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|
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|
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|
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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