11/05/2007 at 01:00 AM EST
Perched at the top of Monte Mario in Rome lies Lovers' Lane, a popular promenade where couples declare their amore by securing bike locks to an iron railing. But on Oct. 19 Jake Gyllenhaal
and Reese Witherspoon
decided to buck tradition and showcase their feelings for each other by locking lips instead. "Jake was leaning against the railing and Reese was buried in his arms," says an onlooker. "They were completely immersed in each other."
So much so that—after months of keeping their relationship shrouded in secrecy, from covert dinner dates to an under-the-radar August rendezvous on Martha's Vineyard—the couple finally didn't seem to care who saw them. It turns out their Roman getaway (they were in town to promote their CIA thriller Rendition
at the Rome Film Festival) came at just the right moment: On Oct. 5 Witherspoon's seven-year marriage to Ryan Phillippe
legally ended. (The couple is still working out their finances and custody arrangements for their children Ava, 8, and Deacon, 4.) Now "Reese has more time to give to the relationship" with Gyllenhaal, says a source close to the actress. "She's in a happy place and it shows."
It certainly did during the couple's romantic weekend, which kicked off on Oct. 19 when Witherspoon, 31, and Gyllenhaal, 26, left their posh digs at the Hotel de Russie. As they strolled through the Piazza di Spagna and up the Spanish Steps hand-in-hand, "she held him close to her and he kissed her hair tenderly," says one observer.
Next stop was the Campo dei Fiori flower and vegetable market, where they enjoyed an afternoon of window shopping arm-in-arm. Later a giddy Gyllenhaal unleashed his inner gladiator, picking up Witherspoon at a busy intersection and giving her a piggyback ride through traffic to the other side of the street. Says a witness: "They were all smiles and giggles. You could tell they were happy together."
The PDA continued the next day when they joined a group of friends for a walking tour of the city, during which "they were more restrained ... but nonetheless held hands," says an onlooker. When the twosome later sat down at the Bar della Pace, "she was almost in tears from laughing—they were having a ball," says a waiter.
Though neither Witherspoon nor Gyllenhaal have spoken publicly about their romance, Witherspoon told reporters at Rendition's
Roman premiere on Oct. 21, "I have known Jake for years through different friends, and he is just wonderful. He's very kind, generous and funny." Two days later, during an exchange on Ellen DeGeneres' talk show, Witherspoon agreed with the talk show host's observation that Gyllenhaal is "cute," adding, "Yeah. He's great."
So what is it, exactly, that Witherspoon adores about her new man? It helps that both she and Gyllenhaal "are big family people," a friend says of the couple. And even though he's five years her junior, "they're at the same speed," says a Gyllenhaal source. "They're homebodies."
Even so, their road to romance has had its share of bumps. The couple first began spending time together in March, but cooled down after about three months of dating because "the time for them wasn't right. Reese wasn't ready," says a Witherspoon source. In June a source told PEOPLE, "She just got out of a divorce and was so concerned with her family, she just didn't have the time for him and he really demanded that." Only two months later, however, Witherspoon and her kids were briefly spotted at an outdoor fair on Martha's Vineyard with Gyllenhaal—whose parents have a home on the island—sparking rumors of a reunion.
Their relationship renaissance was made official on Sept. 23, when Witherspoon and Gyllenhaal turned up at a small bash at Carrie Fisher's L.A. home, making their entrance and exit together. "The party was their 'coming out,'" says a guest. "They were very cute with one another and doting—just adorable." Up until then, Witherspoon and Gyllenhaal have kept hush-hush because "their privacy is important," says a Witherspoon source. Plus "[Reese] isn't a huge fan of having her family or her relationship in the spotlight."
Still, though they were spotted kissing at the airport when they landed back in L.A. on Oct. 22, don't expect the public piggyback rides to become a habit. "They are both very private people, always have been, and that's not going to change," says a Witherspoon source.
But they will always have Rome. While attending a Rendition
cast party at the Hotel Ambasciatori on their last night in the Eternal City, "they said they would definitely come back," says Silvio Catalano, the hotel's general manager, "because they had a memorable time here."