ROMA, non basta una vita. Rome, a lifetime is not enough. You could, of course, riposte that such pithy words of wisdom are equally applicable to cities like Paris or Florence. But no other city is as much of an Aladdin’s cave as is Rome.
Two thousand five hundred years of history have bequeathed the city a rich legacy of monuments, palaces and art treasures, ancient cloisters and sculptured fountains, mouldering freizes and medieval tombs, mosaic-crowned gateways and palm-shadowed gardens. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Rome lures the historian, the student, the connoisseur and even the ordinary tourist time and again.
Rome was not built in a day. A cliche, yes. But experiencing the multiple personalities of Rome, one is glad that it is the offspring of several emperors, each of whom has left his own impression on this eternal city that pulsates with la dolce vita, the good life. It conjures up images of Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastrioanni, Gina Lollobrigida, Raquel Welch. Beautiful people without a care in the world. But always with that worldly air. Look at that olive-skinned, hazel-eyed brunette as she sashays down the street. Admire the amused indifference of the Roman male lounging in his carefully creased linen suit, as he sips wine at a cafe and watches the world walk by through a swirl of cigarette smoke.
Rome is most emphatically not a museum city, preserved in a vacuum as an objet d’art; its inhabitants would render this impossible, for they treat the grandeur of their inheritance with complete insouciance. Through the centuries they have ruthlessly destroyed the old to build something new, with the same indifference with which Roman housewives have hung out their washing upon imperial ruins.
For Rome, architecturally, and in its way of life, is a palimpsest. At first glance, parts of the city may appear to belong wholly to today, but look beneath the surface and you are led backwards through the centuries. Nowhere is this more evident than upon the Capitol, which is endowed with some of the same qualities as Wells’s Time Machine, rising as it does like an island of peace out of the strident roar of the Piazza Venezia in the heart of the city.
Around the corner from the Capitol are the magnificent ruins of the Forum. The Romans identified the beginnings of the Forum with the legendary founding of their city by Romulus in 753 BC when the war with the Sabines of the Quirinal—touched off by the rape of their women—had ended. In the Forum’s vast ruins, where you could lose yourself for three to four hours, the mind boggles at the progressive civilisation that existed all those centuries ago— the sheer human history of the broken columns, roofless walls and ancient temples, frozen in time.
The greatest remaining monument of ancient Rome is the Colosseum, built in the first century AD. Both as a feat of engineering and a work of architecture, the Colosseum merits all the praise that has been showered upon it through the centuries. This vast mass of stone—originally a third of a mile in circumference— was raised on marshy grounds after the lake in the gardens of the Golden House was drained, an achievement which would tax the ingenuity of modern engineers. And it was designed so as to enable 50,000 potentially unruly people to enter, find their seats and disperse with ease via its 80 exits.
Nothing in Rome illustrates better the Roman’s attitude to his great monuments than the Piazza della Rotonda that lies before the Pantheon. The fame of this marvellous building is celebrated in a popular Roman proverb which, making an untranslatable play on the word ‘rotonda’, says that anyone who comes to Rome without seeing the Pantheon ‘goes and comes back an ass’
To me there is always something comforting about catching even a glimpse of it in passing; solidly planted there, as witness that man’s endeavour can survive the wreckage of centuries. But as I pass through the great bronze doors, the largest of the three Roman ones to have survived, this feeling of human companionship is transformed into awe. In the Pantheon it is the calm and majestic spirit of the classical world which lives, in the vast sweep of the dome and the light diffused from above as from the all seeing eye of heaven; the symbol, it is said, of a divinity which was superior to all others.
This detached calm contrasts with the hustle and bustle of modern Rome, especially when it comes to shopping. Chic boutiques and shops thrive in this atmosphere, catering to every whim, no matter how frivolous the fancy may be. The Via Condotti for example, which runs from the Piazza di Spagna on to the busy thoroughfare of Via del Corso, is lined with the most expensive shops. Gucci (leather and silks), Bulgari (jewels and watches), Valentino (menswear and household linen), Beltrami (shoes), rub shoulders with each other in this street, which the discerning have dubbed the Fifth Avenue of Rome.
This penchant for elegance or casual chic has extended itself to the uniforms worn by the policemen. In a dress designed by Fendi, with shoes by Gucci, the Roman lady law-enforcer balances the crispness of her clothes with a purposeful flint in her eyes. The Italian man, tinged with male chauvinism, is wont to look upon a policewoman with more with amusement than respect.
