Justin Locke Productions

Home | Speaking Appearances | Justin's Books | The Blog | Contact
Trips to Paris | Rio | Florence and Venice | The Bahamas

My Trip to Rome

by Justin Locke

Justin Locke grew up on a farm in Ohio, then at age 20 he magically "got the call" and found himself playing bass in the Boston Pops. In his books and presentations he shares a remarkable journey of personal and artistic discovery. Check out his laugh-out-loud Boston Pops memoir, Real Men Don't Rehearse, along with his other books Principles of Applied Stupidity and Getting in Touch Your Inner Rich Kid. Also check out his upcoming Berlin premiere!

Okay, well, you may as well know, Roman Holiday is one of my favorite movies (and if you have never seen it, in 1953 it won the oscars for best picture, best director, best screenplay, best actress, best cinematography, best supporting actor-- go rent it. See link at bottom for a complete examination of all the locations). Because of that movie I had always longed to go to Rome and see it first hand. So one day I realized that my credit card had enough miles for a free trip-- sort of-- and I found a reasonably priced (for Rome) hotel, and with 3 day's notice, off I went.

Well, my mistake, and at the risk of sounding somewhat negative, there was a certain amount of disillusionment upon my arrival in Rome. After seeing Roman Holiday some 200 times (I told you it's my favorite movie), and reading many guidebooks, I had a lot of preconceived notions about what Rome would be like. The guidebooks and the movies focus on the beautiful piazzas and churches, but I'm afraid Rome is not beautiful throughout. I was a little shocked at my first view of Rome: Above, you see the street to my Hotel as seen from the train station-- this photo forgives a lot, doesn't really capture the seedy feel of all these little shops selling cheap pizza and sunglasses. The bell tower in the back is a big church called Santa Maria Maggiore, my hotel was right across from it. (NOTE, if you are flying from the USA, I recommend spending whatever and being picked up at the airport by your hotel. To fly all night, go through customs, and then schlep your bags to the airport's train station, get some euros, buy your ticket, wait 30 min on average for the train, take a one hour ride (not scenic) to Rome, THEN have to negotiate Termini Station (huge and crowded) and get to your hotel by walking, bus, or cab . . . it is just too much.)

Well, the Termini train station area isn't exactly Rome at its best, so let's move on. Here is what almost every non-main street in Rome looks like -- just enough room for some cars to park and one lane for others to go whizzing past. no sidewalk, so you have to keep alert!

I confess, I often found it to be a little claustrophobic, always walking down these trench-like streets . . .

With a little sliver of sky above you . . .

On the one hand, it's very charming and medieval, on the other, it was kind of hard to enjoy that with the occasional Mercedes Benz sedan whipping around a corner and coming up behind you. I thought it strange that, in all the guidebooks of Rome that I studied before my trip, I can't recall seeing one picture of a street like this, yet this is what most of the city looks like.

Oh well, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Here I am (left) at Vincenzo's, a "sidewalk" cafe in Trastevere. note the laundry hanging out the window, the street musician, and the lack of any actual sidewalk . . . cars buzzed by right past the tables. Food was pretty good. In fact, in general you will generally have better luck going out to eat in Trastevere.

The view from the above "sidewalk" cafe . . . again, a typical narrow Roman street. (This road is part of Rick Steves' Trastevere walk.) I couldn't help but wonder how they get fire trucks down these little alleyways . . .

Because open space is rare, the piazzas were always very crowded. This is the Trevi Fountain, which is terribly famous and full of coins . . . there is an ongoing argument, some people love it, some don't-- I'm afraid it didn't do much for me. If I had been able to wade in the water I would have felt differently about it, but you can't. I assume that in times past people would get their drinking water here and take baths in it but now it's more of an exhibit. (Pardon the photographic flaws of the composite). Roman Holiday fans: the shop to the left of the big opening under the balcony in the center of the pic is where the princess got her hair cut.

