As an Italian stand-up comedian once said, if Romans can’t drive to some place, they won’t go there. Walk around the Italian capital on a Saturday night and indeed you will see hundreds of cars queuing on the sides of the River Tiber or desperately squeezing into the narrow streets behind squares such as Campo de’ Fiori or the neighborhood of Trastevere, packed with restaurants and cafés, and trying to fit into the space of a dustbin as if they were playing the computer game Tetris.
During daytime, when only tourists and parliament members seem to be around, the city center is closed to traffic in order to control pollution. But wait until dark, and you’ll see how things change. And because driving is so important in Rome, a city of 2.5 million, directing traffic while standing on the little podium in Piazza Venezia has been the dream of many Roman vigili urbani (traffic policemen). Public transport, after all, is hardly comparable to that in London or Paris, and people sometimes blame Roman ruins for this.
Plan to build a new underground line? Ten minutes after the excavation starts, someone will say they’ve found a vase or a statue, or worse still, a bit of mosaic floor, and in no time at all, the Ministry of Fine Arts will be there, blocking the works.
Not that Romans don’t realize that ruins, though literally always under their feet, are truly what makes Rome the Eternal City. Especially during the summer, these ancient temples, markets and houses reawaken. It’s not just the men in centurion costumes walking around the Colosseum and offering to take a picture with them with your own camera.
During the evening, thanks to Rome’s fabulous weather, open-air shows are organized around the area of Via dei Fori Imperiali, lit up as for the set of the movie “The Gladiator.” Some are free of charge while others may cost a lot, but the scenery is so unique, it’s worth it anyway.
A couple of years ago a group of American actors based in Rome produced a comedy on the life of five Roman emperors somewhere behind the old Roman Senate and St Peter’s prisons. First-time spectators were happy to sit on the steps in front of a nearby church, or on the straw mats placed on the ground (entry was free of charge, after all), while returning audiences came back with folded chairs. And with so many monuments all around, the company was able to keep the scene setting as simple as four paper columns.
But this is only one of the open-air shows in the Ancient Roman setting. Early on summer evenings, people have been crowding to the gates of the nearby Basilica di Massenzio, in a way which would make the stranger presume there’s going to be a pop concert with some famous star for three years in a row now.
Taudience’s ages range from high school students to their grandparents, and they’re all waiting for their favorite writer to appear. This is the literary festival, often hosting important international writers such as novelist Doris Lessing, Ian McEwan or Abraham B. Yehoshua, who read selected pages of their latest book in their own language before a live jazz concert takes place.
Concerts are also held under the palm trees in Villa Celimontana, a 16th century palace behind the Colosseum surrounded by a beautiful park, open to the public, or in Emperor Traianus’ markets, in front of Via dei Fori Imperiali. Here the audience sits under the shadow of the medieval red brick Torre delle Milizie (despite the Eternal City’s Roman and Baroque architectural fame, there are quite a few medieval remains half hidden here and there).
This area has such beautiful acoustics that its ancient purpose—a shopping center—seems a huge waste. In fact, you can see more cars driving up and down Via dei Fori Imperiali without hearing them.
After the shows, the heart of Rome on a summer night moves to somewhere between Trastevere and Campo de’ Fiori: a beautiful square surrounded by pastel colored buildings, and the little alleys behind Piazza Navona.
Campo de’ Fiori is named after the market which is held here every morning to sell flowers (fiori), among other products. Its history however is famously linked to the death of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), Dominican friar and Neoplatonist who was accused of heresy and burned here. A dark statue of the philosopher gloomily overlooks the square.
Despite its sinister past, Campo de’ Fiori is one of the liveliest and therefore best places when you want to have a drink. Wine bars, cafés and pubs are everywhere and there is no need for the omnipresent Roman waiters standing outside and inviting you to take a seat, in every known language. These places are so popular that finding a seat becomes an arduous quest.
In fact, during the summer nights the square gets crammed with people, mostly Romans telling colorful tales of their summer holidays. The square turns into a large sitting room, with buildings as walls, and everyone standing with a drink and chatting lively: a massive cocktail party. A glass of white wine, a beer, or a strawberry caipiroska (a cocktail made of vodka, crashed ice, strawberries and sugar) is often the choice and as you sip your drink standing next to Giordano Bruno’s statue. You’ll notice how many people seem to know everyone, in a way which would resemble a little village rather than a fairly large capital.
They say people who live here complain about the noise. Indeed I saw a lady last summer who lived in a building overlooking the square and didn’t look at all happy.
At 2 a.m., in an ultimate effort to get some sleep in the hot summer night, despite the people laughing and talking heartily under her open window, she threw two or three buckets of water over them to the extreme enjoyment of the rest of the party.
If You Go
Rome Tourist Board:
As the capital city of Italy, Rome is situated in the central part of the Italian peninsula only forty minutes from the Mediterranean Sea. It is known as the Eternal City because of its endless history, dating back to over 2,500 years ago, and for its role as the capital of the Roman Empire as well as that of the Roman Catholic Church.
The climate is temperate, mitigated by the Mediterranean Sea. During the summer, temperatures often reach 86° F (30° C) and above. However, fountains with drinkable water are virtually everywhere.
Overall, Rome is a safe town, even for women travelling solo. General rules on safety on public transport and crowded places obviously apply, but you can walk on your own in the city center without fear, avoiding perhaps the area surrounding the central station (Stazione Termini).