21 April 2012

Rome in 2012 (at 2,765 years of age)

The 21st April is Rome's official birthday. Founded, according to long-standing legend, in 753BC, the city is now 2,765 years old.

I have just returned from a week in Rome and noticed some big changes from the time, ten years ago, when I lived in the city. It is still an amazing place, with ancient history on every corner. There seemed to be more cars on the streets, which can only be a bad thing in a city already notorious for its traffic chaos. There were also fewer scooters in use, though perhaps that was a consequence of the bad weather during my visit, and many more bicycles.

Most noticeably, the city has become more modern and - like the rest of Italy - vastly more expensive. I had booked my trip to coincide with the Settimana della Cultura, when Italy's state monuments and museums are opened to the public free of charge. But even this countrywide initiative wasn't enough to drop the cost of visiting the Forum, Colosseum and Palatine from €12. Perhaps that's not bad value, considering the importance of the three combined sites and the cost of their upkeep. But I remember with nostalgia the days when I would take a short cut home through the middle of the Forum, which was open free of charge. Now it is open only from a couple of entrances at a high price, this historic heart of the city is no longer an integrated part of Rome, just another tourist sight. (And the enclosed site now means a long detour for pedestrians).

The Ludovisi Throne in Palazzo Altemps
One of the major differences in Rome is the kind of tourism. Of course there were always tour groups in Rome. But in 2012 the proportion of tourists visiting as part of a group seemed to me much larger. At the principal sights, the Forum, Colosseum and Vatican Museums, there were huge queues, with independent tourists queueing for as much as forty minutes to gain admittance, while big tour groups were ushered past. (For the Forum and Colosseum, I would highly recommend purchasing a Roma Pass for fast-track admission). Meanwhile, Rome's other wonderful museums, off the tour-groups' itineraries, were nearly empty despite the treasures they contain and despite the offer of free admission. While it was nice to see marvels like the Ara Pacis with no crowds, it was also very sad to think of these sights being overlooked, and perhaps underfunded, due to the changing nature of tourism. On a sidenote I was curious to see tourists queueing to pay the reduced price of €8 to see contemporary exhibitions at MAXXI, while all the town's unique heritage museums were free.

I used to think that central Rome was large enough to absorb any number of tourists, but that was before so many of those tourists were in groups of twenty-plus people. And with the increase in cruising holidays, the daily influx will increase. I came to the conclusion that nowadays, to visit the big sights is a necessary but arduous experience. But once you have competed with the crowds for the day-trip destinations, you can enjoy the city's other attractions at your leisure. Take the time to wander through the lanes of the centro storico, visit the smaller (and cheaper) museums, search for out-of-the-way antiquities and you will have a much more enriching experience.

Puntarelle and fiori di zucca in the market
Rome has been spending money. The dilapidated towers and picturesque creeper which adorned some of the centro storico's little lanes have gone, to be replaced with restored masonry and bland facades. A couple of my personal favourite spots had lost much of their charm. It was actually a relief to see the Tritone fountain in Piazza Barberini looking much as it has always done. Big restorations are still underway elsewhere, and while some of these are welcome, I suspect some of the Italian fondness for over-reconstruction is also at play.

Another big change is digital photography. Everywhere I went, tourists were photographing away with indiscriminate abandon. In St. Peter's there was no-one praying, no-one consulting guidebooks, no-one even  standing and looking around. Just a sea of illuminated LCD screens held up in the air. Italian teenagers were queueing to rub a statue's holy toe, as ever, but now they were filming themselves and presumably planning to stick the experience on Facebook. It's very different approach to travel. The weirdest thing I saw was a Russian woman groping the statue of the Dying Gaul in the Capitoline Museums, while her boyfriend took a photo of the act.

After living in Venice, it was a huge pleasure to return to a city with cheaper, better and more reliable restaurants. These are more expensive than they used to be, and slicker, with more foreign menus and a less leisurely approach to service - but the food is still excellent and we enjoyed great meals at some of the same restaurants I have been visiting for ten years. Local specialities such as fried artichoke and pasta cacio e pepe still fill the menus, and you can eat good filling food at reasonable prices.

Mostly, despite the changes, Rome stays the same. The city is still mellow and beautiful. There are still queues for the best coffee in Rome at Sant'Eustachio, still flowers on Caesar's memorial, still political poems taped to the statue of Pasquino.
House of Augustus, on the Palatine
Among this trip's new highlights were the Lux in Arcana exhibition at the Capitoline Museums - decipher a letter from Michelangelo, study the seals attached to Henry VIII's divorce request - and the frescoes in Augustus's house on the Palatine hill. One of my favourite moments was in the marvellous Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (a well-organised collection of Roman sculptures, mosaics and wall-paintings). On the top floor is a remarkable display of Roman interior design; the wall-paintings from several Roman villas. Peering into one  colourful bedroom, an older Italian lady beckoned me over with a "Pssst! Signora!". She wanted to point out her favourite painting - "che meraviglia!" - and informed me that of all the sights in the entire world, this floor of this museum was surely the most beautiful. She certainly had a point, and to see these sights, free of charge and with only a handful of visitors, was quite remarkable.

My latest tips for Rome, after this trip:

  • Stay long enough to avoid the crowds and visit Rome's fabulous museums 
  • Take a good map and guidebook and get off the beaten track
  • Buy a Roma Pass to minimise queueing at the Forum and Colosseum
  • Stamp your ticket before boarding the Leonardo Express train between Fiumicino Airport and Stazione Termini - the conductor was the nastiest official I've ever seen in Italy, and was enjoying victimising foreign tourists with demands for €50 per head fines
  • If you're on a budget, visit during next year's Settimana della Cultura

I will be adding fresh restaurant and museum recommendations in the near future.
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