Bread and circuses, Christians and Romans

We booked this trip to Rome when the Royal Wedding was announced. It seemed a good idea to be as far from that madding crowd as possible.

Now, I’m pretty agnostic about the royals. As planet Earth was famously described in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I regard them as Mostly Harmless. A living relic of a bygone era, a human tourist attraction.  The Church – any form of organised religion, really – I am deeply suspicious of, however. So when we stepped off our flight at Rome Fiumicino and saw row after row of floor-to-ceiling posters announcing that Pope John Paul the Second would be beatified at St Peter’s Basilica over the weekend, I could appreciate the irony: we’d picked the one city in Europe that would be more of a circus than London. And it was going to be lousy with the God squad.

Checking in to our hotel, our host Mary Rosa let us know the annual Primo Maggio concert would also be taking place. Aka La Festa dei Lavoratori (Labour Day Festival), this free concert in Piazza San Giovanni run by the unions at least plays into my politics, but with a crowd of half a million expected, my quiet weekend was looking pretty unlikely.

But cum Romano Romanus eris, as they say. So we jumped in with both feet and leapt into the fray.

Rome has a long history of hosting major public events. Some records say the Colosseum could hold over 80,000 people. Around a quarter of a million could watch the chariot races in the Circus Maximus. In Rome that weekend, it was easy to imagine that ancient past. Historians tell of the trade that surrounded those big events: the industries that fed off the spectacle, the street hawkers, the thieves. They’re all still there today. Outside every church and basilica (and there are many, many churches) canny traders waited to separate pilgrims from their pennies: JPII’s image smiled kindly out from every stall. The mayor has moved many of the city’s homeless out for the weekend, but they’re still visible. Old ladies prostrate themselves on the pavement holding out paper cups from McDonalds. Clubbed feet are waved like banners. Are they doing better this weekend, I wonder?

The Christian Rome bus tours are doing a roaring trade and, as to be expected, there are queues everywhere. We’re smart enough to be tickets online for the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, and scoot in with such ease we don’t bother for the Colosseum or the Fora. Big mistake. We satisfy ourselves with goggling at what is visible from the outside. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the feats of art and engineering in Rome. Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel are known the world over, but to get to see them you pass mind-bogglingly vast amounts of extraordinary art and treasures that stretch thousands of years back into human history. Trajan’s column, with its astonishing bas-relief winding up 20 colossal marble drums each weighing 32 tonnes, seems impossible. How could it have been engineered so many hundreds of years even before the birth of Christ? I once again marvel at the human capacity for invention.

The many and varied Italian police with their outré uniforms are all out in force, either speeding through the street with sirens wailing or gathered in groups of three or four chatting and eyeing off the prettier tourists. None of them seem responsible for controlling the aggressive street hawkers, who try everything from placing goods in your hands to chasing you down the street to make the sale (subtle, they’re not), often loitering just metres away from where they’re trading. On our last day, sitting on the Spanish Steps drinking Peroni in the sunshine, suddenly a shout goes up and all the traders grab the corners of the sheets that mark out their stall and bolt up the stairs. “Go, go, go” we yell, helpfully, earning a cheeky grin from one of them. Two female officers – the only WPCs we saw – eventually appear on our level but the hawkers are long gone. They loiter for about 15 minutes and when they leave we make bets on how long it will take before the hawkers are back. Less than 5 minutes elapses before they’re all back waving Prada and Gucci knock-offs in people’s faces.

When the traders leave, there are only two dark faces left in the crowd on the steps, a pair of elderly black women. All the traders on the steps are Asian – Bangladeshi, perhaps. Over at the Porto Porchese market, they tended to be African, from Senegal and Ghana.  Trained by Gomorrah and The Sopranos, we imagine this to be controlled by some crime boss, who divvies up the territory and sells them the goods from stolen shipping containers.  Some of them – especially the Africans – speak impeccable English. In Western countries, being multi-lingual is regarded as a route to better employment. Maybe it is where they’re from too: how limited are the opportunities for these men (they’re all men) in their homelands if this is a better choice?

