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Rome - The Spanish Steps

Begin at Piazza Venezia, the square in front of the elaborate marble mountain that is the Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II, sometimes jokingly referred to as "the eighth hill of Rome." On the west side of the piazza is Palazzo Venezia, a grand palace Mussolini once requisitioned and whose balcony he liked to strut about on. It was built for Pope Paul II, who totally renovated the facade of the adjacent church of San Marco, on Piazza San Marco on the south side of the palace. From Piazza Venezia, head north on Via del Corso, making sure to walk on the right-hand side of the street so that you can get a good view of the attractive facade of Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, one of Rome's grandest palaces. The entrance to its sumptuous art gallery and state apartments is on Piazza del Collegio Romano. After a look at its priceless Old Master paintings and a peek at how an aristocratic family once lived (or lives -- one occupant is the current prince), take Via di Sant'Ignazio to the enchanting 18th-century Rococo Piazza di Sant'Ignazio, designed by architect Raguzzini as if it were a stage set. But then, of course, theatricality was a key element of almost all the best Baroque and Rococo art. Nowhere is this more evident than in the hyperopulent church of Sant'Ignazio, where the ceiling frescoes hold a surprise or two.

Behind the "stage set," Via del Burrò leads to Piazza di Pietra, where the onetime Rome Stock Exchange is set inside the columns of an ancient temple. From here it's just a few steps along Via dei Bergamaschi to Piazza Colonna, named for the celebrated Colonna di Marco Aurelio (Column of Marcus Aurelius) at its center. North of the column, Palazzo Chigi, a 16th- and 17th-century building, serves as the seat of the prime minister. Next door is Palazzo Montecitorio, where the Chamber of Deputies (lower house) of the Italian Parliament meets.

Just off Via del Tritone is little Santa Maria in Via, where the well water in the church is said to have miraculous powers. Across Via del Tritone, a busy thoroughfare that climbs to Piazza Barberini and Via Veneto, Piazza San Silvestro is a hub of public transportation and location of the main post office. It's also on the edge of a shopping district that has few equals elsewhere in the world. From Via del Tritone on the south to Piazza del Popolo on the north, from the Tiber on the west to Villa Borghese on the east, this is a fabulous trove of specialty shops and boutiques offering all types of fashions, jewelry, household goods, and anything else you might want -- including the well-maintained restroom facilities in the Rinascente department store, which occupies the block at the corner of Via del Corso and Largo Chigi. You can detour in and out of the area's narrow byways as your fancy takes you, attracted by handsome window displays.

At some point, head north on Via del Corso again to Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina to see the Bernini works in San Lorenzo in Lucina and perhaps linger in one of the fashionable cafés on this pretty square. At the west end of the piazza, take Via del Leone to Largo Fontanella Borghese to see the portal of the grandiose Palazzo Borghese and browse at the stalls selling old books and prints around the corner in airy Piazza della Fontanella Borghese, where you can get an even better idea of the palace's size. Follow Via della Fontanella Borghese, lined with smart shops, to Largo Goldoni, site of an information kiosk.

From Largo Goldoni you enter Via Condotti and get a head-on view of that post-card icon, the Piazza di Spagna and the church of Trinità dei Monti, which are connected by the Spanish Steps. Enjoy the great views atop the steps but don't forget to debouch slightly to the right from Piazza Trinità dei Monti onto posh Via Gregoriana to discover that amazing Mannerist-era mastework, the Palazzetto Zuccari, configured to look like a face. Back down the steps on Via Condotti you can get from Bulgari to Gucci to Valentino to Ferragamo with no effort at all, except perhaps that of navigating the crowds. On weekend and holiday afternoons the square, along with Via del Corso and neighboring streets, is packed with teenagers out for a mass stroll. They perch on the steps and around Bernini's low-lying Fontana della Barcaccia in the middle of the piazza. To the right of the Spanish Steps, the Keats-Shelley House gives you an idea of how England's Romantic poets lived in what was then Rome's bohemian quarter. Two doors down is Casa Museo G. De Chirico, the house and studio of the Metaphysical painter Giorgio De Chirico (1888-1978), now a museum. The column at the far end of the piazza, adjacent to the American Express office, supports a statue dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. Each December 8, a crack unit of the Rome Fire Department sends one of its best men up a ladder to replace the garland crowning the Madonna, and the pope usually stops by in the afternoon to pay his respects. Just in front of the column stands Palazzo di Propaganda Fide, brain center of the far-flung missionary activities of the Jesuits.

Follow Via di Propaganda to the church of Sant'Andrea delle Fratte, a sumptuous Baroque concoction, where you can pause under the orange trees in the cloister. From Via Sant'Andrea delle Fratte, turn left onto Via del Nazareno and cross busy Via del Tritone to Via della Stamperia. On the right-hand side of Via della Stamperia is Palazzo Poli, which houses the Calcografia dello Stato. A few paces beyond is the old building in which the Accademia di San Luca, with a gallery of Old Masters, is located. As you near the end of Via della Stamperia, you can probably hear the sound of Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain), a Baroque extravaganza of sculpture and cascading waters. From the fountain, Via Lucchesi leads you to Piazza della Pilotta and Via della Pilotta, where ornate bridges overhead connect Palazzo Colonna -- site of Rome's most spectacular ballroom -- with the Colonna family's gardens on the slope of the Quirinal Hill. The west side of the palace is flanked by the church of Santi Apostoli. On the ceiling, the early-18th-century artist Baciccia painted one of his swooping, swirling illusionist frescoes. Opposite the church is another of Rome's splendid patrician palaces, 17th-century Palazzo Odescalchi, used as a model for aristocratic palaces throughout Europe.