Here is the Pantheon . . . All the photos I have seen of it fail to capture its sheer massiveness (because you have to step so far back to get it all in that it starts to look small). This was one of my favorite parts of Rome; this building has had so much influence on architecture everywhere, and when I saw it in person I could see why. Like many places in rome, the narrow streets prevent you from seeing your destination until you're right on top of it, so the pantheon really socks you in the face when you find it. When one encounters a building like this, well, for me anyway, it's very hard to get your arms around the whole concept of the thing-- how they built it, and its history.

Roman Holiday fans: the sidewalk cafe scene at "Rocca's" took place in the far right of this pic (I didn't realize this until I got back so I didn't go over to the spot, darn it-- but I don't think the cafe is there any more).

A shot of the Pantheon entrance from the interior . . .

And the far wall, turning right after taking above pic (amazing) . . .

and the oculus above . . .

Okay, back to the reality of modern Rome. Here is a bit of my Rome bus map. The buses can do a lot for you, but I caution you, it took me four days to understand the system, and even then . . . You need to learn the bus system because other than spagna, vatican city and colloseum the subways really don't go where you want to, and the escalators up from the depths are often broken. You have to buy tickets for the bus somewhere besides the buses. I bought a one-week unlimited ticket and that worked out great. you have to validate your ticket on a little machine in the bus (I rarely saw the locals bother to do this). If the machine is broken the driver tells you to write the date and time on your ticket. Pretty silly system. (Okay, figured it out yet? here's how it works. let's say you're in the lower right in piazza venezia and you want to go to the vatican. you need to find a number in that group of numbers that matches a number up by the vatican. in this case, you can see a #271 in piazza venezia and there is a #271 listed by the vatican. So you find the stop (you have to decipher the signs at the stop) and hop on and hope it's a reasonably direct route. if you look carefully you can see the #271 all along the route. it's almost like a board game. But obviously, the route you take varies when your starting and end point change, as mine did hourly. took some getting used to, but by the end of the week I was hopping on buses right and left.)

Okay, this may not look like much (due to low light and the tungsten film in this CVS camera) but this was the highlight of my trip-- discovering "Via Margutta-- 51." (Where the ficticious Joe Bradley lives in Roman Holiday.) It really is there, it's a whole courtyard leading to numerous apartments, with artisan shops on the courtyard level (in what used to be stables I suppose-- anyway, that's why the Joe Bradley character makes a phone call from a sculptor's shop). This is the staircase where Joe Bradley gives the Princess a few dollars with the old landlord looking askance. (That's the courtyard at street level, center, at the bottom of the stairs thru the tunnel.) The overhanging greenery has grown some in the past 50 years! No pilgrim to Rome ever had more of a religious experience than I did at this place. I sat there for quite a while, and went back again another day.

Since the stairs were all covered over with greenery I had to go down the steps to get this shot of the balcony where the landlord stood in the staircase shot . . . a little worse for wear I guess. But I didn't care.

Here, another staircase in the Via Margutta 51 complex . . . I should mention that most of modern "public" Rome does not have a lot of greenery. so this was a nice break from the non-stop concrete of the street. I looked around but could not find the terrace of Joe Bradley's apartment.

This the courtyard of Via Margutta 51-- note the garage doors leading to artisan shops, where I assume Gregory Peck would have called Eddie Albert. This is looking out to the street, the tunnel staircase is to the right of this view. fyi, there's an excellent vegetarian restaurant (to the right) at the end of the street!

Took some doing to find this, as it's not in many tourbooks . . . the room which was the setting for the ending of Roman Holiday-- The Main Room of the Palazzo Colonna, not to be confused with Piazzo Colonna . . . (!) It's only open Saturday mornings. If you go downstairs, out the door, take a right and go four blocks, you come to this . . . .

. . . the Victor Emmanual monument, used as a location in the scooter sequence in Roman Holiday. (fyi, the Roman Forum is directly behind it.) If you were to veer around to the right of it you would come to . . .

