The Eternal City, seen by one who reveres it

Times Staff Writer

City of the Soul

A Walk in Rome

William Murray

Crown Journeys: 144 pp., $16


Here is a good book that grows on you slowly.

Don't let the title or byline fool you. Despite those highflying words on the cover, Murray is an insider who has witnessed Rome at length and in depth, not some star-struck newcomer. His last name and choice of the English language notwithstanding, he comes from a family of Romans displaced by war and luck, and he spoke Italian before he spoke English.

Murray begins the book, in fact, with a description of the Piazza del Popolo, where he spent a year of mornings sipping cappuccino and reading the papers as a 23-year-old who aspired to be an opera singer.

That was 1949. When singing didn't pan out, Murray turned to journalism and eventually began splitting time between Italy and the U.S. (He lives in Del Mar these days.) He wrote the New Yorker's "Letter From Italy" for more than 30 years, along with numerous books.

This one is slender, and in the early going it had me worried: a fair amount of leisurely traipsing from one timeworn monument to another. But gradually Murray's intimate connection to the place begins to reveal itself, as does his own improbable history, from his grandmother's career in Italian journalism to his Roman aunts' various escapades to the role of the Forum in his own romantic history.

Along with these revelations come deft sketches of the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, the Piazza Navona, the Campo dei Fiori and many other sites, some in the first tier of tourist attractions, some just off-center or invisible to the uninitiated.

His love of Rome is clear enough, especially when he recalls small things, like his address in 1962.

"When we invited guests to visit us, I used to delight in giving them instruction on how to get to our apartment," he writes. " 'From Piazza Venezia,' I would tell them, 'take the Via dei Fori Imperiali toward the Colosseum, turn right at the Arch of Titus and proceed, keeping the Circus Maximus to your right and the Baths of Caracalla to your left, until you reach the Piazza Albania. If you get to the Pyramid of Cestius and the Aurelian Wall, you've gone too far. Turn back and you'll find our apartment house on your right, facing the Aventine.' The great fact of life in Rome is residence among the ruins."

There is a caveat amid these ruins and this reverence. If you scratch William Murray's writerly skin, you might find a travel snob underneath: "No one should come to Rome for only a day or two; better to stay at home and watch the Travel Channel," he writes at one point, early on.

Apart from verging on cliche, this is just wrong. If you have any curiosity at all, one or two days anywhere is always better than none.

But that's a quibble. Murray is a graceful stylist, a seasoned navigator of these streets, and he knows well how to lure a reader forward by offering a provocative dollop of history, perhaps municipal, perhaps personal, often both.

When the Riviera was the place to be

French Riviera

Living Well Was the Best Revenge

Xavier Girard

Assouline: 196 pp., $34.95


The place to be in the 1920s, if you were rich or fashionable or wished to be seen as such, was the French Riviera. This coffee-table volume ("a photobiography") is a valentine to those days of postwar, pre-Depression euphoria, its pages full of color and black-and-white images of seaside villas and such idlers as Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald (whose "Tender Is the Night" covers the scene), the artists Cocteau and Matisse, the Russian ballet master Diaghilev, and Gerald and Sara Murphy, the handsome, wealthy American expats who inspired Fitzgerald's fictional Dick and Nicole Diver. Author Girard offers a light social history of the place and personalities that briefly flourished, and a snapshot of what it meant then to be a well-heeled hedonist. Along with the photos are several paintings from the era, including from Picasso, Dufy and Matisse.

This is strictly an armchair travel book (expect no practical travel advice here), best for Jazz Age aficionados.

A dependable Northwest guide

Best Places Northwest

Giselle Smith

Sasquatch Books: 558 pp., $19.95 paper


It's only logical to expect a guidebook publisher to do best in his (or her) own backyard, and in the case of Seattle-based Sasquatch, this seems like a good bet.

The company's Northwest guide is in its 14th edition. And though the Best Places series has expanded considerably since its birth in 1975, the editors have clung largely to the West Coast, venturing no farther east than Phoenix and Las Vegas.

Testing the new edition of the Northwest guide on a recent Seattle trip, I found sound info on downtown attractions and a great day-trip tip: Chuckanut Drive, a coast-hugging sort of PCH North that connects the hamlet of Bow and the city of Bellingham, about 60 miles north of Seattle.

The guidebook covers Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, and the editors vow the Best Places reporters neither identify themselves to hotels and restaurants nor accept freebies -- a rare and admirably broad pledge.

Calendar writer Christopher Reynolds' books column runs twice a month.

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