Fragrant scents of exotic produce give way reluctantly to a modern market

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The Independent Online

Cheerful city council posters dotting the walls of Rome are already claiming credit for returning Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, one of the capital's most elegant piazzas, to the populace.

From tomorrow, the 180 market stalls that have made up Rome's most vibrant multi- ethnic market are due to disappear and the octagonal piazza to be slowly returned to its 19th-century splendour.

The transformation will mark the end of a colourful, smelly, chaotic and sometimes dangerous market that has been a Rome landmark.

However, given that the saga of this move has lasted nearly a decade – with delays, legal challenges, police intervention and bureaucratic muddles – the authorities might have been wiser to wait before printing their posters.

With a day to go, the spanking clean structure, a former barracks that is to be the new market, is still far from finished. Labourers are working day and night, but the company that is to provide the refrigeration units has said it needs three more weeks.

"We are going to be out on the street for a month, because our licences expire Saturday and we face a L10m(£3,200) fine if we operate beyond that date," said Antonella, a stall holder, bitterly as she unpacked a carton of fragrant peaches. A weary, dyed-blond woman in her early fifties, she inherited the stall from her mother. "There are four hundred families whose livelihood depends on this, and the council is just taking us for a ride."

Her husband, Roberto, chimed in. "Apart from us not earning a cent, where are the locals going to get their food?"

The council first ordered the transfer in 1993, because the sprawling market was out of control – hygiene standards were dubious, few stalls gave receipts and petty crime was rife. There were countless illegal stalls, dismantled swiftly at the sight of police, and fake Rolex watches sprang up among the watermelons andaubergines. Situated near Termini station, the piazza became a magnet for the homeless and junkies.

While each quarter of Rome has its own open-air general market, Piazza Vittorio could not be beaten for diversity and price. Many of the stall holders are characters; when I lived near by for a year, a cheeky youth would make up bawdy odes to entice my flatmate to buy oranges and then give her a whopping discount.

Piazza Vittorio was one of the first points of contact between working-class Romans and immigrants. Fishmongers yodelled in thick Roman dialect alongside Moroccan spice-sellers with rudimentary Italian. In the 1980s, the area became Rome's immigrant quarter. The market has stalls offering halal meats, women in African costumes selling yams, and bunches of coriander sold by Pakistanis.

Many immigrants started as stall hands for the Romans and have since struck out on their own. Ullah Mohammed Rahmat, from Bangladesh, shrugged with almost Roman fatalism when asked what he would do if the new market wasn't ready on time.

Residents are divided over the market moving. Many young couples have bought homes in the area and hope that it will gain in value. "I don't know that shifting the market is going to resolve the urban decay," said Giovanni, a bespectacled schoolteacher.

The council argues that the new premises will be safer and cleaner. It isright – but they will feel much more like a supermarket than a souk.