This ruin of sorts known as the Theatro Marcello, (also used as a brief background for one of the "scooter tour" shots in Roman Holiday) . . . . Note the apartments built on top of the ruins. If you were to follow the car in the shot about 4 blocks you would come to this little parking lot/piazza

Known as Piazza della Bocca della Verità. The white building was the Police Station in Roman Holiday. To the right, the little tower is part of the church that houses

The famous"Mouth of Truth," which is sort of on a side wall of the front "porch" of the church. . . .

However, what was not shown in the movie is the never ending line of tourists who, one by one, step up to the Mouth of Truth, stick their hand in, and turn to have their picture taken by a fellow tourist. I confess, I was fascinated by this ritual that was repeated over and over again. I figured I just happened to be there at the same time as a tour bus, so I went by on another day to hopefully just ponder it by myself-- but the line of tourists was even longer.

A new find, this is palazzo barberini which was used as the exterior of the princess' home/ consulate. It's 2 blocks south of piazza republica, turn rt on fontana.

This is a courtyard seen through a window in the Vatican Museum.

Inside the Vatican Museum . . . . I got there at opening time at the same time as dozens of tour group buses . . . even though the line was about 1/3 of a mile long, they got us in there quickly. The way it works is, even if you just want to see the Sistine Chapel you still have to walk all the way through the museum to get there. In planning the trip I originally resented this bit of forced museum-going but once I get there, I changed my mind-- I really enjoyed it. For future travellers, someone in my hotel reported that the lines were much shorter at noon-- which would make sense, as all the tour buses get there at opening. But, who knows.

The ceiling of one hallway in the Vatican Museum (the gallery of maps) was made up of all these amazing sculptures . . . This was the NORAD of its day, the paintings are topographical military maps of all the pope's renaissance-era territrories.

At the end of the vatican museum tour you finally come to the Sistine Chapel which . . . what can I say? I was awestruck. I kept thinking I was done and tried to move on but I went back four times. This is a pic (borrowed from another website) of what i found to be my favorite part of the ceiling: Jonah and the "great fish." (The chapel is very echo-ey, was very crowded when I was there, and the crowd's talking gradually crescendos, until a guard says "SILENZIOOOOO" . . . and you're not allowed to take pics inside the Sistine Chapel-- so when the guard sees a camera, he chants "NO PEECTURES . . . NO VEED-YO . . .")

Borrowed from another website, a shot looking down on the back of St. Peter's. Bear in mind, the church is laid out like a big cross and this is just the top of the cross, in back of the main alter, so this doesn't really show you the immensity of it, but . . . My pix of the inside of St. Peter's didn't come out, not sure they would capture it anyway-- SIX ACRES of floorspace. The interior of this church was more spacious than most of the exteriors of Rome.

A shot from the front of St. Peter's-- there were thousands of chairs set up for some event, I know not what. I really tried but failed to capture the immensity of the space of the place.

Well it took 3 frames but i almost got all of the front of St. Peter's in here (slide your browser bar for the full effect-- it's a whole lot bigger than it looks here. Apologies for the photographic distortions). Turns out Michelangelo, the original designer, wanted the main church to be a Greek cross (same size up and down as left to right) but some Peter Keating-type added an extra hundred feet or so to the front, which makes it a lot bigger obviously but really makes the front look kinda strange with the dome so far back from where it was supposed to be. The Sistine Chapel is next to the main hall of St. Peter's on the right side. You enter the Sistine Chapel from what was once the Pope's bedrooms, so the effect of coming into it through the public entrance is now lost-- it's a magnificent upward-climbing marble staircase, which you now see only as an exit.
In the foreground is one of the 13 Egyptian obelisks that there are in Rome (in all of Egypt there are only 5). You can see the view from the top of the dome here, in a pic that will also show you how densely built the city is and how few trees there are.

