Things to see and do - Rome
Unmissable tourist sites
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The City Today
The City Today
Rome has seen widespread and uncontrolled urban expansion since World War II, and increased traffic that has, in turn, threatened its ancient monuments. Preserving the cultural heritage remains a hot topic for city hall problem solvers. However, Rome’s mille-feuille of historical layers continues to provide the backdrop to the city’s modern bustle, as befits the Eternal City.
The Eternal City
Rome had to double in size to fulfil its modern role as capital of a united Italy (since 1870). Architects used concrete, metal and glass to house its population, construct administrative buildings, and improve its traffic flow.
Italy’s capital is not a quick study. The metropolis struts and shouts like Napoleon, languidly simmers like Sophia Loren and, then – just as the kaleidoscope shifts towards a coherent pattern – slips into business mode, shrewd-tongued and silk-suited. Rome is ephemeral, enigmatic. Small wonder early residents revered Janus, the two-faced ancient God of new beginnings, who looks forwards, while peering back. The Eternal City, solid on the bedrock of history, reinvents itself daily.
Eleanor Clark best captured the chaos, contradictions and coquetry of this city in her 1950s classic, Rome and a Villa . “The ordinary traveller,” she observed, “runs off in relief to Florence, to the single statement, the single moment of time, the charming unity of somewhat prison-like architecture, and is aware later of having retained from his tour of Rome some stirring around the heart, those images, huge, often grotesque, were what he had been looking for, only it would have taken so long...”
A Visible Past
Rome’s many famous monuments continue to delight tourists: the Pantheon and Forum, the majestic Colosseum, St Peter’s, the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain and the Villa Borghese, to name a few. The ancient ruins form the backbone of this stunning landscape; scattered around the city, these are often hemmed in by modern buildings. Their survival is amazing; armies repeatedly sacked Rome during the Middle Ages and in the past, the citizens themselves have torn down structures and even put cows to pasture in the Forum.
Others colonized the old temples and amphitheatres, building onto their tiers. Churches and monuments often have multiple layers, each dating to a different historical period. The best example is the basilica of San Clemente sul Celio, built in the 4C on Republican-era foundations, then reconstructed in the 12C, and modified in the 18C.
Another important characteristic of Rome is its old villas, where noble families once lived far from the plebeian crowds. Now public parks, the gardens of the Villa Borghese, Villa Doria and Villa Ada provide an attractive and essential splash of greenery.
Although Rome still operates under the emblem of the wolf and the old Republican formula SPQR ( Senatus Populusque Romanus ), not much remains of the marble glory of Augustus and the emperors. The Renaissance and Baroque have both left their marks, mainly as a consequence of the architectural ambition of many of the popes. And the modern citizens overlay it all with Vespas, fashion billboards, football flags and minimalist chic constructions.
Still, the Eternal City remains poetic and potent – dangerously so. As the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow warned: “Tis the centre to which all gravitates. One finds no rest elsewhere than here. There may be other cities that please us for a while, but Rome alone completely satisfies. It becomes to all a second native land by predilection, and not by accident of birth alone.”
Government and Economy
Industrial growth in the area around Rome grew with post-war vigour, and local industries included textiles, paper and metal products, which survive today. Since the 1930s, cinema has also played its part in the city’s economy, with Cinecitta studios, known as the Italian Hollywood, producing most Italian movies and television programmes. The modern Roman economy, however, is now largely dominated by tourism and government operations, as the seat of the Italian Parliament. The city government is currently headed up by Mayor Gianni Alemanno.
Although Papal power has declined, the Holy See remains the focal point for world Catholicism. The fortified Vatican City, lying within the city limits, has been recognized as an independent state by the Italian government since 1929, with a Sovereign Pope. As of January 2009 the Pope divorced the Vatican State from Italian law, and now has supreme authority over which laws it will abide by.
Rome is the third most visited tourist destination in the EU. Visit during August and you may be hard pressed to find a Roman to talk to amid the swathes of tourists pounding the piazzas. As one of Europe’s most popular tourist spots since the days of the Grand Tour, Rome is used to welcoming visitors and pilgrims. As such, its tourist infrastructure is good, all the better for a spruce up of some of it’s oldest museums over the past few years, and with plenty of hotels and restaurants for all budgets and preferences. Tourists would do well to see Rome on a Roman schedule – mornings and late afternoons are the times for activity, with many shops and trattorias closing for an afternoon nap. A bugbear for visitors and Romans alike though is transport, with a congested road system and limited tram and Metro. Crime against tourists is low, but watch out for pickpockets – especially on the infamous 64 bus route and on the Metro.
People and Population
2009 census; 2,726,927
When in Rome do as the Romans do, as the cliche goes, and that means throwing away your shyness and self-deprecation. Romans are an abundantly confident group of people; small wonder with the weight of 500 years of Caput Mundi on their side. You can sense the sense of implacable local entitlement in the way that cars and pedestrians face off with equal bravado at road crossings and passionate, animated conversations are held at top volume around you. There’s no place like Rome for the Romans; it’s bigger, better, more beautiful and certainly more stylish than anywhere else – something the marked absence of anything resembling casual sportswssear on anyone but a tourist bears out. But most importantly, larger-than -life Romans are notably warm, welcoming and sociable people who will happily pass the time of day, laugh, flirt or try to follow your faltering attempts at Italian with equal good humour.
Food and Drink
Like the city itself, the flavours of Roman cooking are rich and robust, heavy on sauces, meat and hearty bean stews, in a rustic local cuisine based on peasant food. Carnivores can chomp down with gusto – palma ham (saltimbocca), fried sweatbreads and milk-fed lamb (abbacchio) are local specialities, while sea bass (spigola) and fried cod (baccala) are popular fish alternatives. Gnocci and pasta dishes are garnished with vegetables such as artichokes, and washed down with the area’s best-known wines, those of the surrounding Castelli Romani region, commonly known as Frascati. And whether upmarket restaurant or trattoria, food will inevitably be sourced locally, and served with the relaxed respect that befits the birthplace of the Slow Food Movement (borne out of a mid-1980s protest against the opening of a McDonalds by the Spanish Steps). For food on the run, the holy trinity of the Italian diet, wafer light pizza, strong coffee and delicious gelato (ice cream) are found in every corner of the city.