogue that only they — and the film’s audience — understood.

Correction: October 19, 2016

A previous version of this article erroneously attributed a distinction to Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday.” It was her first starring film role, not her first film role.

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