Rome Stories

Driven out of the centre by the sky-high rents and endless din, Peter Popham finds himself commuting by scooter, while Arundhati Roy brings the flavour of India to the ancient city
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The Independent Online

After two months in Rome, I have to conclude that the city's flair for town planning is not what it was.

After two months in Rome, I have to conclude that the city's flair for town planning is not what it was.

It requires little very imagination to stroll in one's mind the vanished city of ancient Rome, with its apparently casual disposition of temples, palaces, forts, stadiums and parks. The post-unification capital welded to the ruined city is more schematic and regimented, but through it all Rome remains a city for its citizens, with its endless piazzas where they can celebrate or agitate, its fabulous profusion of baroque statuary holding up a mirror to man in all his moods.

Unfortunately we don't live in Rome. Not proper Rome. The centro storico is now one of the dearest places to live in the world – and what you get for your money is commonly a jumble of cramped rooms six floors up a dingy palazzo with a pizzeria and a pub on the ground floor, where the din goes on until 3am.

We stayed in one such picturesque garret in August, cat-sitting for friends. The flat had the sort of spacious, plant-filled roof terrace Romans murder for. But the shot bar downstairs only got started at around 11pm, and the noise didn't let up until the rubbish collection began, soon after dawn. On occasion we were tempted to tip the used cat litter out of the window.

So now, instead of the historic inferno, we find ourselves embedded in the peace and greenery of Via Cassia, north of the city. It makes sense for the boy's school, and we have both a terrace and a garden that contains a single, soaring umbrella pine. The rent doesn't break the bank.

But we find ourselves impaled on a suburb that is one street wide and – how long, exactly, it's hard to say: 20km, 30km? It goes on and on and on.

How did such a place come about? Some years ago, a bunch of international schools settled along this ancient highway, rejoicing in the peace and clean air, high above the city. Parents inevitably followed, and apartment blocks and gated housing estates sprang up, all as close to the Via as they could get. Banks, supermarkets, grocers, pizzerias, churches, bars, newsagents and nightclubs followed.

So we have the rudiments of a sizeable new town, strung out along the Cassia. But the civic authorities, such busybodies here in other departments, are strikingly absent. There are no piazzas, for example, and no parks. There are numerous signs of what must once have been a fine wilderness, the Parco di Veio – but that wilderness has been sold off in lots. There is no way into it.

Nor have the authorities attempted to rise to the traffic challenges posed by the arrival of this large, new, affluent population. The single strip of the ancient Via Cassia remains the only artery into town – and it's nose to tail for hours every day. A scooter, I quickly learnt, is the only way to get into Rome in time to do any work. But it's no Roman holiday.

Arundhati Roy has followed me to Italy. The Booker Prize-winning author from Delhi was in Turin and Rome this week, accompanying a stunning programme of films about the human costs of India's modern development, including the destruction of habitat for the dams on the Narmada river, the cause that Ms Roy has made her own.

The impression such a programme inevitably creates is of poor, sad India, its illiterate farmers dispossessed by corrupt, greedy politicians. But Ms Roy never likes to leave her Western audiences feeling too smug.

Commenting on the fact that Italy's Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, effectively controls all Italian TV programming, she said: "It must be like living in a lunatic asylum. We in India face the risk of going to prison, but with Berlusconi controlling the media it must be like having the prison inside your heads."

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