Susan Marling's Traveller'S Checks

Nice clean buildings - shame about the taxis
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

There's good news and bad news from Rome. The good news is that the city is looking better than it has for years. The Jubilee Year 2000 saw more than 25 million tourists squeeze into the Eternal City, many of them pilgrims determined to pass through the "Sacred Door" of St Peter's. Astonishingly, no one died, there was no major infrastructure collapse and people were not, as predicted, sleeping on the streets in biblical numbers because the inns were full.

There's good news and bad news from Rome. The good news is that the city is looking better than it has for years. The Jubilee Year 2000 saw more than 25 million tourists squeeze into the Eternal City, many of them pilgrims determined to pass through the "Sacred Door" of St Peter's. Astonishingly, no one died, there was no major infrastructure collapse and people were not, as predicted, sleeping on the streets in biblical numbers because the inns were full.

On the contrary, the tourists approached Rome on a new train service from an expanded and modernised Fiumicino airport. Once there, they were treated to a view of Rome, free at last of the green netting in which many of its monuments have been wrapped for years, waiting for restoration. The fountains, city gates, Piazza del Popolo, several palaces and 98 churches have been cleaned - okay, so they did only the bottom half of Borromini's St Agnes church in Piazza Navona, so that now it looks like a building made of vanilla and chocolate ice cream - but in comparison with the days when Japanese tourists were throwing their coins into the Trevi fountain over the top of the restorers' scaffolding, this is Roman heaven. There are new electric buses and traffic-free areas in the centre of the city. Romans have started to offer b&b to visitors for the first time (net: www.romaturismo.com) and are being a bit more, well ... helpful.

The post-Jubilee euphoria has encouraged the Mayor of Rome, Francesco Rutelli, to pack in the city job and take to the national stage as prime minister on the basis that anyone who can govern and make things happen in Rome deserves a crown of laurel and a fleet of black Mercedes.

The bad news is that Roman rapaciousness is also in good working order. The Colosseum is now besieged by costumed gladiators. Not quite Russell Crowe, this lot are given to hitching up their leather skirts and fumbling for a mobile phone or a Zippo lighter. They prey on gullible tourists and, brandishing toy swords, take their cameras and pose them for a shot ("Here's me with Ben Hur and Nero") lined up against the great amphitheatre. Then they explain that the price of the picture opportunity is L10,000 (about £3.20) for each person and somehow the edge goes off the fun. When I spoke to Professor La Regina who takes care of the archaeological sites in Rome, he said that, while the many thousand of tourists who trail through the Forum and the other sites do surprisingly little damage, he was saddened by the touts and traders who continue to cheapen Rome.

But it is taxi-drivers who remain the worst ambassadors for Rome, a real anachronism in a city that is suddenly very self-conscious about its image. "Forgetting" to turn on the meter for tourists is routine until you point it out. I am ashamed to confess that I fell for the ploy of keeping the tariff meter concealed behind my luggage on the front seat when I arrived this time. In the argument that followed and the rapid exchange of notes I managed to pay £30 for a journey that ought to have cost £10.

For Romans the major preoccupation of the moment is 'macca pazza' - mad cow disease. Though only just confirmed in Italy, the BSE scare has knocked 40 per cent off beef sales and, as a result, restaurant menus are being rapidly revised. Nowhere more so than in one of Rome's most famous traditional restaurants, Checcino dal 1887 in Monte Testaccio. This area was once dominated by the city's slaughterhouses and the restaurant started as a place where workers could bring and have cooked for them the cheap cuts, feet, offal and tails of beasts which were the perks of their job. The careful cooking soon became valued, despite the humble raw materials, and in recent years Checchino has been an important stop for gourmands wanting to try trippa (tripe) and coda alla vaccinara (a dish of oxtail) as well as trotters and other Roman specialities.

Now Francesco Mariani, who is the fifth generation of his family to keep the kitchen here, tells me he is offering a vegetarian menu for the first time. His meat is certificated, he knows the farms where the animals come from, and, in common with most Roman restaurants, he displays proof of that in the restaurant window - but he thinks that just as the main restaurant has recently become non-smoking (unthinkable five years ago), this is the moment for change. The Genius of Rome exhibition started yesterday at the Royal Academy in London. It is a wonderful account of the flourishing of art in Rome around 1600, when exceptional painters - Caravaggio, Carracci and Rubens - were at work in the city. It's a good consolation prize but the real trophy is a few days here in Rome now - cool, free of crowds, more handsome than ever, and willing to hand over L3,000 for every pound.

* s.marling@independent.co.uk

Comments