Living

Rome makes history shine for visitors

The Spanish Steps get a makeover in Rome. Funded by Bulgari, images of famous Italian movie stars dot the barricades.
The Spanish Steps get a makeover in Rome. Funded by Bulgari, images of famous Italian movie stars dot the barricades. TNS

Buongiorno, my hundreds of fellow tourists crowding the Trevi Fountain on this bright spring day. Doesn’t it look magnificent? Isn’t it grand? Aren’t you happy to be the first high-season tourists to see the place again without scaffolding? The baroque fountain was recently closed for 17 months while it was cleaned, scrubbed, repaired and restored to the glory intended by sculptor Salvi when he began carving it in 1762.

“I am happy to see it. I love ‘La Dolce Vita,’ ” said Jessie Cantrell, 32, of Tennessee, the only American tourist I found among the throngs (and probably one of the few who actually has seen the 1960 Italian film that features the fountain).

Trevi reopened in November after undergoing $2.4 million in renovations paid for by the Italian fashion house Fendi. Now it is scaffolding-free and ready to be adored by scads of tourists brandishing selfie sticks and wandering with cones of gelato.

So, that’s the good news for Americans planning a Roman holiday.

The bad news? It is the Spanish Steps’ turn for renovation. They are closed. They are blocked off by a clear glass and metal barrier. They are empty. Tourists who didn’t read ahead about it look somewhat shell-shocked as they wander around at the foot of the massive staircase on Piazza di Spagna, some plopping down on the edge of a little fountain that looks like a sunken boat.

The Spanish Steps are the unofficial center of Rome tourism. But not so far this year.

They closed in October and may open soon, but when? Like many things in Italy, there is no concrete answer.

“I do not know,” said a hotel clerk. “Even the pope does not know.”

Officials have left a narrow strip of steps on the left so you still can climb to the top to see the view from Trinita dei Monti church. But no sitting, loitering, stopping, hanging out or wasting time on the stairs.

The $1.7 million renovation is being funded by Bulgari, the famous jewelry maker. They have pasted images of Italian movie stars of the past on the clear barriers, so it is possible to have your photo taken with Sophia Loren as you climb the steps.

But all this got me wondering about other Roman icons. What is their status for visitors?

Colosseum

Looking good. It went through its ugly scaffolding-renovation period on and off for a few decades, but it all came down in the past year. The stadium from A.D. 72 now is looking pretty glorious.

New since last summer is a modern version of an ancient elevator/trap door that boosted lions and gladiators to the arena floor. To see it, take the “underground-3rd ring” tour, which lets you walk underground in the hypogeum where the wild animals and fighters were held. The interesting “third ring” (third floor) is wonderful for panoramic photos of the stadium, which looks pretty decent considering centuries of earthquakes, scavengers, sacking and general neglect.

St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel

Looking good, nothing blocked or renovations. But even visitors who buy “skip the line” tickets ahead of time will find themselves in tedious queues. Why? It’s just too crowded, making the visit extremely unpleasant for tourists and guides. I am not sure what can be done about it, but the popularity of Pope Francis, who has declared this year a Holy Year of Mercy, is attracting even more pilgrims to Vatican City.

It is not so bad inside the church, which is twice the length of a football field. But the Vatican Museums are terribly claustrophobic, with almost no restrooms, stopping spots, chairs or drinking fountains, just the expectation that you will stand in line for more than two hours slowly snaking your way to the elbow-to-elbow Sistine Chapel.

I talked to people who went in the morning, noon and night, and all reported the same thing. I cannot imagine what the summer will bring. Absolutely do not bring children. The Sistine Chapel is worth seeing, as are the Raphael frescoes, but you will come out of the tour feeling like you have been through the ringer. Exhausting.

Roman Forum

The ruins are still in ruins, I am happy to report, with only minor scaffolding and nothing to mar your photos. This is quite a relaxing place to wander on a spring day, with roses blooming. The spot where Caesar’s ashes are buried and the Vestal Virgin columns still draw a crowd.

This is a place that mixes time periods so badly that it’s OK if you don’t understand much of what you see. But like much of Rome, it wears antiquity well and nonchalantly.

The Pantheon

Looking good, no scaffolding or construction. Lots of crowds, of course, but the Pantheon is such a huge structure that it can take it. Rome’s best-preserved ancient building dates from A.D. 28. It also is surrounded by an adorable piazza, al fresco restaurants, shops and hotels.

P.S.: Don’t miss the small masterpiece Bernini statue of an elephant outside the nearby Santa Maria Sopra Minerva church.

Piazza Navona

Looking good, except for one giant billboard looming over the north end of the piazza. One of Rome’s most notable piazzas has a long oval shape and three lovely fountains, including Bernini’s fantastic 1621-era “fountain of the four rivers.”

Restaurants, shops and the Brazilian Embassy are also here. On a Sunday, a Brazilian combo was playing while a tourist couple was dancing the tango.

It was a nice cultural mix in what is already the most culturally rich city on the planet.

7 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT ROME TRAVEL

Getting home: Expect multiple layers of security at the Rome Leonardo da Vinci (Fiumicino) Airport terminal 5 for departing passengers to North America.

Security: High security is obvious at major tourist locations but especially the Pantheon area, Trevi Fountain, train station and outside the walls of Vatican City. I observed uniformed military with automatic weapons standing by as crowds thronged, part of an anti-terrorism effort, Operation Safe Streets. Regular police were obvious as well, but they mainly were doing normal duties such as shooing away motorbikes and stopping people from climbing into the fountains.

Traffic: Central Rome’s tiny winding streets feature frustrated drivers of small cars and motorbikes who grudgingly make way for pedestrians. Meanwhile, clueless tourists wander in the middle of streets. Dodging traffic and walking on the uneven cobblestones may pose a greater hazard to tourists than crime.

Taxis: All guidebooks have warnings to take only marked white taxis with signs on the top and fares painted on the side. But even then, you can’t hail a taxi in Rome. You must go to a taxi stand, and even then one may or may not come. And taxi drivers mostly don’t speak English and seem grumpy, probably because of the nightmarish traffic. I have one piece of advice for you: walk.

Walking: Rome’s subway system is outside the central city where tourists congregate. Its buses also have a traffic problem because they are forced to inch down congested avenues. Walking is really the fastest way to get around. Bring good shoes. My Fitbit recorded 14,500 steps one day.

Money: The U.S. dollar is holding up well against the euro. I did not find Rome too expensive.

Food: Any sit-down restaurant will give you something wonderful to eat, good service and good, inexpensive wine. Most restaurants offer appetizer, first, second and third-course choices. But you really only need to choose one course to be satisfied. A few restaurants carry hefty price tags, about 20-30 euros for an a la carte main dish. But most restaurants are extremely reasonable. Avoid Italian fast food places and any mention of McDonald’s or Subway.

  Comments