The one one thing I couldn't stop pondering was, how in the world did they build such mammoth structures using nothing but ropes and horses??? Well I guess there's no limit to what you can do if there's no union demanding overtime.

While the grand entrance to the Vatican and St. Peter's is supposed to be "all welcoming," here is what the rest of the Vatican looks like from outside . . . a rather nasty-looking fort. I tried to find the "wall where wishes come true" but could not, HOWEVER, a wonderful fellow in rome (check out his website: www.conciergeinrome.com) found what he thought was the wall and sent me a pic of it . . .

It was part of the Aurelian Walls, and is on "Viale del policlinico," southwest of the Villa Borghese. The votive plaques are no longer there, but i hear you see the holes left in the walls.

Update: I found this pic of piazzale brasile in an old rome picture book

I don't think this is THE wall of wishes place from the movie, but the little roofed inset in the wall is similar to what was in the movie, so I would guess it might be around here someplace.

The Vatican Police in their bizarre uniforms.

One of the many bridges on the Tiber, this one connects to an island (Isola Tiberina) that connects on the other side to Trastevere.

In the many the churches of Rome (and there is one every 45 feet) you will come across all these artifacts from the New Testament. It really is an experience to encounter such things up close and personal, you would think these things would be locked up in a vault somewhere but instead they are just sitting out there in the open. In a church across the alley from my hotel you will find part of the post that Christ was tied to when whipped by the Romans. You can put 50 cents in a slot and its little alcove lights up.

In another church down the block you can find a set of chains that apparently were used on St. Peter himself.

The Castel de Sant' Angelo. The bridge with its statues was part of the barge dance scene in Roman Holiday. It is now closed to vehicles. I was surprised at how narrow it was, just barely wide enough for 2 lanes if that.

Taken from the bridge shown above, for Roman Holiday Fans, this is the staircase that led to the barge dance on the Tiber. Unfortunately, the river was at least 12 feet above normal levels when i was there, so this was a big disappointment for me . . . sad to say everything was under water, including the place downstream where they kiss for the first time . . . if they had fallen in the river the day I took this pic I suspect that would have been the end of the story as, the current being what it was, they both would have been drowned and washed out to sea! Fellow Roman Holiday pilgrims, brace yourselves if you go here, another big disappointment of this day was the unpleasant stink I encountered here.

Some mimes who spookily looked like sculptures outside castel de sant' Angelo. It's worth mentioning that as this photo illustrates, Rome doesn't have a lot of greenery. Tired travelers take note, park benches are also a rarity.

The Spanish Steps . . . Another open space where people congregate. This was also a location for Roman Holiday, but the two towers behind it were being renovated, so it didn't quite have the visual effect it usually has.

The view of the Spanish Steps from yet another narrow little Roman Road, Via Condotti, which is also the poshest shopping street in Rome. (Note the typical narrow canyon street, and the cars and pedestrians jostling for space-- I just couldn't get used to this) I discovered that in this area there is a whole latticework of little streets and alleys with all sorts of little shops (the closest i came to finding a mall). Some of the shops were not so good -- I don't recommend Botton Down Roma or The Tie Shop, I had not so great experiences there. Robert Serafini seemed like a good guy, sold me a great tie, he's moving his shop tho, so no address to give.

FYI, shop carefully, as in Italy it is actually illegal to give a refund on a return. I learned that the hard way. Don't buy anything if they won't let you try it on first.

A little sadder-but-wiser advice about the VAT tax refund: first, you only get a refund on the VAT tax (it's only about 12% if that) if you spend at least 155 euros in ONE SHOP.

I had a lot of trouble with my VAT tax refund. Got one from one place, but it took 6 months to get the other from Botton Down Roma after much complaining and aggravation. And the check was dated months beofre, so I had just enough time to cash it before it went stale!

