We picked a good year to see Rome — its magnificent sights had been cleaned and improved for 2000, but it was less crowded than during the Jubilee Year. We stayed four nights at Hotel Due Torri (23 Vicolo del Leonetto), a small hotel well located about 5 minutes north of Piazza Navona on a street so narrow that the taxi we took from the train station (we rode the train from the airport into the city) dropped us at the corner rather than risk getting stuck. The benefit of being on a narrow street is obvious: Due Torri is a quiet refuge in what is a noisy, bustling city, and its charming proprietor is quintessentially Italian.

We left our bags at the front desk and headed out in search of ancient Rome, visiting the Pantheon, Capitol Hill, the Forum, the Colosseum — which now has a partial floor to help visitors appreciate the structure — and Trajan's column and forum. Passing the medieval, Renaissance and baroque sites that coexist with the ruins, we saw why Rome is called the Eternal City.

We spent the following day in Vatican City, starting with the vast Vatican Museum, a labyrinth of collections that concludes with the Sistine Chapel in its restored glory. It was such a leap for Pope Sixtus (hence Sistine) to commission the young sculptor Michaelangelo to paint the ceiling. We caught the conclusion of Pope John Paul's Wednesday morning audience with the thousands gathered in St. Peter's Square.

Huge does not begin to describe St. Peter's Basilica — there are markers on the floor indicating where the world's major cathedrals would reach if placed inside. The canopied main altar, used only when the Pope says Mass, sits beneath a soaring dome. We took an elevator up to the gallery that rings the interior of the dome for a close-up view of the six-foot-high lettering and the mosaics, then continued up a winding staircase between the dome's inner and outer shells to reach the top, with an outstanding view. But the day's highlight was a prearranged tour of the Vatican necropolis excavations under St. Peter's Basilica of a Roman cemetery and what they think is Peter's grave.

It's really something to be walking in today's Rome, knowing that buried beneath is an ancient city, only small parts of which have been brought to light. On Thursday we visited the Jewish ghetto area and saw archeologists slowly unearthing an ancient Roman theater. That day we also visited the market at Campo de' Fiori, crossed the Tiber to Trastevere and wound up at the Borghese Gallery at the appointed hour. There we saw the most breathtaking sculpture, Bernini's Rape of Proserpine — the way his fingers push into her flesh, you'd never believe it was marble. We walked back by way of the Spanish Steps and through the fashionable shopping area.

Our fourth day in Rome was devoted to what Rick Steves calls "Pilgrim's Rome" in his excellent Rome guidebook — the destinations of pilgrimages during the Renaissance, including the grand churches San Giovanni in Laterno, Santa Maria Maggiore, and San Clemente.
Rick Steves writes this about San Clemente: "Here, like nowhere else, you'll enjoy the layers of Rome—a 12th-century basilica sits atop a fourth-century Christian basilica which sits atop a second-century Mithraic Temple and some even earlier Roman buildings." We also took the subway to the Capuchin Crypt, which monks decorated with the bones of their departed brothers.

Culinary highlights of Rome (we're obviously not gourmets):
Pizza: Pizzeria da Baffetto, Via Del Governo Vecchio 114 (dinner for 2 L30,000=$12).
Gelato: Giolitti, Via degli Uffici del Vicaria 40 (L5,000=$2.25).
Tartufo: Bar Tre Scalini in Piazza Navona.

Recommended reading: "When in Rome — A Journal of Life in Vatican City" by Robert J. Hutchinson and "That Fine Italian Hand" by Paul Hofmann.

From Rome we took the train to Naples and a commuter train to Ercolano, a suburb of Naples, to visit Herculaneum, a Roman Empire resort town that was buried in mud by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. The excavated buildings are in amazingly good shape—many still had roofs and frescoes on the walls. The modern city that sits atop the ruins is poor and depressing.

From there we rolled our luggage back onto the train to Sorrento, exploring the town during the evening and staying the night in a funky small hotel with a great view of the sea and Vesuvius, Hotel Loreley et Londres (2 Via Califano).

We spent the following day in Pompeii, an easy train ride from Sorrento. Because no city was built atop the buried town, the entire ancient city has been excavated — street after street of shops, homes and villas, plus an intact amphitheater, forum, the Temple of Apollo and several other public gathering places, plus body casts of some of the 25,000 people buried by ash. Despite the fact that collectors in the 18th and 19th centuries took away most of the mosaic floors, frescoed walls and statuary, you can still appreciate what life was like in this prosperous port before the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. (On our last day in Italy we visited the museum in Naples that has some of the artwork and implements removed from Pompeii, including erotica that can be visited only with one of their guides. The phallus was believed to ward off evil, so it was displayed "prominently" at entrances.)