The famous Italian poet Pasolini has said, “An vedi ho,” which could translate as a philisophical “Oh well, don’t you see?” It is a statement that encapsulates the Roman philosophy of life. You can see it in the attitude of the drivers of the horse-carriages, always ready to charm and fleece the unsuspecting tourist.
A well-known Roman joke illustrates this attitude better. A rich, cigar-chomping tourist boarded a horse-carriage at the Piazza di Spagna. His first question to the normally unflappable driver was, “How long did it take you guys to build this piazza?” “Oh sir, about 20 years,” came the answer. “Really? It took us only one year to build the Lincoln Centre.” Arriving at the Capitol, the tourist asked, “And how long to build that?” On being told that it took 50 years, the tourist retorted, “It took us just five years to get Times Square in place.” When they finally reached the Colosseum; the expected question was asked. There was silence for a moment. Then the cab-driver turned in his seat, looked at the tourist with surprise in his eyes and in a voice full of wonder, exclaimed, “Oh sir, I passed this way as recently as yesterday but I swear I did not see this marvel at all!”
One of the favourite pastimes of Italians is lotto, the game of chance, which finds manifestations in totocalcio (football), totip (horse racing) and enclotto (the weekly draw). Every day, most Romans zip out of their offices to the local lotto shop and bet money on one of the games.
Considering themselves professionals, the Romans are not above being highly superstitious. Recently, an elderly gentleman won a massive amount on enclotto. On being questioned by the press how he had arrived at the winning combination, he replied quite seriously. “Well, my good friend Pino was on his death-bed. When I went to visit him last week, I requested him to give me a figure. Sure enough, three nights after he was dead, he appeared to me in my dreams and gave me the numbers to play on. That’s how I won.”
Night falls. Laughter and noises of merriment spill out of every restaurant, pizzeria, trattoria, cafe. Everyone eats out. Everyone drinks copious amounts of wine. Everyone stays up until the wee hours of the morning. Everyone expects you, the poor tourist, to do the same.
I leave you with two suggestions. Don’t forget to take your afternoon siesta as does the rest of Rome. It’s not just a habit, it’s a religion. And don’t forget to take your walking shoes along. For that is the only way to experience the multi-facted pleasures of this wonderful city.
Giuseppe Giacomi, general manager of Alitalia, which resumed flights from Bombay to Rome, talks about packages offered by the airlineto Indian travellers
What are your night routes?
Our flight operates Bombay-Kuwait-Rome. We have traffic rights, which means we can take passengers from Bombay to Kuwait and we can pick up passengers in Kuwait and take them to Rome. So travellers from Bombay can go either to Kuwait or Rome. We operate twice a week, on Thursdays and Sundays, departing at 0050 hours arriving in Rome at 7.45 am. This means we have connections at ideal times from Rome to all points in Europe, the US and South America.
How does Kuwait figure in this?
I’ll give you an Italian saying. Due pigeoni con una fava, which means two pigeons are caught with one bean. The new aircraft that we are using (747) suits both Bombay and Kuwait passengers better.
What’s the difference?
First, the 747 is a bigger air-.craft than the previous Airbus we used and so we can have three types of services, Top Class, Business Class and Economy. Since the outbound traffic from Bombay is spread over different economic levels, our three classes come very much in use. Since there’s also a lot of cargo from India, we thought of splitting the aircraft to make it a combi (half cargo, half passenger). So we try to make the best arrangements out of India.
Why did Alitalia leave India in the first place?
Because the Airbus was not profitable and Alitalia was losing money on the route. But in the last year and a half the situation here has changed, business opportunities are much greater and so with a marketing rethink we’ve come back.
How do you plan to promote Alitalia in this’ changed scenario?
We have a promotion package that will last till May 15. if you fly Alitalia Top Class, Business or Full Economy Class from Bombay, you have a choice of four packages. The first is a free ticket for a colleague, spouse or relation in the same class. So two can travel for the price of one. The second is a free same-class Alitalia flight onward from Rome to any one of 72 European destinations. The third is a free night in Rome, including accommodation in a luxury hotel, dinner, breakfast and free transfers to and from the airport. The fourth is on-board shopping vouchers worth Lire 100,000.