There may be other ways to do it than what I did - I suggest doing some research on it. You might be able to bring the paperwork home and do it through your credit card company. If you do it like I did, i.e., immediately, you have to fill out a form from each vendor with your credit card/ passport number, etc., have it stamped at the airport, and mail it in. Note the mailbox in the Rome airport was completely full, I had to stuff it in. Different vendors in Rome use different VAT tax refunders, and i get the sense they are like rebate fulfillers here in the USA-- no one rewards them for giving money away, so be alert. What a pain.

Pardon the photographic flaws . . here is of course inside of the colloseum on a rainy day . . . The colloseum is made up of 3 concentric ovals. This, the seating area, fills the inner oval. The inner oval is all still there but the middle and and outer ovals are missing from all but a third of the original exterior. You can see part of what's left of the outer oval at the top right. I was intrigued to discover that while the exterior is made of cut stone, much of the seating area of the colloseum you see here was made out of bricks, which were used to make forms for poured concrete. While you can still see the bricks, much of the moss-like greenery at the tops of the of the sloping seating area is the slowly eroding concrete.

Here, from outside rather than inside, you can see the same edge of the remaining part of the higher outer oval (and the middle oval which is the lowest) . . . Note the sloping brickwork at the edge that holds it up. fyi, most of the stone from the outer walls was carted off to build other buildings, as I guess it was cheaper to do that than quarry new rock. Also, if you look at the top you can see a little guardrail where they stood for a shot in Roman Holiday, but i am not sure if you can get up there nowadays.

Here you can see the exitways that are between the inner and middle ovals.

Again, like so many Roman ruins (and St. Peter's), the pictures you see do not capture the sheer immensity of the buildings . . . take a good look at the size of the crowd here compared to the building. Just a theory of mine, but when you look at these few extant Roman buildings, you get the sense, not that they are overly large, but that YOU are overly SMALL. Both the ruins and St. Peter's had this effect on me, of making me feel that they are the dwelling places of beings much larger than myself. I can't help but think that was the intended propaganda-ish intention of the builders. If it was, it works.

A nifty trick I learned, if the lines are long at the Colosseum, you can get the same ticket at the entrance to the Palatine Hill, which includes both. And I recommend touring the Palatine Hill, it was interesting.

If you were to do an about face from the Colloseum you would be facing the entrance to the Foro Romano, i.e., the Roman Forum.

Before I get there, for a little intro, here is an engraving of what the forum may have looked like in its heyday . . . I was totally unprepared for the forum, it was one of the most interesting parts of the trip, so if you go there I strongly recommend reading a book or two about it, as just going there with a basic tourbook won't really give you very much of the depth of history that is sitting before you. A lot of the columns in the forum are just stumps now, but quite a few buildings are still standing, more than I expected from the references I had seen in Rome tourbooks-- enough that you can get a sense of it being a city square. It didn't look anything like I was expecting, so I wish I had gone back a second day to ponder it. So much history. When you walk through the forum, the incomplete bits and pieces of buildings play on your imagination; there's enough of them still standing-- in the same spot they have been for 2,000 years-- that your sense of time and space gets really twisted. Anyway, if you look at the pic above, just to the right of dead center you can sort of make out an archway, and . . .

Here it is today. Shot from a different angle . . . it is called the Arch of Septimius Severus. Roman Holiday fans: Immediately to the left of it is the spot where Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn first meet in the movie. There used to be a road thru the forum, it was where I stood to take this pic (in the movie you see the taxi drive on it) but it is no longer there.

