Peter Popham: The spooky reality of holiday season

Rome Notebook
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The Independent Online

I have always found something incredibly melancholy about August in the Italian capital. In theory it is the ideal time of year to enjoy the city, with guaranteed sunshine and very few people to get in the way. In an annual ritual as old as Rome, perhaps, the city empties out like an unplugged bath as millions of Italians head for the beaches, where they remain until the end of the month.

The pleasures of the empty city are real enough: you can cream along the Lungotevere and Vittorio Emmanuele and round Piazza Venezia on the scooter as if it was your private race track, with only the sweating tourist crocodiles to get in the way. You can sit on the terrace of your city flat without having to put in the earplugs.

But for me there is something sad and spooky about the month. The wailing of car sirens, on and on until the battery dies. The howling of the dogs left behind. There is the struggle to accomplish the simplest task, whether posting a letter or buying a newspaper, because all the shopkeepers are down at the beach. And there is the spectacle of the other city malingerers, the old folks who cannot afford a break, stumping around the empty streets. The Africans selling socks to no one, the Bangladeshis manning their corner shops for the benefit of each other, immigrants suddenly in possession of the denatured city.

With the recession, however, the August vacuum is beginning to change. The air of compulsory torpor still grips the city, but more and more people stick around. They go away for just a weekend, then steal back and spend the rest of the holiday skulking in front of the telly or queueing for a lounger in the tanning salon – the one shop you can rely on to stay open all month.

The unreported saga

It's more than a week since the story of the late Fiat mogul Gianni Agnelli's alleged €2bn Swiss hoard broke. Two Roman summers ago I spent a week in my underpants in a darkened room writing at length about the claim by Margherita Agnelli, Gianni's only surviving child, that she had been cheated out of her inheritance, and it is fascinating to learn that she may be right. An ideal August saga, one would suppose – but most Italian papers have kept well away. The clan's powerful charisma endures.

A Lotto or a little

Compared with that sum, the €146.8m won on Saturday by a Lotto player in a Ligurian village looks like small change. The prize, the sixth richest in the Italian lottery's history, was going begging for six months.