Situated on the River Tiber, between the Apennine Mountains and the Tyrrhenian Sea, the ‘Eternal City’ of Rome (Roma) was once the administrative centre of the mighty Roman Empire, governing a vast region that stretched from Britain to Mesopotamia. Today, it remains the seat of the Italian government and home to numerous ministerial offices but is superseded by Milan, in the industrial north, for business and finance.
The legendary beginnings of Rome are related in the tale of Romulus and Remus. Princess Rhea Silvia, ravished by Mars (the God of War), gave birth to the twins and abandoned them to fate. The River Tiber carried them to the Palatine Hill, where a she-wolf mothered the babes until their discovery by a shepherd. Romulus later killed Remus, before going on to found Rome in the marshy lowlands of seven hills. The anniversary of Rome’s foundation –21 April 753BC – is now marked by a public holiday. The historians’ version is no less astonishing. It traces the rise of the city from unimportant pastoral settlement – the earliest remains date back to the ninth century BC – to vast empire, ruled over by a string of emperors. Rome saw a second period of development during the 15th-century Renaissance, when the Papacy took up permanent residence in the city. Although Rome’s power has since waned, the city remains the essence of European civilisation.
Ruins dating from Rome’s glory days lie within an area known as Roma Antica (Ancient Rome) and include the monumental Colosseum and the Foro Romano (Roman Forum) – a crumbling legacy of pagan temples, broken marble and triumphal arches. Buildings from the Renaissance period are concentrated within the centro storico (historic centre), situated between Via del Corso and the Tevere (River Tiber). Here, a labyrinth of narrow, winding, cobbled side streets opens out onto magnificent piazzas presided over by Baroque churches, regal palaces and exquisite fountains. The romantic Piazza Navona with Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, Piazza di Spagna and the sweeping Spanish Steps, and the Trevi Fountain immortalised by Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1959), all lie within walking distance of each other. Modern life continues amid this theatre of breathtaking monuments, as thousands of years of history are animated by more recent innovations – sophisticated boutiques, rowdy pizzerias and a merry-go-round of cars, buses and mopeds. Across the river, to the west, lies the Vatican State – home to the Pope and spiritual centre of the Roman Catholic Church. South of the Vatican, one finds the bohemian quarter of Trastevere, packed with trattorie and small wine bars. Further south still is the Testaccio district, renowned for nightclubs and live music.
Tourism is a major source of income and visitors come and go throughout the year. The city is blessed with a warm Mediterranean climate, making Rome particularly pleasant to visit in autumn and spring. In August, it is hot and sticky and most of the locals head for the coast – many shops and bars close for the summer break and the streets are strangely empty save for visitors. Until recently, Rome was frequently criticised for being noisy, chaotic and poorly maintained. However, celebrations for the year 2000 prompted the completion of a massive urban renewal scheme. Tons of scaffolding were finally dismantled to reveal beautifully restored facades, cleverly revamped museums and a rationalised public transport system. Today, citizens and visitors alike continue to benefit from the improvements carried out for the Jubilee celebrations, when the Eternal City
celebrated the fact that the millennium was 2000 years since the birth of Christ.