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Rome is a city of images, vivid and unforgettable. One of the most striking is dawn from Janiculum Hill as the city's silhouette, with its bell towers and cupolas, comes gradually into view.

Rome is also a city of sounds, beginning early in the morning, with the peal of church bells calling the faithful to Mass. As the city awakens and comes to life, the sounds multiply and merge into a kind of sinfonia urbana. The streets fill with cars, taxis, and motor scooters, blaring their horns as they weave in and out of traffic; the sidewalks become overrun with bleary-eyed office workers rushing off to their desks, but not before stealing into crowded cafes for their first cappuccino of the day. The shops lining the streets open for business by raising their protective metal grilles as loudly as possible, seeming to delight in their contribution to the general din. And before long the many fruit-and-vegetable stands are abuzz with activity, as housewives, maids, widowers, cooks, and others arrive to purchase their day's supply of fresh produce, haggling over price and caviling over quality.

By 10am the tourists are on the street, battling the crowds and traffic as they wind their way from Renaissance palaces and baroque buildings to the famous ruins of antiquity. Indeed, Rome often appears to have two populations: one of Romans and one of visitors. During the summer months especially, Rome seems to become one big host for the countless sightseers who converge upon it, guidebook and camera in hand. To all of them -- Americans, Europeans, Japanese -- Rome extends a warm and friendly welcome, wining them, dining them, and entertaining them in its inimitable fashion. Of course, if you visit in August, you may see only tourists -- not Romans, as the locals flee at that time. Or as one Roman woman once told us, "Even if we're too poor to go on vacation, we close the shutters and pretend we're away so neighbors won't find out we couldn't afford to leave the city."

The traffic, unfortunately, is worse than ever, restoration programs seem to drag on forever, and as the capital, Rome remains at the center of the major political scandals and corruption known as tangentopoli ("bribe city"), which sends hundreds of government bureaucrats to jail each year.

Political chaos remains part of everyday life on the Roman landscape. It is often assumed that anyone entering politics was doing so for personal gain. Some of that changed in the mid-1990s, when stringent penalties and far-reaching investigations were instituted by a controversial public magistrate, Antonio Di Pietro, who operated with a widespread public approval bordering on adoration. The "Clean Hands" (Mani Pulite) campaign he began mandated stiff penalties and led to reams of negative publicity for any politician accused of accepting bribes or campaign contributions that could be interpreted in any way as influence peddling.

Besides soccer (calico), family, and affairs of the heart, the primal obsession of Rome as it moves deeper and deeper into the millennium is il sorpasso, a term that describes Italy's surpassing of its archrivals, France and Britain, in economic indicators. Economists disagree about whether or not il sorpasso has happened, and statistics vary widely from source to source. Italy's true economy is difficult to measure because of the vast Mafia-controlled underground economy (economia sommersa) that competes on a monumental scale with the official economy. Almost every Roman has some unreported income or expenditure, and people at all levels of Italian society are engaged to some degree in withholding funds from the government.

By 2010 il sorpasso seemed to have become a distant dream, as Italy, like the United States and Greece, faced a monumental debt crisis and the curse of unemployment which cannot be solved, or so it would seem.

Another complicating factor is the surfeit of laws passed in Rome and their effect on the citizens. Before they get thrown out of office, politicians pass laws and more laws, adding to the seemingly infinite number already on the books. Italy not only has more laws on its books than any other nation of western Europe but also suffers from a bloated bureaucracy. Something as simple as cashing a check or paying a bill can devour half a day. To escape red tape, Romans have become marvelous improvisers and corner-cutters. Whenever possible, they bypass the public sector and negotiate private deals fra amici (among friends).

Rome remains a city of contradictions. This simultaneously strident, romantic, and sensual city has forever altered the Western world's religion, art, and government. And despite all the confusion of their city, Romans still manage to live a relatively relaxed way of life. Along with their southern cousins in Naples, they are specialists in arte di arrangiarsi, the ability to cope and survive with style. The Romans have humanity and humor, a 2,000-year-old sense of cynicism, and a strong feeling of belonging to a particular place. The city's attractions seem as old as time itself, and despite the frustrations of daily life, Rome will continue to lure new visitors every year, including both vacationers wanting to see what's left of the glory that was Rome and immigrants seeking la dolce vita.

After you've done your "duty" to culture, wandered through the Colosseum, been awed that the Pantheon is still there, after you've traipsed through St. Peter's Basilica and thrown a coin in the Trevi Fountain, you can pause in the early evening to experience the charm of Rome at sunset. Find a cafe at summer twilight and watch the shades of pink turn to gold and copper, until night finally falls. That's when a new Rome comes alive, and when its restaurants and cafes grow more animated and more fun, especially if you've found one on an antique piazza or along a narrow alley deep in Trastevere. After dinner you can stroll by the fountains, or through Piazza Navona, have a gelato (or an espresso in winter), and the night is yours.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.