ROME: For businessmen, the key is planning your spare time

Rome wasn't built in a day. And it can't be adequately toured in a day. But allow three days, or even a trio of afternoons, and one can get a taste of its beauty and culture. For the business person -- attending a professional conference or meetings for less than a work week -- the key, of course, is carefully planned use of free time.

My conference sessions, fortunately, met mornings and again in the evenings. This was fine for tours -- not so good for shopping. Most shops close for siesta between 1 and 4 p.m. But almost all are open again in the late afternoon and early evening.

I planned accordingly: bus tours after lunch; walking tours and shopping late in the day before the conference reconvened.

American Express offers a trio of three-hour afternoon tours -- with pickups right at your hotel or at a convenient place in town. The coaches are comfortable (usually air-conditioned) and the guides knowledgeable and helpful. Most speak fluent English. The price of a half-day excursion is 20,000 lire or about $10.

Comfortable clothes, particularly shoes, are a must for traversing cobble streets and rummaging through ruins. However, visitors are continually reminded that ``shorts, or sleeveless'' are inappropriate for church tours.

The city tour provides a good general orientation of Rome. It is highlighted by visits to Trevi fountain and St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. The former now is part of a romantic legend. The latter is the hub of Roman Catholicism.

La fontana di Trevi is in the heart of the city and a gathering place for locals, teen-agers, visitors, children, and pets. Fortunately, traffic has been banned from the small square in front of this landmark. But there are crowds day and night. (If you can get there after dark, Trevi's beauty is enhanced by floodlights.)

The 18th-century superstition -- after Niccol`o Salvi sculptured this mammoth baroque fountain -- was that those who drink its ``virgin water'' would one day come back to Rome. Tossing a coin over a shoulder into the basin is supposed to bring a similar result today.

St. Peter's Basilica is the site of splendor and spectacle -- of religious imagery and magnificent art. The great masterpiece in the chapel is Michelangelo's Piet`a.

A checklist of ``musts'' on a short trip to Rome would also include the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum, the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, Piazza Navona, Old Rome, the Borghese Gallery, Michelangelo's ``Moses,'' and the Spanish Steps.

An adequate sampling is given in the organized bus tours. American Express's ``Rome of the Caesars'' and ``Roman Christianity'' excursions (all about $10 in United States money) are particularly encompassing.

But the visitor on a time budget should still allot several hours to go-it-alone on foot just to get the real feel of Rome.

Armed with a Berlitz pocket-sized travel guide (I kept it out of sight. Who wants to look like a tourist?), I walked my way from Trevi up the Via del Corso to the Spanish Steps. Here one is drawn into fine shops by an alluring array of leather goods, silks, and knitwear.

Some advise that bargains can best be found elsewhere. However, this is a quality shopping area. And with limited time, it is still possible to get ``buys'' by doing a bit of comparative shopping.

Leather goods -- especially gloves, shoes, handbags, wallets, and luggage -- are fairly priced. Shirts, dresses, scarves, and ties as well as ceramics, costume jewelry, and straw goods should also be considered.

I purchased a quality leather handbag for my wife for 70,000 lire ($40). My older daughter and her fianc'e wanted leather driving gloves. A shop on Piazza di Spagna had nothing but gloves -- thousands of them in the 30,000 to 40,000 lire range. My younger daughter asked for a sweater and I was advised to look in a department store on the Corso.

Here the language barrier presented a problem as I tried to indicate size for a teen-ager. After being misdirected to infant goods (not that small!) and then to the maternity wear (obviously inappropriate), a bemused, but benevolent, Briton took me in tow and helped find a light-blue wool pullover for about $20.

Most shops accept credit cards. Travelers checks are welcome almost anywhere. But cash is always welcome -- especially for bargains.

Some do's and don'ts for the on-the-fly traveler in Rome:

Eat what the Romans eat (but perhaps not as much): Spaghetti, fettuccine, rigatoni, linguini, bucattini, tortellini, cannelloni, and lasagne. And whatever you order for the main course -- meat, game, or fish -- leave room for fluffy pastry or fresh fruit (frutta fresca ). Rich, creamy ice cream (gelato ) is a favorite any time of day -- and available at stands and on outdoor carts as well as in restaurants.

Exchange money at a bank (banca ) or at a currency-exchange office (cambio ). You will get a better rate than from your hotel cashier.

Check bus schedules before engaging taxis. If you must use a cab, ask the fare in advance. If it sounds too high, tell the driver what you think is proper. An agreement can usually be reached.

Be wary of street-corner bargains and shops which offer deals that seem too good to be true. Quality goods usually can't be found here.

Learn the art of being a pedestrian in Rome. Italian motorists often make New York cabbies look timid. Don't dare them. But if you hold your ground, they'll usually stop on a dime.

Incorporate a few key Italian words and phrases into your vocabulary: per favore (please); grazie (thank you); mi scusi (excuse me); prego (you're welcome). These niceties go a long way towards building bridges with the nationals.

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