Turned to the right from the previous pic, here is another shot of the Forum, looking toward the colloseum. The forum is laid out in sort of a long rectangle, and this sort of gives you a sense of looking at it lengthwise toward the colloseum (the opposite angle from the drawing above). The Palatine Hill section (an even older part of the forum, and while the forum is free, you have to pay to get in to that part) is on the center/right. There is a better pic of it at greatbuildings.com (click on "continue to image")

Well those are my Rome pics . . . I don't want to dissuade anyone from visiting the eternal city, and I admit I was in a somewhat stressed and fatigued state when I got there, but I feel compelled to caution you, it is a very URBAN environment, with lots of traffic and cheap pizza places and hucksters everywhere. You have to have the nerve of a bullfighter to cross any main street-- I would just wait for a local to cross (and let them stop the crazed constant oncoming traffic) and duck in behind them. The public transportation is a disgrace-- the subways and buses are incredibly crowded. You should take the warnings about pick-pocketing seriously-- even if you are extremely wary, the fact that you are so severely crammed into the buses and subways makes it impossible to know if you're just being bumped or if your pockets are getting picked. I had no problems, but I think i was mostly lucky. I can't fully describe the experience of riding the subway in Rome, it was like the biggest game of "Twister" you can imagine. People just piled in every which way.

My own impression of Rome, of going from site to site, was that it in many ways has become a sort of public amusement park . . . There are more tourists than residents, or so it seems, and while there are many wonderful things in it, I found it was, for me at least, not a very pleasant place to be. I was truly astonished by tourists who would walk, by the hundreds, in and out of churches and wander about like they were at a mall, taking flash photos while an actual service was going on . . I am not making this up.

I found most Romans to be just barely tolerant of the tourists . . . I often felt like an unwelcome guest, being politely ignored. My fellow tourists were a whole lot friendlier than the locals. To be fair, some Romans were helpful, but they were always in a rush to get somewhere. As I have thought about it, I realized that the tourist industry has probably taken much of the housing of Rome and turned it into cheap hotels, driving average people out of the city. I never saw any school-age children in Rome. I think people still live in Rome but, like the folks in modern day via margutta 51, they live behind walls in gated communities that protect them from the hordes of tourists. Seeing all the sights was fun but I felt really frustrated in that there was no "culture" of Rome to experience, everywhere I went I encountered more tourists. Perhaps if I had had more time I would have discovered that part of Rome, but . . . I didn't.

The rank and file Romans themselves, I have come to feel sorry for-- I could sense, from riding the buses with the working class folks in the afternoon, a tremendous collective eagerness on their part to get out of the city as soon as possible.

I really didn't feel like I had gone to a foreign country-- just about everyone speaks english, and all the signs are in both english and italian.

I will admit, my assessment of Rome is strongly influenced by the fact that the trip was mentally exhausting . . . this was not a vacation. I went there to learn, and in that sense, it was very successful trip. But trying to grasp all the historical information coming at you at every turn of the road is very taxing. The influence that ancient, renaissance, and modern Rome continues to have upon all our lives is just so immense that I find I am still processing it, and I may never finish the job. This trip had a profound effect on me, and I am still assimilating it. I think it is always good to replace ignorant imagination with fact whenever possible, and this trip certainly did THAT. We have all heard about Rome through history classes and books and movies, so it is impossible to go to Rome without a lot of pre-conceived notions about it; for me, encountering so much conflicting reality was a little jarring, to say the least.

It WAS occasionally very sweet to feel a little bit like I was stepping onto the set of my favorite movie here and there.

fyi, if you aren't suffering from a Roman Holiday fetish like me, and you only have a day, my recommendations are: Vatican Museum and St. Peter's in the morning, the pantheon for lunch, and the colosseum and forum in the afternoon.

If you decide to go, I hope these pics were of some use to you! Bye for now -- JL

Please check out my book about my life playing bass with the Boston Pops!

Real Men Don't Rehearse


For a professional concierge to aid you in your trip to rome, visit,

My friend antonio's website! it's an extensive on-line tour guide!

A very comprehensive study of the Roman Holiday movie locations

My trip to Paris

My trip to Rio

For more info, questions, etc.,
email me at justinlocke1@gmail.com

Come visit the Justin Locke Productions website

This material may not be reproduced or re-transmitted without permission from the author.