Ending the "Roman ruins" phase of our trip, we proceeded to the gorgeous scenery of the Amalfi Coast. In Sorrento we took the SITA bus along the coastal highway (a cliff-edge, hairpin-turn road similar to California's coastal highway, with the amazingly blue Mediterranean below) to Positano, a beautiful town built vertically up the cliff, so the roof of one building is the terrace of the next.

We stayed five nights at a great B&B, La Fenice (8 Via Marconi), in a cottage with terrace overlooking the sea, about a 10 minute walk from Positano. We did two hikes from Positano, one to neighboring Fornillo Beach. Our favorite Positano restaurant, 'O Guarracino (Via Positanesi d'America 12), is on the path to Fornillo Beach. Our favorite snack site was La Zagara (Via dei Mulini 7), a bar/bakery in Positano with great canoli, granita and gelato. But our favorite and most frequent meal was a picnic of bread, the best tomatoes we've ever experienced, plus the local mozzarella di bufalo, made from the milk of water buffalo.

The next day we took the local bus up-up-up to the town of Montepertuso high atop the cliff and walked beyond Nocelle to sample Sentiero degli Dei (Pathway of the Gods), then returned to Nocelle and hiked down to Positano.

The other two days we rode the coastal SITA bus to Amalfi, about 50 minutes away, and did hikes from there. Once a prosperous maritime power and the center of paper production, Amalfi is an attractive town with an interesting cathedral, distinctive fountain (=close-up=) and variety of shops.

For the first hike, we took a local bus from Amalfi to the charming mountain-top village of Ravello. In addition to enjoying the splendid views, we visited the Baroque/Moorish cathedral with remarkable mosaics (including a depiction of Jonah and the Whale by an artist who had no idea what a whale looks like) and Villa Cimbrone with its fabulous gardens and vistas. From there we hiked down to Atrani and over to Amalfi.

The second day we did a large circuit through the wooded Valle dei Mulini (Valley of the Mills), past waterfalls and abandoned paper mills, then up to the tiny town of Pontone where we had the best pasta of our trip, and back down to Amalfi by a different route. We visited the one working paper mill, whose owner is pleased when a visitor shows an interest in the process and in buying the notecards he makes — and the Paper Museum.

Much of our Amalfi Coast hiking was actually walking on stone steps that for centuries were the only way people could get from one town to another. Every family used to own a donkey to carry stuff, and although the steps have been all but abandoned now that roads connect most towns, one day we came across donkeys hauling construction material to a remote house, and another day hauling lumber out of a wooded valley. Along the multitude flights of steps are scattered houses with extensive terraced vegetable plots and orchards of lemon and olive trees — a really pleasant and fragrant experience.

Essential book for hiking on the Amalfi Coast: "Landscapes of Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast" by Julian Tippett (can be ordered through www.amazon.com.uk).

We left Positano by ferry for the island of Capri, where we spent two nights at Hotel Caesar Augustus (4 Via Orlandi) in Anacapri, a fancy (for us) hotel with a pool at the edge of the cliff, so the pool's water seemed to merge with the sea, and a fabulous view of both the sunrise and sunset. On our first day we explored the cute town of Anacapri, walked along the coastal cliffs and visited San Michele, the villa built by Axel Munthe. The next day we took the local bus to Capri, did a circuit hike past the Arco Naturelle and the Faraglione rocks and back into town.

We left Capri by hydrofoil for a day in Naples, where we spotted this billboard for extra virgin olive oil and an internet cafe. Checking our luggage at the train station, we were free to walk through the city and visit the Museo Archeologico to see its Pompeii collections. We took an evening Eurostar train to Rome to spend the night at the Rome Hilton Airport for our early departure.

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The following information is from the Washington Post: In the United States, Select Italy (847-853-1661, www.selectitaly.com) can prearrange tours of several popular sites, including the Vatican necropolis, the Vatican gardens and the Galleria Borghese. It also sells Itinera cards, which provide unlimited admission for one week to 16 museums and archaeological sites throughout Rome. Papal audiences can also be arranged. Prices range from $10 for Galleria Borghese reservations to $50 for a papal audience. In Italy, the Italian Connection (011-39-0584-388136, www.goporta.com) also offers an advance reservation service. A tour of the Vatican Museums, including the Sistine Chapel, costs about $14.50, plus a $7 advance reservation fee.

You can save money by going directly to the source for some tours. For the Vatican necropolis, for example, which is not an easy ticket to get, you can make a request by faxing 011-39-0669-88-5518 or e-mailing uff.scavi@fabricsp.va; the cost is $10, compared with the $39 you'd pay with Select Italy.

For guided tours, a good source is Enjoy Rome (011-39-0644-51843, www.enjoyrome.com), an independent tourist office that offers guided tours at reasonable prices. A three-hour walking tour that includes the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain and the Roman Forum, for example, is about $11.50.

For info on Rome, contact the city's tourist office at 011-39-0636-004399, www.romaturismo.com.