We were warned not to expect too much of food in Rome but our experience is good. We picked our hotel because of the guest reviews raving about how helpful the hosts were, and we take recommendations from them for dinner each night. The first night we eat at Pizza Ciro and devour our massive bowls of home-made pasta with relish. I have Zucchini e Vongole (courgette and clams) with pasta the menu describes as ‘dreamy’ Paccheri and it truly is. On the second night we eat at Ristorante da Giovanni,  a little family run trattoria that’s been there since 1948. The décor was original, I think, along with the crockery and the waiters (seriously), but that was all part of the charm. And the food – traditional Roman fare – was basic, cheap and delicious. On the last night we went slightly more upmarket, to Babbo’s, a grill restaurant just a block from our hotel. The head waiter, a large woman with braids that reach her bottom, is too distracted by a Chihuahua at the next table to provide decent service but the food is good and she redeems herself somewhat by giving us a glass of Vin Santo and a plate of Biscotti on the house.

But the best food we eat all weekend is in the middle of a flea market we stumble across. Every Sunday, Faenas Café in Porto Porchese hosts a flea market that abuts the main market. It’s a sublime set up: a few stall selling craft and second-hand goods, a bar, a grill and a deck with loungers. Maybe it’s because we’ve finally gotten away from it all, but the Bruschetta Pomodoro we eat here, and wash down with ice-cold Birra Moretti, is heavenly.  It’s the day of the beatification and the cold, wet conditions of the day before are a distant memory. We buy hats in the market, the sun is so strong. God may well be smiling on JPII, my partner speculates. The grill stall also sells Spiedini (meat on skewers) and Fave e Pecorino, fava beans in their pods served wrapped in brown paper with a chunk of pecorino cheese. Everything is beautiful in its simplicity. We lie in the loungers and soak up the sun and the funky music.

We walk along the river when we leave. Rome could take some lessons from Paris in how to make use of its river: it’s largely ignored: no al fresco dining on the river banks, no public spaces. I was also disappointed that Rome’s cinematic history isn’t more celebrated. We visit Café Canova, Fellini’s favourite café and are pleased to see an homage to the great director inside but if you’re a film fan expect to have to do your own research.

Despite my dislike of crowds, we make our way to Piazza San Giovanni for the Primo Maggio concert. It is heaving: Glastonbury gets about 190,000 people; here there are 700,000. We buy beers and ease our way into the fringes of the crowd. Activists ply their trade from stalls: there’s a strong anti-nuclear contingent. The stage is gigantic: acts slide on and off on a conveyor belt. Camera fly on wires overhead. The crowd is happy and know all the songs. For a while we join them jumping up and down and cheering. But my feet are weary from all the walking and there’s nowhere to sit down, so eventually we slip away. We wander into a park where kids are kicking around a football and elderly men in Sunday best suits sit on benches gossiping as the sun sets. We find a spot near a dog park and watch the locals socialising with their dogs.

Rome manages to show the best and worst of humankind simultaneously. The image of a beggar shuffling along the ground on gloved hands near the obscenely over-the-top Altare della Patria, his mangled legs dragging behind him, sums it up perfectly. The astonishing architectural and artistic feats show us at our best. But the neglect of the most vulnerable in society in the shadow of such opulence – especially in the name of god and religion – leaves a bad taste. And the troubles of modern Italy, where a corrupt regime sells indulgences instead of looking after the people, are in evidence: too much of Rome is shabby and neglected. But Rome is still home to ordinary people living their lives and Romans still know how to live la dolce vita. Viva Roma!

2 thoughts on “Bread and circuses, Christians and Romans

  1. Another fabulous non-fiction piece. I feel I was there in Rome with you, and especially appreciate the description of what you ate for the weekend! Don’t even get me started on the nonsense of JPII’s beatification. How is it that someone can be a saint when they have covered up years of child abuse within their own organisation?

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  2. Well I guess when the guy deciding whether you are deserving of sainthood or not was your number one go-to guy for covering up child abuse by priests he’s probably got a vested interest…

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