For a long time, the river Tiber has been a disappointment to people visiting Rome. Foamy with pollutants, creeping between banks clogged with rubbish, it has been sinking through general neglect into the status of a large open drain.
This was not what fate decreed for a river which curls through the heart of the Eternal City, enjoying fantastic views of tourist must-sees such as St Peter's and Castel Sant'Angelo. And at last the Roman authorities have woken up to the Tiber's potential. Three weeks from today, barring bureaucratic and judicial hitches, Rome will get its river back.
With an investment of €3m (£2m) the city has made its river navigable again. A fleet of five river buses will ply from Ponte Duce d'Aosta in the north, near the Olympic stadium, via St Peter's and Castel Sant'Angelo in the centre, all the way down to EUR (Espizione Universale Romano), the new town Mussolini built on the city's southern outskirts. They hope to extend the service to Ostia and the sea.
Rome's dynamic left-wing mayor, Walter Veltroni, has noticed what good use London and Paris make of their rivers and has resolved to do likewise. For residents, who will pay €1 per ride or €2.30 for an all-day ticket, buzzing about on the river may well prove faster than grinding through the jams in a bus. But more tempting for the company which has set up the service, a joint venture of a Roman travel company and the Seine-based Videttes du Pont Neuf, will be the tourist trade.
Visitors will be expected to part with €10 to ride a 80ft cruise boat much like those on the Thames. If the company's forecast comes true, 15 per cent of the seven million foreign visitors every year will be lured on to the river, more than one million people paying in excess of €10m.
The city authorities hope the new bustle on the river will lead to a dramatic improvement in the Tiber's fortunes, with the tidy, attractive banks becoming the setting for exhibitions, concerts, market stalls and sporting events.
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